Talk about humble beginnings. Russell Wallach began his career selling tickets for a basketball team and at age 47 has wound up as president of Live Nation Network, overseeing 200 people running multimillion-dollar entertainment sponsorship programs for brands such as Citigroup, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch InBev and Starwood Hotels.
He got there by remaining focused on what he loves to do and taking advantage of changes around him. After selling tickets for the Phoenix Suns, he sold tickets for the Chicago Cubs minor league baseball team, then got a sales job at ProServ, a leading sports marketing and management company. Over the next 20 years, Wallach went through two acquisitions, a spinoff and another merger. Today, Live Nation Network is the sponsorship division of Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Live Nation Entertainment, a $5.4 billion entertainment and marketing company formed through a 2010 merger with Ticketmaster.
FINS talked to the Forest Hills, Queens native and 1987 graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst about switching from sports to music marketing and how to play the politics of mergers and acquisitions well enough to keep moving upward.
Damian Ghigliotty: What was your first job out of college?
Russell Wallach: After graduating from college I packed the car and moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where I got a job selling tickets for the Phoenix Suns. I did that for a while and then packed up the car again and drove to Dallas and got a job in minor league baseball working in Charleston, W.Va., for the Chicago Cubs minor league team selling advertising and sponsorships.
DG: What did those jobs lead to?
RW: In 1989 I got a job with ProServ, which was one of the leading sports marketing and management companies in the world at that time. They represented the biggest athletes around the globe from Michael Jordan to Andre Agassi. I started off doing sponsorship sales in their events business where I was selling sponsorships for tennis events and cycling events, college basketball events, pro beach volleyball events, among others. One of my jobs at ProServ became selling pro sports naming rights.
DG: How did you make the transition from sports sponsorship to marketing through music and entertainment?
RW: I was in sports marketing and sales for over 10 years. Then in 1999 ProServ was acquired by SFX, which was a roll-up of a number of sports marketing companies as well as a number of music promotion companies. I started to see that music and live entertainment was more of a focus for the company than its sports business, so I saw an opportunity to take my knowledge, experience and business relationships and transfer that over to music and live entertainment. I did that in 2000.
DG: Where did that take you?
RW: My close colleagues and I created a new area in the business to sell national sponsorships in the music space as a one-stop shop, as opposed to having to having to go to different places for different sponsorships. We started with a team of four to five people focused on building up our infrastructure, bringing on more strategic sales people and developing deeper relationships with our clients and brands.
As we were working on that, there were additional acquisitions and new properties created and we later saw an opportunity to combine our local sales force with our national sales force, which allowed us to work on big national strategic deals for top brands such as Coca-Cola and Anheuser-Busch and execute them locally. That was really unique to our business.
DG: Through all of the acquisitions, mergers and the later spinoff from Clear Channel, how were you able to move up through the entertainment sponsorship business you joined in 2001?
RW: It was a combination of staying focused on what I was doing in my part of the business and staying out of the politics as those consolidations were happening. My colleagues and I also built a fantastic team, which has continued to drive revenue for the company. The great thing is that my entire senior management team has been with me for eight plus years. Some of us have been working together for more than 10 years. We've grown up in the business together.
DG: When you say "staying out of the politics," what do you mean?
RW: I kept my head down when it came to the top-level negotiations and made sure that we delivered our revenue numbers, continued to build our team and continued to support the other divisions. My philosophy has always been that if you stay focused on your part of the business and do the right thing every day good things often come of it. It hasn't been that way for everyone in other companies, so I've been fortunate.
DG: Were you ever worried that throughout all of the changes you might get cut in the shuffle?
RW: It was never a real concern for me or my team. We were very confident in what we were accomplishing and we knew that we were the experts within our area of the company. You can't worry about the things that you can't control.
DG: How did you move up from being a senior sales guy to becoming president of your division, Live Nation Network, in 2008?
RW: My colleagues and I built a team and brought in experts from a marketing, promotion and execution standpoint that made our team even better. The team we put together continued to drive growth with more clients and created new marketing programs. I was fortunate that our CEO Michael Rapino had the confidence in me to give me the opportunity and resources to run the division. As a sales person I needed to understand every part of the business. That, combined with my ability to build a great team, helped me move up through the organization.
DG: What are your biggest accomplishments?
RW: Three years ago we had no digital sales team and no real digital assets. We now have about 20 people in our digital media business across online, mobile and social.
The other big thing for me has been holding on to my senior team and the team below them. They all have enough passion for the business to stay on board for so long. I interview people all the time and, in this day and age especially, people jump around from job to job quite a bit. I understand why and that makes it all the more exciting for me to see the same faces over the years.
DG: What has been the biggest challenge or fear for you?
RW: The biggest challenge for me has been managing through all of the change, having been through so many mergers and acquisitions. I never worried about losing my position, but with each change I would always wonder if I might suddenly wake up one day and no longer feel excited about what I'm doing. That's the part that can be the most unsettling. You can have the confidence that you can do the job and the confidence in your team, but will you still wake up and feel that same passion? The day that I'm no longer excited about working the long hours and being on planes two to three days a week, is the day that I'll likely want to go do something else.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Wallach began his career selling tickets for a baseball team. He in fact began his career selling tickets for the Phoenix Suns, a basketball team. FINS regrets the error.
Write to Damian Ghigliotty at Damian.Ghigliotty@dowjones.com