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November 2006
Slapshot for Success
By Ellison Clary

Driven is an apt adjective for Michael Kahn. The alcohol distribution executive who bought Charlotte’s minor league hockey team in July has a passion for achievement, at work and at play. With the Charlotte Checkers, he’s combined the two.

The owner of what industry analysts say is the nation’s 15th largest beer and wine distributor lists two goals for the Queen City’s hockey franchise – in interesting order.

“I want us to build a better relationship with the community,” Kahn says, “and I want to put an exciting product on the ice, one that Charlotte can really be proud of.”

He muses about last year’s Checkers squad. “The team was okay on the ice, but the players didn’t participate a lot in the community,” he says, adding that he’s sure people are more inclined to support the team when they see the athletes helping in civic projects.

“Most of these players are from Canada,” he says, “and this is just a step for them toward the National Hockey League, but they need to learn community involvement. It will be required of them wherever they go, anyway.”

Kahn, himself, supports community betterment efforts of organizations that fit his outlook and family situation.

“I work with charities,” he says matter-of-factly. “My 11-year-old son, Max, goes to Fletcher School. It’s for children with learning disabilities. I’m on the board at Fletcher. I also work with The Family Center and with Alexander Children’s Center.” In addition to sitting on the board at Fletcher, Kahn is a major contributor and has a building named in his honor on its new campus.

Susan Culp, admissions director at Fletcher, confirms Kahn is an active parent and board member. “He’s one of the kindest men I’ve ever met,” Culp says. “He’s very philanthropic. We’re grateful to him. His heart is in our pocket.” She’s not surprised that Kahn wanted to own the Checkers. “He has such an interest in sports,” she says. “He views it as a family opportunity. He’s a very strong family person, a father.”

Kahn has a younger son, Michael, who is two and his wife Wendy soon will give birth to another child. Additionally, Kahn is proud of a daughter his first wife brought to their marriage and that he has played a strong role in raising. Danielle Adkins is 22 and will get her master’s in Marketing from the University of Georgia in December.

Family considerations have shaped Kahn’s business life, as well. His grandparents cashed in a life insurance policy in 1940 to buy a small alcohol distributorship in Atlanta. His father worked in the business but, at 4, Kahn lost both parents in a fire during a family vacation. The distributorship prospered and Kahn and his younger brother David grew up working in it. “I always assumed I’d be in the alcohol distribution business,” Kahn says.

 

Preferred Working

He studied business for two years at the University of Georgia, but says he preferred working to school. After a short time with an Atlanta mortgage broker, Kahn spent two years with the Gallo wine company in California, completing its management-training program.

“That was my real schooling,” he says. “I still rely on budgetary processes they taught us.” He also learned how to plan and implement programs to reach goals, he says. “And being creative,” he adds. “That’s one thing they’ve always been good at.”

He was back in Atlanta by 1986, helping run what had become Empire Distributors Inc. His uncle had taken the reins of that entity. Their holding company, Kahn Ventures, Inc., started a Tar Heel arm in 1984 and Kahn moved to Charlotte in 1989 to run Empire Distributors of North Carolina, Inc.

“I really fell in love with North Carolina,” Kahn says. “I would never leave here.”

Besides headquarters near Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, Kahn’s Tar Heel operation includes offices in the Asheville suburb of Arden, Morrisville near Raleigh, and Castle Hayne, which is close to Wilmington. The firm is building a warehouse in Durham.

The North Carolina operation accounts for roughly half the 700 employees in all of Kahn Ventures, with about 100 in Charlotte. Kahn Ventures is estimated to do more than $350 million in revenue this year, Kahn says.

Michael and David Kahn bought out all other Kahn family members in 1998.

“My brother David is not only my partner, he’s my best friend,” Kahn says. “We have always been committed to not allow disagreements in business overtake our personal relationship. That’s important to me.”

Kahn adds that he and his brother have a strategic plan for the company’s continued growth. “If you’re not growing, you probably are going to get bought up, because this is a consolidating industry,” he says. “My brother and I consider ourselves to be young,” says the 46-year-old, “and we don’t plan on going anywhere.”

 

Dedicated Sports Fan

In addition to being a hockey enthusiast, Kahn is also a strong supporter of the University of Georgia. On fall weekends, Kahn attends every football game, home and away, and is friends with head coach Mark Richt and his staff. He’s a regular on the Georgia sidelines. A heavy contributor to the school’s athletics, Kahn was honored in a first-game ceremony this season when a Sanford Stadium gate was named for him. Kahn has also funded both academic and athletic scholarships.

For his interview, Kahn is dressed in a Georgia Bulldogs golf shirt and relaxes in his Georgia football desk chair.

Football is first, but Kahn supports other sports at his alma mater. His reason sounds simple. “I can be fairly soft when it has to do with kids and young men,” Kahn says. “At the University of Georgia, hopefully I’m doing something to help them become better men when they graduate.”

As for hockey, Kahn grew up a fan of the old Atlanta Flames, a National Hockey League franchise that moved to Calgary, Canada. Then he followed minor league hockey in his hometown until the NHL put the Atlanta Thrashers there.

Charlotte’s hockey history is also rich, dating to 1956 when the Baltimore Clippers moved their minor league franchise here. Eventually, the Clippers became the Checkers. But the city was without hockey from 1979 until 1993, when Carl Scheer and Felix Sabates reincarnated the Checkers. The pair sold the team to a minority partner who, in turn, sold it to George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge, owners of the former Charlotte Hornets in the National Basketball Association. In 2002, Scheer and Sabates repurchased the team. They moved it into Bobcats Arena for the 2005-06 season.

The team’s financial troubles had them thinking of shutting it down, but they ultimately sold it to Kahn for an estimated $1.5 to $2 million dollars. 

Scheer, whom Kahn retained as a special consultant to the team, likes what he sees in the Checkers’ new owner. He calls Kahn “a terrific leader.”

 “I didn’t know Michael before he bought the team,” Scheer says. “He’s very down-to-earth, a solid businessman and modest and humble about his accomplishments, which are considerable. This young man is going to make his mark in Charlotte.”

Kahn says he considered buying the Checkers in 2002, but decided he needed to spend more time on his business. “Now I’m a little more settled,” he says. “The company is running well. I don’t have to be as hands-on as I used to be.”

 

Concentrating On Hockey

That means he can concentrate on hockey, a sport that appeals to him for its speed and for the dexterity of players who compete on ice skates with blades no more than a quarter of an inch thick.

Kahn took over a team that lost $500,000 last season although its average attendance of 5,800 was fourth highest in the 26-team East Coast Hockey League. The move to the uptown arena helped to increase attendance by 16 percent. Kahn wants to see that average rise to 6,100 or higher this year.

Showing his drive, Kahn says may be the most difficult part of his Checkers association is learning the ropes of selling tickets. Putting aside his experience in an industry and a company that values aggressive sales initiatives, Kahn is coming to terms with the different reality of filling seats.

“It’s not a decision you can push somebody into,” Kahn acknowledges. “It’s entertainment. That’s the toughest thing for me.”

This season, Kahn likes the Checkers’ schedule that includes 18 home matches on Friday and Saturday evenings, the best for attendance. Last year, the team drew four crowds in excess of 10,000 and Kahn thinks the potential is great for more of those nights.

Asked if owning the Checkers is as much fun as he anticipated, Kahn pauses briefly and then explains. “I’ve had to make some tough decisions,” he admits. “The team wasn’t in the best financial shape. We’re trying to restructure some things, dealing with financial problems and moving forward.”

The Checkers will make money, he says, but maybe not this year.

He praises the Charlotte Bobcats management for being open to making changes in the lease under which the Checkers play home games in their center city arena.

Kahn has kept Derek Wilkinson, Checkers coach-general manager, and President Jeff Longo. Both have signed contract extensions through 2009.

He’s impressed with Wilkinson’s hockey connections with the New York Rangers, the NHL team with which the Checkers are affiliated, as well as with the Hartford Wolf Pack, which is the Checkers’ connection to the American Hockey League, a rough equivalent of Triple A baseball.

Longo, he says, “is a tireless worker. My job is to give him the proper tools to make the Checkers successful.”

He looks forward to letting Longo have his head. “At this point, I’m fairly involved in the operations,” Kahn admits, “because of where I want the franchise to go. Because of where we’ve been financially, I’m kind of looking right over his shoulder – a little more so than I hope to in the long run.”

Kahn says he puts in a workweek of about 70 hours. Typically, he devotes a day and a half out of each seven to Checkers matters. But his management of the team stops at the edge of the ice.

From his youth in Atlanta, Kahn recalls when Ted Turner, former owner of Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves, briefly sat on the bench and managed during games.

“I won’t be like Ted Turner,” Kahn chuckles. “I’m not going to kid anybody that I know enough."

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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