In On the Games

In On the Games

Three local businesswomen will be at this year's Winter Olympics. They're competitors in both sport and work.

The Olympics are big business. NBC paid $820 million for the rights to telecast the upcoming Vancouver Winter Games, which take place February 12 through 28. Nine international sponsors dished out a total of another $900 million to the International Olympic Committee for, among other things, the right to place the valued five rings before the eyeballs of as many potential vendors and consumers as possible.

Then there are the athletes and sports organization executives who bring their own corporate savvy to the games. Included among them are three high-powered Minnesota businesswomen.

Olympic curler Allison Pottinger is a General Mills marketing analyst. U.S. Figure Skating Association President Patricia St. Peter is a nationally sought-after attorney. Four-time Olympic hockey player Angela Ruggiero is an entrepreneurial-minded graduate student at the University of Minnesota.

And all are headed to Vancouver in February.


Pricing and Curling

Allison Pottinger
General Mills Consumer Insights researcher Allison Pottinger

From her cubicle at General Mills’ Golden Valley headquarters, Allison Pottinger lays out the guidelines for determining Yoplait yogurt’s pricing levers. “What is our competition doing? What are the current trends in the economy?” says Pottinger, an MBA and a senior associate in General Mills’ Consumer Insights department.

Pottinger’s fourth-floor work space is easy to pick out. On the corner of her desk is a miniature, plastic curling circle with three yellow and three red curling stones sitting atop it. She’s a member of the 2010 U.S. women’s curling team. Yes, curling—that sport of whisking brooms and 42-pound granite stones that slide down a narrow 150-foot ice rink. It’s a game with a cigar-smoking, beer-drinking, neighborhoody image. But it’s serious business to Pottinger, and to her competition.

“I don’t really know how many people in the building know that I curl and at this level,” says Pottinger, who happens to be the winningest curler in U.S. women’s history, with eight national titles. “My two worlds haven’t had to combat with each other. They’ve lived together forever.”

A native Canadian who moved at age 18 when her father took a job in Wisconsin, Pottinger came to Minnesota in 1999 to take a job with Nielsen Research. Two years later, she joined General Mills. Now 36, she’s been curling since she was 12.

During the run-up to Vancouver, Pottinger has traveled to Switzerland, Scotland, and Canada; she’s also appeared on NBC’s Today show. After each journey, it’s back to Minnesota. Up at 5 a.m. in her Eden Prairie home, she jumps onto the treadmill, then showers, breakfasts, and gets her two daughters, Lauren, 3, and Kelsey, 1, off to day care. She’s in the office by 7:30, and then out of the office by 4:15 to pick up the girls. Her husband, Doug Pottinger, a regional sales manager for an agricultural equipment company, is central to the routine, which includes putting the girls to bed at 8:30, and then figuring out what happened that day and what’s on the agenda for tomorrow. Lights are out by 10:30.

A key to Pottinger’s success is General Mills’ commitment to flexible work schedules and vacation variations. Her curling “requires her to be more organized and on top of what she has to do,” Senior Consumer Insights Manager Sara Ashman notes. “General Mills has a great sense of support around work and life balance. We wanted to come up with a win-win plan for her.”

Pottinger has “bought” some vacation time, during which she’s off but not paid. She’s worked out arrangements to fire up her laptop and work from her hotel room in places such as Zurich. She’s packaged some leave-of-absence time, too.

During the Winter Olympics, television sets will be tuned in on General Mills’s fourth floor when the USA curling team takes to the ice. “It’s not every day that you get to work beside an Olympian,” Ashman notes.


Skater and Litigator

If any legal kerfuffles were to emerge in Vancouver, Pat St. Peter would be more than qualified to handle them. She’s accustomed to being in the middle of complex problems that far outweigh the tabloid battles of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, or the periodic figure-skating judging scandals.

An attorney for the Minneapolis firm Zelle Hofmann Voelbel & Mason, which specializes in litigation, St. Peter describes her work as “high-stakes, multiple-parties, multiple-locations-of-the-evidence, complex litigation involving catastrophic events.” The South St. Paul native has handled disastrous food contamination cases and post–Hurricane Katrina flood litigation, and cut her teeth two decades ago on the Bhopal, India, gas leak case.

Her most intriguing and complex case is known by the legal title of Allianz Insurance v. World Trade Center Properties LLC. St. Peter was among those who helped try and settle this $7 billion property insurance coverage case, which arose in the wake of the post–September 11 terrorist attacks. The case took years to investigate, try, appeal, and resolve.

As significant as all those cases are, St. Peter, 58, is now wearing some Olympic-size shoes—or, perhaps more properly, skates. Last spring, she was elected president of U.S. Figure Skating, the national governing body for what’s long been the centerpiece sport of the Winter Olympics. It was an elevation to what is in effect the board chair of a business with a $12 million annual budget.

Pat St. Peter
Litigator Pat St. Peter

Though never an Olympian, St. Peter was a highly regarded Twin Cities–area skater and coach. In 1993, she began judging competitions, climbing up the national ladder to evaluate two U.S. championship events. Because of her legal background, she was named to head the U.S. Figure Skating Ethics Committee. That led to her appointment to the International Skating Union’s Disciplinary Commission, which was established after a French judge purposely threw the pairs competition at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The commission oversees the ethical standards of judges and competitors, including issues of performance-enhancing drugs and other forms of cheating.

While the Harding-Kerrigan brouhaha was unseemly, it did spike interest—as well as TV rights fees paid to U.S. Figure Skating. Now, with a down economy and the fragmentation of network TV, the association is seeking new revenue streams to support programs and events for its more than 170,000 members. These new revenue strategies could include Internet media revenues, endowment development via donors, and increasing membership. “She’s a strategic thinker,” notes U.S. Figure Skating Executive Director David Raith, who reports to St. Peter.

St. Peter is hoping solid performances by U.S. skaters in Vancouver will regenerate cash flow into the sport. If not, there’s no one more prepared for catastrophic results than she.


Overachiever, on and off the Ice

On an October Monday night at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute, U of M master’s degree student Angela Ruggiero is lecturing 250 students and faculty on the power of social media for the future of women’s sports. She knows her stuff.

A native of that hockey nirvana, California, Ruggiero (pronounced ruh-JEER-oh) is 29, a Harvard grad, and has aspirations to, very simply, “see how sport can change the world.” She has traveled to Uganda to promote sports programs there. She is an advocate for the growth of girls hockey nationally via hockey camps and considers sports a tool for international understanding.

Angela Ruggerio
Harvard grad and U of M master's degree student Angela Ruggiero

The four-time Olympian and founder of the Angela Ruggiero hockey camps for girls wrote a 2005 autobiography,Breaking the Ice, a candid tale of gender discrimination in sports, her frayed relationship with her father, and the joy of winning the first-ever women’s hockey gold medal at the 1998 Winter Games. She became the first non-goalie female to play in a men’s professional hockey game in 2005, when she skated (for one day) with the Tulsa Oilers of the Central Hockey League. She survived nine episodes of The Apprentice before being fired by Donald Trump. She’s also a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame by virtue of her ’98 gold-medal winning effort.

She moved to Minnesota in 2008, when USA Hockey, the sport’s national governing body, decided to make the National Sports Center in Blaine the training headquarters for the women’s national team. Ruggiero figured that she could merge hockey with academics and career development. She enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s sports management master’s program.

It probably won’t come as a surprise when Professor Stephen Ross, Ruggiero’s advisor for her independent study, calls her “a master at time management.” As a student, Ruggiero has developed a presentation about the history, business, and marketing of the Olympic Games. Her target audience is the U.S. women’s hockey squad, most of whom are first-time Olympians.

So, where might Ruggiero be in five years? Maybe, she says, working for a sports franchise. Maybe marketing the Olympics. Perhaps in sports broadcasting. She’ll have that U of M master’s degree in her hip pocket. But first, she’ll be heading to Vancouver, putting on her red, white, and blue Team USA jersey, and—like fellow Minnesotans Pottinger and St. Peter—transacting some highly visible international business.