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W.L. Mellon Speaker Series: Whether it’s politics or the Penguins, David Morehouse looks to make a difference

As a newly minted high school graduate who grew up in a blue-collar section of Pittsburgh, David Morehouse devised a strategy for getting the welder’s job he coveted.

Every morning at 6 a.m., he waited for the business agent from the Boilermakers’ Union to finish his breakfast at a local restaurant and walk across the street to the union headquarters. Morehouse would introduce himself and ask for a job, and every morning, the man would say no.

But after two weeks, he finally relented, and agreed to send Morehouse to the union’s welding school.

That persistence has served Morehouse well in his career, first as a welder, then later as a political aide, and finally in his most recent position: president and chief executive officer of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He shared his insights with Tepper School of Business students as part of the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series in a conversation led by Senior Associate Dean Michael Trick.

MorehouseWeb jpg“What you’re going to do next probably isn’t want you’re going to end up doing. So look at it as experience. And negative experience can be good,” Morehouse told students.

He would know. His career as a welder was cut short when he was knocked out cold by an errant steel beam on the job. Joking that “the beam knocked some sense into me,” Morehouse went back to school – first at the Community College of Allegheny County, then Duquesne University, and after a number of years working at the White House, he finally went to Harvard, where he earned a master’s in public administration.

Before enrolling at Harvard, Morehouse was inspired to join then-Gov. Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, first doing odd jobs and driving in the motorcade, then later as a member of the advance team, preparing stops on the campaign trail for Clinton’s visits. His hard work was noticed, and soon he was part of the Clinton administration.

He recalled how, on a rainy stop in New Orleans, he even got to brief the president.

“I’m thinking ‘Me? I was a welder a few months ago.’ ”

Morehouse would later go on to work for Al Gore’s presidential campaign, and would be immortalized in an HBO movie cameo that (incorrectly) depicts him as stumbling out of a limousine to stop Gore from conceding before the now-infamous Florida recount. 

Recalibrating after that loss, he contacted Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle, whom he knew from his days on the Clinton staff, to inquire about job opportunities. Remembering that Morehouse was from Pittsburgh, Burkle hired him to investigate what obstacles were preventing the team from winning support for a new hockey arena.

It was Morehouse who ran a successful campaign to use gaming money to build a new arena, and in 2007, NHL legend and co-owner Mario Lemieux offered him a job as team president. Morehouse, who had been considering a move to California to work in private equity, never blinked.

To him, the next step was self-explanatory: “Mario Lemieux asked me to be president of his hockey team, and I’m from Pittsburgh,” he said simply.

Morehouse immediately began crafting a research-based strategy to reinvigorate the Penguins, who – despite having Lemieux and other Hall-Of-Famers on their roster – registered exactly one sellout the year before he took over.

Focus groups told them the Penguins were seen as quirky and different, so he built his strategy around energy and innovation. The arena began playing alternative rock, and players were always photographed in motion.

“We’re going to embrace different. We’re Apple computer different. We’re the new Pittsburgh,” Morehouse recalled thinking.

“It’s kind of backwards,” he added. “Most people have a business strategy, and a brand strategy springs from that.” The Penguins, he noted, did the opposite. Consequently, the team has sold out at least ten consecutive seasons.

He also spent a lot of time building relationships with fans and corporate sponsors. Players hand-deliver season tickets every year, and the team gives free tickets to a preseason game to youth hockey organizations. A giant screen broadcasts playoff games in front of the arena for fans who couldn’t get tickets for the game; Morehouse got the idea watching people stare at a big screen erected for a bass fishing competition in Pittsburgh one year.

Morehouse told the audience that he was often ridiculed for his ideas, and for other suggestions, such as a rule change banning head shots after Penguins star center Sidney Crosby was sidelined for months with a concussion. But his advice was to ignore naysayers.

“Don’t be afraid to be bold and try to change things, because that’s what works,” he said.

As a child growing up in Pittsburgh, Morehouse longed for the city to install lights at his neighborhood playground so he could play basketball after dark. Encouraged by his mother, the seventh grader called the mayor’s complaint line incessantly, each time pretending to be someone else – a classmate, a neighbor.

“I remember standing there on the basketball court when the city trucks pulled up and they started measuring for lights. And I’ve always had that with me. I couldn’t believe it – I did that,” he said.

It was a feeling that has propelled him ever since, that he could make a difference. He urged the audience to embrace that concept.

“You guys, sitting where you’re sitting, it’s a much different place than where I sat. The sky’s the limit, literally. You can accomplish anything you want to accomplish.”

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