Swish! Goal! Renewal! UCG Earns Spotlight

Sports and Profits Help UCG Gain Spotlight

We first pointed out Thomas Heath’s excellent “Value Added” business column in The Washington Post two weeks ago, when he wrote about entrepreneurship—specifically a new book by Bill Murphy, Jr.

It looks like we’re going to be a weekly visitor to Mr. Heath’s column. Yesterday, he sang the praises of one of SIPA’s own, United Communications Group, and its owners Bruce Levenson and Ed Peskowitz. UCG is a longtime member of SIPA, and Peskowitz was a longtime board member. Levenson, an engaging speaker over the years, keynoted most recently at a packed SIPA and SIAA-sponsored Capital Content breakfast back in March.

Levenson and Peskowitz bought into a higher profile in 2004 when they purchased controlling interest in the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers and operating rights to Phillips Arena, where the teams play. (The photo that the Post uses for Heath’s story is a 2006 shot of Levenson and Peskowitz watching the Thrashers.)

In March’s SIPA Hotline newsletter, Levenson said, “There are also some similarities in both businesses [sports and specialty publishing] that helped us. Both are in the renewal business—season tickets are very important in the sports world. Both need sponsors and have their success measured by the quality of their content—the biggest difference being that the five key employees on the basketball team make $49 million.”

Heath wrote that he has been “bugging Levenson for an interview for years, wondering what kind of business threw off enough cash for them to buy the Atlanta professional teams…The teams together are worth almost half a billion dollars, according to Forbes magazine.”

It’s a long piece, especially considering how precious print newspaper space is these days. Heath visited UCG’s Gaithersburg, Md., offices and likes the modesty he saw: “There are no business cards. No secretaries. Everyone answers their own phone….Most of the office furniture is used. I didn’t see any glass-enclosed corner offices, founders’ portraits or plush leather chairs…”

He then quotes Levenson: “ ‘In the beginning, all we cared about was the content and the marketing,’ Levenson said. ‘The trappings we didn’t care about. We really focused on those two areas, and that has served us well.’ ”

Heath praises the business model, where “customers would pay their annual subscriptions up front.” He also does a good job of describing the unique atmosphere that UCG has created. “Levenson prides himself on a relaxed, democratic atmosphere. The informal division of labor makes Levenson the strategic thinker and company voice, while the cerebral, soft-spoken Peskowitz tends to the all-important content.

“ ‘There is no bigger voice in the [ownership] room than anybody else,’ said Levenson, speaking in a conference room between bites on his sandwich. Behind him is a list that represents his company’s values. The list includes ‘Partnership Agreement as a living document.’ ‘Lunch together.’ ‘Not all lawyers.’ ‘Collaborate.’ ‘Trust.’

Heath doesn’t even talk about other qualities that make UCG unique, like their policy of scheduling your own vacation. Back in March, Levenson talked about putting responsibility onto division managers and employees. “The open leave we borrowed from Morningstar; I love the idea of pushing more responsibility onto the individual. Early on, I was hit with questions like, ‘Are we off the day after Thanksgiving? What about an obscure Jewish holiday?’ I didn’t want to deal with these things; I wanted to work on our major items. So we just said, ‘You figure out when you go on vacation.’

“We’ve certainly gotten good stories out of it; an employee taking a month off to cycle the country and calling in from different places or one guy who climbed Mt. Kiliminjaro in Africa and put a UCG flag on top.”

It is exciting to see such acclaim for a SIPA member and the specialty information model. We will continue to follow Heath’s column and undoubtedly have more from UCG as well in the future.

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