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Nick Eaves stepping down as the head of Woodbine Entertainment Group

01/15/2015 01:18 EST | Updated 03/17/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - After guiding Ontario's horse-racing industry through its darkest days, Nick Eaves is handing over the reins.

Eaves announced Thursday he'll step down as president and chief executive officer of Woodbine Entertainment Group on March 31, ending a 20-year run with the company. When the 46-year-old Eaves departs, Woodbine chairman Jim Lawson will take over on an interim basis.

"It's largely personal," Eaves said. "It's been over 20 years for me and the fact that things are stable and will be better in the days ahead is what gave me the sense it was time.

"If things weren't stable and hadn't been turned around then it would be critically important for me to help to continue to evolve that. But now that we've moved into a better place, I'm young and got to think about what the rest of my life and career look like although, frankly, I don't know the answer to that."

Eaves has been with WEG since 1994 and held a variety of jobs. In '06 he was named president and chief operating officer before replacing David Willmot as the company's chief executive officer in 2010.

It was during the 2012 Queen's Plate draw that Eaves dropped a huge bombshell, stating Woodbine might be forced to close following the Ontario government's controversial cancellation of the Slots-at-Racetracks program. The initiative generated $345 million annually that was split between track operators and horse owners and breeders.

The cash shortfall resulted in some track closures and forced those that remained to make do with substantially less. Many in the industry had to dramatically scale back operations, including WEG.

After reaching a two-year transitional funding deal with the government to continue racing at its two tracks — Woodbine in Toronto and Mohawk in Campbelleville, Ont. — WEG laid off more than 100 employees, roughly 25 per cent of salaried positions.

Fort Erie Racetrack wasn't expected to open after the '12 season but earned a reprieve with a one-year transitional funding deal with the government.

In October 2013, premier Kathleen Wynne announced Ontario would spend roughly $500 million over five years to help the struggling horse-racing industry. Eaves believes the sport is on stable ground and well on the road to recovery.

"To have to rationalize the business was obviously a very, very difficult thing for all of us," Eaves said. "But to now see it beginning to move in a good direction and see people being attracted back into the industry again and that we're hiring again because our business is growing again, that's very very fulfilling.

"Obviously it's going to require a long-term, committed leadership to carry these things forward. I'm proud of what we've been able to transform over the last three years but it's time for somebody else to lead for the longterm."

Coincidentally, Lawson is currently serving as the interim CFL commissioner as the league looks to replace Mark Cohon, who left the post Friday. He said the Eaves and Cohon situations are very similar.

"These are young, talented guys who want to try that next thing so I wasn't surprised (with Eaves' decision)," Lawson said. "I feel like we're on the cusp of really turning the corner for the industry.

"I've worked very closely with Nick the last couple of years and he's put his heart and soul into this. I think he feels like we've turned the corner, we're there."

Lawson said Woodbine's next CEO will need to be a multi-talented individual.

"I think people underestimate what a complicated business this is," he said. "It's a company with sophisticated parimutuel wagering and Internet wagering.

"We have 1,700 full-time employees and probably 7,000 to 10,000 people in the GTA who are dependant on this business. We've got a big food and beverage business and we have Woodbine and Mohawk (racetracks). It's a big, complicated job . . . you name it, this business has it. There's a whole lot going on here."

And then there's the matter of overseeing the year-round business of horse-racing.

"First and foremost, we're a horse-racing business and our mandate is to promote and have horse-racing thrive in this environment and country," Lawson said. "I think we have a duty and responsibility to the province and country to ensure horse-racing is sustainable for the approximately 30,000 people this industry employs in Ontario.

"You have to understand the horse industry, you must have a passion for it. It's someone who can run a big business and is knowledgeable and passionate about the horse industry because we have a big role to play in it."

Eaves has some friendly advice for his eventual successor.

"Think long term," he said. "It's never that easy but certainly having a long-term perspective is vital.

"Had we been thinking short term, both as we were growing and changing the model, we would've made different decisions that I think probably wouldn't been as good. There's no single piece of good advice but certainly that approach would serve anybody well."

Eaves said while he doesn't have a new job on the horizon, he doesn't plan on taking the summer off.

"I like to be active and fulfilled and no matter what I'll be doing that," he said. "I just don't know exactly how."

Regardless of his next challenge professionally, Eaves said his time at Woodbine has prepared him well.

"I'm certainly battle hardened," he said. "We've had to look critically at how we run the business and how we make decisions and I think that's always valuable.

"We've also had to decide how to re-organize the business and that's not necessarily something I want to have to do again but when you look at the experiences I and others here have had, that's the wonderful thing about a racetrack and the horse-racing business. It's a very varied business and there's all kind of aspects to it and I've been lucky to be a part of most of them if not all of them. That's a great foundation that I'm very lucky to have."

Eaves said the sport and businesses of horse-racing have both dramatically changed over his 20-year tenure at Woodbine and he's very bullish on racing's future as well as WEG.

"When I started, racing in Ontario was almost entirely live at the racetrack," he said. "The evolution has been incredible and I've had the unbelievable good fortune of having a different role in almost every step in the evolution of the business.

"To have made it through what we as an organization made it through, frankly, was the highlight. I know as this organization moves ahead, which it will, only great things are before it."

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