Chris Zimmerman MBA’83 didn’t originally envision a career in ice hockey.
Though he played and coached the sport at the collegiate level, at the University of Vermont and then as an assistant coach for Babson, it wasn’t until 20 years after he earned his MBA that he entered the ice hockey business.
And, about 15 years after he began working in the game he grew up playing, Zimmerman’s countless achievements in the industry culminated when the NHL St. Louis Blues fan base, which Zimmerman helped develop as president and CEO of business operations, was rewarded with the ultimate prize—the Stanley Cup.
Breaking into the Industry
In 2003, after eight years in two roles with Nike, Zimmerman was named president and CEO of Nike Bauer Hockey. A move he described as “a moment of good fortune,” the job helped set the tone for his career.
“I love the game. It’s one of those opportunities where people get to merge personal passion with professional aspiration and leadership,” Zimmerman said. “Every day since I moved into sports 25 years ago, I’ve been able to work in roles that offer the opportunity to be a leader in the business world, but also in areas that I am deeply passionate about.”
Three years with Nike Bauer Hockey led him to NHL leadership roles, first with the Vancouver Canucks and later with the St. Louis Blues. In Zimmerman’s first season as CEO of the Canucks, Vancouver won 49 games, the then-highest total in franchise history.
Zimmerman is just one Babson graduate that has made a career for himself in professional sports. Others include Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank ’63 H’98, Cincinnati Reds president and chief operating officer Phil Castellini ’92, and Montreal Canadiens president, CEO, and co-owner Geoff Molson MBA’96, to name a few.
As a player who has competed on the ice and as a coach who has stood behind the bench, Zimmerman has found success in applying the concept of team to his roles as an executive.
“Hockey is a sport that requires the power of team to drive success. Our business operations and being successful requires many of those same traits that create great teams,” Zimmerman said. “That ethic, which has been so important to me, translates nicely into the work that I like to do in building teams and building businesses at the same time.”
Unifying a City
For Zimmerman, there is no typical day as president and CEO of business operations of the Blues.
“The work that we do running a professional sports team has quite a bit of diversity,” he said. “Part of what we are about is creating the opportunity to help unify a city and region, to help energize our market, and recognizing that that goes quite a bit further beyond just what we’re doing on the ice.”
In his role, Zimmerman and his team work to make guest and fan experience “world class” on 200 nights of annual programming at Enterprise Center, the Blues home rink, and Stifel Theatre, a performing arts facility.
Revenue acquired from games and events is used to invest in the team and players, which paid dividends in the Blues’ first Stanley Cup Final victory in June.
“In terms of accomplishments, it was the most extraordinary experience and continues to be,” Zimmerman said. “People ask me whether or not I’ve come down yet. My response is: ‘Why would I possibly want to do that?’”
In his many roles, Zimmerman has learned how to approach business issues, problems, challenges, and questions.
“Every part of my education has helped me to learn about building businesses, building teams, and ultimately building great cultures,” he said.
His advice for students looking to break into the sports business industry is to focus on developing one skill to its fullest.
“Decide what you’re going to be great at,” Zimmerman said. “Find a specialty and come to a business with a core skill.”
Featured photo courtesy of Scott Rovak, St. Louis Blues.