Lions president Wood says team is breaking status quo

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Rod Wood stood in front of 70-80 Lions employees at Ford Field in March.

In his first few months as the team’s president, Wood made sweeping changes — firing executives and junior employees as he changed the structure of business operations — so he gathered the new and remaining staff to discuss the situation.

Despite the sweeping changes since last November, Wood believes morale is high, but admits he’d be the last to hear.

“It’d be far easier on everybody to just leave everything the status quo,” Wood said last week. “That’s easy. Some of these changes are difficult because it affects people and their lives and organizational structure.”

A quick glance at the record books explains the need for change.

One playoff win in the last 58 years. Zero division championships since 1993. Early retirement of stars Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson. Mismanagement of Ndamukong Suh’s contract.

As the Lions approach this season, Wood and new general manager Bob Quinn provide some hope things finally will change.

But previous executives offered similar optimism.

Aside from finding money for a new weight room, a dietitian and some other improvements at team headquarters in Allen Park, the changes Wood made to the business side won’t help the Lions win more games. But, with Quinn and other additions to the personnel staff, Wood hopes winning more games will make the business operations flourish.

“Our product is the football team, and we have to put a great football team on the field,” he said.

Enhancements from the business side, however, will help fan interest. Wood’s staff is looking into upgrading Wi-Fi at Ford Field, improving traffic to and from games, and offering gathering areas within the stadium for fans who don’t want to sit in their seat for three-plus hours.

And no, the team hasn’t made a decision on cheerleaders, but Wood said he wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t consider something many fans want.

“I’m really confident that our fans are so loyal and passionate that if we can produce what we’re talking about on the football field, the rest is going to be relatively easy,” said Wood, 55.

Self-deprecating comment

Lions fans reacted to Wood’s self-deprecating comment after his introductory news conference.

“I would probably say that I’m not qualified to run any other NFL team, but I think I’m qualified to run this one,” he said.

And while that may be true, the inference owner Martha Firestone Ford hired someone with zero knowledge about how to run an NFL franchise was false.

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Wood has been involved with the organization’s business operations dating to 2007 when he took over as chief executive of the Ford Estates. He served as a financial adviser with the team, visiting the Allen Park offices at least once a month.

And his office was at Ford Field.

“I was around, so I didn’t feel like there was a gigantic learning curve on the people, and certainly the financial side I had a really good understanding of,” he said. “But it’s still, when you’re in this role, you’re responsible as opposed to just kind of advising.”

It didn’t take long for Wood to realize the enormity of his role — he received hundreds of resumes.

And because he’s the one making staff changes, Wood ultimately will be responsible if something goes wrong. But he hopes communicating with the Ford Field staff helped him earn more trust.

“If you do what you say you’re going to do enough, then people start believing you all the time and you have credibility, and the next tough decision you have to make is a little bit easier than the last one,” he said.

Close with the Fords

Being involved with the Fords the past 10 years also gave Wood a chance to become close with the family — he said he’s even attended some family weddings.

“You kind of feel almost like an extended part of the family and their circle of friends,” he said.

And because of those relationships, Martha Ford trusted him to run a billion-dollar corporation that’s been in the family for more than 50 years.

From his time working with the late William Clay Ford Sr., Wood said the longtime owner had no regrets.

And even though his widow made sweeping changes in her second year, firing president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew in November after a 1-7 start, Wood said she wasn’t itching for her shot to run the team.

“I don’t know that she ever really wanted it,” he said. “I think she was prepared if she ever had to take it on.

“Certainly because of how close she was to her husband, she was pretty darn involved in the Lions behind the scenes for a long time and was fully prepared if he was to predecease her to take over.”

Wood and Lions officials won’t detail the succession plans beyond the 90-year-old Martha Ford, but reiterated the intention of the four children to keep the team they’ve been a part of most of their lives.

He also wouldn’t discuss why Sheila Ford Hamp has had a larger role with the team or the diminished role of Bill Ford Jr..

“The family has every intent to keep the team,” Wood said. “And we’ve been working on plans to ensure that will happen.”

Running the franchise

To gain more knowledge about running an NFL franchise, Wood went to New York after the Super Bowl. In two days, he said he met with about 15 executives, from those in charge of football operations to information technology and plenty in between.

Brian McCarthy, vice president of communications for the NFL, said team executives visiting the league office is “common and encouraged.”

But, Wood’s attempts to immerse himself in the NFL this offseason didn’t stop there. He’s also spoken to several executives from other teams, including Carolina owner Jerry Richardson and president Danny Morrison. He received an email from San Francisco co-chairman John York last week.

Even though teams compete, they’re also partners, which is one reason the Lions raised their ticket prices this season — and expect them to continue rising.

The best way to be competitive with revenue, though, is to have a successful team — and one that’s popular nationally. Unfortunately, the Lions marketability is among the lowest in the league after the departure of Suh and Johnson the last two years.

“I really want the team to be marketable, not individuals,” Wood said. “Obviously, every team has a few stars and superstars that naturally are going to be the ones that the fans have the jerseys and get attention, and deservedly so.

“But you can’t make your entire marketability about two or three people. You’ve got to win. Hopefully we can win on a more consistent basis.”

Business development

One of Wood’s most critical moves was promoting Kelly Kozole to senior vice president of business development in February.

The Lions previously had multiple people in charge of marketing, partnerships, promotions, ticketing, corporate communications and other departments, which resulted in companies hearing from several employees seeking their business.

Now, everything is consolidated under a structure Wood prefers. Wood, however, isn’t simply handing off tasks.

Shortly after his hiring, Kozole said Wood reached out to Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, among others, to help ensure Central Michigan would play in the Quick Lane Bowl, bringing a local team to December game at Ford Field.

And, he has focused on using analytics to try to increase revenue. In addition to focus groups with season-ticket holders and other fans, the Lions have evaluated recent NFL studies to determine how to reach certain benchmarks, financially and in terms of fan experience.

From the bowl to concerts to corporate events, everything that happens at Ford Field is a way to increase the organization’s revenue.

In the end, though, pleasing Lions fans will be the best way to ensure Wood’s tenure is successful.

“I’m not worried that they don’t trust us,” he said of the fans. “But I want them to have their passion for us delivered on. And they deserve it.”