Updated on 08/02/2012 11:06AM

Woodbine: Willmot retires as chairman of Woodbine Entertainment Group

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Michael Burns
David Willmot has retired as chairman of the board of the Woodbine Entertainment Group.

ETOBICOKE, Ontario – David Willmot, chairman of the board of the Woodbine Entertainment Group, has retired, the company announced late Wednesday afternoon.

Jim Lawson has been elected as Willmot’s replacement and takes over the helm at a time when Ontario’s racing industry finds itself at a potential crossroads following the Ontario government’s decision to end the racetrack slots revenue-sharing program on March 31, 2013.

Woodbine and the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association, headed by Sue Leslie, continue to negotiate with the ruling Liberal party in search of a sustainable solution for the industry.

Willmot, 62, has been a major player in the Ontario racing and breeding industry through Kinghaven Farm, founded by his late father, Donald “Bud” Willmot.

First elected to the WEG board in 1984, Willmot served as president and chief executive officer of the company from 1995 to 2010 and had been chairman since 2001.

“When I stepped down as CEO, I commited to the board that I would stay on for two years as executive chair,” Willmot said Thursday morning. “That two years was up, and Jim Lawson has been doing a lot of good work on the big issue – the gaming issue – as vice chair.

“I’m still on the board – I can still make a contribution that way – but I didn’t need to be chairman anymore.

“I’ve been in a senior position long enough. Everbody’s got different theories on management style. I’ve always been a big believer that you can overstay your welcome.

“We had a succession plan in mind, and that plan has now worked.”

Willmot led the repositioning of WEG, a not-for-profit corporation, around the objective of operating a multi-dimensional entertainment business committed to maximizing financial performance in order to achieve the highest quality of horse racing.

To that end, the company has invested approximately $385 million over the past 15 years improving its ontrack and offtrack customer experience and amenities, implementing new broadcasting and wagering technologies, and investing in its racetrack facilities and racing products.

In addition to the many other successes during Willmot’s tenure, wagering on Woodbine’s Thoroughbred and Standardbred races and its Mohawk Raceway Standardbred product grew significantly across North America. Woodbine also played host to both the Breeders’ Cup and Breeders Crown championships, the only racetrack to have hosted both.

Willmot also served on the boards of multiple industry organizations, including Breeders’ Cup, International Federation of Horse Racing Authorities (IFHA), Thoroughbred Racing Association (TRA), Harness Tracks of America (HTA), Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association (OHRIA), the Jockey Club of Canada (JCC), and the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society (CTHS).

His contributions have been widely recognized across the industry by way of his induction in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame and with awards including the Jockey Club of Canada’s E.P. Taylor Award of Merit, the HTA’s Messenger Award, the John W. Galbreath Award for outstanding entrepreneurship in the equine industry, and the CTHS’s Mint Julep Cup for outstanding contribution.

“The board and management of WEG are fortunate to have benefited from David’s vision and commitment to the success of our company and the unfailing passion and integrity which have characterized David’s leadership,” Lawson said in a prepared statement.

“David oversaw the transformation of WEG into an internationally admired and respected horse racing and entertainment organization that is the pride of the Ontario horse racing industry.”

Lawson, 53, has served as a WEG director since 2008 and was appointed vice chairman in 2012. He sits on the company’s Thoroughbred racing committee, which he chairs; Standardbred racing committee; pension and compensation committee; and audit committee.

Lawson also is chairman of the Jockey Club of Canada and is active in the racing industry as owner and manager of Jim Dandy Stable, a Thoroughbred breeding and racing operation.

“On behalf of WEG’s approximately 2,300 full- and part-time employees, I would like to thank David for his leadership over the years,” stated Nick Eaves, WEG president and CEO.  “He empowered all of us to play a part in building a fantastic company. His vision and determination have positioned the company to respond to the changing landscape of horse racing and gaming in Ontario.

“The WEG management team and I look forward to working closely with Jim to continue this momentum.”