publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Ken King
We both were born in small-towns in Saskatchewan, graduated high school in 1969, both sons of exceptionally talented auto mechanics, both began in sales – and there, other than creaky joints and baldness, our similarities end.
OK, I admit to having been a Ken King fan long before this interview (the year he chaired the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, I was a committee vice-chair, so I saw him in action first hand a bit then) – I expected he would be accessible and friendly – which he was. I got far more than I bargained for . . .
He talked a little, and reluctantly, of over-enthusiastic young days, his settling out period – steps, influences, a crooked path that was neither planned out or haphazard. About a love of the newspaper business - possibly a desire to write but I couldn't get that clear. While he has lots of names to drop - he does so only to fill in the blanks in the story - he's far more humble than I thought.
He’s clearly not been the boss-type, but the leader – kind that inspires follower-ship. I’ve crossed paths with and heard Ken speak a number of times over the years – he recently met me in his office for a 90 minute interview. When I arrived, as his busy schedule was pressing – he asked if we could do it in 30. We settled on an hour – and I went away grateful for every minute of it. There was little time to talk hockey or to add to his well publicized biographical information – I wanted to know what made him go, what makes him tick as a businessman, as a person. Seeing his role in the community as most of us often do – we see the affable big man, warm smile and enormous reputation . . .
Few diversions from newspapers, a wire service, land development, professional sports – he runs businesses. In 2000-2001 he took up his current role with the Calgary Flames – but how did he get to here, and now? What makes him go, do, every day, so much in demand?
He is as well known to just about anyone in Calgary – not because of his position as Pres. & CEO of our NHL team, the Calgary Flames, not because of his philanthropic successes or his business triumphs – but because of his connection with people. Ken King challenges people to do their best and clearly he sets no lower standards for his own self . . .
“We were a large poor family – but rich in everything else”, he says. Ken was youngest of 7. and he remains close with siblings. In high school he played all the sports – hockey was #1, loved football but poor eyesight determined he could only play on the line. Mom was a newspaper columnist – covering the Hanley news. So how, and why, did 6’3”, 170 lb. kid from Hanley, SK pass up a call to the Saskatoon Blades camp, passes by the University of Saskatchewan’s door – and begin his career as a junior advertising salesman at the Prince George Citizen (where he met Marilyn, his wife of 41 years), a career path to the publisher’s job in Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary – working with some of the Canada’s most notable publishing icons. Why did he want to be publisher? “I thought there were better ways of doing things”.
“I need lots of people, and lots of activity”, “this is the most difficult job I’ve ever had”, “I’m good at finding great people” and “running a business is unrelenting – like a boat that leaks every day”, “it is easier to stay out of trouble than to get out of trouble” – those were not the first things he said, or the last, and not in that sequence but they stand out some of the most powerful and important things he said to me.
I asked Ken how he sees the marketplace for professional sports over the next 5 years?
… I don’t know for certain what phase or cycle we are in right now. It’s the greatest reality show on television. Stronger leagues. Business, really matters – professional sports is no longer a rich man’s toy. We have a very active owners group. They are all very successful business owners who, while they want winning teams, also want a winning business. They (Flames owners) aren’t your typical rich owners.
In terms of the financial carnage in the newspaper business – the turmoil brought about my technology – did you see it coming?
…at a conference, long before the internet, at a conference – a fellow from the San Jose Mercury news holding up something this size/shape of a tablet, saying ‘this is the future of newspapers’ … that was a very long time ago. He was right!
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… integrity, loyalty, patience. There are lots of good sales people out there – lots of good products, but I’m a tough buyer. I will pay no more than your best customer.
What distinguishes you that causes people choose Ken to do business with – why are you been selected over your competitors?
... they know I have a track record. I will do the job, not just have the job. You have to do it. I try to understand what people need, I like to try to solve other people’s problems. People will do a lot for an organization if you take care of them.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… I try to understand the future better. I’m a student of life.
… the journalists strike .. 1996
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… I have a long list of mentors, kind generous people who cared about me, Maurice Pearson (Prince George)
Who is your hero – real or mythical – who inspires you?
. . . lots of brave people whose names I won’t give you that you wouldn’t know who struggle with real trouble in their lives.
What are you afraid of?
… birds (something was mumbled about a Hitchcock movie).
Work life balance?
… business, family, work, community service – my wife has kept me between the ditches – while I may have deprived my children to some degree, I have no intention of depriving my grandchildren. Horses. I’m a late starter, I love to ride. A horse doesn’t know or care if you are president of anything – he just knows how you treat him.
What are you reading?
… I used to read lots of biographies. I’ve read a few Patterson novels recently. I like books about how the world is changing – been reading a lot about the future of medicine. There is a tsunami of aging boomers (us!). The answer is healthy people who weigh less.
… Jeep. I’m waiting for the new diesel one.
The flood severely damaged your business, your facility – lessons learned?
… be better prepared! Nature doesn’t follow any rules. Our recovery execution was one of MY greatest acts of pure delegation – to John Bean our COO, John Simpson and Fabrizio Carinelli from Cana Construction – they and their teams, were unbelievable.
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