Birth of a salesman

How Myles Gallagher ’84 quietly carved a big reputation in the sports marketing field

By John Ettorre ’80

To get to The Superlative Group’s headquarters office, you have to know it’s there. The office, hidden in plain sight in the middle of all the action of Cleveland’s sports and government, is a metaphor for the entire business. After all, the company has become something of a best-kept secret, one that thrives on some mystery. Superlative is one of the world’s leading sports and municipal marketing organizations. Holding an 85 percent market share in municipal marketing, Superlative is a household name in that market. And its tireless founder, the consummate salesman Myles Gallagher ’84, is just fine with that.

For more than two decades, Gallagher has quietly built a juggernaut. The company has helped Major League Baseball franchises such as the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals sell sponsorships, naming rights, and suites. It sold the naming rights to Cleveland’s convention center, public transit lines, and bike-sharing program. It represented venues for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Acting as an external sales force, Superlative has helped raise billions of dollars for clients, including institutions such as Xavier and Saint Louis universities. The company sells naming rights for more high school football stadiums throughout the U.S. and Canada than any other firm, according to Gallagher. More recently, Superlative has begun conducting business in Ireland, where it represents almost all Irish universities, using the country as a gateway to opportunities in Europe.

From its original beachhead in sports marketing, the company branched out into the municipal arena, having been retained by public officials in large markets such as San Diego, Los Angeles, Miami-Dade County, Cook County, Phoenix, Minneapolis, and Toronto – as well as more modest-sized markets such as St. Catherines, Ontario, Miami Beach, and the Rockford Park District in Illinois – to generate more income from public infrastructure. That industry received a significant boost during the Great Recession, when cash-starved cities, counties, and regions were forced to become more creative about generating new revenue streams. From selling the naming rights to public places to striking preferred soft drink vendor agreements in various venues, Superlative likes to focus on deals that yield long-term revenue for its clients. It has even been hired by the U.S. Department of Defense to work on Marine Corps base initiatives throughout the world.

Gallagher in his company's office in Cleveland

Gallagher in his company’s office in Cleveland

Best laid plans
Gallagher laid out his entire career path in his mind early in life. Growing up in an Irish-Catholic family in suburban Fairview Park, Ohio, he attended John Carroll in the early 1980s.

“The plan was to get a poly sci degree, law school, and then go into practice with my dad,” he says.

But the script had to be rewritten in February of his freshman year at Carroll, when his father died.

“Before my dad died, I was drinking beer and having a blast,” he says. “And then it was either make money and pay tuition or get out.”

His father’s death forced Gallagher to scramble. The University let him pay his tuition late, and within a few weeks of his dad’s passing, he set himself up in the landscaping business. He called it Tuition Lawn Care. Paul Prokop ’84, ’87G designed business cards for him that bore the image of Grasselli Tower.

The political science major started in sales shortly after graduation by selling copiers. It’s been said that if one can sell a copy machine, the ultimate commodity, one can sell anything. His big break came in the early ’90s, as the Cleveland Indians prepared to move into a new ballpark, now called Progressive Field, by selling corporate suites. Gallagher took the job because he knew it would allow him to meet corporate executives.

“Corporate CEOs will send their chief financial officers to pick out their company’s health insurance, but when it came time to pick out their sky box at the new baseball stadium, they said, ‘I’d better go take a look at this,’” he says. “So I met every CEO in Cleveland.”

Gallagher’s business education continued through a brush with greatness during his time at IMG, which essentially invented the sports representation business. The company, famously founded on a so-called golden handshake between founder Mark McCormack and golf legend Arnold Palmer, later became a global powerhouse that drastically changed competitive sports by selling large sponsorships for teams, sporting venues, and leagues. Gallagher vividly recalls meeting McCormack in an elevator during his first month on the job.

“Most of the other salesmen wore golf shirts, but I was wearing a suit – starched white shirt, shoes shined,” Gallagher says. “What do you do for us?” the boss asked him. “I’m in sales,” he replied.

Gallagher went on to proudly inform McCormack that he had already sold a sponsorship, just three weeks into the job. He had made an impression.

Naming rights
A key part of The Superlative Group’s business involves selling sponsorships that name sporting venues and convention centers. But owner Myles Gallagher ’84 received some unusual assistance when he named his company. Some years ago, when Gallagher was working for Dunlop Tyres, he drew the assignment to create names for a new line of tires. Stumped, he called Fr. Casey Bukala, S.J., ’54, ’55G, who has been his confidant since he was 19.

“He knew I was scared when my dad died,” Gallagher says. “He approached me on
my way out of the cafeteria and asked what my plans were. Ever since then, he has always had time to answer a question and provide guidance, whether personal, professional, or spiritual.”

This time, Gallagher needed to tap his knowledge of Latin. Fr. Bukala suggested the word “superlative.” It ultimately didn’t work for the tires, but the Jesuit priest said, “If you ever start a company, use that name.” In time, he did. Later, when Gallagher was teased about that name, he responded: “Well, we thought about calling ourselves The Second Best Guys company, but it didn’t really sound as good. What do you think?”

Bud Stanner, who rose to the top of the management ladder during a 34-year career at IMG and became an important mentor to Gallagher, knew early on that his protege would eventually start his own company.

“Myles is such an insightful guy,” Stanner says. “I could tell after about a month that he wasn’t going to stay forever, but would learn and then start his own company.”

Ultimately, Gallagher did just that, leaving on friendly terms and continuing to stay in touch with former colleagues at IMG, which has been a source of many of his hires.

If Superlative is largely patterned on the IMG business model, it also was influenced by other important people and companies. Gallagher recalls being excited about landing business with the global consumer products giant Procter & Gamble many years ago.

“We dealt with some of the smartest people on the planet there,” he says. “They’re so good at planning what’s next that I said, ‘We have to bring that into our company. We have to stop looking at what our competitors are doing. Who cares?’”

Instead, Gallagher built a corporate culture based on always looking ahead at what’s next. The company ethos might be
best captured in relation to a saying by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, who once observed that he skates not to the puck but to where the puck will be.

Gallagher thinks the puck is now moving to the health-care industry because the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, has meant less industry revenue. So he’s positioned Superlative to take advantage of growing opportunities in that market.

“Lower profit margins mean people are going to need new funding,” he says. “And what do we do? We find people new sources of revenue.”

Superlative’s consultancy practice in the health-care market has tripled during the past three years.

The company has developed an infrastructure naming rights practice that’s poised to take advantage of the infrastructure plans of the federal and state governments, as well as stimulus programs throughout the world.

In a culture that sometimes dismisses sales as a faintly disreputable activity, Gallagher qualifies as his profession’s biggest booster.

“Nothing happens until somebody sells something, right?” he says. “Think about where we’d be right now if somebody didn’t sell something. We would be sitting on a hardwood floor because there’d be no couch, no shoes, no carpet. Did you have breakfast this morning? Somebody sold the wheat and the oven to make that bagel. It’s all about sales – a salesman is someone who makes something happen.”

Gallagher’s email signature reads “good luck and good selling.” Asked if he ever thinks about retirement, he doesn’t hesitate.

“What else would I do?”

Friends marvel at his massive network. “He stays in touch with everybody, with a
constant stream of notes and emails,” Stanner says. “He works night and day.”

All of that has resulted in Gallagher’s uncommon success.

“Nobody, including IMG, has had the same kind of success monetizing government and civic assets as the Superlative Group,” Stanner says.

What’s often misunderstood about sales is that it involves more listening than talking, and that the best salespeople typically have the greatest ability to form solid, lasting relationships.

“What gets lost a little in that big personality of his is that he’s as genuine as the day is long,” says Rich Kramer ’86, CEO of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, who befriended Gallagher in college. “He makes everyone around him feel good, and he’ll try to help you eight ways from Tuesday. He has a genuine goodness about him that’s second to none.” JCU

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