Whitecaps FC management thinking ahead

Paul Barber leads Whitecaps FC into MLS

In some sports organizations, who makes the decision is sometimes more important than making the right decision.

Egos, a desire for control, or a rich owner used to having his own way can be a recipe for failure when it comes to building a winning product.

So far, Vancouver Whitecaps management has used a system of co-operation and consultation as the team prepares for its first season of Major League Soccer.

There's no brash owner like Jerry Jones calling the shots, or a general manager like Brian Burke demonstrating a larger-than-life persona.

Instead it's decision by collaboration. Consensus by discussion.

"It's co-operation in that, before a decision is made, you are going to make sure you talk to the people that it's going to impact," Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi said Monday during an interview at the team's office.

"If you've got people involved that are open-minded, don't have big egos, and appreciate the kind of discussion and collaboration that takes place while you are in the decision-making process … there are no issues. There are some interesting debates that take place along the way."

It all sounds very West Coast, like a walk in the rain forest with your soy latte.

Strangely, it felt very familiar to Paul Barber, who left his job as executive director of Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League to be the Whitecaps chief executive officer.

"This club is structured in a very similar way to what I've been used to," said Barber. "Of all the soccer clubs in North America, the Whitecaps is probably as close as you'll get to a European style soccer club."

The harmony in the Vancouver boardroom comes as Toronto FC, the first Canadian franchise in MLS, is undergoing a management shakeup after its fourth straight losing season.

General Manager Mo Johnston and first-year head coach Preki Radosavljevic were fired on Sept. 14.

Earl Cochrane has taken over the GM's role on an interim basis.

Toronto has hired the company owned by former German international striker Jurgen Klinsmann to advise on hiring a new GM and improving the team's overall performance.

Under the Whitecaps system, Barber is the man in charge. He oversees all aspects of the team, from signing players to bringing on corporate sponsorship.

To do this, he relies on Lenarduzzi's soccer background and the business skills of Rachel Lewis, the Whitecaps chief operating officer.

The team owners also participate in decisions.

Greg Kerfoot has the most day-to-day input. He's a reclusive Vancouver millionaire who bought the bankrupt franchise in 2002 when the team was still part of the United Soccer League's first division.

Other owners include Jeff Mallett, the former Yahoo! president who is a part owner of the San Francisco Giants; businessman Steve Luczo, who is part of the NBA Boston Celtics ownership group; and NBA star Steve Nash, a huge soccer fan who grew up in Victoria.

On some issues, the four owners may have input. Often, it's Kerfoot, Barber, Lenarduzzi, Lewis, and maybe Mallett.

If a decision relates to talent on the field, coach Teitur Thordarson or Tom Soehn, the team's director of soccer operations, will be involved.

The process may sound unwieldy but it works, said Barber.

"We operate as a proper board of directors," he said. "We bring our different experiences and knowledge and views to the table.

"The one thing we have in common is a shared vision of what we want the club to be and where we want it to go. We have a very common vision on how to get there."

When Kerfoot bought the Whitecaps, Lenarduzzi was one of three front office staff. Lewis was hired soon after.

Now more than 40 people work at the team's office in Vancouver's trendy Gastown district.

Lenarduzzi, a player when the Whitecaps won the 1979 NASL championship, is a former national team coach fixture in the local soccer community. He's been part of the franchise for years.

Kerfoot's decision to hire Barber over top of him could have caused friction.

"Not at all," said Lenarduzzi. "To a certain extent, Rachel and I were co-running the team based on the skill sets we have. The kind of knowledge and skill set that Paul brings, I don't have. Rachel doesn't have.

"There are no issues with the hierarchy here. In fact, nothing has changed. Yes, he's the CEO. He runs the club. But he's come in and been very respectful and included two senior people in decision making."

Barber calls Lenarduzzi and Lewis his "right and left arm." They have helped him integrate into Vancouver's sports and business community.

"I think it's very dangerous to come into a new city and make assumptions and to try and impose your point of view on people," Barber said.

"There is nothing worse than an arrogant Brit who knows it all coming over and telling the guys how to do it. That is something I steadfastly tied to avoid from day one."

In building the Vancouver franchise, Barber looked at the structure of Toronto FC, plus MLS teams in Seattle and Portland.

"We looked because it's good to look and learn but we want to unique," he said.

"We want to create something for Vancouver that is Vancouver like, not Seattle like, not Toronto like."

The Whitecaps have done a lot of things right as they head into their inaugural MLS season. The team has deposits for over 15,000 season tickets and there's excitement about playing in a refurbished B.C. Place.

Lenarduzzi isn't worried the even hand management has kept on the rudder will slip if the team faces rough seas during its first season on the pitch.

"We won't make reactive decisions," said Lenarduzzi.

"We will try to stay the course and meet the objectives we have laid out for ourselves."