Dave Brandon spent 22 years leading two prominent Michigan companies, but he's never worked longer or harder than in the past six months.
"Things just keep coming at you," says the former Domino's Pizza Inc. CEO, who declined a potential Republican bid for governor to become the University of Michigan's athletic director last March. Not that any of the burden shows because he's having too much fun.
This self-described "chicken farmer from South Lyon" is just where he wants to be -- in the bosom of an institution he clearly loves, astride a multimillion-dollar business backed by improving facilities, a loyal alumni base and a 4-0 football team going into the start of the Big Ten season Saturday at Indiana.
Walking the sidelines of football practice, the newish athletic director is equal parts reporter, analyst and CEO, with just a dollop of big fan on the side. Coach Rich Rodriguez walks over for a brief chat and to share an injury report. Players smile, say hi and you can't help but wonder if Brandon is having a flash memory of his playing days in the early '70s under the legendary Bo Schembechler.
Later on the sidelines in the waning minutes of the Wolverines' 65-21 blowout victory over Bowling Green last Saturday, this longtime CEO and gubernatorial could-have-been is anything but anonymous: "Daaa-vid Braaandon," chants a chunk of the student section, "Weee waaant piiiizzzaaa!"
He laughs, waves and turns toward one of Michigan's most prized possessions: the block M, epicenter of a smartly renovated Big House and arguably the most valuable brand -- read, marketable asset -- in college sports. Not a bad spot for someone whose business cred comes from building brands, be it pizza or the media services of Valassis Communications Inc.
"I'm a marketing guy. We have the ability to shape and build the block M brand in ways no one else in the university is able to do," Brandon says, describing the athletic department as, essentially, the university's sales and marketing operation.
To see the Big House on a game day, it's hard to argue with him. The longest lines? At M Dens scattered around the stadium, where Michigan merchandise flies off the shelves and burnishes a brand that was pure Michigan long before state tourism officials created the tag line.
Valuable? Incredibly so, if managed properly (i.e., keep winning and minimize scandals) and leveraged smartly (by marrying tradition with innovative approaches that recognize times are changing, fast). It's not as easy as it might look.
"When you get it all right, your program gets a competitive advantage and a recruiting advantage," he says. When you get it wrong, with losing seasons or NCAA troubles or uncompetitive facilities, you lose whatever advantages you had to woo talent and build the brand.
The risks he gets. The rewards he understands, too, like the explosive performance of quarterback Denard Robinson so far this season and what that might augur for Michigan down the stretch. With an annual athletic budget of $105 million, more than 60 percent of it generated by football, Brandon ain't managing chump change -- though the numbers pale to the multibillion-dollar companies he took public and led as a CEO.
He's got 275 employees, 27 teams (14 women and 13 men) accounting for 725 athletes. He's awarded his first set of national championship rings -- to the men's gymnastics team. He's got world-class facilities in the Big House and new soccer and tennis facilities south of campus, even as he's got the worst basketball arena in the Big Ten and a rowing team clamoring for, yes, an indoor rowing tank.
It doesn't end. But this is what he signed up for when he walked away from Domino's and its corporate jet, his outspoken chairmanship of Business Leaders for Michigan and the chance to follow Jennifer Granholm as governor. It's public service, yes, but of an entirely different sort.
He's already been tempered by the fires of an NCAA probe into a football program traditionally unaccustomed to controversy. He's parried questions about the future of his football coach, less pressing now with an offense averaging 562 yards per game and seemingly able to score at will. He's quarterbacked the reopening of the Big House and won approval from the board of regents to install lights at the stadium -- a first for Michigan that's liable to end up being the centerpiece of a new marketing ploy all its own.
Change the names and the issues, and it's still all about managing people above and below, shepherding finite resources, setting priorities and demanding accountability from those who regularly cash your paychecks. Ask him whether he regrets leaving that faster, wealthier corporate life behind and he just smiles. He was ready for a new challenge.
"I love this job," Brandon says. "As far as I'm concerned, we're just getting started."
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