Pitching In

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When you go to a baseball game, you’re going there to relax. When Joe Urbon goes to a baseball game, he’s going there to work. Urbon, a graduate of Kentridge High School and Washington State University, has taken an unlikely path from playing baseball to becoming one of the game’s budding power brokers as agent to some of the bigger names in the game.

Along the way, he has gone from being a player in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, where his career was shortened by a knee injury, to becoming a partner in CAA Baseball, a young but fast-growing wing of CAA Sports, which itself is an offshoot of Creative Artists Agency, which represents some of the biggest names in entertainment.

When Urbon was a player, he had an agent, but he admits, “I had no idea what an agent did, really.”

How, in less than 20 years, has he gone from that to being one of the top agents in the game?

It started with a chance encounter in a physical therapist’s office.

“I was rehabbing my knee [after tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament for the second time] and I got talking to this guy next to me, a pretty cool older guy who was a high-powered attorney in D.C.,” Urbon says. “The job chose me more than I chose it.”

The attorney, Michael Cardozo, suggested that with Urbon’s background in baseball, he might make a good sports agent. Cardozo had done some work with the predecessor of Octagon Sports, which at the time handled the biggest name in sports, Michael Jordan, among others, and Cardozo got Urbon a job interview.

Urbon, now 43, was still an active player at the time (1992), and he wasn’t ready to give up on that career. But he wasn’t an active player for long. He went to spring training that year, realized he was never going to be the player he had been before the knee injury and, after consultation with his fiancée (now wife), Katherine, he became an intern at Octagon.

He had his first client within weeks. Kevin Stocker was the younger brother of a former teammate of Urbon’s with the Phillies. Stocker was about to make it in the big leagues, and he needed an agent.

“When I heard through Stocker’s brother that he didn’t have an agent, I flew out to meet him,” Urbon says. “He was going to interview some others, but after we talked, he hired me on the spot. The next year [1993], he was the starting shortstop in the World Series for the Phillies.”

There were fits and starts, to be sure, but over the course of 19 years, Urbon has gone from novice to expert. Using Washington state as his base, he has steadily built up a client list of 25 big-league players that includes Everett’s Grady Sizemore, an All-Star center fielder with the Cleveland Indians, and Everett’s Travis Snider, an outfielder with the Toronto Blue Jays. Through his relationship with Sizemore, Urbon also signed British Columbia native Jason Bay, a three-time All-Star who signed a four-year deal with the New York Mets in December 2009.

“When you go after a recruit for the first time, you are going in there to give the player and his family a sense of your history and what you can do for them immediately,” Urbon says. “At that point, you are not the agent, you are the adviser. It’s a thin line, and confusing with the NCAA’s rules, but you are there to help the family and the player navigate the waters of the draft.

“By and large, those families just go through this one time, maybe twice at the most. They don’t have the first idea what to expect.”

Sizemore, who was being asked to choose between playing football and baseball for the University of Washington or signing with the Montreal Expos, was one of those athletes.

“Joe was recommended to me through a high school coach,” says Sizemore, who will be 29 in August and is making $7.5 million with Cleveland this season. “I wasn’t really going to go with an adviser; I was really planning on going to college.”

Sizemore recalls that the visit went well. “But when you are 16 or 17, you don’t set your sights beyond a few days.... I think I left in the middle of it all to go to a party. It was more [left to] my parents than me. I trusted my mom and dad, and they trusted Joe.”

More than any other word in the dictionary, trust is the one that rings out in Urbon’s line of work. His clients, who aren’t inclined to wait for a Jerry Maguire-style epiphany, trust that he will do his best for them from the start.

“I can’t ever remember him wanting me to do anything I don’t want to do,” says Jason Bay, who now lives in Kirkland and who, at Urbon’s urging, has done charity benefits, corporate meet-and-greets and personal appearances that will enhance Bay’s brand. “He knows where I draw the line. He might rarely ask me to do something a second time. If he does, I know it’s his way of begging me. And I’ll consider it, because I know he has my best interests at heart.”

For the best agents, those interests are front and center 365 days a year. That means being ready to drop plans at a moment’s notice to get a deal done. Case in point: Christmas Eve 2009. Bay was one of the premier players available in free agency, and the Mets had upped their offer to the point where a deal hung in the balance.

“I remember sitting in the bedroom of my mother’s house [in Auburn] that night when the rest of the family was in the living room,” Urbon says. “It was just one of those things when the pieces all fell together. I was in Washington, Jason was in British Columbia, Omar [Minaya, then the Mets’ general manager] was in Costa Rica and Jeff [Wilpon, the Mets’ chief operating officer] was in his plane either on the ground in Israel or flying over Israel.

“The deal was worked out except for the last-minute details—the payment schedules, no-trade-clause issues, little stuff like that. But when you have a deal like that one [four years, $66 million, with an option for a fifth year at $17 million], even the little details take a lot of time to hammer out.

“Then, Christmas Day we spent at my in-laws’ [in Tacoma], and I was back on the phone again, trying to get it done. It got done, but it’s the kind of thing you can’t really explain at the time. You just go ahead and get it done and apologize later for the time it took. I bought a lot of great Christmas gifts last year, I can tell you that.”

Bay had to give up a substantial portion of his holiday, too, although the payoff was well worth it.

“I know that Joe is not working for me every minute of every day,” says Bay, 32, who was also weighing an offer from the Boston Red Sox. “That is not the way the business works. But when you go through free agency, that changes. And if it means closing the deal on Christmas Day, well, that’s the way it goes. Most of the time when we talk, it’s just a few minutes on baseball and then it’s catching up.

“As a baseball player, the window for playing is very short. That’s why I was looking for a guy like Joe when I went looking for an agent. I didn’t want to be ‘learned’ on. I wanted someone who already knew the ropes of representing players, and Joe does.”

Of course, the trust can’t be one-sided. The men on the opposite side of the baseball equation have to trust you, too. Alex Anthopoulos, general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, says one of the reasons Urbon does well for his clients is that, as a former player, Urbon understands the ball club’s side of things.

“He’s a good communicator and a straight shooter when you deal with him,” says Anthopoulos. “He does a good job for his clients. At the same time, he’s a realist. He knows what clubs can do and what they can’t. When you’re negotiating with him, you can trust what he says.”

Urbon has continued to mine Washington’s baseball fields to the point where, last year, two of the state’s top prospects, Josh Sale and Drew Vettleson, became his clients. Both are outfielders, and both were drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays, champions of the American League East Division last season. (Sale, from Seattle’s Bishop Blanchet High School, was the 17th pick overall in the 2010 draft; Vettleson, from Silverdale’s Central Kitsap High, was the 42nd overall pick.)

Urbon approached both of them the same way, more through their parents and families and a statewide list of baseball contacts than directly. And the goal is always the same.

“There are so many unknowns, and your job is to peel back the layers and prepare them for the process,” Urbon says. “Does it make sense to play pro or go to college? And the answer is not the same for everyone.”

For an agent, the only way to grow the business is to start representing players when they are first ready to sign, but there’s not a lot of money in the early stages. In the case of Toronto’s Snider, there was a $1.7 million signing bonus, but it will be after 2012 before the possibility of salary arbitration kicks in, and free agency looms three years after that. That’s when the real money awaits.

And the money is indeed real. Major League Baseball players will make about $2.8 billion in cumulative salary in 2011, and while there is no cap to the fees agents can charge their clients in baseball—as in pro football and basketball—most players pay between 3 and 5 percent of their salaries to agents.

“In a lot of ways, when you sign a kid like me out of high school when he’s 18, the agent has to be a baby sitter as much as anything,” says Snider, who was the youngest position player in the game when he made it to the big leagues at age 20 in 2008. “When I signed and was away from home for the first time, I was on the phone to Joe every day, sometimes two or three times a day.

“Agents have to know their psychology, especially for a client like me.... And Joe does. He helped me get through a difficult time [when Snider was sent back to the minors after experiencing some success with the Blue Jays].” With Urbon’s help, Snider, who is making $435,800 this year and has paid another visit to the minors, got over it.

In the end, it’s the agent’s job to be more than baby sitter, hand holder, contract negotiator and financial adviser. Finding a player a place to live in a new city isn’t an unusual task for sports agents. Neither is acting as chauffeur and big brother.

And then there’s the issue of generating revenue beyond the player’s contract. That step means arranging autograph shows; hooking the client up with a car dealership; handling shoe, glove and bat contracts; maybe even getting him some local gigs as an advertising pitchman.

“If you want to put it in those terms,” Urbon says, “each player is an account. But they are so much more than that. They are all human. Your job is to do what you can to enable them to succeed.”

And that enables Urbon to succeed.

The Outsider’s Perspective at Bartell Drugs

The Outsider’s Perspective at Bartell Drugs

Brian Unmacht, the first non-Bartell to run Bartell Drugs, knows his mission is to keep the family-owned business relevant in the face of stiff competition.
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Brian Unmacht spent six years working at his father’s drugstore company and, after college, 27 years at REI, before becoming only the fourth CEO in Bartell Drugs’ 126-year history. Now he’s intent on using local partnerships to make Bartell a strong competitor to the national drugstore chains. 

FAMILY: My father had been an executive at the Bon Marché. In the 1970s, he formed his own chain of small drugstores in rural areas. I spent six years in high school and college working for my dad and eventually managed one of his stores. We were a $20 million business and I computerized the record keeping and did the finances and everything. It was a sort of love/hate thing because you could never separate the business from the family. But I appreciate having had a chance to work with my dad. In 1980, 19 percent interest rates and the recession did us in. We had loyal customers, but customers still went for price and selection when grocery stores started competing with us.

TRAVEL: After college, I spent a year backpacking in Nepal and Pakistan and skiing in Europe. When I returned, I had no money, so I went to work for REI. They had seven stores and a catalog and were beginning to expand beyond the Northwest. I managed the Tempe store in Arizona, opened the Chicago store and then worked on the store in Japan as vice president of international. That was an exciting time.

RETAIL: In the ’80s, it was Walmart that dramatically changed retail as it sourced overseas. In the last 15 years, it’s been Amazon. You’re always going to have disrupters. It comes down to how do you keep yourself relevant? In the recession of 2009, the number of paddling and canoe shops in the country dropped to 1,500 from 2,500. With fewer distribution points, vendors like North Face were trying to increase web sales. At REI, our value proposition was to provide expertise and credibility. North Face would give REI an exclusive for a certain time because of that. It was a win-win.

BARTELL DRUGS: I’ve come full circle. Now I am back in the drugstore space. We are up against $120 billion retailers like Walgreens and CVS. How do we find unique products and services that they can’t carry in their 8,000 stores? We offer assortments of local candy like Theo or Seattle Chocolates. We partnered with Snoqualmie Ice Cream to sell our own brand. At our Bellevue store, we offer scooped ice cream. If you go to Fourth and Madison downtown, we have a partnership with Caffé Vita for the espresso, and with other local vendors for sandwiches and other food offerings.

BEER: Bartell always sold beer but it tended to be Budweiser and Heineken. We put in a beverage buyer who had a passion around craft beer and empowered him to form partnerships. Now we have a partnership with Two Beers Brewing Co. to do a Tangerine IPA limited run. Last year, we did Bartell Spring Elixir with Fremont Brewing. We have 150 partnerships with other locally owned firms.

FAMILY BUSINESS: There have only been three top executives [before me] at Bartell’s over 126 years and they were all named George Bartell. Being family owned, we’re part of the community and take the long view. I tell employees that’s not enough to be relevant. There are a lot of family-owned businesses that fail. 

OUTSIDER: The family put together an outside board five years ago to get a wider point of view and I was put on the board. The family recognized there was going to be a gap before the five cousins in the fourth generation were ready to manage the company. That’s why they brought me in as the first outside manager. With revenues of $500 million and growing, management was also getting more challenging. Evelyn Merrill, the oldest of the cousins, is senior marketing manager. She has a lot of good ideas and is challenging the third generation in terms of her view of the brand.

STORES: We have 62 stores. We are talking about adding two to three stores a year. Today, we’re primarily in King and Snohomish counties, but I want to look at Whatcom [County], Bellingham, Poulsbo, Bainbridge Island and potentially farther south. With the Walgreen/Rite Aid merger, some Rite Aid stores will probably be divested. If the right stores came on the market, we would be interested. The Greater Seattle area is still booming, and with more density there is room to put a lot more drugstores in convenient places. 

HEALTH CARE: We do flu shots now, but we are looking at providing other immunizations as well as testing for strep throat or flu so that you don’t need to go to your primary care doctor every time. Because of our concentration of stores in Greater Seattle, our share of the pharmacy business is right up there with Walgreens. It’s important that we have that scale to work with the insurance plans. We had a pilot program to have Group Health clinics in 25 of our locations, and Kaiser [which is acquiring Group Health] seems interested in continuing the concept.

COST OF DOING BUSINESS: I worry that in five years, if Seattle’s not booming anymore, what does it mean if you’ve raised the fixed cost [by raising the minimum wage]? But I worry less about the minimum wage than the growing congestion issue. I have 2,000 employees who live all over the Puget Sound region. We have to move freight around. Congestion is a bigger and bigger issue. 

EXECUTIVE Q+A RESPONSES HAVE BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.