If you’re in the auto industry, you might think of Jim Hallett as a car guy. Or a business guy, if you happened to catch his recent appearance on CNBC’s “Mad Money.”
But know this, too — Jim Hallett is a hockey guy.
In addition to the hat he wears as chief executive of KAR Auction Services, Hallett is the owner and chairman of the Indianapolis Fuel, a member of the East Coast Hockey League.
An Ottawa, Ontario native, Hallett grew up playing the sport. And for him, hockey is a passion — one he has shared with business colleagues, family and friends.
But more than that, owning a hockey team provided a way for Hallett to create a legacy.
Before venturing into ownership of the team, he had pondered, “What can I do to contribute something to the community that could really create a legacy and really have a lasting effect that was beyond what I would call passive philanthropy?”
Hockey, as it turns out, was one answer for Hallett and the community around Indianapolis, a place for which he expresses great fondness and now calls home.
Hallett had read a Wall Street Journal story a few years ago indicating a decline in most youth sports like basketball, football, soccer and baseball. But hockey and lacrosse, however, were on the rise, albeit from smaller figures.
Indiana, where KAR is headquartered, has long been known as a basketball state, with prominence not only on the high school level, but the success of blue-blood and elite-level play across several programs in college hoops, as well.
“Indiana’s had hockey. Hockey’s come and gone. It’s been played at various levels,” Hallett said.
“Nobody’s really been able to provide the level of hockey, sustain the level of hockey, create a professional team as well as create a grassroots program for youth hockey and really create more facilities for youth hockey and offer it as an alternative to what I call the four major sports that I mentioned,” he said, referring to baseball, basketball, football and soccer.
“And, so for me, in many ways, not only was this filling a passion and not only was it filling a need, but this was my contribution to the community,” Hallett said. “This was my gift to the community. That doesn’t mean for a minute that I don’t support other charitable organizations and charitable functions, both professionally from a KAR level, but also from a personal level.
“But this was something that I could give back to the community. And it was something that would create a legacy. Something that I could involve my family in,” Hallett said. “And it was something that could outlive me.”
Hallett said he was approached in 2014 by the Indiana State Fairgrounds, which was completing a $64 million renovation of its coliseum at the time, and asked if he had interest in returning pro hockey to Indiana’s capital. (KAR’s headquarters are in nearby Carmel, Ind.)
Long story short and eight months later, Hallett had the Indianapolis Fuel on the ice for the 2014-2015 season.
The Fuel are a minor-league affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the NHL’s Original Six franchises and certainly in recent years, one of its more successful, with three Stanley Cups in the past decade.
Hallett is not involved in the day-to-day operations of the Fuel, but has a president who runs the team. He’ll chat with the president and coach and help in decision-making if needed, but the for most part, Hallett said he leaves the operations/management to them.
Hallett is the majority owner of the Fuel, owning 88 percent of the team. One minority owner has owned the other 12 percent since Day 1.
Benefits to Indy area, KAR
Beyond the hockey-related benefits that the Fuel can bring to the area, Hallett has enjoyed being able to use hockey to drive charitable endeavors.
“For the city, I think it’s really been an introduction of what I would call an alternative sport that actually has a long history here, but it’s come and gone several times,” Hallett said. “But now they see stability and a lot of support.
“And not only do we have a great game, but I can also tell you that owning the franchise gives me the opportunity to support a lot of charities,” Hallett said. “It’s not necessarily me writing checks to those charities. We have events during the games where we sponsor charities.”
For instance, the team has a Susan B. Komen night where it honors those who have battled breast cancer and raises money for that foundation through the sale of jerseys after the game.
In the first five years of operation, Hallett estimates the team has raised between $1.3 million and $1.4 million for charities in the area.
The Fuel also purchased youth hockey arenas in the nearby town of Fishers, Ind., and started a youth hockey program.
“It’s a nonprofit, but we run the program. We built the infrastructure to put management in place to manage that nonprofit,” Hallett said. “And then we created coaches and created managers and volunteers to support a youth program much like you would in baseball or soccer or anything else.”
There are many kids who need an “escape” and want to get into hockey, Hallett said, “but there was never really a real focus on organizing it for the kids. And so, we’ve organized all that in a very meaningful way, and that’s had a major impact.
“Not only have we given them great facilities, but now we’re giving them access to good coaching and good development,” he said, adding that “my day will be made ... when one of these kids plays for the Fuel.”
But it’s not just the community that benefits. The are some es for KAR Auction Services having a connection to the team, as “the community links the two together,” even the operations and companies are separate, with KAR being a publicly traded company.
“I would say from a community standpoint, I think it really helps with recognition for KAR,” Hallett said. “I think it helps people relate to me in a different way. I think it helps with our recruiting effort, and I think it helps with just bringing an awareness to KAR and maybe people who weren’t familiar with KAR are familiar with KAR because of my relationship with the Fuel.”
Tobin Richer, who is KAR’s senior vice president of marketing and corporate communications, also touched on the benefits from the employee side of things. KAR folks are often able to use the tickets themselves or to take customers to games.
Richer, who said that “Jim’s got a pretty loyal fan base here in the building,” also said that KAR employees can get pretty pumped about the Fuel.
“When there’s big game days, the buildings full of people wearing Fuel gear,” Richer said.
What drives sports, auto business ownership
Less than eight miles from the home office of AuSM and its parent company is the arena of another professional hockey organization whose owner is also known in automotive circles.
That would be the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes and owner Thomas Dundon.
Dundon, who built the subprime financing institution that eventually became Santander Consumer USA, officially became majority owner of the Carolina Hurricanes in January 2018 through the formal closing of his purchase transaction with Peter Karmanos. Karmanos retained a minority ownership interest in the club. The NHL Board of Governors had previously approved the transaction in December 2017.
Hallett and Dundon are some of many with current and/or former ties to both the sports and automotive businesses, including folks like John Elway and Rick Hendrick.
Hallett, who counts Dundon as a friend, said he’s not sure if there’s something specific that binds together businesspeople who have ties in both the sports and automotive arenas, but it might be a hunger to win.
“I don’t know if there’s something across the board. Obviously, we’re very competitive,” Hallett said. “We come from a very competitive background. We want to win with our business. We want to win with our families.
“We want to win with our friends,” he said. “We want to win in our communities.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of AuSM's “DRIVING FORCE: The Business Intersection of Sports & Automotive” series, which will discuss the car industry's involvement in sports business — be it through marketing partnerships, ownership stakes, working as sister companies under the same corporate umbrella or other business ventures. Stay tuned for the print edition of this series in the Feb. 1 edition of the AuSM magazine.
Nick Zulovich contributed to this story.