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He quarterbacks the business operations

Rochester Business Journal
August 18, 2006
Ask East Syracuse native Russell Brandon whether he grew up a fan of the Buffalo Bills and his answer will be unequivocally, well, diplomatic.

"I'll characterize it this way: I always had an affinity for the Bills," says Brandon, who in January was named executive vice president of business operations for the National Football League team.

Then he laughs.

"But, uh, I actually liked the Dolphins as well. I was a big Dan Marino fan. Growing up in Syracuse, Pitt used to come in (to play Syracuse University) and I just liked his gunslinger mentality. So I was somewhat of a Dolphins fan, but I was not one of those Dolphins fans that did not like the Bills."

Brandon, 39, is a true-blue Buffalo backer these days. He heads the business side of the Bills organization while Marv Levy heads the football side as general manager. Both report to team owner Ralph Wilson Jr.

Brandon oversees roughly 75 employees for a franchise that employs more than 125 overall.

A 2004 survey by Forbes magazine lists the net worth of the franchise at $708 million-Wilson bought the team for $25,000 in 1959-with revenues of $173 million and operating income of $36.1 million.

Brandon brings "great vision to the marketing of the organization (and) has developed and fostered the trust of the business community," Wilson said in announcing the promotion.

Brandon came to Buffalo in November 1997 as executive director of business development and marketing after serving in the front office of Major League Baseball's Florida Marlins during their 1997 World Series championship season.

"One of the first focuses was to grow our sponsorship property," Brandon says. "That was something we embarked on right off the bat, also understanding that looming in the background was the 1998 (stadium) renovation and the different levers we had to hit to activate some of the ($63 million in) state funding."

Brandon, as vice president of business development and marketing from 1999 until his January promotion, is regarded by most to have led the regionalization of the franchise, including the move of the team's pre-season training camp to St. John Fisher College from Fredonia.

"First and foremost, everything that we do is team-oriented," Brandon says of his impact on the regional blueprint. "Everyone in the organization played a role in that. I was a small part of it."

Keeping the Bills

In 1998, as Bills fans nervously sweated the negotiation of a 15-year stadium lease between the team and Erie County, Brandon helped form the ad hoc Business Backs the Bills committee to keep the team from leaving town.

The committee, chaired by retired banker Erland "Erkie" Kailbourne, lobbied businesses throughout upstate to invest in some of the 164 luxury suites and 8,800 club seats that were part of the state-taxpayer-funded upgrade before the 1999 season.

"I remember distinctly Mr. Wilson calling me and telling me 'You're going to be meeting with Erland Kailbourne at 11 o'clock. I don't care what your schedule is. Clear it. It's important that we start game planning,'" Brandon says.

Wilson, as well as others inside and outside the Bills organization, has talked for years about the disadvantages of the economic climate in Buffalo, where growth is, at best, marginal and family income pales in comparison to those in NFL heavyweight cities such as Dallas, Washington, D.C., and New York City.

"Russ was really the executive assigned by Ralph Wilson to support our Business Backs the Bills initiative to make sure we kept that franchise in Buffalo," said Kailbourne, who worked in Rochester from 1981 to 1987 as president of Security Trust Co. and, after its acquisition in 1984 by Norstar Bank N.A., chairman and CEO of Security Norstar.

"He recognized very early on, as we put together the game plan for keeping the franchise in Western New York, the need to regionalize the franchise."

In addition, Kailbourne says, he and Brandon knew they needed help from Rochester's corporate community.

"One of the major planks in that was moving the training camp to Rochester," Kailbourne says. "Russ worked very hard at that. He clearly understood the importance of that from a marketing standpoint and having an affinity with the business community and the community at large."

The formation of the Rochester chapter of Business Backs the Bills "was a watershed moment for us as an organization," Brandon says.

The Bills needed to sell $11 million in premium seats by Dec. 1, 1998, to trigger the release of the $63 million in state funding. That, in turn, produced the long-term lease agreement.

Coming to Rochester

Moving training camp to St. John Fisher, meanwhile, "was the linchpin in the foundation to our regionalization plan," Brandon says.

"Our research showed that Rochester was a nice neighboring community that we drew well from, in pockets," he says. "But we didn't have anything steadfast to bring to the corporate community. Our main goal was to not make this franchise the Buffalo Bills in Rochester but to make it 'our' Bills."

The Bills now draw an average of 15,000 Rochester-area residents to each home game, Brandon says.

"Rochester's been a major resource of opportunity for us," he says. "We needed to establish our brand here. That's what training camp did. That's what putting a full-time office in Rochester (at EastView Mall in Victor) with dedicated personnel did. That was all key to saying 'We're here to stay. We're going to be a corporate partner and a community partner.'"

Brandon, Kailbourne and former general manager John Butler worked out the deal to train at St. John Fisher, Kailbourne says, "but it was clearly Russ that took the point on that."

"We visited many schools in the region and kept coming back to Fisher," says Brandon, a 1989 graduate of the school. "They were going through a growth spurt at the time we were looking to come here. It was the perfect storm, so to speak."

The Bills have enlisted some 20 corporate partners from Rochester, Brandon says. Among them are training-camp title sponsor Bausch & Lomb Inc., One Communications Inc. (formerly Choice One Communications) and M&T Bank Corp.

On the diamond

Brandon got his first taste of sports management while a student at St. John Fisher. He worked as an intern with the Class AAA baseball Rochester Red Wings. He was employed with Rochester Community Baseball Inc. for three years after graduation, sharing assistant general manager duties with current GM Daniel Mason.

"Russ was the public relations director," Mason says. "I was the group sales and promotions director. It was both of our jobs to sell. Russ had a great knack for sales. We complemented each other in coming up with ideas and going out to the Rochester business community to try to drum up business for the club."

The two were roommates during Brandon's Red Wings tenure.

"We often talked about what our future aspirations were," Mason says. "He always had dreams of making it to the major leagues."

Brandon calls Mason "one of my dearest friends to this day."

"The Red Wings, and minor-league sports and small-college sports, are a great training ground for people in our industry," says Brandon, whose responsibilities sometimes included taking tickets, working concession stands and operating the scoreboard.

"It's a very small staff, with shoestring budgets and a very close kinship with your peer group. We did everything together, on and off the field."

Brandon left Rochester in 1992 for a position with a marketing arm of the New York Yankees. One year later, he joined the Florida Marlins, who employed the Red Wings' former general manager, Dan Lunetta, as their director of minor league administration.

"I remember some of us saying 'Is he crazy? He has such a nice position with the Red Wings, and so much opportunity,'" recalls Philip Pecora, president and CEO of Genesee Regional Bank and a friend of Brandon's for 15 years. "Then, sure enough, the Marlins win the World Series."

Brandon came to Buffalo four days after the Marlins' championship.

"I had a very difficult time making the decision because I felt like I was on a good path in Miami," Brandon says of his relationship with Wayne Huizenga, who owned the Marlins then, now owns the Miami Dolphins and previously owned the Florida Panthers National Hockey League team.

"We had a lot of momentum as an organization and as a sports group. But in doing my research, looking at what Mr. Wilson had done in this community, it was a combination of that, the opportunity, and looking at the longevity of some of the individuals in the (Bills) organization."

The chance to return to Western New York also was a factor, Brandon says. His wife, Amy Falk, is a Rochester native.

"Very rarely, in our business, do you have the opportunity to work near your home," he says. "I felt it could be a tremendous resource for me, with the relationships I had in some of the communities.

"Most importantly, my wife was more than thrilled. Taking her down to Florida was difficult for her. The bus only stops at the curb so many times in this business. To have an opportunity to come home was huge."

His post

Brandon leads the administrative entity as well as the business side of the Bills. Levy, who as head coach led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s, leads the football side.

Brandon manages eight vice presidents in football administration, communications, stadium operations, business development, marketing and broadcasting, public affairs, strategic planning, and business operations and ticketing.

"The (business) vice presidents have done an awesome job in leading the ship in their respective departments," Brandon says. "I have all the trust in the world in these guys. I'm a big believer in collaboration and team building. I've never thought that there's one way to get there. There are a lot of different ways."

The Bills' front office is of average size compared with other NFL franchises, he says.

"We're not at the top end, like a Dallas or New England or Philadelphia," Brandon says. "We like to run an efficient operation and maximize everyone's abilities."

Brandon has helped increase the Bills' season-ticket base by 50 percent since 1998, from 31,141 to 47,246 in 2005.

Its 2005 total was the seventh-highest in the 46-year history of the franchise, trailing the first two seasons in the Orchard Park stadium in 1973 and 1974, the 1989 season following the first playoff appearance with Jim Kelly at quarterback, and the 1991, 1992 and 1993 seasons following the team's first three Super Bowls.

The highest season-ticket total was 57,132 in 1992.

The team has sold out 30 of its last 32 games despite not making the playoffs in the last six seasons.

Nonetheless, Wilson has expressed concern about the future of the team in Buffalo, as well as the future of the NFL's other small-market teams, in the wake of the new collective-bargaining agreement signed in the spring. One of two owners to vote against the CBA, which passed 30-2, Wilson met with Gov. George Pataki on April 2 to discuss his concerns.

Asked about the team's future in Buffalo, Brandon gives a weary smile and mutters "tough question."

"We, as an organization, look at how we can affect the business today. We've had excellent growth as an organization. It's going to continue to be a challenge, with the new CBA and how that's being structured," he said. "But we focus on what we can affect, and that's providing value and driving as much entertainment for our fans and experience for our fans as we can."

Brandon gives another faint smile when asked about the economic issues here compared to, say, south Florida.

"It's been a challenge," he says. "There's no question about it. We continue to grow as an organization. Unfortunately, our business community continues to stay flat. It's a challenge throughout Western New York for all businesses. We just have to continue to be creative, to continue to drive value to our customer.

"We feel we have a very strong brand presence in this region. Attaching our brand corporately drives a lot of business. We value those marks in a big way."

Brandon thinks there are additional business partnerships to be found in Rochester, aided by business-to-business development headed by Peter Guelli, a Rochester native and SUNY College of Brockport graduate. Guelli was hired in 1999 as senior manager of Rochester operations.

Scott Berchtold, Bills vice president of communications, says Wilson's comments in April do not indicate an eventual departure.

"I think some people misinterpreted the message as, if things don't get better here, he's going to take the team out of here," Berchtold says. "That's not what he was saying at all. He was saying he wants to keep the team here and try to do everything possible to keep the team here. We don't plan to leave here. We plan to do whatever we can to stay here."

On the field

Training camp continues through Aug. 24 at St. John Fisher, where Brandon was a two-sport athlete as a wide receiver in football and a middle infielder and pitcher in baseball.

He was a four-year starter in baseball, finishing his career with a .367 batting average and as the school's all-time leader in defensive assists. He was team captain as a junior and senior.

Brandon was a four-year letter winner in football.

"There are 22 starters in football, and I was number 22," he jokes. "I was the guy they were always trying to replace."

Brandon was selected to the St. John Fisher athletic Hall of Fame in 2004.

"I've always had a huge love of sport and competition," he says. "My wife says I'll watch curling at 2 o'clock in the morning to see who wins."

Brandon, who lives in Williamsville, north of Buffalo, says his hobbies are limited.

"I'd like to say one of my hobbies is golfing, and that's not working out very well either," he says. "I enjoy trying to stay somewhat physically fit and working out. It's more stress relief from that standpoint. With three kids and this business, it makes it very difficult to do much else."

The Bills, he says, are his "labor of love."

"(Berchtold) and I stood out in the hallway the other day, sweating, and we didn't even know what time it was," Brandon says. "I walked in my room and said to myself, 'I absolutely love what I do.' I love it more today than the day I started as an intern.

"When I left the Red Wings offices," he says of his interview for the internship, "the GM told me there was no pay, and I remember how excited I was driving in the car looking at the team photo the guy gave me. I still have it to this day. That feeling's never left me. If you can have a career you feel that way about, you're pretty darn fortunate."

Kailbourne thinks Brandon has what it takes to one day become president of an NFL team.

"The new head of the NFL (Jamestown native Roger Goodell) came out of the marketing department," he says. "First and foremost, it's the game of football. But the reality of it is, it is a business process.

"Russ has the requisite skills to understand that you've got to market your team and it's got to remain financially viable, but he also has the unique ability to interface with players and players' agents. And he understands football."

Brandon, in typical athlete-speak, says he wants to retire as a Buffalo Bill.

"It's a very difficult business to stay in one place for a long period of time," he says. "I'm going into season No. 10. I feel very blessed for that. I would love to have my kids grow up in this region and have my family stay in this community. We love it here. It's a great place to raise a family."

Brandon's ascent to near the top of the Bills organization is a testament to his hard work, Pecora says.

"In sports, young kids look up to sports figures. To me, in sports, Russ Brandon is the kind of guy you look up to.

"You look at a Malcolm Glazer (a Rochester native who owns the NFL's Tampa Bay franchise and English soccer team Manchester United), here's a guy with a lot of money who's done a lot in the sporting world. Russ is just a guy from Syracuse who got to where he is today with a lot of hard work and dedication."

( / 585-546-8303)

08/18/06 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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