Business Alumnus Ohl Is Profiled
After growing up in Iowa and working as an accountant for seven years, Brian Ohl yearned for a career with a little more excitement and glamour.
He was never going to be a rock star or a pro athlete, but he could use his business smarts to run the venues that showcase the big talent.
"I've always loved music and sports, but I didn't realize you can make a career out of it without being a performer or athlete," said Ohl, who's been the general manager of the John Labatt Centre since it opened in 2002.
The 9,100-seat, $45-million venue has been hailed as the anchor of downtown revival, bringing crowds back to the core to watch the London Knights, world-class entertainers, and family shows.
The success of the JLC has spun off a series of restaurants and bar openings in the downtown.
Ohl was born and raised in Davenport, Iowa, a small industrial city on the banks of the Mississippi River. His father worked in a steel foundry and his mother was employed at a cabinet-making company.
In 1982, Ohl graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in business and accounting. He moved to Chicago to work as an accountant and financial officer for a company involved in commodity futures. But after seven years, he got restless.
"It was a good job but I started looking around for something I could be passionate about," said Ohl.
He went on to the University of Massachusetts and graduated with a master's degree in sports management. He had a special interest in the course on facilities management.
"One day we would be talking about the Rolling Stones and the next day about NCAA basketball. I figured this was a business that would combine all my interests."
During the '90s he moved around, taking jobs at several major sports/entertainment venues including The Spectrum in Philadelphia, The Centrum in Worcester, Mass., the Mullins Center at the University of Massachusetts, and the Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire.
In 2000, the facilities company Ohl worked for was taken over and became known as Global Spectrum. A year later, the company's president asked him to consider managing a new facility in a city Ohl had never heard of—London, Ontario.
The John Labatt Centre was Global Spectrum's first entry into the Canadian market and the first time the company had invested directly into a project in return for a long-time deal from the city of London to manage the facility.
"I called around and everyone told me that London was going to be a great market," said Ohl.
After a few trips to London, he became convinced he'd found a new challenge and received a warm welcome to the city.
"As soon as we moved here, the neighbors brought us some muffins, which is a very 'Iowa' thing to do."
Ohl soon became convinced the John Labatt Centre could fill the gap for a major entertainment venue between Toronto and Detroit.
"When I first got here, I was surprised how many people were driving to Toronto. People wanted entertainment and they wanted it here at home."
The JLC became the new home for the London Knights and gained a national spotlight when the team hosted and won the Memorial Cup in 2005. Last year the JLC was the site of the Tim Hortons Brier and is preparing to host the world figure skating championships next year.
Ohl said London has been the Canadian "jewel" for Philadelphia-based Global Spectrum and has paved the way for the company to manage centres in Windsor, Oshawa, Toronto, and British Columbia.
The JLC employs 35 full-time staff and hundreds of part-timers. Ohl's job involves supervising a string of separate functions, including maintenance, logistics, security, food and beverage, and promotion.
"There are so many things going on in this building, you cannot get bored doing this."
One delicate job is to keep the big-name entertainers and their entourages happy. Every artist gets a personal gift researched by JLC staff. Pop-rocker John Mayer, a big Jimi Hendrix fan, got a new book on the rock icon. Country crooner Kenny Rogers, a camera buff, received an antique camera.
Despite gossipy tales about arrogant demands and bad behavior, Ohl said the performers at the JLC have all been polite professionals.
But there was the infamous Guns N' Roses concert back in 2002, when lead singer Axl Rose showed up two and half hours late. A no-show by the singer a few weeks earlier in Vancouver sparked a fan riot.
"The police were nervous. I was nervous. It was a snowy night and he (Axl Rose) was coming from Toronto. There was a lot of drama but it turned out to be a great show."
John Winston, manager of Tourism London, said Ohl is a "consummate professional" who has helped turn the JLC into an economic powerhouse for the downtown.
"He's a very measured, stable, clear-thinking fellow, very focused on what makes financial sense," said Winston.
Winston said it looks like Ohl will be around for awhile, since he recently applied for landed immigrant status.
"He brings a broader perspective with the work he had done for Global Spectrum in the States. The JLC would not be what it is without him," said Winston.
Ohl and his partner, Rita Davis, split their time between a downtown condo, a home north of London, and a cottage in Grand Bend. Last summer he and Davis traveled to the "other" London and crashed the wedding of ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and Nancy Shevell.
Ohl said he's comfortable in this London and looks forward to more years at the helm of the JLC.
"I like it here. There's more that I want to do."
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Born: 1959, Davenport, Iowa
Family: Partner Rita Davis, two sons Nathan, 23, Dylan, 15
Education: Bachelor's degree, business and accounting, University of Iowa; master's degree, sports management, University of Massachusetts
Other jobs: Farm hand, meat packing plant worker, restaurant server.
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Ski or sun: sun
Rock, country, or jazz: Rock
iPhone or BlackBerry: BlackBerry
Cable or satellite: cable
Bottled or tap water: tap
Tie or open collar: open collar
Beer or wine: beer
Coffee or tea: coffee
Cat or dog: dog
Fiction or non-fiction: fiction
DVD or theatre: theatre
Grand Bend or Port Stanley: Grand Bend
Drive, walk, or bicycle: walk
Downtown or suburbia: downtown
Pen or pencil: pen
Early riser or sleep in: early riser
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"There are so many things going on in this building. You cannot get bored doing this."