Former Michigan basketball star Rob Pelinka, BBA ’93, JD ’96, returned to the U-M campus on Friday, Sept. 12, to speak at Entrepalooza 2014 where he provided an animated play-by-play recap of his meteoric career in sports law and his decision to strike out on his own by launching The Landmark Sports Agency. Now one of the preeminent sports agencies in the world, Landmark has offices in Los Angeles and New York and represents global icons such as Kobe Bryant, who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, and James Harden, of the Houston Rockets.
“There is no easy way up the mountain of success,” Pelinka told the 130 students who attended this year’s annual entrepreneurship conference, held at the Michigan League. “Things don’t just happen. It takes incredible focus, dedication to your craft and a lot of hard work.”
Coming from “humble roots,” Pelinka grew up in Chicago where he often went to basketball games at Northwestern University and dreamed about playing someday in the Big Ten conference. That opportunity came during his junior year in high school when Michigan’s head coach called and invited him to play basketball for the Wolverines. Pelinka said yes.
“It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” he remarked.
While at U-M, he played on three NCAA Basketball Final Four teams and won an NCAA Basketball National Championship in 1989.
“I was committed to doing well in sports and being a standout in the classroom,” Pelinka told his audience. “I became inspired to dive deep into academic opportunities and to expose myself to areas I’ve never studied.”
He graduated cum laude and was awarded the NCAA Walter Byers Scholar Athlete of the Year Award in 1993, which enabled him to attend Michigan’s Law School.
After receiving his law degree, Pelinka joined a leading law firm in Chicago. He might have stayed there, but “out of the blue,” a contact from his U-M network opened the door to a job as general counsel for a major Los Angeles sports firm.
“There were a million reasons for not going to Los Angeles, but I had to follow my passion and overcome those voices,” Pelinka said, recalling the advice he had received early on from Michael Jordan, who became a sports legend with the Chicago Bulls.
Fate dealt Pelinka another unexpected hand when the L.A. firm was later spun off by its owner, Clear Channel Communications. Rather than staying in his comfortable, well-paying job, he decided to “cut against the grain” by pioneering his own agency and following his vision to create a company that would make the best decisions for its clients.
Pelinka said his success as an entrepreneur and the CEO of Landmark has hinged on following a number of key principles. He offered these suggestions to aspiring entrepreneurs:
- “Focus on your core competency and ethos. Know who you are and what you want to do. This will translate into success.”
- “Pursue excellence. Fear of failure can be a healthy motivation.”
- “Provide service to your clients and put others first. It will shine through. People can tell whether you’re in the game to help them or help yourself.”
- “Context is important, so be sure you understand your client’s mindset and world view. Listen to your customers.”
- “When you hit tough patches, go back to the trenches, refocus and relearn things.”
One of the biggest surprises in entrepreneurship, according to Pelinka, is realizing the buck stops with the company founder, who must take ownership of tough issues and make hard decisions. He recommended building a collaborative team by hiring individuals who have integrity, the desire to achieve excellence and a diversity of interests. Pelinka also said he draws inspiration from high achievers, such as Michael Dell, as well as from ordinary people, including friends, neighbors and strangers he encounters.
“For an entrepreneur, inspiration is in everyday [life],” he explained. “I encourage people to look around them for inspiration and to give inspiration to others.”
Zell Lurie Institute Executive Director Stewart Thornhill presented Pelinka with the 2014 Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year Award. The event was sponsored by Zell Lurie, the Michigan Entrepreneur & Venture Club, the Center for Entrepreneurship, the School of Information, Innovate Blue and Ann Arbor SPARK.