Sporting Class

Mardi Walker’s background in theatre and competitive sports has led her to her love of working for Maple Leaf Sports + Entertainment

“Almost everyone at MLSE participates in sports in some form, many at a competitive level. That’s the personality here, and it makes for a very dynamic workplace.” —Mardi Walker, Senior VP of People

The year was 1997. From the window of her high-rise condo in downtown Toronto, Mardi Walker could see the ground being broken at 40 Bay Street, future site of the Air Canada Centre and would-be home of the nascent Toronto Raptors. But until Walker got an unexpected phone call from the recruiter, 40 Bay Street wasn’t much more than a big hole in the ground.

“We want you to work for the Toronto Raptors,” the recruiter said.

Walker looked out the window, watching the workers and machines set the foundation for the $265 million, 1.1-million-square-foot stadium. She certainly had the HR experience, coming off eight years with Marriott and other interim positions such as PetSmart, where she was working at the time. The prospect of working for an up-and-coming franchise like the Raptors, and handling an opening event on such a large scale—the challenge and rewards of these things were impossible for Walker to pass up.

She said yes, and now, 16 years later, Walker serves as the senior vice president of people and sits at the executive table of Maple Leaf Sports + Entertainment Ltd. (MLSE), which acquired the Raptors a few short months after Walker signed on.

Before being recruited to work for the Toronto Raptors, Mardi Walker built an impressive résumé working in HR for such notable companies as Marriott and PetSmart.

“I was hired based on my past HR experience, and also with having the experience of handling all aspects of ‘opening’—hiring, helping new departments, and so forth. Additionally, the Raptors were looking to give HR a place at the table,” Walker says. “And over the past 16 years, we’ve only seen the organization grow.”

MLSE’s roots stretch back to 1927 and the auspices of businessman, hockey player, and horse racer Constantine Falkland Smythe, who organized a group of investors to purchase the Toronto Arenas, Toronto’s premier hockey team, now known as the Maple Leafs. The purchase went through, and in 1931, Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. was formed, changing its name to Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment in 1998. Now, more than 80 years after being formed, MLSE is valued at more than $2.2 billion and is one of the most valuable sports-entertainment enterprises in Canada. It is presently co-owned by Bell Canada (37.5 percent), Rogers Communications (37.5 percent), and Kilmer Sports (25 percent), and the organization is not only responsible for some of Canada’s top-grossing sports franchises (Maple Leafs, Raptors, Marlies, and Toronto FC), but it also functions as a central moderator of Canada’s entertainment pulse.

But that pulse isn’t self-regulating. For Walker, it’s the people behind the scenes who make MLSE the bustling enterprise that it is, and it’s the people that are at the root of her passion for HR—though Walker also says that HR for the sports-entertainment industry is a whole different entity from hospitality or retail.

“Overall, there is a personality type that gets attracted to this business per se; sports business attracts a lot of very talented and competitive people,” Walker says. “Almost everyone at MLSE participates in sports in some form, many at a competitive level. That’s the personality here, and it makes for a very dynamic workplace.”

Walker herself has a background in competitive skiing, and understands, on an interior level, the quick thinking required to stay in rhythm with the sports-entertainment beat. And though she doesn’t ski competitively anymore, she is involved as a secretary and board member of the Craigleith Ski Club, located near Collingwood, Ontario, and founded in 1958.

In addition to providing sports entertainment for millions of Canadians, Maple Leaf Sports + Entertainment launched the MLSE Team Up Foundation in 2009, which believes “all kids should have access to sport and the opportunity to develop lasting dreams on the playing field.” Through its Legacy Grants, Sports Grants, MLSE Team Up Fund, and programs such as the MLSE Team Up Challenge, the Team Up Foundation has injected more than $6.5 million back into the community, reaching more than 110,000 future athletes in the 2012 season alone. Partners include Best Buddies, Special Olympics Ontario, Foot Locker, Coca Cola, and more.

As for the people-centred aspect of her profession, Walker also cites her background in theatre, which she minored in while in college. “I debated whether or not I would continue to go that direction with theatre,” Walker says. “But with my first human-resources job at Canada’s Wonderland, I found that it combined the things I really liked from theatre, but it had less to do with performance than the ability to effect change and help people and an organization be successful on so many levels.”

It wasn’t only Walker’s HR background that got her the attention of the Raptors and MLSE in 1998, but a changing, paradigmatic perception of the role of HR within a corporate environment. By the late 1990s, various business entities began to recognize that HR, beyond hiring and firing, might also serve as a strategic mediator between a corporation and its workforce. And though the model is still being adapted by some more reticent corporate cultures, when Walker joined the Raptors franchise, it was only three years young and lacked the deep roots of “tradition” that continue to guide the culture of more antiquated organizations.

Walker was the first female to sit at the executive table for the Raptors, and when the franchise was acquired by MLSE and she became of the VP of HR, her position at the table was just as unique, but likewise representative of both the changing role of HR and the transforming culture of the sports-entertainment industry.

“When the Raptors were bought by MLSE, the organization didn’t have any women working at senior levels, and they were just starting to explore the idea of HR,” Walker says. “It was a bit of a stressful transition for me at the time, but as the organizations were transforming, it became clear from all ends that we needed to decide what the new organizational structure would need to be, and that took precedence.”

Out of the gate with MLSE, Walker aligned herself as an integral strategic partner, helping the enterprise articulate and solidify a cogent organizational structure. “We determined a new vision for the organization to help create the values underneath that, so that everyone would be driving towards the same thing,” Walker says. “We used a voice from every level for this, so that there would be input from everyone, and when we rolled it, it has been something that has really driven the organization to where it is today.”

Tied into this transformative concept of HR, the advent and growth of technology within both sports entertainment and corporate function has also greatly influenced the evolution of MLSE over the past decade. On the outside, the Internet, mobile technology, and social media have globalized access to sports entertainment, and on the inside, this enhanced IT functionality has also led to increased intraorganizational efficiency, Walker says.

“My team at HR embraced social media quite early, and we’ve also used it quite heavily for recruiting,” Walker says. “And from an HR standpoint, having an efficient information system in order to sort and pull data has also been important.”

Here Walker is citing MLSE’s implementation of Workday Human Resources Information System (detailed in sidebar) last year, which brought the organization’s HR department out of the spreadsheet days of the 1990s and into 21st century.  “The support Workday has been able to offer has been great,” Walker says. “We’re able to spend less time sorting through files and spreadsheets and focusing on the fun aspects of HR: employee relations, recruitment, and that sort of thing.”

As Walker is now well into her 16th year with MLSE, and in the third decade of her HR career, she has her sights set on the future, and shows no signs of ceding. Walker says, “It’s a fast-paced workplace here, and things are always changing, and you need to be ready to adapt.” It’s about staying competitive, in other words, and in true Maple Leaf spirit, Walker is ready to play.