CEO Stories: An agent for change
Stacy Lewis, with 12 LPGA tournament wins to her credit, shares her thoughts about her unlikely transition to professional sports, the pay disparity between male and female golfers, and using her platform to be an agent for change.
A DIFFERENT FUTURE
Growing up with a back brace, Stacy Lewis didn’t envision a career as a golfer – let alone one that would make her the first woman in 20 years to win the LPGA triple crown. Always academically oriented, she graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in finance and accounting – a background she says has prepared her well for the unexpected “job” of being a professional athlete. While she has a group of trusted advisors around her, she still derives a level of security from plotting her financial picture in Excel.
Lewis says she doesn’t envision a time when there will be parity in purses for male and female golfers in her career. She pays tribute to Venus Williams for helping to close the gap in tennis by pointing out that men and women were playing at the same facility at the same time. A new mother, she is especially outspoken about the challenges of combining motherhood and sports.
Lewis also credits the European Tour and her sponsors (a group Stephens is proud to be part of) for the opportunity to promote the sport among women and to raise awareness around issues like the pay gap and playing conditions. She points out that the relationship between athlete and sponsor isn’t about promotion but the recognition how each can help the other. For example, KPMG decision to pay her the entire sponsorship fee when she was out on maternity leave sent a powerful message about their genuine support.
This Is Capitalism, Stacy Lewis
RH: This is Capitalism. I’m Ray Hoffman. There aren’t many 32-year-olds in any profession who have assumed the kind of leadership role that Stacy Lewis has in the world of professional golf. And I’m not particularly talking about her so far twelve LPGA tournament wins, including two majors, or the fact that she was the first American woman in more than twenty years to win the LPGA triple crown.
No, there’s more to it. Because a girl who grew up in a back brace as she did would not be a prime candidate to turn pro, let alone become No. 1 in the world. She has stepped into controversy. Less as a disruptor and more as a leader, she has inspired change and driven change. The companies she represents as a brand ambassador, such firms as KPMG, Marathon Petroleum, and now Stephens Inc., know to turn to her for much more than just club selection and putting tips.
Stacy Lewis, it seems to me that you’re particularly well qualified to talk about the business of being a professional golfer. Your degree from the University of Arkansas is in finance and accounting.
SL: It is, it is. I went to school with the intentions of getting a job afterwards and not playing professional golf. So I was going to get something that I could get a job with down the road and that was really the plan starting school.
RH: Even though your career path and your early success has just pointed you toward success as a professional. A four time all-American Dinah Shore trophy, NCAA Division I winner, and yet you still wanted to prepare for something else.
SL: [Laughs.] Yeah, you know, I mean I really didn’t get better until I got to school. My parents…I think academics were always important to them and we always had to get good grades and so school came to me pretty naturally. So I wouldn’t say it was too hard for me. But the professional golf realm didn’t really come in till my last couple years of college.
RH: I’m wondering now, how often do you reach back into your academic bag, as opposed to golf bag, [laughter] to apply what you learned in those finance classes and accounting classes? Does it come in handy very often?
SL: I feel like I’m my own little business. I have to manage things, I have to manage money, I have to hire people and get rid of people when I don’t want them around anymore. You have to pay people, you have to pay bills, you got to do all this stuff. So I really feel like all those classes prepared me for this. I definitely don’t do my own taxes because that’s way too complicated and I don’t have enough time for that, but I do think especially the finance background has helped me a lot.
RH: So you’re CEO of Stacy Lewis?
SL: Exactly, exactly. My accountant–he’s always asking me if I want him to pay bills and keep track of things for me and stuff like that and I’m like, “well I’ve got my Excel spreadsheet and I’ve got all my stuff laid out and there’s probably not too many other professional golfers that make an Excel spreadsheet.” But it’s just the way I like to do it. [Laughs.]
RH: Those of us who follow golf, I have the Golf Channel on in the middle of the night sometimes to watch a tournament from Singapore or wherever, we hear professional golfers described as independent contractors. And I’d like to go into the nuts and bolts of what that means.
SL: Well basically you make your own decisions. I think that the shock of turning pro is so far along you’ve had your college coaches or your parents or somebody to kind of make all the decisions for you and all the sudden you’re thrown into this position of “who’s going to be my caddy, who is going to be my agent, who is going to be my trainer, my instructor, my financial advisor, who’s going to be my accountant?”
You’re kind of just thrown into this big picture that I don’t think a lot of people are prepared for and they realize that that’s a part of our job. With especially golf you don’t get paid unless you play well, unless you have sponsorships and things like that, obviously. But especially on the women’s side, a lot of these girls come out with not a lot of sponsorships so there is a lot of pressure to play well because you’ve got all these people you’ve got to pay before you get any of that money.
RH: Did you realize when you were in college how much of a team you were going to have to employ?
SL: No, not at all. I’ve always kept it pretty small. I think some people have bigger teams around them than I do, but even in college I kept it pretty small and kept kind of just a couple people that I really trust and people that will tell you when you screw up. I think that’s the most important thing.
And I think everybody is there to pat you on the back and tell you “good job” but it’s the ones that are going to pull you inside and be like, “hey you shouldn’t have said that there or you need to do this differently,” those are really the kind of people you need to have around.
RH: How large is your team?
SL: I’d say I have a caddy, I have a swing coach, a trainer, I have an agent, I have a financial advisor, and an accountant. And then you can kind of throw husband and mom and dad into that as well. [Laughs.] They’re advisors, a kind of advisors I would say too. So close to 10 people probably. And then my college coach is somebody that I rely on too for a lot of advice.
So I’d say about 10 people or so, which is probably pretty average I would say for a professional golfer. And you get too many people. I know some people have a short game coach and they have a putting coach and they have a swing coach. I like to just keep it pretty simple and not get so much advice going on.
RH: Yeah well it’s no secret the purses are much larger on the PGA tour, nothing like the old days, the ‘50s, when one of the pioneer players, Babe Zaharias or Mickey Wright, would take home maybe a tenth of what a Hogan or a Jimmy Demaret would win. And I see the purses going up to at least five million for the U.S. Women’s Open this year. So definitely the pay-out gap is getting smaller. But do you think that over the next decades, your thirties and forties, you’re going to see anything close to parity in the purses?
SL: I mean…I don’t think by the time I’m done playing…unfortunately I don’t think…I don’t see purses being equal. I don’t ever see that. Do I see it getting smaller? Yes. You look at the winners of the PGA tour events making over a million dollars in one week. Or the U.S. Open, the purse is pretty inflated, obviously, but an average event, our winners are making a check of three hundred thousand. So we’re still making a third of what the guys are making.
So to me that just shows how far we still have to go. And yes, we have come a very long way where women can make a living out of playing professional golf where they couldn’t do that before. So I’m very appreciative obviously of what we get to do but would still like to see that gap being narrowed and maybe one day even…
You look at tennis–tennis has the men’s and women’s purses equal because they’re playing at the same time. So maybe there’s an event where we have the guys and the women playing at the same time and you can do an equal purse. I mean that would be a pretty cool event, I would think.
RH: I’m wondering whether you or any of your friends on the tour have talked to any of the professional women tennis players about what they have accomplished in terms of parity?
SL: I mean I don’t think we have. You just hear so many stories. I think Venus Williams was a big driver of “we’re competing at the same time as the guys, you can’t say…when you buy a ticket, you buy a ticket to get on the grounds. So who knows if you’re there for the guys or the women?” And she was a big advocate for that. I really think it’s going to take us playing at the same golf course at the same time for that to really change, unfortunately.
RH: Okay, but that did happen last week in Australia.
SL: It did, it did.
RH: I was watching that wonderful tournament, the Vic Open, alternating groups of men and women on a tough links course just in from the ocean and even competition.
SL: It did. I was kind of bummed I missed it. I just wasn’t ready to leave a three-month- old at home yet. But it’s showing that it can be done, you know. And we really enjoyed… I know the girls enjoy playing with the guys and being on that stage. And while the purses were relatively small for both tours I feel like it’s progress. It’s kind of a starting board of maybe something bigger down the road.
RH: Yeah, a real joint venture between the LPGA and the European tour.
SL: Yes. The European Tour has always kind of, I feel like, thought more outside the box necessarily than the PGA Tour and willing to kind of take some risks. We’re certainly appreciative of that.
RH: There weren’t a whole lot of highly ranked world players at the Vic Open but I have to imagine quite a few LPGA pros were keeping one eye on that for what it might suggest in the future.
SL: Right. Yeah. And maybe the guys too. You look at the guys that played, they didn’t have a ton of the top-rated male European Tour players. So hopefully they were watching as well.
RH: How much would you like to see a true PGA Tour, LPGA joint tournament, and what’s it gonna take to make it happen?
SL: Well, a lot of money. [Laughter.] Unfortunately. You look at what the guys play for and I just…don’t know how you would just justify the women’s purse being less if we’re playing at the same time. So the purses would have to be equal and so that’s…You’re talking probably $15 million in purse for one tournament. So I think that’s going to be the biggest hurdle and it might be more of a limited field event where the purses can be a little bit smaller and a little bit more intimate vs. having a ton of people playing.
RH: Something like for instance the PGA Tournament at the start of the year in Hawaii where it’s just tournament winners?
SL: Right, right. Maybe it’s 30 or 40 or 50 from each side and where you can all get on the golf course and play at the same time. I just think it would be a lot of fun. I just think we don’t get to see the guys very much and I just think…I feel like when everyone comes to an LPGA event, they’re surprised. They’re surprised by the way we play, they’re surprised by the way we interact and if we can show that to these audiences that go to the PGA tour all the time, you know, and maybe change the audience that we get from week to week.
RH: Yeah I see the quality of play, the putts, the pitches, everything. I mean it looks very similar to me.
SL: Right. I feel like our game is much more relatable for the average player that plays maybe once or twice a week. We hit it kind of the same distance as your average male amateur. There’s more finesse a little bit to the women’s game and more feel I think in the wedges and the putter. And the guys just, they seem to just hit it hard these days. So I think there is something to be learned there too.
RH: You’ve played everywhere more or less.
RH: Is there a course that would really stand out as a perfect venue for such a dream tournament where shot making is essential?
SL: I feel like, I mean I really feel like you could do it anywhere. I would love to see it on a links course, maybe like in Scotland or something like that. I think it would be a lot of fun. But you could really do it anywhere. The biggest issue would be course set-up of making sure that you wouldn’t want one score to be way higher or lower than the other. You know you want the winning scores to be pretty similar. So the main thing I think would be score set up with tees.
RH: Spoken as a winner at Saint Andrews.
SL: Yes. [Laughs.] Well I love links golf, that’s my favorite style of golf. So I would love for it to be there. [Laughs.]
RH: Yeah that tournament last week, just watching that wonderful course down in the bottom of Australia, I just loved that.
SL: You get a links-y feel with the sand belt courses in Australia. And that time of the year it’s usually pretty firm and fast down there too.
RH: From 2014 to 2017 you had a long drought where you didn’t win a single tournament. And then when you did win, you donated the entire $195,000 check to hurricane relief for Houston after the big storm. You’ve lived in Houston for a long time. Do you remember the moment when you made that decision and how it made you feel?
SL: Yeah. I mean it was the Tuesday night before the tournament and just…I was just in my hotel room and I just…the thought just kind of came into my head. So I called my husband and I said, “this is what I’m going to do.” And he’s like, “let’s go win the thing.” You know? And it wasn’t even really a conversation. It was just something I decided to do and just…just needed some focus for that week because my mind was elsewhere. I was worried about my family and I just needed something to kind of focus me when I was on the golf course.
RH: And do you remember how you felt after the phone call?
SL: No. There was just really this…I say the whole week…If you watch me play golf you wouldn’t say calm is ever a word that describes me when I play golf. I’m usually pretty fiery. But that whole week I was so calm. I was at peace with where my game was at, I was at peace with what was going to happen that week and I knew the outcome had already been decided and all I needed to do was be there for it and enjoy it.
And it was just kind of a surreal week and a surreal experience. It’s been so cool to see the impact of that money. And we’ve been rebuilding, helping rebuild houses here in Houston. And we’ve had I think about eight families get back into their house. So it’s been a really cool experience.
RH: Now, this may be a lame question but how does one donate one’s winnings of $195,000?
SL: [Laughs.] Well one, it’s put into my bank account first and then I wrote a check to… I worked with this SVP, the Saint Bernard Project. So I wrote them a check and they helped me with the distributing it and getting these houses fixed up.
RH: Wonderful. You didn’t compete all that much last year as you were working on a more important project, being a mother.
SL: Yes, yeah.
RH: How has motherhood changed your daily or weekly professional routine?
SL: It has completely changed my world. You kind of forget what life was like before. You’ve got to make sure you have a babysitter or somebody that can watch her so I can go practice. And the practice time is a little bit more limited but it also forces me to just really be focused when I’m there, get your work done, and then go spend time with her and get home.
But it’s been a great balance so far. I’ve played one tournament in January already and she came with us and went to daycare while I played. The LPGA Tour has daycare, which is really, really nice. I mean I don’t think there is any other way I could deal with it. It’s been hard, it’s been tiring, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
RH: And you’re one of three new mothers on the tour, right?
SL: Mhm. Yeah, there were, gosh, I think maybe even four or five babies born last year and at least one already coming in I think the summer. So I don’t know if we’re all getting older and we kind of realized we need to get going or what but just kind of hit that point in our lives where we’ve been. I’ve been successful on the golf course and was ready for this challenge. And I still feel like I can play some pretty great golf coming back from this as well.
RH: I’m wondering how sponsorships fit into your life. For example, you and Phil Mickelson are the principle faces of golf for KPMG. He wears the black hat, you wear the blue hat. Why do you wear two different color hats, by the way?
SL: Well, the blue hat is a program that KPMG does. They sell the blue hat, and for every hat they sell, they donate five books to children in need. That’s their campaign for literacy. I have black, I have white, so we get to wear whatever we want but the blue hat is really the special one for KPMG.
RH: How does a high-profile sponsorship like that operate throughout the year?
SL: Everyone sees the logo. I think that’s the most visible thing. But actually the thing that’s most important, especially at a KPMG, I mean it’s in each contract as service days. What I do with them is I spend a full day with their clients and it’s all women, we do events with all women. So we have about 25 women come, they’re invited by various people from KPMG and we do some instruction. My instructors come and we do instruction before we go play, and then we go play nine holes and they do a scramble. We kind of make it fun for them and a time to network and…
And that’s what their type of business is about. It’s really just what the sponsor wants to do with it more than anything as to what those days look like.
RH: And how many days out of the year would you normally devote to a KPMG?
SL: For them, it’s five to six. And then you throw in…there’s a couple meet and greets here and there, and then your social media posts and various little things behind the scenes of videos and stuff like that. Every logo I have is usually at least a couple full service days. So when you add it all up, it’s quite a bit.
RH: Yeah, and that would suggest to me that there is a finite limit on how many sponsors you can have before you have no time to give them, right?
SL: [Laughs.] Yes, yes. My agent right now is all concerned about my time, especially with the baby. There have been opportunities for some other sponsors but I just don’t have time. If I want to play 25 events a year there’s only a certain amount of time for it.
RH: Do you understand the magic behind the logo placement on shirts and hats?
SL: It’s all about how much it’s seen on TV. The front of the hat obviously is No. 1. And then your right, left chest–your left chest or right chest I think would be next. Side of the hat gets a lot of visibility. And then your collar and your sleeve are kind of after that.
Your golf bag is actually kind of toward the end of how much it’s seen on. It’s all about how much it’s seen on TV, basically. So you just think about all the camera angles and what angles they’re getting you from and things like that. [Laughs.]
RH: How many outfits with logos do you rotate through in a season?
SL: Oh, a lot. My clothing sponsor is Antigua. And to start the year they just send me a big box of shirts and then if I need them updated throughout the summer, they will. And then in the fall they usually have a new line of colors and designs come out so I get a whole other big box again. But you’re looking at probably 30 to 40 shirts I would say.
RH: Well I’ll say one thing about Antigua, your sponsor, I think their polo shirts fit better than any other.
SL: Well there you go. And they do a tremendous amount of work in women’s golf. So I think they deserve a lot of credit there. You look at a lot of girls on tour that they support…gosh, I’ve worn Antigua now for the last seven, eight years, so they’re a pretty important sponsor of mine.
RH: And you recently added a sponsor in Stephens Incorporated.
SL: I did.
RH: Which has a soft spot for Razorback golfers like David Lingmerth and you.
SL: Uh huh. Yeah, I’ve seen the logo on the guys the last couple years and was excited when we got the call, you know, that they were kind of stepping over into the women’s side with myself and Gaby, and just representing Arkansas wherever we go.
RH: Have you gotten more involved in the shaping of your role as brand ambassador over time?
SL: When I came on tour I didn’t really understand what…You see logos on people, you don’t know what that means or what they do. And what you realize too is you’re representing those companies wherever you go. So they want to be a partner with you. And a lot of the times you have similar values and…
It needs to make sense. You know? I’ve said no to things just because its not me, it’s not who I am. So I just feel like I’ve been really lucky with the people I’ve surrounded myself with and it’s made sense.
RH: It seems to me you’ve been quite proactive in getting your personal sponsors to become more involved with the LPGA, up to and including sponsoring tournaments, right?
SL: Yeah, yeah. I like to kind of push the envelope a little bit. I am very passionate about leveling the playing field and increasing our purses and passionate about the product that we have and how great the girls are and I want people to know that. So I share that with my sponsors and I tell them that.
And with KPMG, I kind of pitched the idea of doing a tournament and like doing all of these other things involved with it, not necessarily a leadership summit but I was just like think of the possibilities, like, you could do so much with it, and how it makes sense for their business.
And then Marathon in Toledo, Ohio, it was a similar story of I was doing a service day with them and the CEO walks up to me and he’s like, “so why should I sponsor this tournament in Toledo?” You know, I was kind of caught off guard at first but you know I did my spiel, I did my pitch, and now they’re sponsoring that and they are also one of the main sponsors of the Solheim Cup when it comes back to Inverness I guess in four years.
So I’m pretty proud of that. And I guess they see my passion for women’s golf and they want to be a part of it too.
RH: Speaking of pushing the envelope, I’d love to know what your reaction was last year when you got the call from the CEO of KPMG, your lead sponsor, telling you that your contract would be paid in full during maternity leave. Can you take me back to that phone call?
SL: Yeah. Yeah I was sitting in the parking lot at Wilshire Country Club. We were playing in L.A. I had just gotten to the golf course that morning. And they called me and I…I mean I was like, why? I was like, something’s wrong. You know? [Laughs.] That’s your initial reaction is why are they calling me? And they called and told me that. I mean I was pretty much almost in tears on the phone, you know? I honestly couldn’t believe it.
It’s not written into any contracts but how it works is you have to play a minimum number of tournaments. So if the minimum number is 20 and you only play 10, you basically get half the money that’s in your contract. So I kind of told myself that it’s okay, I’ve done very well, we’ll be fine, but I knew I wasn’t going to get as much money last year.
And so for them to call and say that, that one, that they support me and we’re not going anywhere and two, we want to pay your contract in full…I mean I was speechless, I didn’t know what to say. I mean other than “thank you and thank you for supporting women.” It’s what they do across their business anyway. And so it really goes with their values and…And I can tell you most of my other sponsors did the same thing. So it started a trend and I hope it’s a trend that continues for girls that are having babies in the future.
RH: And I know that Lynn Doty, the CEO, is quite the advocate for women in the workforce speaking up, advancing causes.
SL: Yes. She came on as CEO in the last couple years and it has been amazing to see her grow in that role and be an advocate and be one of the first female CEOs in their industry and kind of step in there and be okay around the guys, at the guys’ table, and things like that. It’s amazing to see her grow and kind of learn from her in this process. She has just been a tremendous advocate for women.
RH: So your high profile, as a No. 1 in the world, helped create a major precedent, I guess.
SL: You know, I like to change things, as you can tell. [Laughs.] I like to change things. I like to make things different. I feel like we can always make things better. And we even got our maternity policy on the LPGA Tour changed. I want girls to see that they can have families and play professional golf.
Because I feel like a lot of girls coming out of school right now, they want to have families and they want to have that other side but if you’re traveling to Asia all the time and you’re in Australia and you’re wherever you are, how can you have a family and play professional golf? And so I want these girls to see that it can be done and their sponsors and the tour is going to help you in that.
RH: And the travel is harder on the LPGA, right?
SL: Oh it is. It’s tremendously hard. I mean it’s gotten harder I think just since I came on tour ten years ago. I mean you’ve got two events in Australia, you’ve got eight events, I think, in Asia, three events in Europe. It’s just…the travel is crazy really when you add it all up. So I think I’m fortunate that as I’m getting older here I’m not going to play as much internationally but we’ve got a lot of events in the U.S. that I can still play a pretty full schedule on.
RH: Speaking of internationally, you haven’t played one of the majors, the Evian, for what, two years now, right?
SL: Yes. [Laughs.]
RH: Yeah. You famously told them you weren’t coming back until they made serious changes.
RH: And of course they have made one big change. How much of a force for change were you intending to be with that?
SL: Well, I mean it had to change. We had had issues with Evian championships since it had become a major. And to me the biggest thing was the time of the year that we’re playing. When we played there in July, it’s awesome, it’s the best time of year to be there, the weather is great, it’s warm, it’s not the rainy season.
So there are just things that had to change and I just felt like if we kept going and kept showing up, it showed that it was okay. And I just, I felt like something needed to change and so I decided to not go for that reason because I felt like things had to change. And I wasn’t going to keep going because that… just to me that showed that it was okay when it wasn’t.
RH: That a major cut off at 54 holes was okay.
SL: Yes. You’re playing a muddy, wet…I mean you’ve got greens that are under water and it’s just…it’s not a major championship. And I haven’t been, obviously I haven’t been in a few years but greens have been changed. From what I’ve been told they have made changes to the design of some of the greens and some of the tee boxes and things like that. But the big thing this year is being in July is going to help the tournament tremendously.
So I’m excited to get back there. I’m going to play this year. I’m excited to get back there at this time of the year and see the changes. I really feel like it’s going to be a better championship this year.
RH: That was my next question: A you planning a trip to Paris this summer?
SL: I am. We are going, I think baby in tow. So I think everyone’s going. So I really think it’ll be a lot better this year.
RH: Does this suggest, given the fact that you were a major factor in moving this tournament back to the summer, does this suggest that as you move through your thirties you’re gonna be more and more of a leader on issues?
SL: I really feel like it’s not even hard for me to do. It’s just kind of my personality and who I am. So I think as you get older, you’re kind of the voice on the tour a little bit, just because I’ve seen so many things and I’ve had…I’ve experienced so many different tournaments and seen what’s good and seen what’s bad and there’s a lot of…
KPMG comes to me all the time after their tournament that they host and they say, “what can we do better, what did you like, what did you dislike?” The tour comes to me and asks me the same questions. So I’m going to continue to push the envelope. And I think those people know that when they do come asking me, there may be some things I suggest that are out of reach right now but maybe down the road that it’s more possible.
RH: And I’ll go back to this well of thought one more time about you moving into your thirties and forties. Is there one person in or out of golf that you’d most want to emulate or look to as an example as your career and your family grow?
SL: Somebody that I’ve always looked to and I’ve appreciated the way she’s gone about her business is Karrie Webb. She, for so many years, played unbelievable golf and never really got the attention that she probably deserved.
RH: Being Australian.
SL: Being Australian and playing against Anika all the time. Anika got a lot of the attention. And Karrie played unbelievable at the same time. One, she didn’t get that but two, she has become an unbelievable advocate for women too. And she is doing so many cool things off the golf course. She does a lot to support kids, the Australian girls coming up right now. So I have always looked to her to see how she has done things and how she has kind of been a push and a force as well to change things and to make things better.
RH: Yeah I was watching her last night.
SL: Yeah, yeah. It’s cool to see her playing again and see her kind of loving the sport. I know she had kind of gotten through a time that was…didn’t really love it like she had and so I think she has found that again and is going to play a few more times this year, which I’m excited about because I love to watch her play and to play with her.
Yeah. Well, continued success, maybe another dozen tour wins, maybe more, Stacy Lewis.
SL: I would like that. I feel like after the baby it’s kind of a second start to my career. Everything feels different right now so who knows what the second half has in store.
RH: The CEO of Stacy Lewis, Stacy Lewis, professional golfer and leader.
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