Strategy in Business – The Business of the Big Event

One similarity between business and golf is the importance of having a strategic plan. Professional golfers don’t simply wander onto the course and begin smacking the ball around and expect to be successful. Before they hit their first shot in a tournament, they carefully study the characteristics of the course — the length of each hole, the slope of the greens, the water and sand hazards along the way — and then plan accordingly.

Financial experts stress that the same strategy holds true when it comes to forming a new business. You can’t simply slap an LLC on a company name, fire up the computers and realistically expect for the money to start rolling in. Instead, you need to carefully plan out your strategy in detail before declaring yourself open for business.

And then there is the Bruno Event Team, a Birmingham-based sports event management company that kind of stumbled into both golf and business in the 1990s without much of a plan at all. Two decades later, the organization that began by promoting a single golf tournament is now a major player in sports event management, with approximately 90 employees and 11 offices — including two in Canada — overseeing a variety of sports events, with cumulative annual revenue of more than $50 million.

“I’m not necessarily proud of this, but we didn’t really have a business plan when we started, ” says Ronald Bruno, the former CEO of Bruno’s Supermarkets and current chairman of the Bruno Event Team. “This isn’t the textbook story you learn in college, where you write a business plan and you fulfill it. We started with one event and kind of just developed as we went. We never had a business model that planned for the size (the company) has grown to today.”

The origins of BET date to 1992 and the creation of the old Bruno’s Memorial Classic golf tournament, a Senior PGA Tour (now PGA Champions Tour) event that was held at Greystone Golf & Country Club in Birmingham. Bruno’s Supermarkets was signed on as the primary tournament sponsor, and a young sports marketer named Gene Hallman — who is now president and CEO of the Bruno Event Team — was hired to be the tournament director.

- Sponsor -

The tournament quickly earned a reputation as one of the best-run and most popular stops on the Senior Tour. The players and their wives were pampered throughout the week, and the normally staid pro-am event preceding tournament play gained something of festival atmosphere with the addition of a variety of celebrities — including the head football coaches at the University of Alabama and Auburn University — joining the pros on the course.

Within a few years, the Bruno’s Memorial Classic had become one of the state’s most anticipated annual events. It was as much a social gathering as it was a golf tournament. Hallman proudly proclaimed the event to be “Birmingham’s version of the Kentucky Derby.”

Gene Hallman (left) and Ronald Bruno take time out from the Regions Tradition golf tournament, one of many events managed by the Bruno Event Team in Birmingham and far beyond.

Photo by Cary Norton

“Just like in any business discipline, being innovative is so important, ” Hallman says. “So often, sporting events are exercises in just getting through it. We don’t believe in that. We knowingly create extra work for ourselves, because we want to take it to another level. We could have a sleepy pro-am. But by doing what we do, we attract non-golf fans to the tournament.”

BET was officially formed in 1995 after Bruno’s Supermarkets was acquired in a leveraged buyout, leaving Bruno looking for new opportunities. That same year, George Bryan, of Bryan Foods, secured the 1999 U.S. Women’s Open golf tournament to his home state of Mississippi. Bryan had a long-time business relationship with Bruno, and he asked if Hallman and the rest of the Bruno’s Memorial Classic event staff could handle the planning and management of the Women’s Open.

In addition, eight soccer matches for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta were scheduled for Birmingham’s Legion Field. Noted sports orthopedic surgeon Larry Lemak, who, as chairman of the Alabama Sports Foundation had worked to bring the matches to Birmingham, also turned to Bruno and Hallman for assistance in managing the event.

Suddenly, and unexpectedly, BET was a rapidly growing new business.

“There’s no way we could have ever formulated all this in a strategic plan, ” Hallman says. “We work hard, but we’ve also had some tremendous opportunities placed at our feet. So much of this has been perfect timing.”

BET remained basically a local organization through the turn of the century. Then in 2001, the company landed the 2004 U.S. Women’s Open in St. Louis, beating out two behemoths in the event management field: IMG and Octagon.

“That was a crossroads event for us, ” Hallman says. “St. Louis was a big market. We felt like if we won that event, it would lead to a ton of other golf business.”

It certainly did. 

BET now regularly promotes and operates golf tournaments throughout the country, along with an LPGA women’s golf tournament near Toronto and a Champions Tour event in Calgary.

In addition, the company has branched out into a variety of other sports, including auto racing (the annual Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park), tennis (the 2009 Davis Cup matches in Birmingham) and boxing (the recent Deontay Wilder heavyweight title fight). 

Since 2006, BET also has handled game-day operations in and out of the stadium for the Alabama Crimson Tide.

“We don’t aspire to be outside the sports industry, but I think it’s important that we diversify in the number of sports where we run events, ” Hallman says. “It’s just like a mutual fund. The more you can diversify your portfolio, the better off you are. So there’s some strategic thought in terms of initiatives that we ought to undertake.”

Sports organizations hire BET to handle the myriad of details required to hold a major event, including operations, financial management, ticket sales, sponsorship, promotions, media relations and volunteers. The company has earned rave reviews from two of its most prominent partners, the IndyCar Series and the PGA Tour.

“The key to the success of any of our events is the collaboration with our promoters who can organize an event well, ” IndyCar Director of Communications Mike Kitchel says. “Our experience with (BET) has been phenomenal, and I think that’s a testament to why the race has been so successful in Birmingham. They do a great job.”

In 2011, the Regions Tradition Champions Tour event was held at Birmingham’s Shoal Creek for the first time, just one week after a historic tornado outbreak that spread damage across the state. Despite numerous obstacles, the tournament took place without any significant issues. That prompted the president of the Champions Tour at that time, Mike Stevens, to declare the Bruno Event Team to be “the best in the country” at what they do.

“They impressed me from a number of standpoints, ” Stevens said. “The event faced significant challenges, including (being held at) a venue that hadn’t hosted professional golf in over 20 years, the infrastructure of a major championship, and the devastating tornadoes that plagued the area immediately before the event that caused a lot of disruption. Everyone involved with the event worked together to make it extremely successful.”

BET has grown over the years largely on the strength of that type of positive feedback. For the most part, Hallman says, organizations and events have contacted the company about work, rather than the other way around.

“Most of our business is based on word-of-mouth and referrals, ” Hallman says. “We’ll occasionally hear about an opportunity and respond. But for the most part, it’s people calling us, which is the highest compliment you can receive. It’s mainly just about doing things the right way.”

Or as Bruno says, “First-class always sells. Quality always sells. That’s what we try to offer.”

There is a wall at the BET main office in Birmingham that has a logo from each of the events the company has been associated with over the years. Bruno said the wall is now completely full.

“I’ll look at sometimes and think, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot about that one, ’” Bruno says. “It’s been fun. It’s been a great run. Twenty years ago, I never would have predicted that we’d have the size company that we have today, and have been involved with all these events.”

He couldn’t have predicted it, or planned for it.

– Bruno Big Events –

1996 U.S. Olympic Soccer 

Location: Birmingham (Legion Field)
Attendance: 332, 632 for eight matches (average 41, 579 per match)
TV coverage: NBC

Univ. of Alabama Game-Day Operations

Sport: College football
Location: Tuscaloosa (in and around Bryant-Denny Stadium)
Attendance: Approximately 150, 000 on campus and in stadium

SEC Baseball Tournament (annual)

Sport: College baseball
Location: Hoover (Hoover Met)
Attendance: Varies. Tournament record 134, 496 in 2013

2005 U.S. Women’s Open 

Sport: Professional golf
Location: Denver (Cherry Hills Country Club)
Attendance: 131, 298 (tournament record)
TV coverage: NBC

2013 U.S. Senior Open

Sport: Champions Tour golf
Location: Omaha (Omaha Country Club)
Attendance: Approximately 130, 000
TV coverage: NBC

2014 BMW Championship

Sport: PGA Tour golf
Location: Denver (Cherry Hills Country Club)
Attendance: Approximately 125, 000
TV coverage: NBC
Charity: More than $3.5 million to the Evans Scholars Foundation

Bruno’s Memorial Classic (1992-2005)

Sport: Champions Tour golf
Location: Birmingham (Greystone Golf & Country Club)
Attendance: Average about 100, 000 per tournament
TV coverage: The Golf Channel
Charity: More than $10 million raised during 14 years

Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (annual) 

Sport: IndyCar racing
Location: Birmingham (Barber Motorsports Park)
Attendance: Approximately 85, 000
TV coverage: NBC Sports Network

Reebok Crossfit Games (annual)

Sport: Strength and fitness competition
Location: Carson, California
Attendance: Approximately 85, 000
TV coverage: ESPN

2009 Davis Cup (U.S. vs. Switzerland)

Sport: International tennis
Location: Birmingham (BJCC Arena)
Attendance: 45, 708
TV coverage: ESPN / Tennis Channel

Cary Estes and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

Text by Cary estes

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