By Brendan King / South Bend Cubs
In the first six years of his ownership, Andrew Berlin and his staff have turned the South Bend baseball franchise from a rustbelt dud to Minor League gold standard.
The story of how the Chairman and CEO of Berlin Packaging acquired the team has been well documented, including the date down to the minute (November 11, 2011 at 11:11am). But what was the secret ingredient that brought new life into a historical ballpark and baseball team that had lost its identity?
“I really had the itch to buy a Major League team, but I wanted to stay in the Central Division,” Berlin said when asked why he bought the South Bend Silver Hawks. “Unfortunately, no team was for sale, so I turned my attention then to the Minor Leagues. Thankfully at the time, the Silver Hawks were for sale.”
Berlin knew he needed help along the way. Not long after he began his search for a eam president, one candidate jumped to the top of his list. After a five-hour meeting, Berlin hired Joe Hart.
“The franchise at the time was less stable than I thought it would be,” Hart said. “My last team in Port Charlotte, Florida was a brand-new organization. I think coming here to South Bend and completely overhauling things here was harder than starting the team in Port Charlotte.”
In order to plan well for the future, Hart took an in-depth look at the past.
Hart knew the South Bend franchise had been extremely successful in the past. Starting in 1988 as the Midwest League affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, the team was a hit among locals, drawing an average of 250,000 fans each season. South Bend has always been known for college sports with the University of Notre Dame. However, professional sports were new on the scene in the late ’80s. Looking back at the numbers, Hart found that baseball fans in South Bend were present, but the ballpark amenities and experiences were not up to par.
“We immediately joined every chamber of commerce within 60 miles of the ballpark,” Hart said. “As much as I wanted the public to come to the ballpark in the first season, people needed to know that we were making much needed upgrades, listening to their concerns about the facility and amenities, and we had to gain their trust.”
Patience became a virtue for the Silver Hawks staff in year one. They made big promises and had to deliver. The organization knew they were on the right track when their Net Promotor Score (NPS) rating came in.
“The NPS surveys we conduct at the end of every season is a great barometer for how we are doing as a club,” said Hart. “This score tells us how likely fans will recommend us to their family and friends.”
At the end of the 2011 season, South Bend received an 11 percent favorable outcome on their NPS rating, which can range from -100 to +100. After 2012, it jumped to 61 percent favorable. 61 turned to 73, and 73 became 80.
The Silver Hawks knew they were in business.
Building the Staff
After year one, Berlin and Hart’s next step of the plan started with building and revitalizing the front office staff with capable and passionate baseball minds. Adding the likes of Nick Brown as Vice President, Andy Beuster as an Assistant General Manager, and Nick Barkley as the Director of Food Services gave South Bend a concrete base that set up for a bright future.
“Revitalizing the front office staff was an important step for us,” Hart said. “We needed to bring in individuals with the same mindset and same beliefs.”
Just as Berlin did with Hart, the new front office was carefully selected with qualified people who were up to the challenge. The task at hand was to transform the ballpark physically, but the park needed to be more attractive for both fan experience and monetary reasons. With the additions of the splash pad, the tiki hut, and plenty of new food options across the concourse, Four Winds Field has become a destination for baseball fans from across the country.
“We needed to improve everything,” Berlin said. “From the cleanliness, to infrastructure, quality of food, sponsorship, merchandise… everything needed an upgrade.”
As the franchise made these massive improvements, the fan base in South Bend grew at a rapid pace.
“Our last year as the Silver Hawks in 2014, we drew over 258,000 fans to the ballpark,” Hart said. “The fans were beginning to realize that Four Winds Field was not just about baseball, but it was a 9-inning vacation, a destination for fun and entertainment.”
Go Cubs Go
According to Berlin, the biggest accomplishment to date started with bringing in the Chicago Cubs to South Bend. When Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer first visited Four Winds Field, Berlin took them around the ballpark; selling them on the South Bend brand, and eventually convincing them that the road to the World Series can and will start in South Bend. The Silver Hawks became the South Bend Cubs on September 25, 2014, a monumental achievement for the franchise.
It did not come easy, however, to bring the Cubs to South Bend. Berlin needed to invest more.
With the creation of the 1st Source Bank Performance Center in right field, any and all Chicago Cub prospects who come through South Bend will receive the best possible care and training equipment in order for them to advance through the Minor League system. Whether it is a hot dog or the playing surface itself, Berlin committed to using only the highest quality substances available.
“We invested millions into building the performance center in right field, an aspect that no other minor league team has at any level,” Berlin said. “We also didn’t have a great playing surface when I got here, so we contracted with Roger Bossard, the Head Groundskeeper with the Chicago White Sox. We had him come out here to do his one and only Minor League baseball field.”
The arrival of the Cubs changed the complexion of South Bend Baseball forever. Not only was it a smart relationship for both sides, but according to Hart, the South Bend brand is stronger than ever.
“Our first year as the South Bend Cubs in 2015, our merchandise sales went up 700%,” Hart said. “One time we had to shut down the office and have everyone here packing and sending out online orders.”
The concept of top notch customer service goes well beyond the ballpark for Hart. With the merchandise boom, Hart saw an opportunity to create a lifelong fan. A fan from San Diego purchased new South Bend merchandise. At the time, the South Bend Cubs Front Office was in San Diego for the 2014 Winter Meetings. Hart and staff decided to hand deliver the package to the fan.
“On behalf of the South Bend Cubs, thank you for your purchase,” Hart said at the front door.
What’s Happening Today
Berlin and his staff preach the “pleased but never satisfied” approach. Their daily mindset of never settling for less than 100 percent can start with the simplest of duties, like prioritizing the cleanliness of bathrooms around the park. With everyone in the organization prioritizing the importance of hard work and dedication, the results continue to show.
As a result of their hard work and success, the organization was awarded the John H. Johnson President’s Award in 2015, Minor League Baseball’s highest honor. The President’s Award is presented annually to the most complete baseball franchise.
Even with the high-level accolades, the organization is still hungry for success.
“I think I’ve been happiest with fans coming to the park and enjoying themselves,” Hart said. “When attendance grows, people have fun. Cubs fans around South Bend know the Minor League system and truly care about the team and players. It’s been a tremendous change.”
As Berlin stands against the windows in the Pepsi Stadium Club and glances at the construction of The Ivy at Berlin Place, his focus is on the future. He knows what this area looked like seven years ago, and he reminds himself of why he is so dedicated to the growth of not only baseball in South Bend, but also the community itself.
“Our greatest achievement was turning the team around and building an amazing group of people,” Berlin said. “But getting the Chicago Cubs to come here had a catalyst effect on the entire community. That’s what is so wonderful about baseball and sports. When done right, it has an economic and positive impact on a community. We’ve seen that in spades here in South Bend.”