In some ways, 25 years can seem like forever ago. In other ways, it can seem like yesterday.
For me, I am not sure which it is. All I remember is that I have clear memories of that day in late March, 1997. It was my first day working as a brand manager and product development specialist for Pinnacle Brands, Inc.
My actual time working for the then-trading card giant is a lot shorter than it seems. Before moving to Dallas, I had already established a strong relationship with the company and was writing card backs for some of their hockey products. I was the editor of Canadian Sports Collector at the time, and I had regular conversations with people like Kurt Iverson and Laurie Goldberg. I met Pinnacle President Jerry Meyer at the 1996 NHL All-Star FanFest in Boston and even sat with him and his wife during the All-Star Game. I will never forget that weekend. Ray Bourque and Mario Lemieux put on a show for the ages, but the thing I will always remember is how almost everyone in our suite had their backs to the ice so they could watch the debut of the Fox glowing puck. And this was before flatscreen TVs, high-definition and 4K.
On my way to downtown Dallas and the Woodall-Rodgers Tower for my first day of work in March, 1997, I was taking it all in. I was rolling through a stop-and-start traffic jam on the North Dallas Tollway. At one point, I was stopped, looked out my window, and between my car and the cement barrier to the median strip was a dead armadillo on the road. As a Canadian brand new to Texas, that was about the most Texan thing I could have ever seen.
My day was filled with introductions. Here is your cube. This is the team of brand managers. Here are the restrooms. This is your parking pass. The top three guys in the company, Jerry Meyer, Michael Cleary and Jim Brochhausen, had reserved parking spaces in the garage. The parking spots were denoted by signs with the numbers 755, 714 and 660. I always thought that was so cool.
The Donruss Mirage
Donruss was the first big surprise of my first day at Pinnacle. As a member of the hobby media, we were led to believe that Donruss, even though it was owned by Pinnacle, operated as a separate company and was located in Grand Prairie, west of Dallas. Even the guys at Beckett, just a few miles up the Tollway, were told the same thing. When the Beckett guys – Al Muir, Grant Sandground, Dave Sliepka, Tracy Hackler and their team who are well-known and respected in the hobby – wanted to meet with Donruss, they had to go to Grand Prairie.
At Pinnacle, when a meeting was set up with Beckett or anyone else, Donruss brand manager Doug Goddard and Donruss PR guy Shawn Heilbron would pack up and head to the company’s office in Grand Prairie to pretend that was where they worked.
While Donruss and their fake corporate headquarters was the first big surprise, Doug Goddard was the second. The company mandated a bit of a rivalry between Pinnacle and Donruss, yet we always worked together and bounced ideas off each other. We had nearly 300 people in the company when I arrived at Pinnacle, and when I met Doug, I learned that he and I were the only lifelong, hardcore collectors in the entire company. Later on, Brian Foye joined Pinnacle and Tim Franz joined Donruss. They were also big collectors. Brian was the guy who came up with the original rip card idea for Zenith. Sure, the building was filled with sports fans who may have jumped into the excitement of the hobby in the early 1990s, but the hobby wasn’t in their blood. The most important thing I learned from Doug right away was to trust myself as a collector, and build products I would be excited about. If I wouldn’t buy it myself, it wasn’t good enough.
Another first day meeting I will never forget was with Greg Bochicchio, one of our sales executives. Greg and I got along well and he ended up being my boss. Long after leaving Pinnacle, we have remained good friends.
Greg pointed to the window and the cars driving by below us and gave me the most important marketing lesson I have ever had.
“Your job,” he said, “is to let every person driving by this building know about the products we are making while spending as little money as possible, or preferably no money at all.”
It was a statement as simple as it was complex, and as shallow as it was poignant.
Greg leaned back in his expensive chair and folded his arms, and showed a little bit of attitude as he asked me the first big question.
Game-Used Balls And Pucks
“So what’s the first big thing you are going to do to make an impact on this company?”
I smiled, because I did have an idea that I was saving for that day. I thought this was the time to play my trump card.
“We have a great relationship with the NHL, and I want to get a game-used puck from every regular season game sent to us,” I said. “We can run redemption cards for game-used pucks across all of our hockey products for the 1997-98 season. Collectors love game-used memorabilia, and with our relationship with the NHL, it won’t cost us anything to get the pucks. We just have to promote it and execute the redemption.”
Greg had a smile a mile wide and he reached for his phone. He called another sales guy, Ted Kreder, who was on the 14th floor – one below us.
“Hey Ted,” Greg said. “I’m sitting here with Jeff Morris and he wants to get a puck used from every NHL game this season and have redemption cards for them in all of our hockey products for next season. Why don’t you come up here.”
Soon, Ted joined us. Ted was a seasoned hobby veteran who had worked for years with Topps. We also became good friends, and we both went to Collector’s Edge to work together after Pinnacle’s demise. By the time Ted arrived in Greg’s office, the idea had expanded. The first interleague Major League Baseball games were to be played in about 10 weeks. By the time that meeting ended, Pinnacle was going to have redemption cards for game-used balls from the first ever interleague games.
The only problem with coming up with the idea is that I was the one who had to fill out the redemption cards by hand. That took a long time, and my penmanship is not the best. Unfortunately, the company went bankrupt before all of the redemptions were fulfilled.
Our meeting wrapped up just before 11 AM, and that was an important time. Every morning at 11, the “cart lady” got off the elevator on the 15th floor and rang her bell. Heads popped up over the walls of their cubes. It was the first time I had heard the expression prairie dogging. The cart lady had sandwiches and treats, and employees would buy their lunch and snacks from her. As every day went on, the bell would ring at 11, and everyone on the 15th floor would drop everything and race to the elevators like Pavlov’s Dog.
After lunch and the realization of how fat I was going to get eating barbecue in Texas, the day got really interesting. Our VP of Marketing, Wade Jones, told me there was an executive meeting in the board room and he wanted me to sit in on it. I had known Wade for a few years as he had worked as the hockey manager at Upper Deck before joining Pinnacle, and we had played golf together.
A Certified Problem
When we got to the executive meeting, there was a discussion about the release of 1996-97 Select Certified Hockey, a premium product that was going to be one of our best selling products of the year. Listening to the meeting, I was confused. Eventually, I nervously and tentatively raised my hand, like a kid in a third grade class.
Everyone looked at me, like how dare this newbie from Canada join in the conversation. It really wasn’t like that, but it felt that way.
“Um, I’m a little bit confused because Certified Hockey is already out,” I said.
They all stared at me like I was an idiot.
“Select Certified Hockey goes on sale Wednesday,” Jim Brochhausen said, kind of impatiently.
“No, it’s out,” I said. “I was at a card show in Niagara Falls, NY, and I saw two dealers selling Mirror Golds. One of them had a complete set.”
“Are you sure they were this year’s?”
“I’m 100 per cent sure,” I said. “I was surprised to see it out because I didn’t think it was coming out until this week.”
After the meeting, a couple of the guys in expensive suits pulled me aside and made me aware of something most people at Pinnacle didn’t know about. We had a security expert there who had his own office that no one knew about. He could listen to our calls, he could see what was on our computer screens, and he was all over this situation. We sat down and he started asking me questions about what I saw, and where I saw it.
As fate would have it, complete master sets of our products were going out to certain business partners of the company, which was standard. Our investigator had an idea how those sets got to Niagara Falls. For the next product, he marked the back of one card with invisible ink that would show up in ultraviolet light. It was an Andrew Cassels card. He was my favorite player on the Ottawa 67s junior team when I had season tickets.
After the sets were sent, we waited for the complete set of high-end parallels to appear on the floor at the Niagara Falls, NY show. Sure enough, they were there. Things changed as far as master sets leaving the building from that day on.
The next few weeks were a whirlwind. We celebrated Opening Day, the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the NFL Draft, and the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut. My biggest embarrassment in that first month was not showing up to work on Good Friday. I had no idea Good Friday was not a holiday in Texas, so when Greg called me at home asking where I was, I got ready and made it from Frisco to downtown Dallas in record time, long before the cart lady rang her bell.
Looking back, it’s easy to identify the reasons why Pinnacle failed. But with ridiculously high royalties from leagues and players associations based on early 1990s sales numbers, and with a hobby that never fully recovered from the baseball strike and hockey lockout of 1994, Pinnacle had their backs against the wall long before I got there.
The hobby looks at Pinnacle differently than I do. Some equate the word with junk wax. In some cases, that’s true. But Pinnacle was also a leader in innovation and design, and they produced beautiful products. Pinnacle was the top trading card brand at the retail level during that time, which is saying a lot.
I miss the people I got to know at Pinnacle. I have always admired Jerry Meyer’s vision and energy, and CEO Michael Cleary was one of the sharpest people and strongest leaders I have ever known. While Jerry was the public face of Pinnacle, Michael was the guy who did an incredible job pulling it all together. Aside from my father, I have probably learned more from Greg, Ted, Michael Cleary and from Mike Cramer of Pacific than any other people in my lifetime.
I am not sure how to celebrate my 25th anniversary at Pinnacle. I think I am going to head to our local hobby shop here in Ottawa this weekend and pick up some high-quality junk wax from the late 90s – probably something I poured my heart and soul into that now sells for about $15 a box. Who knows? Maybe I will even pull a redemption card for a game-used puck or ball.