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The Amerks chief’s big-time commitment to his hometown

Stephen Donner:
The Amerks chief’s big-time commitment to his hometown

Stephen Donner’s office in the Rochester Community War Memorial is as modest as the man who occupies it.
There are no Picassos on the wall and no gaudy diamonds on Donner’s fingers. The desk used by the president and CEO of the Rochester Americans Inc. clearly has been used by many others before him.
If you want to chat awhile with a sports magnate, some high-rolling big shot wearing a silk suit and smoking a big cigar, Donner is not your man.
Yet Donner has been there. At 38, he has rubbed elbows with millionaire owners of National Hockey League teams in Buffalo and Tampa, Fla. He has seen the glitz of the big time. He has tasted its caviar and sipped its champagne. And his thoughts always came back to Rochester. Back to his hometown.
He returned in summer 1994 to run the Amerks. This August, he and five investors purchased the franchise from the parent Buffalo Sabres for $1.3 million, and a month later he secured a Rochester franchise in the pro soccer A-League. He also brought to town the Nighthawks, a Major Indoor Lacrosse League team.
“I grew up in Rochester,” he says, as if someone had pressed the question, What’s a nice guy like you doing in a place like this? “My aspirations have been modest from the beginning. I’m back in the city where I want to live.
“I have no aspirations of being here three or four years and moving again. Everything I’m doing now is for the long term. My goal is to see Rochester sports thrive like they haven’t in years.”
When he arrived back in Rochester, he saw a community that was hitting on only half its sports cylinders–a community, as he puts it, that was “stuck in gear.”
He decided to do something about that.
“When I was growing up, the Red Wings and the Amerks were major league as far as I was concerned,” says Donner, the Amerks’ marketing director from 1980 to 1983. “I had a chance to work here early in my career. I went on to the major leagues in Buffalo and Tampa, and through the years I kept looking back to Rochester and kept seeing a city with over 1 million people in the metropolitan area that only had two teams.”
Wherever he was, Donner never stopped glancing over his shoulder to his hometown. After graduating from the Aquinas Institute high school and then the University of Dayton in Ohio, where he received a bachelor’s degree in communications with a minor in marketing, Donner started his pro hockey career in 1979 with the Dayton Gems.
After three years with the Amerks, Donner was given a chance to chase the dream to the big time. He joined the Buffalo Sabres marketing department, first as sales manager, later as marketing director. Then came two years as vice president of sales and marketing for the Tampa Bay Lightning, another National Hockey League team.
He did not realize it early on, but all these jobs were basic training for his return to Rochester, for his purchase of the Amerks and the soccer team, and for bringing in the Nighthawks. Home was a magnet that kept pulling him in this direction.
That is why he left the big time, why he came back to his roots to immerse himself in what he calls “high-profile minor-league sports.”
“I left the major-league-sports arena because I did not like the direction it was going,” he says. “When you have to pay $60 to see a hockey game or $50 to see a football game and $10 to park, you’re closing out a large segment of the metropolitan area that can attend.
“I was in charge of bringing in revenue for the teams I worked for (over) 15 years, and no matter how hard I worked or how hard my department worked, no matter how much new money we brought in, it got harder and harder to make money.”
Perhaps it was chasing that financial infinity, fighting a war that Donner sensed could not be won, that pushed him back to Western New York.
“When I was traveling with the Tampa Bay Lightning and looking for a place to start my career as an owner, I kept looking at Rochester,” Donner recalls. “There isn’t a city this large with this city’s sports heritage that has so few sports teams. I was thinking maybe I could do some things and make some contributions to the sports market that weren’t being done … and provide a little growth to the community.”
Jerry Helper, vice president of communications for the Tampa Bay Lightning, worked with Donner for almost a decade, first in Buffalo and then in Tampa Bay. He says Donner cannot miss in his new role.
“I have no concerns about Steve as an owner,” Helper says. “He’s a proven pro in the sports business. He’ll do a great job and one reason is, he’s always thinking about the fans, how he can make it more entertaining for the fans. He was a tremendous asset for this organization. And I think more highly of him personally than I do professionally.”
To spur growth here meant changes, starting with the Amerks. The marketing stagnation he discovered astonished Donner.
“When I came back after 11 years I found that many of the promotions we were doing, even many of the announcements at the games, were the ones I had written back in 1982,” Donner says. “I feel in sports, image is everything … and there were a lot of things that just had to change.”
Among them: the Amerks’ game programs; the music in the War Memorial on game nights; the team’s radio broadcast image; the pursuing of more game telecasts; and most importantly, updating and expanding Amerks merchandise.
“We have one of the more classic logos in sports,” Donner says. “The colors (red, white and blue) are great. We hired a full-time merchandising director, Lynne Vangellow, and she has turned around our whole operation.
“Now we have first-class merchandise that people want to wear. Before we had three hats: red with the Amerks logo, white with the Amerks logo and blue with the Amerks logo. Now we have eight or nine hats. Our sales are up 100 percent from last year.”
Despite his success so far, Donner is careful not to get carried away with his business prowess.
“It’s my experience, the knowledge of how to get it done, the confidence in this market and myself to make it work. Am I a good businessman?” he asks, repeating a question. “Time will tell. I’m a marketer first and a businessman second. I know how to finance a hockey team; I know the dollars and cents that go into it.”
Donner says the Amerks lost $500,000 on revenues of $1.9 million last season, but the operation put together a break-even pro forma for this season and is on schedule to meet that goal. The once-profitable team, which saw mounting losses over the last few years, has a solid fan base that Donner is determined to expand–a goal that will be easier to reach when the War Memorial renovation and expansion to 12,000 seats is completed in 1997.
“We’re not content with drawing 4,000 or 5,000 fans a game; we want to be in the 8,000, 11,000, 12,000 range in hockey,” he says. “We sell out for lacrosse, and I feel the soccer team will draw 8,000 to 10,000 a game at Frontier Field.”
Donner’s marketing sense tells him Rochester is ready–again–for pro soccer. The Lancers and the Flash have come and gone, but he sees a whole new ballgame in the new stadium.
“Is the whole country ready for pro soccer? Right now, today, I don’t think so,” Donner says. “Is Rochester more ready than some other cities? Absolutely.”
Donner notes that Rochester boasts 25,000 youth soccer players–more than Buffalo and Syracuse combined. That fact, and the opportunity to acquire a franchise at the right price, made it an easy decision for him.
“We felt, “Let’s get ahead of the wave, let’s negotiate a franchise for Rochester while (the A-League) is still in its infancy,”’ he says. “If we wait ’til the rest of the country catches up and the price goes up, we probably could not afford it.
“We paid $250,000 for the franchise. In three or four years, I’m sure it’ll be $1 million to $2 million.”
No question, Donner must wear many hats these days. He comes to the office each morning before business hours, before the phone starts interrupting him. When the Amerks play at home, he does not leave the arena until almost midnight. In between, he has to make many decisions, perhaps even put out a few fires.
“If you’re a person who wants to work on one project till you’re done with it and then go to the next one, this is not the business to be in,” he observes. “A big part of my job is problem solving.”
Through it all, Donner tries to be the kind of person he would want to work for.
“I’m not a dictator,” he says. “I think I’m pretty good to work for. I think I’m fair, maybe even too easy. I hire people to do a job and expect them to do it.
“I’ve worked around a lot of egos. I hope I don’t have an ego. I have an awful lot of pride in my work, pride in what I’ve accomplished. I worked in the major-league arena and willfully walked away from it. I think I’m very much at ease with myself.”
For Donner, becoming a wheeler-dealer seems to rank far below providing a comfortable atmosphere for his wife, Julie, and his daughters, Megan, 11, and Stephanie, 9, and improving the quality of life in his hometown. He looks to the day when he can “develop some personnel who can take a more active role in running the team, and I can enjoy life a little more.”
“I guess when people think of me,” he adds, “I’d like them to think of someone who cares about the city of Rochester, someone who’ll fight for the city of Rochester, someone who’ll encourage others to take chances and invest in Rochester. It’s my hometown, and I believe in it and if that rubs off on anybody, I’m happy about it.”
Donner is putting his money, time and energy where his mouth is.

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