Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

True North stays true to employees

CEO Jim Ludlow explains group's approach, outlook

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When Evander Kane signed his new six-year, $31.5-million contract on Saturday, he expressed his gratitude to the Winnipeg Jets for making a "leap of faith."

Though it wasn't eight figures for one performer, True North Sports and Entertainment made the same kind of leap for its own staff on Monday when president and CEO Jim Ludlow said there will be no layoffs in the wake of the NHL lockout that began late Saturday.

Ludlow spoke to the Free Press on Monday on a variety of subjects from how True North will handle matters with its stakeholders while the league is dark, to his view of the NHL franchise's future in the wake of the labour dispute.

Here's are the highlights of his interview on Monday.

Free Press: "What can you tell us about Jets and True North staffing issues now that the NHL lockout has begun?"

Ludlow: "We are not retrenching or retreating or laying off or rolling back any relationships we have with employees. We think it's valuable to continue to invest in our employees and our people and our building and our relationships. We will go through this as an opportunity to continue to plan, communicate and invest in fan experiences. We will be as ready as we can be when (NHL games) come back. It really comes down to our people and the relationships our people have with the fans. That stability is one of the building blocks of this organization. It will ultimately, we think, lead to success in the organization, success on the ice, success in the community. That, then, is incongruent with rolling back and laying off. This, arguably, is an opportunity for us to keep going, to do what we can to maintain those relationships."

FP: Given the unique circumstances in Winnipeg, the franchise returning after wounding so many fans with its departure, do you have the feeling some of your fans are anxious now that we're into another one of these labour situations?

Ludlow: Anxious, perhaps, but no more than we are. All we can do is our best to create the message that we are considerably and heavily invested in True North Sports and Entertainment, the MTS Centre, the IceCaps, the Jets. We are here for the long haul and we'll do everything we can to maintain our relationships, our brand development with all of our stakeholders to the point where we are going to continue to invest in the building, go through building upgrades during this period. In any event, we are not retrenching or retracting or recalibrating any of our capital expenditures in our building."

FP: Do you have any concern you'll lose season-ticket holders over this matter?

Ludlow: We have the loudest and we think the most passionate fans in the NHL and we would expect and hope those relationships won't be materially marred by the situation we're facing. I suppose it's possible, albeit unlikely, that some would be frustrated enough, not with us but with the situation, that they would rather not continue in their long-term relationship with us. We would hope that's not the case but in terms of retention plan and our sustainability, we continue to have a strong and stable wait list and we'd go to that, but I don't expect that to the be the case.

FP: Does this labour situation give you any concern about the long-term viability of the franchise, given that it's the smallest market in the NHL?

Ludlow: "The way we're responding, by not rolling back, by not retreating, but by continuing to invest in our people and our building suggests we believe in the long term, that we're here for the long term. I would tell you our ownership group has been rock-solid in their response to allowing us to take this position with our fans and our people and our stakeholders and our building. We are here and we will be here with the support of our ownership group for the long term. It will be challenging, clearly, for every team. On the other hand, if our response is to maintain relationships, when we come back, it puts us in the position we were in last year, which was really healthy within the league. It spoke in a very positive way to the long-term sustainability of this franchise in the NHL. The passion everybody in Winnipeg displayed last year really took a powerful message to 29 other marketplaces, that small markets can do it and that they can be sustainable, that the Winnipeg Jets, though by a long shot are in the smallest market in the NHL, are still a top-15 (revenue) team."

Ludlow also said the organization has gone to great lengths to communicate with all of its stakeholders, from ticket buyers to suite-holders to corporate sponsors -- some of whom have work-stoppage provisions in their deals -- to try to make the options for refunds or credits, "simple, easy, convenient and flexible."

Season-ticket customers can get a refund but they can also leave their payments on deposit with the Jets, much like a banking relationship, and earn simple interest of up to three per cent on payments they've made for any game that is cancelled.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 18, 2012 C2

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