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Entrepreneur achieves goal as team owner

Curt Styres was born and raised on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in southern Ontario, Canada. He still lives there and routinely makes the six-hour round trip to Rochester to help run his Americans hockey and Knighthawks indoor lacrosse franchises.

"I grew up about a half mile from where I was born, and I built a house about three-quarters of a mile from where I was born," says the soft-spoken majority owner and CEO of both franchises. "I didn’t go very far."

In many ways, though, he has gone very far, literally and figuratively. The 45,000-acre reserve is an hour’s drive southwest from Toronto and some 45 minutes west of Hamilton.

"Being an ironworker and traveling half the country, coming to Rochester is just a cup of coffee," Styres says from offices at Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial, after being driven from Hamilton. "A lot of guys won’t even take a job unless it’s 10 minutes from their house. I’ve been traveling all my life."

Styres, a Mohawk, is a minority owner of Grand River Enterprises Six Nations Ltd., Canada’s fourth-largest cigarette manufacturer. The company is based in the Six Nations village of Ohsweken, where it employs more than 200 people. It also has a plant in Germany, where it makes cigarettes for the German army.

Styres, 50, declined to discuss financial aspects of Grand River Enterprises, a private company.

"I don’t like talking about money," he says.

Financial statements and legal filings detail a company that sells billions of cigarettes annually, does hundreds of millions of dollars in annual business and has paid millions in bonuses to its management, including Styres.

Styres and his brother Glenn also built the Ohsweken Speedway dirt-track racing facility.

"My brother loves racing," says Styres, whose first business endeavor was starting an automobile repair shop as a teen-ager. "We took all our mechanics skills and basically built our own race cars. We tore motors and brakes apart and put them back together again.

"Then we started our own race cars. My brother still races cars; I don’t. I haven’t really quit. I just haven’t done it for a while."

Glenn, 45, was the 2008 Southern Ontario Sprint champion.

"He’s living a dream," Styres says. "He’s got a speedway he has a passion for in his front yard. If he wants to go for a ride in his race car, he just jumps in his car and goes around his racetrack."

Team owner
Styres became part-owner of the Six Nations Arrows Express junior lacrosse team in 2002, then built the 2,600-seat Iroquois Lacrosse Arena in 2004. He hired trainers, tutors and other personnel for the teenage players.

"Watching the guys slip around and falling on the floor, we decided to build a new arena," Styres says. "That (previous) arena was probably built in 1970. It was 30-something years old. It was put together however they could put it together."

The new arena has an artificial turf surface and is the largest lacrosse-specific indoor facility in the country, Canadian Lacrosse Association officials say.

Four Arrows Express players have gone on to college. One, Syracuse University star Sid Smith, was selected by Rochester with the first pick in this year’s National Lacrosse League draft. Styres, the Knighthawks’ general manager as well as owner, played high school football with Smith’s father.

"Curt is one of the more passionate owners," NLL commissioner George Daniel says. "He’s very involved in all aspects of his operation. He has a real knowledge of the sport. He’s been a big supporter of the sport at all levels.

"He’s the only owner that serves on our competition committee. All the other members are general managers and coaches."

Styres does not talk in detail about his personal life, other than to say he has nine children, five boys and four girls.

"That’s a long story," he says of his family situation. "I really don’t want to touch on that."

He describes his upbringing as "pretty normal, with my mom and my dad and my brothers and sisters."

His father died when he was young, and he spent much of his youth growing up in a 12-foot by 20-foot former army barracks with his mother, two brothers and two sisters.

"Growing up back in the ’60s, things were tough," he says. "It wasn’t like you had everything. Anything you had, you had to earn it.

"One of my mom’s favorite things-and she still lives by it-is if you want anything, you get what you want and I’ll get what you need. That’s basically how our life goes. If we want anything, we’ll go work for it."

Styres was involved in sports at an early age, playing lacrosse, hockey and baseball beginning at 9 years old.

He went to Hagersville Secondary High School, where he was a center on the football team, played on the basketball team and ran the 800 and 1600 meters on the track and field team.

"I was the best runner in those two events," he says. "I was the best from five of the (area) high schools. I went to the Ontario finals. I finished a ways back, eighth or ninth."

Early entrepreneur
The brothers opened a tire shop when Curt was 16, later expanding it into a mechanic’s garage.

"We could pretty well fix anything on a car," he says. "We were a couple of kids who wanted to eat."

Styres eventually went to trade school to take up welding. Later he attended the Brantford campus of Mohawk College, learning to be a production machine operator.

"I had the garage going, I went to school, built a house, bought a car, and with the garage it was really good," he says. "But you had to work for it. If you wanted to eat tomorrow, you had to work. If you wanted gas for the car, you had to work after school."

Styres traveled throughout Canada and the United States as an ironworker. He helped build the local high school and the 675-megawatt AES Somerset LLC coal-burning power plant in Niagara County.

"From there we got into racing," he says. "I got into manufacturing cigarettes, and here we are today."

Styres and other stakeholders in Grand River Enterprises say little about that operation.

The company in a legal filing describes itself as having been incorporated in 1996, with controlling shareholders Jerry Montour, CEO, and Kenneth Hill, senior officer in charge of marketing. They have been partners in the cigarette business since 1992.

Grand River Enterprises has eight shareholders, with 110 shares issued, filings state. Montour owns 33 shares, or 30 percent of the company. Hill, Styres and five others each own 11 shares.

Styres, Montour, Hill, one other shareholder and the company president are the five voting members, filings state.

The company is in the seventh year of a court battle with the U.S. government over provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Filings related to the case provide some details of GRE’s financial situation.

Filings projected a 2005 profit of $60 million, with 3.6 billion cigarettes sold in the U.S. alone, and $18 million in bonuses for shareholders. The shareholders received $15 million in bonuses in 2002, $24 million in 2003 and $23 million in 2004, filings state.

His home
Six Nations has 2,500 homes and 11,000 people, Styres says.

"Before my partners and I came into the picture, the biggest employer on the reserve was the Six Nations Band Council (the reservation’s governing body), which was all government employees," he says.

"There were probably 160 people (employed there). I’d be guessing, but all the partners associated with GRE probably employ 700 or 800 people."

GRE as of last week became an around-the-clock operation, Styres says.

"It’s the first time in the company’s history that we’re working 24 hours," he says. "That (employment) number is probably boosted up to 300 with all the spinoff companies like the gas stations, the arenas, the gyms, the music station, trucking. … There’s just so many."

He remains fiercely loyal to Six Nations, largely because of advice his mom gave him when he was young.

"When I was working picking strawberries and working in tobacco, she saw I was putting a couple of dollars in my pocket and hanging on to it," Styres recalls. "She said, ‘What are you going to do with that?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, buy school clothes, buy something.’"

Styres asked his mother for her suggestion.

"She said, ‘Spend your money where you spend your most time.’ I’m not going to leave Six Nations. I don’t plan to. So that’s where I spend my most money," he says.

His spending bought a 21,000-square-foot home with a movie theater and fitness center.

"I went kind of overboard," he says. "It started out as a renovation of the bathroom. It turned out to add on 14,000 square feet."

The first house he built, in 1975, burned to the ground in 1989. He started construction on a new one on his birthday, Sept. 1, and moved in on Sept. 1, 1991.

Rochester teams
Arrow Express Sports, with Styres at the helm, took ownership of Rochester’s financially strapped hockey and indoor lacrosse teams in May 2008, against the advice of his attorneys.

"We did our due diligence," he says. "The lawyers advised me against it. They said don’t do it. They showed me the numbers and said, ‘This is what it’s worth.’ But I was determined to get into professional sports, so I took his advice but went against it. What he said was ‘Put your wallet in your pocket and back up toward the door.’"

Styres paid some $6.5 million for the Amerks and $5.6 million for the Knighthawks to become the majority stakeholder in the franchises. He owns 70 percent of each, he says.

He is the first member of a native North American people to have individual ownership of a major professional sports franchise.

"I will make it work," he says. "There’s no doubt in my mind that I will do that. I don’t come in and leave it worse than I found it."

Styres started thinking about owning a pro lacrosse team in 1998, when the Hamilton-based Ontario Raiders were launched as an NLL entry. Styres bought season tickets that year and again in 1999 when the franchise moved to Toronto. He also bought a suite at HSBC Arena in Buffalo to watch that city’s NLL team.

"We thought, ‘With all the money we’re spending, why don’t we just own a team?’" Styres says.

He became familiar with Rochester through Regy Thorpe, a Knighthawks player since 1995. Styres had met Thorpe in 1983 when Styres was playing for the Iroquois Nationals international team, made up of Six Nations members, and Thorpe was a teenager. Styres later hired Thorpe to coach the 2007 Six Nations Arrows team of the Ontario Junior A Lacrosse League.

"At around the same time, he brought (Rhinos and Amerks majority owner) Steve Donner over and said Steve wanted to sell the team," Styres says. "We were going to get involved in lacrosse anyway, so why not get involved with one of the guys (Thorpe) we were working with?

"So I guess Regy is the one that connected the dots. I didn’t have my sights set on Rochester. I had my sights set on buying a lacrosse team. The Americans were joined at the hip, so we ended up getting both of them."

Just as the Amerks and Knighthawks are connected, so are Styres and Lewis Staats, president of both franchises.

"I’ve known Lew since my school days," Styres says. "Lew has been with the Arrows since their start in 1992. I was doing a little bit of scouting in 1998 and signed up to be a partner with him in 2003. Lew was president at that time.

"The day we joined up, I already knew where I wanted to go. I said, ‘Lewis, what do you think about this headline: Six Nations Arrow Express buys professional lacrosse team?’ He said, ‘I like it.’"

Tough starts
Styres got off to a disappointing start with both franchises.

The Amerks, in their first season as the top affiliate of the Florida Panthers after many years with the Buffalo Sabres, finished with the second-fewest points in the 29-team American Hockey League. In addition, attendance at home games dropped dramatically.

Some 156,000 people attended 39 Amerks home games last season, an average of 4,000 per game. That compares to 273,000 and 6,800-but with untold numbers of free tickets-during the 2007-08 season.

The Amerks drew 15,781 people, an average of 2,630, for their first six home games this season, club officials say.

Total attendance for eight Knighthawks home games last season was 60,492, an average of 7,562, team officials say. The highest attendance figures were during the 2006 season: 79,906, or 9,988 per game.

The Knighthawks finished their 2009 season with a 7-9 record, losing in the first round of the playoffs.

Styres has made significant changes in both franchises as a result.

He removed Jody Gage-one of the Amerks’ most popular personalities-as general manager and brought in Ted Nolan, a former coach with the Sabres and New York Islanders of the National Hockey League.

"What we needed to make this a believable story was somebody to tell the tale," Styres says. "If I called somebody, they’d say, ‘Who is Curt Styres?’ My name is not involved in hockey circles. But you mention Ted Nolan’s name, everybody knows Ted."

Nolan is vice president of hockey operations. Gage is director of player personnel.

"Two reasons, really: an empty arena and last place," Styres says. "If you want the same thing you got last year, you just leave it the same and you’ll get the same thing this year. I wasn’t going to do that."

With Styres’ money behind it, the team signed several veteran players. Styres will not disclose how much he spent.

"(If) you have 20 players and you have 14 or 15 veterans, you’re going to be really good," he says. "If you want to be really bad, you have 14 or 15 rookies on your team like we did last year."

Styres and Nolan told Gage to compile a list of 10 players at each position and start at the top to sign them. The result was the return of former Amerks Rory Fitzpatrick and Chris Taylor and the addition of veterans with NHL experience such as Mike York and Jeff Taffe.

The Amerks have a 9-1-1 record as they resume play this weekend.

"The pieces are falling into place," Styres says. "There are a couple more pieces we’re working on. We have a marketing guy. We have a ticket man. Now we have to take the next step and get promotional.

"It’s hard to sell something that nobody likes. With a product somebody likes, we can start hitting the pavement with our promotional ideas."

As for the Knighthawks, if they do not win, Styres has no one to blame but himself.

He announced last month that he would be the team’s general manager. He replaces Thorpe, who stepped down after one season as both GM and player because of a new league rule. Thorpe plans to return as a player only.

"They have the Regy Thorpe rule now-that’s what I call it-so you can’t be a GM and play," Styres says.

Styres took on the GM duties for the experience, he says.

"I wanted to see what a GM does day to day," he says. "What are the hoops you have to jump through? From what I’m seeing, it’s a four-man job, or one really good one that nobody has invented yet.

"You need a writer. You need a good salesman. You need a good talker. And you need a good closer. Plus, you have to have the trust of the players. A lot of the younger guys know me. I think a lot of the older guys are maybe not scared of me but always wondering what’s up. You bring a new guy in and it makes them nervous. Any change makes them nervous."

With the NLL franchises coming and going regularly, Styres is looking forward to strengthening the Knighthawks’ roster prior to their Jan. 9 opener against Buffalo.

"With teams folding up, the player pool is getting bigger," he says. "A lot of the teams will be better, faster, bigger, stronger. There are going to be a lot of really good players that don’t even make the cut, not only on our team but on anybody’s team."

Styres is promising an NLL championship for Rochester this year.

"That’s our plan," he says. "The way I look at it, if somebody wants to get happy with a winning team, go and watch us. That’s what we’re here for."

Styres makes the prediction despite Rochester’s standing as the second-smallest market in the league.

"We’ve had some great success stories over the years," Commissioner Daniel says. "Buffalo does tremendously well, and it’s right down the road. They set the all-time attendance record.

"In some places, we haven’t hit our mark. It’s not necessarily a big market versus a small market thing. I think we can succeed in Rochester. Curt and his staff are putting in all the resources necessary to make it succeed. It’s just a matter of whether the community responds."

Lacrosse is Styres’ passion, professionally and personally, although he has not played competitively since 2003.

"I pretty well do anything that has to do with outdoors: hunting, fishing, skiing, snorkeling," he says. "My brother always wants to go golfing. I’ll go out and play around for a while.

"I like walking through the Rocky Mountains. I’ll go out on a 10-day trip and see what I can see in the mountains. I’ll fly into Calgary and venture out from there."

He also is involved with the Dreamcatcher Fund, an offshoot of Grand River Enterprises that helps members of Indian nations in Canada pay for education and athletics.

The organization was established six years ago, Styres says. This year’s Dreamcatcher event, last Thursday at a 1,300-seat venue in Hamilton, was sold out.

"It was consuming quite a bit of our day to sort through applications (to determine) who’s more qualified than the next," Styres says. "We ended up setting up a committee and called it the Dreamcatcher. Now all the (GRE) partners put money in there, which the committee looks after. We’ve helped out a few thousand people. I’m not sure of the exact number. It’s growing every year."

Styres would like to see such growth in attendance at Amerks and Knighthawks games.

"For years, I heard talk about the great city of Rochester and the fan support they got," he says. "I guess I missed the heyday. My friend Stan Jonathan played here. My friend Ted Nolan played here. Jody Gage played here.

"They all talked about the fans that were here. I’m just wondering where they are."

Curt Styres
Title: Majority owner and CEO, Rochester Americans and Rochester Knighthawks
Age: 50
Home: Six Nations of the Grand River, Ontario, Canada
Education: Attended Mohawk College of Applied Arts and Technology
Family: Five sons, four daughters
Hobbies: Hunting, fishing, skiing, snorkeling, hiking
Quote: "To be successful, you have to look successful to have anybody interested."

 

11/6/09 (c) 2009 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

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