Being a woman in a male-dominated field can be difficult. But when you are running a multi-million dollar franchise in the American football market, a woman’s actions can be judged even more. For Susan, it took an old saying in order to stand her ground as a woman in a man’s world – the way to a man’s heart, and his acceptance, is through his stomach.
By Susan Spencer
There are times in one’s life when you get an incredible opportunity to prove to others that you are smart, professional, and unflappable. This was one of those times.
After graduating college, I taught junior high school for five years, had a child, left my husband, started a business, and in my late thirties graduated law school. Having been away from my home town since college, Villanova Law School brought me back to Philadelphia. Once I graduated law school, I divided my professional time: working as a corporate lawyer with a Philadelphia law firm and as the attorney for Philadelphia Eagles.
My dad owned the Philadelphia Eagles and hired me as the team’s lawyer (replacing the services of a very expensive Philadelphia law firm) because my rate was a real bargain. I jumped at the chance to represent the team because I considered this an opportunity of a lifetime.
During my first two years at the Eagles, I began looking into the team’s contracts and financial records and made it a point to report my observations to my father—even though he always seemed disinterested. One day, out of the blue—without any advance notice, my dad fired the team’s General Manager. He then called me in to his office and told me to fire the rest of the GM’s staff.
So here I was, the acting GM of the Philadelphia Eagles and running the day-to-day team business. My position was never made public, however, and would never be made official because my father wasn’t comfortable having a woman at the helm. To him, and many men of his generation, women belonged at home taking care of the house and children.
So why did he hire me? Because I was in the right place at the right time and all else being equal, family generally trumps strangers.
My new position gave me the chance to run a multimillion-dollar business and to demonstrate that I could successfully manage the organization as a businesswoman, and make the team profitable.
Like my father, the team always traveled in style. When they played on the road, in a city more than a few hours away from Philadelphia by bus—about five times during the regular season—they traveled on a jumbo jet. This luxury plane could fly nonstop from Philadelphia to California and carried not only the coaches and players but also members of the press and numerous friends of friends. Sure, it was nice . . . but it was a huge expense that the Eagles could ill afford.
One of the first financial cuts I made as acting GM was to contract with a smaller, regional carrier for a plane whose size would accommodate only team personnel.
Saving money was a new concept to the players, who assumed that sports teams had unlimited budgets when it came to spending money on them. They quickly learned that the “sky” was not the limit and that cutting expenses would become the new norm. They grumbled unhappily as they climbed aboard the small plane for the first time. But their displeasure was nothing compared to my father’s.
“You’re embarrassing me!” he muttered under his breath as he settled into his seat next to me on the first flight, which was destined for San Diego. I knew there was nothing I could say or do to console him, so I kept my mouth shut, my eyes straight ahead, and waited for the next shoe to drop . . . which it did, a few hours into the flight, when the plane began its descent over North Dakota to refuel.
“What the hell is this?!” my father roared, his outrage echoing among the rest of the passengers.
Once the plane was on the ground, the team was instructed to deplane and wait in the small airport lounge, where they could stretch their legs and make phone calls. Their grumbling leaving the plane was even louder than it had been boarding the plane. I dared not look at my father, whose slow burn was about to explode into a wildfire.
As I left the plane, I didn’t head for the lounge but stayed nearby, waiting to pull the rabbit out of my hat: carts filled with large cartons of Baskin-Robbins ice cream, oozing containers of hot fudge, and bowls full of bananas, whipped cream, sprinkles, nuts, and more were wheeled up to the plane’s steps. When everyone returned to the plane and saw the sweet extravaganza before them, they started hooting and applauding loudly. Giant scoops of ice cream and toppings were shoveled into large plastic bowls and carried onboard. Fifteen minutes later, the plane took off… and everyone was smiling.
If I had told my father or any of the coaches or players that I was going to trade their jumbo jet for a jumbo ice cream sundae*, they would have laughed in my face.
Yes, a spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down, and yes, the way to a man’s heart is often through his stomach—old sayings familiar to everyone. But women take them seriously, which is why this creative idea could only have come from a woman.
Not every change I made as acting general manager went over as well. I raised ticket prices for the first time in six years gaining the enmity of most hard-core fans. When I replaced the jumbo jet with a smaller plane the press could not hop a free ride on the team plane. That, combined with a necessary cost-saving move to serve hot dogs in place of filet mignon at press luncheons held at the Eagle’s stadium (Veteran’s Stadium), earned me a new media title—“The Wicked Witch of the Vet.”
Looking back now, it’s comical, but at the time, it was very hurtful.
When you hang in there and maintain your professionalism—despite the personal attacks, it becomes a real blessing in the long run. You realize that no matter what else is thrown at you—you have the inner strength to shake it off. This awareness fills you with a new-found confidence in your skills and talents.
A year later the Eagles were sold and I left the world of football. I finally found my calling in the food business. For twenty years, as an entrepreneur, I bought and sold companies and never looked back.
See how Susan answers the Identity Five Questions:
What have you accepted within yourself and/or within your life? Is there anything you are working on accepting?
Learning to have the confidence in my skills and talents.
What do you appreciate about yourself or your life?
Being blessed with a wonderful husband(3rd try), daughter, and grandchildren in my life.
What have you achieved, or what are you working to achieve personally, physically, or mentally?
Surviving and succeeding in male-dominated industries during my career and being able to have a book published about them.
What is your not-so-perfect way?
How would you complete the phrase “I Love My…?”
…freedom to pursue my passion, helping women realize their unique and special skills.
Susan T. Spencer is an entrepreneur, award-winning author of BriefcaseEssentials, lawyer, and former minority owner, GM and VP of the Philadelphia Eagles Football Franchise. Spencer has spent the last 25 years owning and running her own companies in exclusively male dominated industries after turning her back on the “corporate world.” Her stories and examples are authentic, and her advice for women in business, who own a company, or who are thinking about starting a business is direct, practical, pioneering, and barrier breaking. Spencer attended Boston University. She later received her MA in Education/Economics from Hofstra University and received her law degree from Villanova University. Susan can be reached at SUSANTSPENCER1@aol.com.
*The ice cream sundae story described above is an excerpt from Briefcase Essentials, Copyright@ 2011 Susan T. Spencer