“What fires me up to go to work every day is knowing we aren’t done.”
Like many business leaders before him, Jared Orton, general manager of the Savannah Bananas baseball team, has led his organization through a tremendous business change that featured both growth and a business model shift. But, for baseball’s trendiest team both on the field and on social media, the journey was far from typical. The team's front office bet everything on their brand and just capped off the first year of a new way of doing business.
After ripening the Bananas into a championship-caliber baseball team that once competed at a high level in the developmental Coastal Plain League, ownership and Orton decided to leave competitive play in 2022. The organization subsequently changed its business model from a competitive team to an entertainment product akin to basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters.
“We were trying to figure out where could we actually compete in the marketplace and truly build fans, and the entertainment piece was a part of that,” Orton said. “We told our coaches and our players, ‘if we don't have this [entertainment aspect], we're just like everyone else. And if we're just like everyone else, then we're going to exist like everyone else, and especially in Savannah, we'll fail like everyone else.’”
At the end of the first year of the transition, Orton and his people are still all-in on growth. They have taken the team to numerous sellouts around the United States playing what they call Banana Ball. The team is filling minor league ballparks across America due to what has made the Bananas so attractive to families — a fan-first atmosphere featuring acrobatics, dancing, pyrotechnics, theatrics, babies, grandmas, and more.
In a ballpark free of advertisements and unlimited food and beverage for all ticket holders during games in Savannah’s Grayson Stadium, the Bananas’ mindset of fans first when making decisions isn’t just a marketing spiel; it’s a legitimate business foundation.
When going through growth and a major business transformation simultaneously, it can be easy for things like company culture to be left by the wayside. For Orton, who has been with the Bananas since day one, keeping the day-one mentality around the office during all the team’s on and off-field success has been a major focus. According to him, it all comes down to one thing: growing the fan base and remembering how it all began.
“The conversation we’ve been having with our people is we exist to build fans. If we are not building our fan base, our business will fail,” said Orton. “We don’t have outside capital; we don’t have huge debt load or the ability to get rich in another business. We have to wake up every day and think about what we will do to add more fans to our ecosystem.”
Maintaining day-one mentality in an organization with tremendous growth has been a struggle, according to Orton, especially when it comes to being ready for the unexpected challenges ahead.
“The struggle that we have is reminding [new employees] what it was like on day one when people laughed at us, when the stadium was in disarray, and when people wouldn’t buy tickets,” said Orton. “When we told people we were going to have dancing players and all-you-can-eat food, and we were short on cash, people thought we were crazy. So, we have to remind our people where we came from, not to say like ‘Oh, we had it harder than you,’ but rather so they can understand how we overcame what we did and how we’re going to face the new challenges of tomorrow.”
At this point, the organization's sheer size seems a little surreal for the team’s GM. “I was given the headcount the other day of 170 people, and I was shocked,” he said. “We started this thing with just four or five of us, and that’s not even counting the hourly people that work at the stadium. And I was like, good grief, we cannot forget our culture and where we came from, but this is a complex thing we’ve built.”
Learning, Leading, and Brand Development
The ability to lead, learned by many executives on the job, can be difficult if the task is choosing which avenue of possible success an organization moving at a million miles an hour should take. For Orton, there are few businesses to compare his own to, and with few direct competitors, he looks to other large companies that grew from scratch as beacons of direction for the Bananas’ next move.
“We try to learn from anyone and everyone we can, but usually not from the sports and entertainment industry,” said Orton. “I am curious about what Costco is doing, I am curious about what Southwest Airlines is doing, I am curious about what Chick-fil-A and Amazon are doing, I even read about breweries in Scotland,” he said. “None of these ways are gospel by any sense, but you take those nuggets, put them through the lens of making baseball fun, and say, ‘How would this help us build fans?’”
The idea of constantly building, improving an organization, and pushing the boundaries of growth keeps Orton as keyed into the job as he is. “What fires me up to go to work every day is knowing we aren’t done,” he said. “If I am not thinking about what we are going to improve today, how we are going to improve tomorrow, and how we are going to get more fans, I am just sitting around, hanging out, waiting for things to happen, and that’s not fun for anyone.”
According to Orton, his job is about keeping his team focused during growth, getting them to be adept problem solvers, and always thinking outside the box. “We’ve got to have the same desire for success that we did on day one,” he said. “If we don’t, everyone is going to just coast and think,‘Well this place is popular, we’re flush with cash, and everyone gets paid well, so I don’t have to do anything.’ And we cannot let that happen.”
Delegation and Autonomy
Granting autonomy, something that can be difficult to do in an organization that leadership has nurtured since day one, is something Orton believes can be implemented with a balance in part with finance. “[The vice president of finance] and I were chatting a bunch last night because we are trying to change to a new fiscal cycle,” said Orton. “We talked about how much power we entrust each department [with] versus how much decision-making gets centralized. Finance and I talk regularly about these types of things,” he said.
“We’re having our monthly conversation soon, and I’ve already sent him a page of notes based on my 30,000-foot view, and I told him I have questions about specific areas of the books,” said Orton. “We are going to review everything, trim some fat where we can, and explore all of our potential revenue opportunities. I feel really good about our revenue opportunities; it’s the expenses I work very regularly with finance on to make sure we are not leaking cash everywhere in the world.”
According to Orton, a big part of the growth — for the business and him — was to shift from leading by example to hiring great people and entrusting operations will be handled with the same level of care he would bring.
“When you start in a business, especially as small as we started, you know, you're the doer and the executor,” he said. “You're flipping hot dogs, selling tickets, selling sponsorships, managing interns, pulling the tarp off the field, turning the lights on. And part of growth is realizing that’s not sustainable.”
“Not that I'm above any of that, I will sweep the bathrooms and take out the trash for as long as I possibly need to, but we realized we have to coach and teach people to be able to do all that stuff at the level we and our fans expect,” Orton continued. “When we first started, it was like how do we get this all done in time, versus now it’s about building a team to get this whole thing done together.”
This is a three-part series. Part two, featuring Bananas’ vice president of finance, Tim Naddy, will be published on October 6.