The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors both ended their seasons early in 2004, but that doesn’t mean Mardi Walker, VP People for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), will be joining Mats Sundin and Vince Carter on the links any time soon. With next year’s NHL season in jeopardy due to upcoming collective bargaining negotiations, another six unions to contend with, and both General Manager and Head Coach vacancies with the Raptors, her work is just beginning.
“The off-season isn’t really ‘off-season’ any more,” says Walker. “Now I’m going into the whole planning mode for our next fiscal year and between writing business plans, trying to put together a budget, going through all the compensation planning for next year, well, that takes me to the first of July. And then in July and August we do a lot of management training.”
The most pressing matter for both Walker and MLSE is the future of the upcoming NHL season—not just for players and fans, but for the entire organization’s workforce. If there is a work stoppage, there will be significant wage cuts of up to 25 percent—and that doesn’t take into account that another union within MLSE that is currently in legal position to strike right now.
Currently, there’s already a hiring freeze and a wage freeze; so when someone leaves, there’s the question of how to fill that role without adding an employee. And those who are expecting annual raises on the first of July won’t be seeing them this year.
“I think people understand that,” says Walker. “Intellectually, they understand that, emotionally it’s hard. But, you know what? They’ve still got a job. And the average wage increase isn’t that high right now anyway. If the work stoppage goes on long enough that the season’s lost, then that’s when wage cuts happen.”
Walker has experienced the other side of layoffs before, losing her job when she was on the sales staff at Canada’s Wonderland, and feels this—combined with a psychology degree—helps her deal with employees facing wage cuts and layoffs.
“As an HR person, that was a really valuable experience,” she says. “It helps when you’re dealing with downsizing and termination and really understanding how somebody feels.”
In fact, losing her job at Wonderland might have been the best thing that for her career. While Walker might have been in sales when she was downsized, she had started out after university as an Office Assistant in Personnel for the opening of the company, giving her a crash course in hiring procedures. This was after consecutive summer jobs with the Government of Ontario for students training in personnel and then industrial relations. After her time in sales, she says there was one realization.
“At that time, I thought, now I know what I don’t want to do, and that’s sales.”
Walker needed a job, and she wanted to get back into human resources. She ended up working for Constellation Hotels, and became close friends with her Director of HR. Looking out for Walker’s best interest, her boss had the courtesy to inform her that she wasn’t going anywhere, and it would be at least three years before Walker could climb another rung on the corporate ladder.
After this revelation, she decided to get technical expertise to complment her hands-on experience and took a position at Pitney Bowes as a Job Analyst. Then, out of the blue, Marriott Hotels called and said the company was coming to Canada and needed a Director of HR on its executive team.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” says Walker. “But it was scary because I just didn’t have the management experience. I think they called me because they were new to Canada and didn’t know the laws and regulations. So they went to the best in the industry, my former boss at Constellation, who said she wasn’t going anywhere. But she recommended me. The stars were all aligned.
“Marriott is an incredible organization when it comes to systems and support. The things I learned from there I still use today.”
After eight years with Marriott, in both Vancouver and Toronto, Walker became the Corporate Director of HR for the Metropolitan Hotel, which was similar to a location opening because it was a conversion with new staff.
But the hospitality industry was taking its toll on Walker and after two and a half years, she became the Regional Manager of HR for PetSmart, a U.S company that needed an HR manager to open stores in Canada—an area of expertise for Walker. At this time she and her husband Peter lived in a condominium on Toronto’s waterfront. It was this location that helped Walker make a life-altering decision. When a recruiter called in 1997, offering an opportunity to get back into the hospitality industry, she was tempted to say no. But when Walker looked out her window she saw the big hole in the ground where they were building the new home for both the Raptors and Maple Leafs. “How convenient is that?” she thought.
So after a long interview process, Walker was named VP People for the Toronto Raptors in October 1997. In February 1998, MLSE bought the Raptors and this time she avoided the downsizing and became VP People for all of MLSE, one of the most scrutinized organizations in all of Canada—adding an element to the job that she hadn’t really considered: constant media speculation about the status of every employee’s job.
“Our organization is in the media every single day of the year, without fail; we have probably 30 reporters assigned to us on a full-time basis. The media is so focused on us that it’s incredible. You develop a thick skin.”
But dealing with the media is just one skill Walker is learning. In an organization where ex-athletes are now senior executives, it can often be trying to develop new management techniques across the organization.
“John Ferguson (the Maple Leafs new GM) is very interested in new leadership development techniques and wants to learn any time something is being offered” she says, “and Richard Peddie (COO MLSE) is looking for those characteristics in our new GM for the Raptors.”
The organization’s requirement of forward-thinking executives who want continuous development is a positive situation for Walker’s department, MLSE and the human resource industry as a whole.
Walker wants to see human resource departments get away from being simple processing houses and become strategic partners with other areas of the business. In the short term, she wants to expand the organization and get more involved in seeing her staff grow and develop as she did.
“If you have great people, you’re going to have a great organization.”