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Q&A: Bill Thomason, Keeneland president
When the board of trustees of the Keeneland Association selected Bill Thomason to be the seventh president in the 76-year history of the track and auction house, it was a recognition of the two years of work that he had done righting Keeneland after its sales revenue dropped by half during the recession that began in 2008. Thomason, 57, was hired in 2010 as chief financial officer, and he immediately set in motion a process to evaluate spending in every aspect of Keeneland’s operations.
Thomason took over the reins Sept. 1 after the retirement of Nick Nicholson, who had been Keeneland’s president and chief executive for 13 years. When Nicholson announced his retirement in April, he conducted his exit interviews with Thomason in the room.
“Had it not been for Bill and his competency in getting our financial priorities and our budgeting in order, Keeneland wouldn’t be where it is today,” Nicholson said at the time. “He’s been spectacular.”
Thomason was interviewed Sept. 26, nine days before the opening of Keeneland’s three-week fall meet.
What will be your priorities for Keeneland over the next several years?
I’ve been here a couple of years, and we have already been working on a number of initiatives and a number of priorities. So it’s not as if I am going to be working on anything that is going to change from the plan that we have already set out for ourselves. Really, me being here was a result of the directors and trustees being happy with the direction that we had already set in a number of areas. So we will be working on things that you have seen Keeneland do for the past 75 years. We’ve got our eye on the ball, in understanding that our core mission is to provide live racing in a setting that is as good as it can possibly be. We are doing things to generate fan interest in our races, ways that fans can experience the horse, which is what we’re all about, through interactive methods and social media. Whatever we can do to connect with the modern-day fan, we’re doing that on our racecourse.
We are concentrating and continuing our efforts in developing our sales markets. We’ve worked for a number of years in developing our international buyers, and we think they really showed up in a big way to the September sale. We’re very proud of that. But it’s not something that just happened overnight. It’s relationships, it’s travel, and it’s development. And we’re going to continue to do that.
We’ve also put in place efforts to improve the domestic market, and we’ll continue to focus on getting people to come to Kentucky and come to our sales.
And then we’ve got a number of new things we’re going to do that will even further enhance our relationship with the community and with the different community groups we’ve supported over the years. Keeneland is never at a loss for initiatives or excitement in the number of things we’ve got going.
The upcoming fall meet will be the first held with you at the helm. Are you planning on walking the grandstand during live racing?
I’ve been doing that already. Nick [Nicholson], myself, Vince Gabbert, our chief operating officer, we all have the same philosophies about what we’re doing in the business. And that is, we have to manage by being out there. I love the races, I love the crowds, I love the people who are involved, and if you can’t enjoy that, you can’t enjoy the business.
After 28 years at Mill Ridge Farm, you came to Keeneland as chief financial officer at a particularly tough time for the association. What led you here?
These opportunities don’t come around too often. Keeneland was going through some changes, and management itself [was going through some changes]. And that was at a period of time when I was taking a rest, if you will, from Mill Ridge. It wasn’t like I was looking to go anywhere. I couldn’t have learned more or had a better experience at the farm than I had at Mill Ridge, but Keeneland was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities – to get involved in a very special place like this, with its mission, and its importance to not only the community but the worldwide Thoroughbred industry. Frankly, it was the only thing that I would consider getting involved with.
What led you into the racing business in the first place?
I worked for an accounting firm, and I handled Mill Ridge’s tax and business planning. [Mill Ridge founder] Alice Chandler and I connected at the start, and I just had the great fortune and opportunity for us to develop a strong relationship. Mill Ridge was already an amazing place, an established farm, but at that time they were going to the next level, with the influence of the Europeans and Middle Eastern buyers and all the international involvement in Kentucky. I was fortunate to be at the ground level of that burst of growth.
When you got to Keeneland in 2010, total auction sales were $381 million, down from $815.4 million in 2007. It has rebounded somewhat, but in 2011, total auction sales were still down 42 percent from 2007. What did Keeneland have to do to deal with that drop in revenue?
Coming from my background, there’s a lot more ups and downs, because that’s what the breeding business is all about. You have those great years with great crops, and you had to prepare yourself for those years when you didn’t have all that success and you didn’t have all those resources. So what I learned over time was how to deal with those extreme highs. You couldn’t get too excited during those highs because you had to prepare for the obvious lows that were going to come.
Like every horse farm and every business, Keeneland obviously was affected by [the recession], especially the longevity of the drop. If you cut half your revenues, I don’t care who you are, it’s a dramatic change. We went into every single department, every single program when I started here. We worked through all of those things that we thought were important and critical to our mission to the industry.
We also knew that a lot of our patrons were suffering in the business. Therefore we felt we had an obligation to ourselves and to the people who were bringing their product to Keeneland to make sure that we were in that with them, that we remained a stabilizing force within the business. We’re going to continue to be that. We had to let the industry know that we were going to continue to invest in the things, in the middle of this market, and as the market adjusted, so that they knew they could count on us to work on behalf of the industry and bring buyers into these markets, to ensure that we were taking care of the horses that were coming here to be sold.
So we made adjustments like everyone else did. We became a lot more efficient in a lot of areas. In some cases, we ended up with less people doing more work, just like a lot of the farms were doing, and a lot of prudent businesses were doing. And by the time we got through those self-evaluations, if you will, I think Keeneland has come out operationally and within our workforce even stronger.
Has there been anything Keeneland had to delay because of the crash? Five or six years ago Nick Nicholson was talking about expanding the grandstand so that Keeneland could host the Breeders’ Cup. Is that on the back burner?
You know, I wouldn’t say we’ve got projects on the back burner. We have big visions for our plant and for how we see the industry growing. We’re one of those companies that look long-term. So we always have things out there that are big long-term plans for things we think, if the industry needs it, if the community needs it, if we think it’s important, then we have always hoped that our vision was big enough that we could handle whatever the future brings. We’re always looking at our grandstand and our facilities. [The plans] are kind of scalable to whatever we think the industry will support and whatever the industry needs.
I will say that what this whole process has helped us do is focus more on the existing facilities that we have, that are very special in and of themselves. The grandstand itself and what we can do inside the grandstand to make things more convenient and patron-friendly. We already have 1,100 acres of manicured grounds that can be used by us and the community. And so we’re considering more creative ways of using those facilities. . . . We want to make sure that, first and foremost, we utilize what we have, the assets we have on the grounds, so that they are used efficiently and in the best manner for accomplishing our mission.
With Turfway Park struggling, has Keeneland given any consideration to asking for additional dates or changing its existing schedule?
Not right now. We’re always open to it, we’re always evaluating the changes that are happening around the state. We always talk about those things. But at this point we don’t have any plans to change our schedule.
Churchill Downs has had a lot of success attracting a young demographic with night racing. Your facility would seem to be even more attractive as a night-racing destination. Any consideration for installing lights?
No. Not right now. The way our race meet is received, with the support we get from the community, we are already trying to find ways to attract that young demographic through some of the events and programs and ways that we use our existing grounds and facilities. So for the moment we are very happy with the way we are able to attract young race fans and the types of fans we are able to bring into the grounds.
I applaud Churchill Downs for taking that initiative, for getting that demographic there during a longer race meet, and getting different crowds. I think all of these efforts at different racetracks are great, and we’re all for them. And when we see an opportunity, we’ll consider it.
Last year Keeneland severed its financial ties with the manufacturer of its track. Has Keeneland’s commitment to artificial surfaces waned?
It is absolutely not waning. The one thing we’ve always said is that our number-one, primary mission is to do those things that are best for the horse, for the safety of our athletes and our jockeys. It’s unquestionable now that we have the safest racing surface in America. We’re very proud of that. All that being said, the other thing that everyone has to know is that we never considered this surface to be a finished product. We have the most heavily tested artificial surface in America right now. We are always looking for ways to make sure that we’re improving the surface. Some of those differences of opinion, we don’t ignore all that. Keeneland never sticks its head in the sand. We’re continuing to address those concerns that people have about synthetic surfaces and the differences between it and dirt. It’s a never-ending process. We consider ourselves to be on a journey. But we are keeping the focus of our journey on our responsibility to the horse and the safety of the jockey, for the long-term good of our industry.
When you leave Keeneland, what are you hoping you leave behind?
Actually, that’s an easy one. I’m only the seventh president of Keeneland in our 75 years. I can only say that every one of those presidents, when I look at what’s happened during their tenures, they took something that was already very special when they started, and however long each one was president, if you look at the timeline, I don’t think any one of them would have known what was going to happen by the time their tenures ended. All they knew was that they were stewards and caretakers of an idea that was very special, very unique, and very important to our community and our industry as a whole. And whenever they ended their tenure, all they could do was look back and say that in some small way they left it better when they started out. That’s my only goal.