When the Walton-Penner Group took over as Denver Broncos owners last season, newly appointed CEO Greg Penner had a lot to learn about owning a football team.
But the former Goldman Sachs financial analyst and Walmart chairman didn’t find it all that hard to translate running a multibillion-dollar corporation with running an NFL franchise.
“I talked about a year ago about setting a culture, and for us that starts with people—setting high expectations, giving them resources and then holding them accountable. I’ve been doing that a long time at Walmart,” he said Wednesday as acclimation practices for training camp began. “The big learning is how do you translate that—those principles—into this environment and this setting?”
Primarily solid leadership as the foundation.
And if his first year running the Broncos taught Penner anything, it was that that foundation was crumbling.
So the answer was not to take slow steps toward improvement.
The answer was to go big or go home because that’s how you change a culture.
Enter Sean Payton.
By all markers, getting the Super Bowl-winning coach to come out of retirement to a franchise in the dumps was a major coup.
So the business mastermind and the football mastermind got to work making big changes - Penner on the big-money needs; Payton on the team culture.
Both seem to be making their marks early.
Sean Payton putting heat on himself
Telling USA Today this week that the Broncos are “going to learn how rewarding it is to play for each other, compete for each other, rather than for ourselves,” Payton made a bold announcement - “I expect us to think playoffs.”
Already this offseason, hints at better work ethic and less personal promotion have been obvious, and the head coach’s disinterest in social media and public relations has been refreshingly clear.
Payton’s comments about last season’s debacle are a lot less about the mistakes made in 2022 and more about his own accountability to making the team better in 2023.
“It doesn’t happen often where an NFL team or organization gets embarrassed,” Payton said. “And that happened here. Part of it was their own fault, relative to spending so much (expletive) time trying to win the offseason – the PR, the pomp and circumstance, marching people around and all this stuff. ...We’re not doing any of that.
Penner taking the reins
Penner has the same no-nonsense approach. And it’s no accident he was the one doing Wednesday’s press conference over GM George Paton.
Things are going to be different and that starts at the top. Penner is in charge.
While he believes legacy and history “are incredibly important,” there is one phrase the new CEO never wants to hear.
“One of my pet peeves—I remember my first meeting at Walmart when I took over as chairman and I was explaining some of my pet peeves,” he recalled. “One was please don’t ever say the words, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it’ as a rationale for something.”
Penner noted that Payton’s arrival meant raising the bar for everyone in the franchise.
“[Payton] came in and right away changed the tone in the building. He sets very high expectations. Everybody knows that they are going to be held accountable,” Penner said. “At the same time, he’s a great teacher. [He’s] always wanting to teach.”
In fact, that teaching element is what has impressed the new CEO the most.
“I knew that he had the experience, I knew that he was going to bring the offensive mind and a number of other things, but that teaching where he really takes moments consistently throughout the day,” Penner said, noting it’s with anyone in the building - in the cafeteria, the training room, the field, wherever. “That constant teaching was something that I hadn’t expected.”
And Penner isn’t afraid to learn this new business of owning an NFL team. That’s why Payton has a lot of autonomy under Penner’s chairmanship.
“I’m a big believer in empowering people and he’s got years of experience in this league… For a lot of decisions, he makes the call,” Payton said, adding that they are talking a lot and establishing where Payton has free rein and where they might make a decision together.
And it’s Payton’s strong views about how he needs to run a team that really appeals to Penner.
Broncos Owner & CEO Greg Penner on HC Sean Payton:— Aric DiLalla (@AricDiLalla) July 26, 2023
"He has a lot of emotion and cares passionately about this team and what we’re building. ... He started with, ‘We are going to raise the bar,’ and I think that’s what we needed with this team and organization."
“I think it’s great that he has strong convictions. It comes from years of experience. He has a lot of emotion and cares passionately about this team and what we’re building. His heart is in the right place and his intentions are right,” Penner said. “Again, he started with, ‘We are going to raise the bar,’ and I think that’s what we needed with this team and organization.”
Penner and his co-owners are also aiming to raise the bar on their side of the equation - with better facilities for the players and game experience for the fans.
Although no firm plans to move the Centura Health Training Center are in the works, it is still being evaluated.
“We love this location. We own the land here. This is obviously where we would like to be,” Penner said, acknowledging some improvements they’d really like to make. “The building that we are in now is a bit small, especially when you look at the locker room and the mode of player travel throughout the building. It’s not connected to the weight room or [the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse]. We are looking at options where we could potentially bring that together, but no immediate plans on that.”
What is in the works is the $100 million stadium upgrade the new owners pledged almost as soon as last season ended. Led by president Damani Leech and stadium general manager Jay Roberts, Penner said the new plans are coming along well.
“My challenge to them was that we haven’t touched the stadium in any meaningful way since it’s been built. When that last game ends, what can we get done before the next season starts?” he said, noting they’re not quite there yet but will be soon. “I’m very proud of the team and I think the fans will appreciate it.”
And if the Broncos’ CEO knows there is one thing about running an NFL franchise that is exactly the same as running a multibillion-dollar corporation, it’s that pleasing the customers is first.
“Our expectations for this year are to set really high expectations, work hard every day to get better and put a good product on the field, something that our fans can be proud of.”