TORONTO — Woodbine Entertainment didn't have to look far for CEO Jim Lawson's successor.
Woodbine Entertainment's board of directors has unanimously approved the promotion of Michael Copeland to the post effective Oct. 1. Copeland currently serves as the company's chief commercial officer.
Lawson will remain as CEO until October when he'll become executive chair of Woodbine's board. Earlier this year, Lawson announced his plan to step down sometime this fall.
"The (CEO search) was quite rigorous," Lawson said. "We're well connected throughout the industry, we worked indirectly with a search firm in the U.S. and we kept coming back to Michael, and for good reason.
"He's a recognized senior sports executive and business leader in this country."
Copeland joined Woodbine Entertainment in 2021. He came to the organization having served as president/CEO of both the CFL (2006-15) and Toronto Argonauts (2015-18).
Copeland also founded his own consulting business that focused on issues of growth and transformation in sports and entertainment. Copeland has a law degree from the University of Western Ontario and an MBA from Western’s Ivey School of Business.
He has also received the Caldwell Partners/Globe & Mail Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 Award as well as the Western Law W. Iain Scott Business Leadership Award.
"I've had the opportunity to see all aspects of Woodbine and really appreciate the breadth of the organization and how strong Woodbine is in some areas some people wouldn't normally consider," Copeland said. "For me, I think I've learned there really are opportunities if you can be creative and respectful of the past and tradition but not be afraid to change and move forward where it's needed.
"I feel very, very strongly about opportunities. That's important to me because at my core, I really am about having a real strong ambition and helping people and organizations reach as far as they can and I think there's a really long way this organization can reach."
Woodbine also announced longtime industry executive Bill Ford will become chief racing officer and general counsel. He has been a Woodbine Entertainment executive since 2011 after serving as general counsel and secretary for Magna Entertainment (2003-2010).
Woodbine Entertainment is one of North American's top thoroughbred and standardbred track operators, running both Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto and Woodbine Mohawk Park in Campbellville, Ont. Last year, the company generated over $1 billion in gross wagering revenues from both physical and online channels.
But Woodbine is involved in more than just racing horses. It directly employs more than 1,500 people and about 25,000 individuals within Ontario's racing industry while also currently building a major urban community on its site that includes Woodbine Racetrack.
"I think the important thing is that while horse racing is always at the core of what we do and always will be, this is an organization that's a major sports and entertainment property," Lawson said. "People need to appreciate we have close to 2,000 employees and the systems and technology that goes with running an organization like this is immense.
"We have a major food and beverage business. Football teams run nine home games, we run 360 home games a year where we load up our food and beverage and our staff. It's a very complicated organization … we were looking for a business leader and Michael fits that bill."
Copeland understands there will be those within the horse-racing community who'll be critical of his appointment, citing Copeland's limited background in the industry. However, Copeland's late father-in-law, Nick DeToro was a former thoroughbred owner and trainer.
"I can understand where that (criticism) would come from," Copeland said. "It comes from people who are deeply invested, emotionally and financially, in the business.
"Before stepping into a role here, I spent many a day at the track. Often it was in his (DeToro's) tack room in the backstretch, many times with him in the backyard talking about his own business, the challenges he faced as an owner and trainer … so I think I have a keen understanding on the ground."
And Copeland said he's living proof people don't necessarily have had to be active in a sport to enjoy success in it.
"Before I joined the CFL, where I had a successful run and ended up having my name on the Grey Cup (2017 as Argos president), I never played a down of football in my life," he said. "My job is not to be on the ground.
"My job is to understand the issues and priorities and how to make sure there's an environment, structure and focus that the right things get done in the right way."
All the while knowing Lawson, who has been Woodbine's CEO since 2015, will be nearby for consultation, if needed.
"I definitely feel I'm ready for this opportunity … but there's nobody who brings the depth of knowledge, experience and perspective as Jim does in the global racing business," Copeland said. "To have him stay on is a huge luxury for someone in my role and I fully intend to take advantage of it.
"But at the same time, I think the organization will benefit from having a fresh perspective. I think Jim and the board understand that and believe I can bring that perspective and I'm confident they're going to allow me to stretch and be able to bring that forward."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2023.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press