02/27/2017 8:42PM

Giwner: One-on-one with new USTA President Russell Williams

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Mark Hall/USTA
After falling six votes shy in the first round of voting, Russell Williams picked up the necessary 28 total votes to be elected USTA President.

On Monday (2/27), the United States Trotting Association held its annual Board of Directors meeting. Vice Chairman Russell C. Williams ran for and won the seat of President. I sat down with Mr. Williams to discuss various issues facing the USTA.

Derick Giwner: Let’s start with the easiest of questions, did you think you were going to win going in?

Russell C. Williams: I didn’t know. I worked pretty hard to prepare for it and I felt like I did my best and would take my chances.

DG: You’ve said that you are the establishment candidate. What do you say to the people that want change and are looking for different things to happen at the USTA?

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RW: That’s easy. The establishment is already accomplishing change. The trouble is at the USTA we don’t take time out to publicize to our members what we are doing. There is plenty of other work to do. One of the things that I want to do is get those points across to people. Marketing for example--We are already doing very sophisticated marketing and are ready to build out on several separate marketing platforms. We have an incredible amount of marketing data that can be mined and worked with. We are data rich and we are pretty sophisticated as a result of our Converseon experience. We are ready to go on this. If we do use consulting firms, I think it should be the way you use a law firm. When you can define an issue, you get it resolved.

DG: So you feel the USTA hasn’t done a good enough job communicating the changes they instituted over the years?

RW: Yes, and the things they are working on now. Many Directors never go to the head office except for a meeting and see what the staff, a very talented staff, is actually working on. They stay busy. They don’t just put on meetings for us. There is a lot of good news there that people just don’t know.

DG: You’ve said that the Board is fine at 60 members. Do you feel in any way that it makes the decision making process more difficult?

RW: We saw that we had to have a couple of ballots today; that type of thing happens. First of all, we want proper track representation on the board. How can we reduce that number when there are even more tracks than that? They are owned by different segments of the gaming industry; some are not owned by gaming companies at all, but most are. So they are competitors. Are they going to agree to just cut it down to three or something?

DG: Is it possible to cut one person from each segment; one from New York, one from Pennsylvania, and so on? Cut them evenly across the board to pare it down?

RW: If it is possible, we haven’t found a way yet. We’ve looked at it. And the same thing with the horsemen’s side. There are different problems and different geographical regions, and if you cut those people off, they are not getting the representation they need. So, it works fine. There are no serious problems that I’m aware of that comes from having a 60-person board.

DG: You have stated that the USTA can only do so much. What kind of change do you think you can bring to the USTA? What programs do you have on your mind for the future?

RW: I’m not one that says the USTA can only do so much. I think it would be impractical to pursue a program of making it the ruling organization of the entire sport. I don’t see how it would be possible, but I think we can be the think-tank. We can be the planner. We can be a place where every voice in the sport can be heard and be plugged into that process. So that would be the first thing I’d like to look into; maximizing things along those lines.

DG: You have said that the USTA is doing as good a job as they can do, from what I’ve heard.

RW: Well, I probably did say that. If I had time to think about it, I would say they have done a better job than anyone realizes.

DG: That is where you take your biggest hit. Whether on social media or in other circles, you are viewed as the guy who is going to do the things as they have always been done. That said, I do think there are some ideas that you put forth during the campaign and debate which showed promise.

RW: There are many things that can be done. Another point, and maybe this comes from being on here (the Board) for 20 years, but if you want something to happen, you have to build it carefully. It has to be a well-prepared plan. You have to start talking to the right people and get them on board; it is political. But in a good way, because you can achieve consensus if you present things in the right light. There was a good example of that today. No one disagrees that we should be putting money and energy into marketing, but when you have this sort of general, vague resolution (asking USTA members whether money should be set aside for marketing) coming from The Meadowlands, it is impossible to embrace it. What happens to the money? Even assuming we can do it, which is a problem in Pennsylvania.

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DG: Wasn’t the resolution today just to question the members and not a call for money? Asking for money and asking whether it is a good idea to ask for money are two separate issues, no?

RW: Yes, but the USTA doesn’t want to ask its members anything that isn’t complete. It is so incomplete that it is a question we don’t want to ask.

DG: So the question simply needs to be more specific as to what the goals are?

RW: Yes, and what would be done, because there are a lot of different approaches to take.

DG: It is nice to see that you have the support of Jason Settlemoir (who just finished congratulating him during the interview). I didn’t see whether Joe Pennacchio congratulated you, or others?

RW: He did. But we all talked beforehand and said that we had to be ready if another person wins, to support them, because there is a lot of important work to do. We all agreed on that.

DG: All anyone can hope for is that you are open minded to new ideas. I think we all want the same thing, to see harness racing prosper.

RW: I agree, and my perception is that our ability to work together is far better than it has been; at least in the last 20 years. Actually, we didn’t have to work together in the distant past. It was okay to be vulcanized. But that is no longer possible. And we have learned to come together on things.

DG: Can the USTA be that force that brings the factions of horsemen and tracks together to work to a common goal?

RW: Not the entire force, but we are already having that effect and it is quite impressive. If you know the players on the board, you see how they are starting to align themselves, cooperate and give up on feuds and things like that.

DG: Even in the vote today, you got 28 votes, just enough to win. It is not like it was a landslide. Everyone is still fractioned off.

RW: It was a parliamentary sort of vote. I think I can win most of them over in time.