A Simple Plan

Davidson’s formula for success: Hire good people, let them do their jobs

William Davidson's business strategy was to hire good people and let them do their jobs.
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Editor’s note: This is a revised version of the second of a four-part series that originally appeared on Pistons.com in March 2007 when Pistons owner William Davidson was first announced as a finalist for induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Davidson, who was elected to the Hall’s 2008 class, died at 86 on Friday. Part II details his management style – identifying the right people and stepping out of their way.

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Joe Dumars never much lacked for confidence, but his installation as Pistons president one year after his playing career ended might have overwhelmed even the most self-assured and competent of men. And that doesn’t take into account the unsettling fact that one month into the job, the player to whom the franchise had tied its fortunes – Grant Hill – bolted to Orlando in free agency.

It would be like the fuzzy-cheeked Green Party candidate winning the presidential election only to see the Statue of Liberty defect during the oath of office.

But Dumars had one thing going for him that took the chill out of the room: His sense that the person who hired him had complete confidence that he’d get the job done. And when a man who started with a business teetering on bankruptcy and wound up sitting atop an international behemoth invests that degree of faith in you, it can’t help but chase away insecurities and self-doubts.

“Absolutely,” Dumars recalled, almost seven years after Pistons owner William Davidson put him in charge of basketball operations. “He’s a guy that’s careful about what he does. He’s going to try to choose the right people, pick people he thinks have something in them. Something has made him think you’re the perfect person for the job. So that was a huge plus for me, especially early on when you’re first feeling your way through this as I was feeling my way. He was there every step of the way being reassuring. That helped tremendously.”

The Dumars hire has turned out as propitiously as another critical choice Davidson made nearly 30 years ago when he assigned the business end of the Pistons to a 28-year-old who’d just joined the organization a few months earlier on the strength of a sales background with the Los Angeles Lakers, Tom Wilson, now president and CEO of Palace Sports & Entertainment.

While Dumars has the Pistons on enviable competitive footing with a roster devoid of poisonous contracts, a locker room filled with good soldiers and young talent in the pipeline, Wilson’s vision pushed the Pistons to the forefront of the NBA’s spectacular growth over Davidson’s 35 years of ownership. Purchased for $6 million, Forbes now estimates the franchise’s value at $480 million, fourth in the NBA despite a wave of new arenas and exploding Sun Belt markets.

“It was overwhelming, even as the small enterprise that we were back then,” Wilson said from his sixth-floor office at The Palace, the arena Davidson built with private financing while revolutionizing NBA arena culture. “I think there were five people working at Cobo (Arena) before we moved to the Silverdome. But, yeah, there was some solace in the fact that he’s doing this, so it must be right.”

Delegate and Support

Davidson boiled his management style down to its essential elements: “A combination of delegation and properly picking the person and then fully supporting him – no second-guessing. Otherwise, they can’t function.”

It’s that sort of clear and concise thinking that infused all of Davidson’s business ventures, beginning with his flagship Guardian Industries, which he grew into one of the world’s giants in glass manufacturing. Find good people, then let them do the jobs they were hired to do.

It’s a lesson both Dumars and Wilson have embraced as they filled out staffs around them.

“He says, ‘Joe, I’ve always tried to put good people around me and that’s what I’ve done,” Dumars said. “‘If it’s someone you have working for you that you have to constantly manage, then you know you have the wrong person.’ He reaffirmed what I believed, but it was good for me to know that I think like that and I have an owner who believes in it wholeheartedly and has been doing it for 50 years. It’s a great feeling to walk in and know that’s the environment he wants and that’s the environment that I’m most comfortable in.”

“I always believe that if you do a good job of hiring, you don’t have to yell and scream at people,” Wilson said. “You’re going to be harder on yourself than anybody else. The feeling everybody has about him is that I feel bad when I fail, but I feel worse that I let him down. That’s hard to engender. It’s like letting your dad down. Somehow you’ve failed him, so you work a little harder to make sure you don’t have to have that conversation.

“I can’t put my finger on it, but you just can’t get that many people to feel unanimously that way about you. All I know is that he’s provided us with a moral compass, which he has been for everybody.”

One of the things Dumars and Wilson treasured most was Davidson’s encouragement to take risks without fear of recrimination when they go bad, as risks by definition inevitably will sometimes.

“A good example is when we rolled our prices back five or six years ago,” Wilson said. “It was extraordinary – 45, 50 percent in some areas. I told him that if we sell every seat, we’re still going to lose a lot of money, and we’re not going to sell every seat. He said, ‘Is it the right thing to do – to bring people back and grow our business?’ Well, yes it is. ‘Then go ahead.’

“There aren’t five guys in the league that would do that. ‘You’ve got to find another way – sell fewer tickets, but sell them for more money.’ He said do whatever you want. We broke a lot of rules.”

“There’s no fear of failure here,” Dumars said. “Mr. D and I have talked about making moves, and if they don’t work out, he always chuckles and says, ‘That’s what happens in business. No big deal. Keep going forward and make the next deal. You’re going to stumble sometimes and that’s OK. I’ve been in business for 50 years, Joe, and not every deal I did worked out.’

“It’s a great, great, great approach. Even though I’m not averse to risk-taking, you don’t know how big that is on top of it. The way I am naturally fits his personality. That’s what makes it so good.”

No Better Situation

Even though Dumars has never known another ownership group firsthand since coming into the NBA 22 years ago as a Pistons No. 1 draft choice out of McNeese State, he heard enough from his peers to understand how enviable his working environment is. And his former top aide, now Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond, who’d worked for other NBA franchises, reminded him constantly.

“John tells me all the time, ‘Joe, you’re the luckiest guy in the world. What you’re allowed to do and the latitude he allows is unprecedented.’ There’s not a better situation anywhere else in sports than right here, and I realize that.

“He knows what he wants to do long-term and then he empowers others to do it. He doesn’t micromanage, he doesn’t stand over your shoulder. He’s more concerned with the big picture. Are we a first-class organization? Are we treating people the right way? Are we creating the right culture? Those are the things he and I speak about. It’s never the little things.”

Wilson worked two years under the legendary Jack Kent Cooke of the Lakers. He and a co-worker were the stars of the Lakers sales staff, which worked solely on commission. In his brief stay there, he made considerable money for the times. When the season ended, the two were summoned to Cooke’s office for what they assumed would be a pat on the back – and, very likely, a bonus. Instead Cooke told them they’d never make that much money again, pulled all their files and distributed their business among the rest of the staff.

“Cooke ran an organization by fear,” Wilson said. “That affected (his relationship with Davidson) for years. The first two or three years, when we were really struggling, I kept thinking he was going to come to his senses soon and realize this was a mistake. Cooke fired three-quarters of the people who worked there in the two years I was there, and that figure is probably low. The VP of sales changed five times in two years. There was no trust there; here it’s complete trust. That sort of freedom allows you the daring that you need. If you don’t have the ability to be wrong, you don’t have the ability to be really, really right.”

The Long View

Davidson instructed his managers to think three to five years out, “whereas most people in my position or Joe’s position are thinking tomorrow or next month or the quarter – the same problem corporate America has,” Wilson said. “He’s always taken the long-range view.”

Davidson, 85, struck a grandfatherly figure in his final years that was buttressed by the reverence in which he was held by those who made up his business empires. But what struck Wilson and Dumars more than anything about him were his insights and depth of knowledge.

“There’s a toughness and a competitiveness to him,” Dumars said, “but I think one of his most endearing traits – and this is what I like about him – is he’s a thinker. He’s a smart, smart man. He gets it. And he’s been willing to change. He’s not one of those guys who’s lived a long time and is stuck in the way things were done 30 years ago.

“HHe’sHe’s a progressive, sharp man, and that’s appealing to me, to know that you have to continue to be willing to adapt and go with the flow. So many people get stuck in the way they have their initial success. That’s all they know. He’s not like that.”

“You learn from him every day by osmosis,” said Wilson, who to the last jotted items to be discussed on a notepad prior to their daily morning phone consultations. “He’ll ask questions that make you think. If you’re paying attention at all, it’s there – sometimes a month later. You’ll be in the middle of a business situation and you’ll reflect back and say, ‘Oh, so that’s what he meant.’

“He doesn’t wear it on his sleeve, but he’s the smartest guy in the room.”

In September 2008, they watched as he became the smartest guy in another room – the one in Springfield, Mass., that houses the plaques of all the men and women who helped build basketball and now own a permanent part of its history. Mr. D is now a Hall of Famer.