The White Sox investor who's all in with the Cubs
CRAIN'S CHICAGO BUSINESS / DANNY ECKER
Walking into Andrew Berlin's West Loop office, you wouldn't think the CEO of Berlin Packaging LLC had just done a major business deal with the Chicago Cubs.
Just outside the elevator, a Chicago White Sox logo greets all lobby visitors to the corporate office of the nearly $800 million container and closure company. To the right: a glass-encased American flag mural made of 260 baseballs, with one in the lower right corner signed by former Sox outfielder and 1983 Rookie of the Year Ron Kittle.
Turn a couple of corners and there's a framed Jermaine Dye White Sox jersey just before you reach Mr. Berlin's personal office — a workspace engulfed in Sox memorabilia, including a bench made of baseball bats, also a gift from Mr. Kittle.
You can't blame the 54-year-old limited partner of the White Sox franchise for his passion. But he now has a big stake on the north side of town, too.
A few weeks ago Mr. Berlin, owner of a minor league baseball franchise in South Bend, Indiana, announced a landmark four-year deal to be the Single-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs.
The deal was a benchmark of progress since Mr. Berlin bought the struggling franchise in 2011 and a coup for a burgeoning minor league team looking to revitalize its brand, but it also put baseball-batty Mr. Berlin in a unique position investing in both sides of town.
"If (the Cubs and White Sox) met in the World Series, I'd be a very happy man," said Mr. Berlin, who grew up a Cubs fan in suburban Chicago.
His dual interests aren't without some barriers to keep them from conflicting. As a limited partner of the White Sox who purchased a minority stake in the team in 2007, Mr. Berlin isn't sitting in on the team's day-to-day business or baseball meetings. He has no voice in Chisox Corp., the controlling entity of the White Sox led by Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.
And owning the franchise to which the Cubs will send young prospects makes him but a small cog in the baseball machine being built by Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein.
"I'm helping the Cubs in the sense that I'm going to take very, very good care of their very important human assets that they send to me every summer," said Mr. Berlin, who spends less than 10 percent of his time on baseball business. "And if I can say that my investor dollars helped get the White Sox back to the World Series, that would be great, too."
His five children are split on the issue. His three 20-something daughters "cut their teeth" on the Cubs teams of the 1990s and early 2000s and still support the North Siders, while his two young sons (ages 8 and 6) from his second marriage have been all about the Sox thanks to perks from their dad's investment in the team.
Also, while his office remains a shrine to the Sox, he's going all in with the Cubs in South Bend, even changing the name of the franchise from the South Bend Silver Hawks to the South Bend Cubs and adopting the "C" and "Cubbie Bear" logos.
But the franchise, which had been affiliated with the White Sox from 1988 to 1996 before partnering with MLB's Arizona Diamondbacks from 1997 to 2014, will still keep a tribute Sox flag on display as a nod to franchise history.
"I want both (teams) to win," he says. "Because one is National League and one is American League, I can root for both to win the pennant and not be in conflict."
ON REBUILDING HIS FRANCHISE
Mr. Berlin says he has plowed roughly $8 million into the South Bend franchise since purchasing the team, most of which went to upgrading facilities and adding things like more suites, a picnic area and a large family entertainment area beyond the left field fence with giant inflatable toys.
But he's also spent a significant portion on improving customer service — with an emphasis on the smallest details.
He worked with the city of South Bend to change directions of streets and improve signage to improve traffic flow into the parking lot at Four Winds Field to alleviate congestion.
When cars pull into the parking lot, he stations "really pleasant, attractive people" to collect the parking fee and redirected the smell of cooking food from the ballpark out toward the exterior walkways.
He bought a fleet of new golf carts to help elderly and pregnant patrons from their cars to the entrance and had all employees review a three-minute video on how to clean toilets, emphasizing the importance of clean bathrooms inside the park. All of the bathrooms also include attendants in tuxedo shirts.
Some of the additions are particularly subtle, like spraying the team's mascot with a cotton candy-scented cologne.
He followed what surveys told him when it came to common fan amenities like music and food.
Citing a poll of the Sports Writers of America that awarded Boston's Fenway Park as the home of the best hot dog in Major League Baseball, Mr. Berlin has all of the South Bend franchise's franks shipped in from Massachusetts.
Same with the music played at South Bend games, which is most hits of the 1960's and 1970's because of a poll that ranked such tunes at Oakland Athletics games as the best in the big leagues.
The goal with all of the tweaks is singular: hit patrons over the head with customer service so much that they're compelled to promote the team to friends.
All the investments have paid off in the form of a 140 percent increase in attendance at the ballpark since 2011 and turning the franchise profitable, though Mr. Berlin declines to disclose its annual revenue.
But it was improvements on the baseball facilities side that won over the Cubs, which was a prime target for Mr. Berlin given a high number of Cubs fans in the South Bend and Michiana area.
This offseason, the artificial turf is being removed at Four Winds Field in favor of natural grass, which the Cubs (and most teams) use and prefer for their prospects. Mr. Berlin is also having a state-of-the-art "baseball performance center" built beyond the right field fence — dubbed the "Cubs Cage" that will feature six batting tunnels, a fitness center and new video equipment.
"South Bend provides exactly what we were looking for both as a community and as a farm club," Mr. Epstein said last month in explaining why the Cubs chose to go into business with Mr. Berlin. Renovations to date and Mr. Berlin's plans for the future, he said, "will make a profound difference for our prospects."
ON WHITE SOX ATTENDANCE
Aside from his work in South Bend, the consummate minor league marketer also has strong opinions about how to turn around the White Sox's troubling attendance slide.
The South Siders have sold fewer tickets for eight straight seasons and finished the 2014 season with the third-lowest paid attendance in Major League Baseball and the fewest tickets sold at the Cell since 1999.
Despite dramatic cuts over the past two years to bring down the average ticket price below the MLB average, the team's attendance is down 26 percent since 2010, while league-wide attendance over that period is slightly up.
One issue, Mr. Berlin says, is that the team is marketed for its product on the field while fans have proven that they won't necessarily come out for a winning team. The Sox spent 126 days in first place in the AL Central two years ago, for example, but still struggled to reach capacity crowds.
"I think the White Sox are fantastic in honoring the heritage and history of baseball and the purity of baseball," he said. "But unfortunately there are two generations of fans that don't care as much about baseball purity as they used to. They care about being engaged."
Pointing to his experience promoting the South Bend Cubs as well as the "party" at Wrigley Field for Cubs games for which people often show up for regardless of the team's play, Mr. Berlin advocates for more "quirky and fun" happenings around the stadium during Sox games.
"The marketing has to focus on the fact that there's a party going on at U.S. Cellular Field, too — you just may not have known about it," he says.
Of course, his suggestions are just that — he doesn't have a seat at the Sox's marketing table. But he could be in line to make those calls in the future.
Mr. Berlin has publicly expressed his interest in owning a Major League Baseball franchise, and he's an obvious candidate to purchase the White Sox if Mr. Reinsdorf's recommendation that his sons sell the franchise after he's gone comes to fruition.
Says Mr. Berlin: "The White Sox know of my interest."