John Schuerholz is known in the baseball world as a Hall of Fame general manager and team architect, the person who helped build the Atlanta Braves into the most decorated team of the 1990s.
But Schuerholz, who, in the business world, is essentially a turnaround executive, also proved something else in his long career: going against conventional wisdom, while it can be lonely, can also provide big payoffs. A part-time Naples resident, Schuerholz, 81, was the keynote speaker at the latest NextGen Speaker Series event, held Feb. 25 at the Grey Oaks Country Club in Naples. Benson Blackburn, a boutique financial services firm founded in 1976, is the founding sponsor of the series.
The Braves, with Schuerholz as GM and Bobby Cox as manager, won 14 straight National League titles from 1991 to 2005; five NL pennants; and one World Series, in 1995. Some of the stars of those teams Schuerholz helped build are known in baseball by one name: Maddux, Chipper, McGriff.
Prior to joining the Braves, Schuerholz was an executive with the Kansas City Royals — one of the premier baseball organizations of the 1980s. The Braves had finished last place three years in a row when Schuerholz was hired away from the Royals in 1991. Hence the turnaround that brought out the doubters. “When the baseball world learned of my decision to leave the classiest organization in baseball, the Royals, to go work with the last place Atlanta Braves, I received many calls from my friends — some of which I can’t repeat here,” Schuerholz quipped at the NextGen event.
“Most were stunned to hear the news, some saying ‘what a shame, Schuerholz was really a talented guy, it’s too bad he hit his head on the pavement,’” he added. “‘I think the guy has lost his marbles.’”
But Schuerholz says he was able to help build the Braves into a winner by adhering to several principles that could apply to any business. The list includes:
• Change can come rapidly, so embrace it: “We exist in an environment we’re change occurs often and in a bizarre fashion and at a bizarre pace,” says Schuerholz, who remains with the Braves, as vice chairman, emeritus. “You have no time to contemplate things. You have to make your minds up and decide what you’re going do to keep your team strong. We have to keep our antennas up and our minds in the game all the time.”
• Communication is the best tool: “Speaking clearly and concisely and honestly, from the players to the managers to the coaches to the people who ran our business, was very important,” he says. “It was the most important tool I used.”
• Look your best: Schuerholz recalls that when he left the Royals, it was like leaving IBM. “Everyone wore coats and ties and we all looked and carried ourselves professionally, a byproduct of my beliefs on how we should present ourselves,” he says. Against some initial pushback, he instituted a look good, play good mantra with the Braves. The results showed on the field. “It’s always been my view that the way we dress represents not only who we are but who we represent.”
The visionary sponsors for the NextGen Speaker Series include Arthrex; Green Line Benefits; Meristem Family Wealth; Dentons; John R. Wood; PNC Bank; Lurie; Elite Jets; Marsh McLennan; Pure Insurance; and Sunshine Ace Hardware. The media partners are e’Bella and the Business Observer. The academic partner is FGCU.