Sports Business

Inside Track: Safe at home

From intern to CEO, Joe Chamberlin puts his mark on the West Michigan Whitecaps.

January 17, 2020
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Joe Chamberlin
Joe Chamberlin attended The College of Wooster, originally planning to become a biology major with the intention of going to medical school. Courtesy West Michigan Whitecaps

From scraping gum off the concourse at Fifth Third Ballpark to becoming the CEO of the West Michigan Whitecaps, Joe Chamberlin’s journey has come full circle.

In April, Chamberlin will be entering his second season as the CEO of the Whitecaps, the Class A minor league baseball affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, after he succeeded his father and co-owner, Lew Chamberlin, in 2019.

He was just 9 years old when his father and co-owner Denny Baxter partnered to bring the baseball team to West Michigan in 1994. Chamberlin spent much of his childhood at the ballpark and most of his family memories were created there, but he didn’t want to just have memories, he wanted to have a meaningful impact.

The 35-year-old said he knew someday he would be involved in the organization in some capacity, but he didn’t know when or how.

Only time would reveal what his purpose would be. After graduating from Forest Hills Northern High School, he attended a small college in Ohio called The College of Wooster, planning to become a biology major with the intention of going to medical school.

However, college chemistry quickly forced him to reconsider, and he focused on business economics. Throughout his time at Wooster, he took on different internships. One of his internships led him back to the Fifth Third Ballpark as an operations intern, where at times he had to scrap gum off the concourse.

Following graduation, at the height of the recession, Chamberlin quickly enrolled at Michigan State University in its Master of Human Resources and Labor Relations program. Chamberlin said he was always interested in how organizations take care of their employees based on the experiences he had at other jobs.

 

JOE CHAMBERLIN
Organization:
West Michigan Whitecaps
Position: CEO
Age: 35
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Wife, Dana; sons, Crawford, 5, and Becker, 3
Business/Community Involvement: Board member of the Whitecaps Community Foundation and Lake Michigan Academy.
Biggest Career Break: “It was getting my first job at Ally (Financial) out of my master’s program and having a successful early career with them. For me, and maybe for a lot of people who have parents start successful businesses that are on the table for them, I had a strong desire to prove to myself that I can go out there and do my own thing and be successful on my own. The track record and the career that I was able to have there did that for me.”

 

After graduating from MSU, he began working at Ally Financial, a Detroit-based digital financial services company. He was the HR lead for various functions of the company’s auto finance division. Chamberlin worked in Detroit and also at the company’s regional office in Atlanta.

Chamberlin left after almost four years because he said he wanted to be able to have input in making organizational decisions.

“Working for a big company is great,” he said. “Everything is very process-driven. Everyone has a lot of responsibilities in some big jobs, but ultimately, when you work for a big company like that, there are only a handful of true strategy-impacting positions, and while I would have liked to think if I had stuck around I would end up in one of those positions at some point, you have to wait your turn, and it takes a while to get there.

“I had this need, this desire to have a little more input and a little bit more direct responsibilities for true organizational changing decisions. So, from that perspective, coming back to this size of an organization really appealed to me because when you are in a small organization like this, everything can move a lot quicker and everyone is a lot closer to the important decisions that end up getting made.”

Chamberlin became the director of finance for the Whitecaps. He also was responsible for the team’s HR department.

One of the first challenges he faced came early in his tenure with the organization. During the offseason in his second year, a fire broke out at the Fifth Third Ballpark, engulfing suites on the first base side of the stadium.

“We watched as the Plainfield Township Fire Department showed up and tried to get the fire under control,” he said. “Two hours later, we were missing half of the ballpark. At that point in January, we were looking at opening day in April and that was a monumental task that was placed on everyone who was working in that organization at that point in time.”

The Whitecaps organization was able to rebuild with the help of the community in time for the start of the season. Chamberlin said it was amazing to see how the community rallied to fix the building in time for the beginning of the season.

“Wolverine Building Group is the general contracting firm that originally built the ballpark,” he said. “Before the fire was even out, that organization was here in a big way, waiting to get to work. It was companies like that saying, ‘We are here for you, you tell us what you need.’ It was the fans, who, within a day or two of the fire, had come by to drop off a $5 or a $100 check that said, ‘For rebuilding the ballpark.’

“You got the sense that the community really cared about who we are as an organization and what we bring to them in either their business or personal lives. That was pretty cool and great to be a part of.”

Recently, Chamberlin was a part of the decision-making process when a group of investors, led by the West Michigan Whitecaps, purchased Wuerfel Park in Traverse City and started the new Traverse City Pit Spitters baseball team.

“I have a huge amount of respect for what Lew and Denny and everybody else who started this organization and who worked here for the first 20-plus years have grown and achieved, but I think myself and others on our management team, who weren’t around in 1994, had this desire to create something else, to grow our business in a substantial way and when you are in this business, it is not super saleable,” he said. “There aren’t a ton of ballparks out there that are just waiting around for a team and new operators, so the fact that the Traverse City (facility) was for sale and that it was so close to Grand Rapids and upon doing our due diligence, we thought there were a lot of opportunities up there.

“That was what made us want to go after Traverse City. It was an organic interest from myself and people in the organization who wanted to grow, who wanted to bring our brand of fun somewhere else.”

The team made its debut in 2019 in the Northwoods League, a collegiate summer baseball league. In December, the Traverse City Pit Spitters announced a long-term naming rights deal with Grand Traverse Resort and Casinos; the stadium was renamed to Turtle Creek Stadium.

As the Whitecaps continue to move forward, Chamberlin said he feels an obligation to make sure the organization continues to be successful as his father and Baxter step back.

“I have always had a true connection with this place; I grew up around it, and I have watched my dad pour his entire career and probably more than that into this place,” he said. “My family have been connected here since 1994, so to some degree, I had an interest in pursuing that, and I also felt a responsibility to come back here and explore what working here was like, and ultimately, I feel a responsibility to make sure this place is successful moving into the future. And right now, I feel like that means me being the CEO and turning this corner as Lew and Denny take a step back.”

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