Scott Hamilton — On The Ice, In The Boardroom

Circa 2009

When we spoke with Scott Hamilton a few months back, he was just emerging out of a dark place, where he’d faced the challenges of a brain tumor diagnosis. The former Olympic figure skater, who took home the gold at Sarajevo in 1984, has had a checkered medical past: When he was two, a serious illness stopped his growth for several years. Then, as a young man, he was treated for testicular cancer. But this time we come back to Hamilton not because of anything in his medical charts, but because he took on an intriguing personal challenge that involved television, his favorite charity and a fellow named Donald Trump.

Chet Cooper: What’s the latest with you, Scott?

Scott Hamilton: I’ve been back on the ice the last couple of weeks, working with renewed intensity. It feels pretty good, like I’m getting my body back.

CC: I’ve told the story a few times now about how you went on stage at the California Pituitary Conference, pointed to your picture on the cover of our magazine and asked, “Photoshop?”

(A software program that can enhance pictures.)

SH: (laughs) And you confirmed that there was a little Photoshop involved. You guys go ahead, make me look good.

CC: To be fair to you, the image that we were given wasn’t the best quality, so some touch-up was needed. It was a cover story, so we wanted to make sure you were ready for your close-up.

SH: That’s cool.

CC: Tell me about how you got roped into the NBC reality show, The Apprentice.

SH: As Bill Cosby said about having children: It seemed like a good idea at the time. (laughs) It came about because a long time ago, I met a guy at a party in LA who’s one of the casting directors for The Apprentice. He thought that it would be fun for me to do it because I’m involved in a lot of charity work, and on the celebrity version, the winner gets money for their favorite charity.

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He thought I could get that out on national television and have some fun at the same time. I’ve met Donald Trump on many occasions and liked him. So I thought it would be an enjoyable experience to go in and have some fun with him, his kids and [his executive] George, while meeting some new people and interacting with them in ways I’ve never interacted with people before. So this caught me at a good time, and I said, “Sure, I’ll do it.”

CC: The pop culture experience is intriguing to me. How many times in your life do you get the opportunity to be fired by Donald Trump? (laughs) That’s one thing you can check off your list.

SH: I was blown away by the show’s boardroom or “war room,” as they call it. It’s really an interesting design; the location access to the boardroom is pretty amazing. They run a tight ship. I’m impressed by how it all works.

CC: Have you had a background in entrepreneurial endeavors before?

SH: Yes, but not in a broad sense. I built Stars on Ice during a period when I had no job. Ice Capades was being taken over by a new owner, and he wasn’t familiar with how to market male figure skaters. At that point I had been the go-to guy at Ice Capades for two years. But the new owners had that old-school mindset that women skaters are the only ones who can sell tickets to ice shows. So they let me go, and I had to come up with a new way to make a living. Skating was what I knew the best, and so I was able to be entrepreneurial in the sense of building a tour that’s lasted 23 years now.

CC: You did something right.

SH: Yes, I think so. A lot of it was just hard work and team building. You don’t do anything overnight. You have to build people’s trust and start to understand how they can best work together. I have a servant-leader management philosophy where you put everybody else’s needs in front of your own, and build them up so you have a strong base. That’s always been the way that I’ve tried to do business: bring in really talented people, let them do their work, and at the end of the day, I’ll get the best product.

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We were very successful in doing that. The first few years were very lean, and we were trying to make ends meet the best way we could. So it was a bumpy road. We probably broke even the first four years, but by about year five we started turning a decent profit.. And then in year six we had a spike in business because we had a very good Olympics, with Kristi Yamaguchi (See related story, Page 42) winning and Paul Wylie taking a silver. When they came on board, the tour took off. It was amazing.

CC: Finding the right team is always the difficult part. If you don’t have the finances, how do you gather that team?

SH: And how do you survive the years when you’re losing money? Fortunately, we had IMG, International Management Group, a gigantic, worldwide company that promotes and manages sports and athletes behind us. Their television entities became very profitable because of their figure skating relationships in their winter sports division. This was due in no small part because they were able to bring in clients around whom they could build television shows. So Stars on Ice was a great touring vehicle to bring skaters on board and give them a salary and a relationship with a broader American audience. From that, we were able to be very, very successful.

CC: At any point, did you work with a nonprofit, causerelated concern within the company?

SH: Yes, we always had a charity. During our first years we were sponsored by Discover Card, and they brought the Make A Wish Foundation with them. So for many, many years proceeds from the tour went directly to Make A Wish Foundation. I think at one time we were their biggest single donor. They gave us awards and recognition. Everywhere we went, we created awareness for local Make A Wish chapters and did a lot of nationwide publicity.

When they departed, Target took over and we raised funds for Target House at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. We loved that. And now Smucker’s is the corporate sponsor, and they brought the Boys and Girls Clubs of America with them. We’ve been doing fundraising for their literacy programs the last couple of years.

CC: What charities did you choose for The Apprentice?

SH: It’s my C.A.R.E.S. Initiative (Cancer Alliance for Research, Education and Survivorship) at the Cleveland Clinic. I chose them because I want to fund different research programs for cancer research. And an arm of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, the Taussig Cancer Institute. That’s who I chose to fundraise for.

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The Apprentice rules and guidelines on charities are very specific and they don’t want any conflicts of interest. They want to find real charities that celebrities are personally involved in and have a real strong affinity for, whether it be their own foundation or something that affects them directly. Last year, we learned a lot about food allergies from Trace Adkins. I know that there are a lot of really wonderful causes that were put out in front of people that we never would have known existed without The Apprentice.

CC: Tell me a little bit more about The Apprentice. How much can you talk about, given that it hasn’t finished its run yet?

SH: I can tell you who was in the cast and that it was an extraordinary experience. But I can’t go into detail. Aside from me, the guys were Jesse James, Herschel Walker, Brian McKnight, Andrew Dice Clay, Clint Black, Dennis Rodman and Tom Green. It’s a pretty eclectic, wacky cast. We’re all so phenomenally different, and everybody’s got their agenda. And then on the ladies’ side, it was Joan Rivers, Melissa Rivers, Brande Roderick, Claudia Jordan, Natalie Gulbis, Tionne Watkins, Annie Duke and Khloe Kardashian. The women’s team is almost as diverse as the men’s, almost. The men’s team is just insane. None of us have anything in common. It was crazy, but interesting.

And then once you get into the shooting, Mr. Trump kind of becomes Mr. Trump. You don’t have any access to him, but his kids are great. Again, just to be in his world for that time was a lot of fun. Honestly, my biggest fear going into it was that I was going to somehow misrepresent my family, my faith, myself, and just get so caught up in the game and competition, that I might show a side of myself that was repulsive. (laughs) You know? A lot of the conditions surrounding the tasks and the boardroom and how the whole scenario works is very, very, very intense.

CC: Did you think since you’d met Trump a few times, that you might have a little bit of a leg up?

SH: No, because it comes down to performance. I was always trying to be seen as an asset in his world and represent his brand. He puts himself out there. And as this was a situation where I was a guest in his house, where I was “an employee” of his, I wanted to treat him with respect. So my feeling throughout was whatever he asks of me, I’m going to do my best.

In the very first boardroom I learned that when he asks you a question, you don’t duck it. When I first got questioned, I gave an evasive answer: “Well, that’s not my style.” Mr. Trump called me on my answer: “No, I’m asking you a question. Answer my question.” That’s when it clicked in: Oh, yeah, that’s right, I work for you; I have to do everything you tell me I have to do. So all right, I’ll answer the question.

CC: That show has an ‘eat or be eaten’ aspect to it.

SH: True, and my instincts aren’t to throw anybody under a bus or to get into that survival of the fittest mode and use someone as a human shield. Yet the process of the game kind of dictates that. If somebody didn’t perform well, you had to expose them. And that really is not my style. My way has always been to nurture talent and try to bring out someone’s best qualities in a situation. But this was a whole different world of do-or-die. You get to play another day by making sure somebody else takes the bullet. (laughs) That was the odd part of the experience.

If you go behind the scenes of the show, however, you know that Trump couldn’t create an empire like that without team building. You want to have talented people in the right places. Part of The Apprentice story is that he’s looking for that one right person. But with Celebrity Apprentice the winner doesn’t get a position at the end of the day. It’s about being the last man or woman standing. It’s more like Survivor. It’s more or less, Well, I didn’t get fired. That’s my reward.

CC: So everyone gets an equal amount for their nonprofit?

[Note: Turns out Hamilton was voted off the show in the second episode.]

SH: Not exactly. You “earn” money for winning a task The task may be marketing, running a business or setting up a shop. Whichever team does the best job, according to the client, wins the task and earns money for their charity. But in the end, the team member who raises the most money actually takes it all. So you may win $20,000 or $25,000 towards your charity. So a lot is at stake.

CC: So I guess you were able to get some money to the Cleveland Clinic.

SH: I’m not at liberty to discuss anything! (laughs)

CC: (laughs) I’m not telling!

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SH: I can’t. They make you sign a 26 page, non-disclosure agreement, because they have so much to lose by word getting out about how this went or who did what or who got fired or who advanced. There’s too much at stake for the show, so they’re very specific about participants not discussing any details. It’s strict. Nor would I want to be the guy who gives it away.

CC: So what I have in my notes here is that you told me that Dennis Rodman won and that he got in a fight with Joan Rivers and punched her in the nose.

SH: Wow! Were you there? (laughs)

CC: (laughs) But now they’re dating.

SH: They created a love child, and he’s carrying it!

CC: (laughs) That’s really funny! Do you think you’re going to be in touch with any of the people that you met who were not necessarily in your world before?

SH: It’ll be interesting to see. We’re all going to be at the finale. That’s a big deal. That’ll be fun. Other than that, we could exchange Christmas cards and things. I don’t know. Because you competed with them on the show, you see everybody in The Apprentice in a different light than you would if you were just hanging out. So I had dinner with (one of the contestants) last night. I liked him before The Apprentice, and we’re going to remain friends after. So that’s kind of neat. I’ve spent a little time with Melissa Rivers before, and I’d met Joan a couple times, but it’s not like they’re in my Rolodex or anything. [The Celebrity Apprentice ] contestants share the stage for awhile, and then we all go back to our lives.

CC: Where do you live now?

SH: Nashville

CC: Any country western friends in your Rolodex?

SH: Lots. It’s a small town; you get to know everybody.

CC: Anything else we should cover here today, Mr. Hamilton?

SH: Not right now. I’d better sign off before I slip and give anything away.

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