LEADING QUESTIONS: Indians boss still having a ball

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Welcome to the latest installment of “Leading Questions: Wisdom from the Corner Office,” in which IBJ sits down with central Indiana’s top bosses to talk shop about the latest developments in their industries and the habits that lead to success.

Max Schumacher, 78, has been a fixture of the Indianapolis Indians AAA minor league baseball franchise for half a century. Starting as ticket manager in 1957, the graduate of Shortridge High School (Class of 1950) and Butler University (Class of 1954) began moving up the ranks almost immediately. He was general manager of the club from 1961 to 1997, and today continues fulltime as chairman and president.

For each of the last 35 years, the club has turned a profit. In 2010, the farm team of the Pittsburgh Pirates scored a profit of $922,286 on revenue of $9.32 million. That was up from $459,603 on revenue of $8.47 million in 2009.

It’s no surprise, then, that the club was inspired to dedicate one of this season’s additions to Victory Field – a large bell in right field to be rung after each Indians win – after the longtime team leader. Schumacher, who didn’t know that the bell would be inscribed with his name until just before the season, admits to being “embarrassed” by the honor, and quickly deflects at least some of the responsibility for the long-term success of the club to others.

But Schumacher clearly knows how to make the organization run. He convinced former Mayor Stephen Goldsmith to buy into his vision for a new downtown ballpark, replacing dilapidated Bush Stadium in 1996. Instead of allowing the city to cover the team’s cost to play there, he insisted that the club shoulder operating expenses and general maintenance, which in 2010 hit $3.8 million.

“We have the total responsibility for maintenance, upgrades – all of that is paid for with Indians money,” Schumacher said. “At the old ballpark, the city was responsible for the maintenance and really wasn’t doing anything with it.

“We bit off a lot [at Victory Field]. There aren’t many minor league clubs in that situation. They want the participation of the city. But we thought it was important for us to control that.”

The club also held onto the naming rights for the stadium, in hopes of avoiding frequent sponsorship-related name changes that have plagued other ballparks. “My greatest concern was that, if the city had the naming rights, they could be searching for funds and decide to put a name on our ballpark that was not a good name," Schumacher said. "So, we’re not out there looking to put a corporate name on Victory Field.”

However, the team has been aggressive in finding sponsorship deals for elements within the park’s interior. For example, new this season are Captain Morgan Cove, an open-air restaurant and bar in far-left field, and PNC Plaza, a mini-midway of games inside the centerfield entrance heavily branded by the eponymous bank.

The Indians’ sales staff negotiated a record $2 million in sponsorship deals for the 2011 season. That kind of offseason work is crucial to the club’s success – just as much, or more so, than the team’s record, Schumacher said.

“The secret to the season is what we do on the offseason,” he said. “From a bottom-line standpoint, If we have a competitive team, the crowds will increase somewhat because of that. But the real insurance policy is what we have done in the offseason to make sure that signage is sold, special nights are sold, the suites are all sold.”

A man of routines, Schumacher personally tours the ballpark either before or during every home game. In the video at top, IBJ accompanies him during a recent day game as he inspects the grounds, chats up fans and confers with employees. He also discusses his initial reaction to the Max Schumacher Victory Bell, the life lessons he gleans from baseball, and when he’ll know it’s time to retire.

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