Athletes and B2ten make a business case for Olympic glory
By KEN MACQUEEN, Maclean’s, June 25, 2009
IT WAS the spring of 2007, early days for the elite, little-known band of amateur athletes known as B2ten. Barry Heck, a Calgary merchant banker, wasn’t sure what to expect. He had, as requested, assembled a group of civic-minded Calgary business leaders to hear a pitch. The star at the breakfast meeting was Jennifer Heil of Spruce Grove, Alta., a gold medallist in mogul skiing at the Turin Olympics and, not insignificantly, a commerce student at McGill University. Also there was her coach and boyfriend, Dominick Gauthier, and J.D. Miller, a Montreal-based consultant in banking, mergers and acquisitions, and a friend and mentor to both. The three are the heart, soul and brains of B2ten, an organization they founded to shake up amateur sport funding by connecting Canadian business leaders with Olympic-level athletes – not as sponsors but as donors and mentors. The “B” stands for a business approach to investing in performance. That day they gathered on behalf of Helen Upperton, a Calgary bobsled pilot with huge promise. Heck recalls Upperton was nervous, and then she began to speak.
“I need a bobsled. I need a mechanic. I need runners,” says Upperton, recalling her shopping list two years later. As a private equity guy, Heck is pitched business plans every day. “The first question I ask myself in any pitch,” says Heck, “are these the right people? Check the box. Are they passionate? Check the box. What’s the value proposition? Well, it’s easy to see the value proposition here. [Upperton, sliding with an outdated sled, finished fourth at the Turin Games, 0.05 of a second off the podium.] Is there a chance of success? Can I make a difference?” Check, and check. The meeting lasted 40 minutes. “That’s the pitch,” says Miller. “You get a tax receipt, but nothing else in return. You don’t get any rights. You’re doing this because it’s the right thing.” Er, check – and cheque.
The group gave a four-year commitment, and within weeks a top-notch sled from Monaco was en route to Calgary. Total cost in purchase and modifications: $100,000-plus. In such meetings across the country B2ten has raised $3 million, all of it spent to fund a pool of choice “invitees” – athletes of great ability but specific unmet needs. “Canada is notorious for fair and equal treatment for all people,” says Upperton. “In most cases that’s a tremendous quality to have. In sport, do you want a whole bunch of people who can finish four to eight? Or do you want a couple of people who can stand on the podium?”
The idea was viewed suspiciously by the sports establishment: was B2ten out to grab Olympic glory by creaming off Canada’s best and building a private-sector team? Most, though not all, doubters are now onside, says Gauthier. It’s about complementing existing programs, he says. “Let’s produce 35 medals and let’s all take credit for it.”
As a frustrated national team coach in 2002, he watched Heil miss an Olympic bronze in Salt Lake City by 0.01 of a point. The next four years were spent building an independent training program for Heil. The seed money was underwritten by a group of Edmonton business leaders, led by lawyer Doug Goss, a Heil family friend, and including Kevin Lowe, GM of the Oilers. J.D. Miller came on board gathering donors in Montreal, where Heil was training and attending university. Heil recalls feeling “100 per cent ready” in Turin. “That’s incredibly powerful to be that confident,” she says. And, for Canadians, all too rare.
Post-Games, she, Gauthier and Miller decided Team Heil should expand to B2ten. And so it has grown, slowly, to 23 invited athletes, an elite within an elite, representing a third or more of Canada’s top medal hopefuls.
Just last week, a Toronto group, including Blue Jays interim CEO Paul Beeston, raised $80,000 for figure skating phenom Patrick Chan, to ease the cost of training with his Florida-based coach. Skater Joannie Rochette, world silver medallist this year, is another recipient. The list goes on: Alexandre Bilodeau, the men’s world champion in moguls; Heil, of course; gifted freestyle aerialist Steve Omischl; and women’s hockey goalie Kim St-Pierre. The donors – believed to include such names as Desmarais and Bronfman – tend to stay out of the sports headlines, though not out of the athletes’ lives.
Bilodeau says the donors he’s met have much in common with the athletes they support. “They’re on top of the world at what they are doing, and we’re on top of the world at what we’re doing,” he says. “In a certain way we’re living the same dream.” Miller recalls the confidence he felt as Heil launched downhill on her winning run in Turin. Like her, he knew nothing was left undone. “She did it all. She did it in a process-oriented manner,” he says, ever the businessman. “The stars and the moon aligned for her that day.” But even stars can use a nudge.