Crossroads: Dennis Skulsky

Dennis Skulsky: President and CEO, BC Lions Football Club, Inc.

Dennis Skulsky, the BC Lions’ new president, was the former president and CEO of Canwest Publishing.

Dennis Skulsky: President and CEO, BC Lions Football Club, Inc.

Dennis Skulsky, former president and CEO of Canwest Publishing Inc. and former publisher of the Vancouver Sun and Province newspapers, has spent so long in the news business, it’s hard to think of him in another light. Except now, perhaps, when suddenly it’s easy to picture him as a lifelong football fan who’s scored a dream job: president and CEO of the BC Lions, a team he’s long supported. The 55-year-old news executive is leaving Canwest Publishing as it searches for a buyer [update: Canwest was sold, for $1.1 billion, to a consortium of buyers headed by National Post CEO Paul Godfrey), wrapping up a career that began at age 15 operating an Edmonton Journal delivery shack. But with the football business facing many of the same underlying economic challenges as newspapers, he’ll likely be fighting many of the same battles.

You have been in the newspaper business a very long time. What have been the major changes you’ve seen?

It was 39 years, eight months at the end of April, when I left Canwest, and it has been very good to me. With everything that’s changed, it’s been quite something to watch. The number-one change has been that the choices of where to get information are just so numerous. We’re after somebody’s time and attention, and it’s just harder to get that today. 

What do you see in the future for our local newspapers?

They’re very integrated with the communities they serve, and if they continue to provide unique, compelling, relevant information and viewpoints, I think there’s a long life cycle. The format it’s delivered in may change. I’m not sure we’re going to have ink on paper for newspapers or magazines 50 years from now, but I would say that content is the business we’re in. But I’m not just talking content, because unfortunately content has become a commodity. I worry about the future of a world where information goes out so quickly but trying to recall it is next to impossible. Part of what we do is the necessary checks and balances before something makes it onto our front page, so I believe that media will still have an important role to play in society.

A top job at Canwest recently must have been one of the more challenging ones in publishing. What have you learned from that experience?

Number one is that balance sheets are very important. What people have to realize is that our issue is not whether our businesses are viable; our issue is that we had too much debt and then there was a hit to the revenue base like the world has never seen before. There’s no question our businesses are sustainable. We’re going through the sale process now, and the estimates out there are that this could attract $1 billion. Someone’s not paying $1 billion for businesses that are not viable and are not going to be around a long time.

Why did you decide to leave Canwest?

It was mostly a desire to move back to the West Coast for family reasons. But 40 years in the business has been a long haul. I always said that at some point in time I would want to shift gears and do something I could have some fun with – and also have some success. This is not about semi-retiring; it’s about moving into another role and bringing some of what I have to a new team. 

There do seem to be parallels between the two jobs, especially when it comes to capturing the attention of younger generations.

You’re right on with that. The audiences for both have many choices in how to spend their money. And it’s a discretional buy; you don’t need to have us unless we bring some value, so we’re competing to earn their loyalty. Our goal is, by the time people walk out of a football game, they’re on a high, and sports does that. The city is bouncing a little more when the Canucks are in the playoffs. People are just more up; you get captured by that. What we’re going to focus on is the atmosphere. And I think we’ve got a great chance by going back to Empire Field for a year to create some nostalgia around that. 

The good atmosphere was a big part of the success of the Vancouver Olympics. Is that something your team has been talking about?

Absolutely. How can we build off that? We’ll never be the Olympics, but I think Vancouver has finally shed this no-fun-city label. And there’s going to be lots more opportunities to show it. We have the Grey Cup coming in 2011. There’s no coincidence that it’s coming back to Vancouver that quickly; it’s because it was such a success in ’05. 

How long have you been a football fan?

Since I was 10 years old. I was born in Edmonton and raised through the Eskimos’ heydays. When I was 13, I started selling coffee at the games. I didn’t worry about how much money I was going to make; this was about being in the stadium and peeking an eye on the game.

The last person to hold this job full 
time was Bob Ackles. Did you know 
him well?

I didn’t know him for long, but, I’ll tell you, he changed my life. He was just such a special person. He left us a legacy about what a good professional football team should be and how they should carry themselves and how they should be part of the community. When somebody sees the BC Lions, we want them to feel, That’s my team, to feel good about that orange.