New owner, new stadium, new game - but same expectations for some
DAVE STEPHENS / SOUTH BEND TRIBUNE
SOUTH BEND - Just eight days ago, on a cloudy cool Saturday, South Bend Silver Hawks owner Andrew Berlin stood in the Coveleski Stadium concourse and talked about his vision for transforming a minor league baseball game into a community gathering place.
On his left were new seats, waiting to be installed. Above him were empty brackets, waiting to hold new flat-screen TVs that will adorn the walkway. To his right, along the right-field foul line, a new in-park splash pad was waiting for concrete to be poured.
Out behind right field, a new seating area was waiting for a permanent railing to be installed. Beyond left field, he said, new sod was needed to replace the weed-strewn grass. Everywhere, and nearly everything, was coated in a fine layer of dust. Just days before the home opener, and The Cove looked far from fan-ready.
For most people, especially a new team owner who has promised to revitalize baseball and, in the process, South Bend, the unfinished stadium scene could prove almost nerve-wracking.
For Berlin? "I honestly believe everyone here is working as hard as they can, and that’s all that you can ask for," said the Chicago-based Berlin, who was announced as the team's new owner in November, after months of speculation that the team was for sale.
"Come opening day, we'll be ready."
But being ready for fans is one thing. Being ready for the expectations that have built up around the Silver Hawks, The Cove and the long-held promise that both would spark a revival of downtown South Bend is an expectation that many have waited decades to see fulfilled.
So, one day before Coveleski opens for its 25th season of professional baseball, the question remains: Can South Bend's new Mr. Baseball be all that the fans want him to be? More to the point, should he even try?
Stop what you're doing right now and go look in the refrigerator. See that jar of salsa? Those pickles? The peanut butter? Now, go to your medicine cabinet. See that little glass cosmetics case? The plastic pill bottle? The canister of tile scrubber you keep under the sink? Walk around your home. Look at all the stuff you own that comes in a glass or plastic container. Motor oil. Suntan lotion. Laundry detergent.
What you don't see, what you probably didn’t realize, is behind all the products we buy is someone else, selling us the package that it comes in.
Often, that person is Andrew Berlin.
Berlin, the president and CEO of Chicago-based Berlin Packaging, describes his company as a supplier of rigid packaging products and services — more broadly defined as glass and plastic bottles, jars and other containers. Currently, Berlin said, his company's catalog consists of more than 35,000 items.
Last year, Berlin Packaging topped more than $700 million in revenue, and has grown by double-digit sales increases for much of its 24-year history. But Berlin's success isn’t based solely on new packaging inventions or rapid changes in technology that have allowed his company to out-compete others.
Just 24 years ago, before Berlin Packaging was founded by Andrew and his father through the purchase of another packaging company, Andrew Berlin was a lawyer, two years out of Loyola University of Chicago Law School, bored with working for other people.
"I miss zero," Berlin told the Chicago Tribune in 1992, four years after quitting his job with a law firm to start Berlin Packaging. “In litigation there was always a problem. Clients came to you because they're going to be sued, they want to sue or they’re being sued. You're dealing with problems all day long.”
But it's not that Berlin dislikes problems. He just likes coming up with solutions no one else has thought of yet.
We hear a lot of criticism of efforts to improve the downtown. But what would it be if foresighted government and business leaders had not pushed for Century Center and the Marriott Hotel …
The southwest section of downtown has had the least done for it. This is where Coveleski Stadium is planned …
An economic impact study indicates benefits from the stadium would “more than offset attendant costs” …
Working dreams abound in the downtown. The southwest corner needs one. Let's go for it.
— South Bend Tribune editorial, May 19, 1985.
Last month, in a downtown hotel conference room, Berlin and team president Joe Hart hosted the first "Silver Hawks town hall meeting" where people could ask questions and express concerns about the game-day experience.
Mostly the talk focused on new construction at the stadium — Berlin has invested $2.25 million into stadium improvements this year, with the city adding about $1.75 million, in addition to the $7 million it spent last year — and on the promotions that will be used to lure visitors to The Cove.
But halfway through the talk, the question was asked:
"You talk about how The Cove will bring economic development to the area around it, but we've been hearing that argument for 25 years, and there are less buildings in that corner of downtown now then there ever have been. Why should we believe you’re going to do anything differently?"
The question came from a baseball fan, but it may as well come from thousands of other South Bend residents who have looked skeptically on the idea of sports as an economic engine ever since the stadium was first proposed.
Berlin hears the skeptics, too. He sees their comments posted on websites, he knows the history — both at the stadium, and of the surrounding area. Berlin said he's had assurances from police about additional security on game nights. He's working with Downtown South Bend to find ways to connect the dining district with the stadium.
But Berlin firmly believes that the best thing he can do to improve downtown — and the city as a whole — is to make Coveleski Stadium the entertainment venue of choice not just for the city, but for the region.
Berlin makes no effort to hide the fact that his main goal in owning the Silver Hawks is to make money.
Even though he's sunk millions into construction and more money in advertisement, new promotions and new hires, Berlin fully expects a return on his investment in South Bend.
"But to do that, we need to fill the seats each and every night,” he said. And to do that, he's willing to invest in new promotions — like giving away a flat-screen TV every inning during Friday night games — and in new ideas, such as creating a gift shop that will be open even when the stadium isn’t.
Berlin's promised upgrades in food and has created premium spaces, such as outdoor suites, that he hopes will attract high-end clients.
The goal, Berlin said, is to attract both the family on a budget and the corporate executive looking to woo new clients. And if 5,000 fans are regularly trekking to The Cove each game night — last year's attendance was 1,762 per game, fourth-worst in the 16-team Midwest League — Berlin said other businesses would be foolish not to follow.
"I like looking at things and trying to improve on them," Berlin said. "I like creating jobs … not by simply spending money, but by helping a company to be successful. And by building a good business and creating growth, creating jobs, that's part of what it means to be a good citizen.”
As a child growing up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, Berlin should have grown up a Cubs fan. But, in the 1960s and '70s, the Cubs only played home games during the day, since Wrigley Field had no lights. For the son of a steel industry executive who worked long days, the White Sox became a way for father and son to bond.
"He'd come home, and then we'd go to the ballpark," Berlin said. "That's where it began.”
A week ago, amid the construction scene that was The Cove, Berlin stood on the field and was interviewed as his two sons, ages 5 and 7, chased a soccer ball across the field.
A family man — he also has three daughters who are college-age and older — Berlin understands baseball for exactly what it is: A game played outdoors, in nice weather and with no time clock, where people can bond with each other and the team.
Beyond making money, Berlin says his second goal for owning the Silver Hawks is to "have fun" — both for the fans, and for himself.
"Fans have their own way of measuring value," Berlin said. "And they will come here if they feel that they will have more fun here than they will by spending their time and money somewhere else."
And for Berlin, understanding that human element — what people value and what they're willing to sacrifice to obtain those things — translates far beyond a family baseball outing.
In 1988, after leaving the legal world to go into the packaging business with his father, Berlin quickly learned that one of the most important elements of any business is its people.
In a 2005 column written by Berlin for the Chicago Tribune's business section, Berlin said he initially believed hiring employees from A-list schools and large corporations was the key to success.
But that didn't always work out, Berlin wrote:
"One executive I hired came from a mega-firm that sold to the same kinds of customers we did. It turned out that his pedigree had not only given him all of the skills he claimed on his résumé, but also all the big-company behaviors that had been bogging us down."
Instead, Berlin said he began looking for people who were passionate "go-getters" and were accustomed to working hands-on to solve a problem. As part of that effort, he developed a "psychological contract" between the company and its employees, outlining what each should expect of the other.
The company, Berlin believes, owes the employee rewards, a chance to grow, job security, leadership and training.
The employee, in return, owes the company productivity, profitability, loyalty, teamwork, work ethic and innovation.
Berlin Packaging's contract has been written about in books and business publications, and remains a part of the company today — allowing the company to retain good people, who believe their work and innovation will be rewarded.
That innovation and teamwork has grown to the point that Berlin said his company's goal is not to simply provide a product, but to maximize their customers’ profitability. The difference, Berlin said, is partnering with a company to build a business versus simply being a part of a business’ supply chain.
"We try to make a quantifiable measure of how much more our customers can make if they partner with us," Berlin said, "instead of just focusing on ourselves."
In other words, to be successful in Berlin's view means more than just the bottom line — it’s also about building value and creating a relationship that thrives long after the initial deal is done.
So what does all this mean for Berlin, the Silver Hawks and South Bend as a whole? Answers to many of those questions remain to be seen.
Craig Wieczorkiewcz, who runs a blog about the Midwest League and is about to publish a book about his travels to all 16 league stadiums last year, said he believes there's a sense of excitement this year about the Silver Hawks that wasn’t present in recent years.
"You hear about some of the promotions, like 'Flat Screen Fridays' and you think 'that's a great idea,’” Wieczorkiewcz said. "If I lived in South Bend, I would probably go to every Friday game just for the chance to win a TV.”
But buzz alone won't reinvigorate downtown.
Berlin, in a line he's borrowed from Disney, said he's taken to calling the staff at The Cove "cast members" and that this summer they have a roughly 350-hour performance to win the hearts and minds of the region’s fans. That means the stadium has to be clean and welcoming. The food good. The atmosphere both fun and exciting.
"We call it aggressive hospitality," Berlin said.
Beyond that though, are the bigger questions. If people come to the game, will they benefit downtown? Will they come back? Will it spark the revival long-sought and longer promised? Will it quiet the doubters?
Lou Pierce, who runs the South Bend-based Big Idea Company, a marketing and promotional firm that helps promote the Silver Hawks, said he's been impressed with Berlin’s openness and honesty, especially considering the packaging CEO isn't typically in the media spotlight.
"That's rare," Pierce said.
Berlin said he's had to learn to ignore whiners focused on past mistakes and issues — but he's more than willing to hear from anyone focused on improving the organization.
"My e-mail address is on the Silver Hawks website," Berlin said. "I want to be available to the fans."
As to the bigger questions, Berlin said the main thing he can do is to focus on making the Silver Hawks and Coveleski a destination too good to ignore — a promise he plans to keep.
"Does it keep me up at nights? Absolutely," Berlin said. "I don’t want to disappoint anyone. I want to see this succeed, and I know that will."
What makes a Chicago millionaire invest in small-market team with declining attendance and a sometimes skeptical public?
Berlin said part of it's the love of baseball, part of it’s the love of creating a thriving business.
And part of his desire dates back to those long-ago games under the lights with his father in old Comiskey Stadium. Someday, Berlin said, he'd like to be the owner of a Major League baseball team. He'd like to be involved in deals for players; he'd like to become a part of the inner circle of the game he’s loved since childhood.
Already a limited-partner in the White Sox, Berlin said buying the Silver Hawks makes perfect sense for a Chicagoan trying to learn the business.
If he can succeed in South Bend, he hopes it shows a commitment to succeeding in the Major Leagues as well.
So the Silver Hawks, Berlin hopes, could just be the first steps in a much longer race he's been dreaming about since childhood. For Berlin, like the Silver Hawks themselves, tomorrow really is just opening day.