Beyond the Boardroom

Conversations with leaders who transcend traditional business

This ain't a one-time rodeo

January 27, 2012: 12:33 PM ET
Professional Bull Riders CEO Jim Haworth

Professional Bull Riders CEO Jim Haworth

Professional Bull Riders CEO Jim Haworth aims to turn what most people think of as one event at the rodeo into a modern, mainstream sport.

FORTUNE – When it comes to executive experience, this is not Jim Haworth's first rodeo. The Professional Bull Riders CEO was an executive vice president at Sears (SHLD), chairman of Chinese retail company Chia Tai Enterprises International Ltd., and spent 20 years at Wal-Mart (WMT) before that.

Haworth took the reins at PBR in 2011 with the aim of turning what most people think of as one event at the rodeo into a modern, mainstream sport. Things are looking up, he says, "What's exciting about the PBR is that we're a profitable sporting event. If you go out and look, there's not that many of those."

Still, Haworth has his eyes on bigger things -- more networks broadcasting bull riding and an expanded global fan base. He spoke to Fortune about marketing to "buckle bunnies," taking the New England Patriots' Chad Ochocinco up on a challenge, and pleasing the Facebook fans of a bull named Bushwacker. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Fortune: How did you go from retail to the bull riding business?

Jim Haworth: I grew up around cattle and I have a ranch in Oklahoma where I raise cutting horses, quarter horses, and cattle. This job is the first time that I've been able to put my business savvy and acumen towards what I would say is a passion for me -- the Western lifestyle. So it's been a dream job.

I got involved as an advisor with the PBR back in 2005. In 2011, Spire Capital Partners asked me if I'd like to take on this challenge, and I said absolutely.

How do you modernize a sport like bull riding?

We have to think about how to create a mainstream sport that has a history embedded in a Western lifestyle from years ago. One of the things we learned is our fans want more bull riding. So we've got to deal with different TV networks. We're doing our first YouTube launch tonight. If you look at our website, we actually have a live event center where we broadcast behind the scenes of events….

The other key piece of our strategy is international growth. We have good U.S. riders, but we also have Brazilian riders, Canadian riders, and Australian riders.

Not only is Australia a good business for us, it's a good strategic spot as we think about Asia and other places where we might want to transport bulls. You can't necessarily bring bulls from the United States directly into China. You would have to bring them from Australia.

How important are the individual bulls to the business? Is one bull the same as any other?

The two things we've got are great riders and great bulls. Bushwacker last year was our PBR world champion bull of the year. He was in the Wall Street Journal twice last year; he was in the New York Times, and on ESPN.

If you look at our exposure, Bushwacker by far gave us more publicity than any of our riders did. In some cases, bulls have a larger following on Facebook than some of our riders.

What's behind the mass appeal of these cattle?

Years ago, people just used cattle that you couldn't catch that they thought might make good bucking bulls. Today, there's a whole breeding subculture for these bulls….

People think, "Well, if I can't ride a bull, I can own a bull." And the bulls are treated like rock stars. One television broadcast last year showed their pre-event diet -- we went through what they eat in preparation before they get ready to buck. People loved it.

Bull riding seems very much like a tough guy's sport, what about your female fan base?

If you look at our fan following, there is actually a bigger percentage of women. And it's young to old. Everything from the women we call "the buckle bunnies" -- they kind of follow the riders -- to grandmothers that are big PBR fans. These are good-looking, fit, humble guys that tip their hats to the ladies. They've got good manners and they're tough, they're real athletes. Where else could you go see that?

What is the craziest thing that has happened since you took over as CEO?

At the first part of April last year Chad Ochocinco in the NFL sent a simple tweet where he said he tried playing soccer, and now he wants to ride a bull.

Well, it so happened our COO Sean Gleason saw that and he said, "Jim, we're going to try to take him up on the challenge." Every now and then, you've got to seize the moment. When you're flexible, it's easy to react to things that are great way to get more exposure.

The challenge was if he rode the bull, he got a new truck. If he didn't show up, we were going to rename the bull "No-Show Ocho."

He didn't know what to expect. But we worked with him to teach him how to get out of there without getting hurt. He got on the bull and rode for 1.2 seconds. He had never seen a bull before.

Chad was a champ, and he turned out to be a key follower of ours. I think he's going to own one of our bulls.

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About This Author
Shelley DuBois
Shelley DuBois
Writer - Reporter, Fortune

Shelley DuBois writes on management issues for Fortune.com. Before joining Fortune, she was a producer for National Public Radio's Science Friday and worked for Wired. Shelley has a graduate degree in science, health and environmental reporting from New York University. She lives in Brooklyn.

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