May 28, 2016
The road to success for one West Virginia University alumnus, Brian Cleek, wasn’t always the straightest and most rational path. But it was one that led him to a power position with one of the largest sports organizations in the country.
Cleek hails from the College of Business and Economics as a 2001 graduate, who left for New York City with his finance degree in one hand and his resume in the other, just six days after he graduated.
His first job in the Big Apple was with Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance and Financial Services, where he got hired as a sales trainee without a salary.
“Essentially, it was a two-week sales training program and they taught us to sell life insurance and kind of turned us loose, so I spent about six months there cold-calling, trying to sell life insurance,” Cleek said. “It was pretty difficult in New York City since I was just 21 years old, and didn’t know anyone.”
What led Cleek down the path of working in the sports business industry was making the decision that finance wasn’t for him, though it was what he chose to study in college.
“When I made this decision for myself, I actually started cold-calling all the major sports leagues that were headquartered in New York City, so the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL – and I essentially called anyone I could get a number for at those leagues, just trying to make connections and also kind of sell life insurance for my job,” Cleek said. “I did that for about three weeks, and it was awful because nobody would talk to me and I barely got past any assistants to talk to executives.”
It was then that Cleek had a “stroke of luck” and a top executive for the NFL answered his phone call; Derrick Crawford, a lawyer for the organization, got a late-evening call from Cleek and decided to pick up.
“We just talked and talked, I told him that I was struggling with my career and that I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and he asked why I was calling the NFL,” Cleek said. “I said to him, ‘If I want to do anything, I want to believe in it and have a passion for it, because what else is the point? Sports is something that does that to me,’ and he told me to come into the office to meet with him.
“Days later, I went into the NFL headquarters and spent an hour-and-a-half with Crawford, and we just hit it off as good as we ever could have since we had just met. At the end of it, he asked for my resume, which he forwarded to the corporate sponsorship division at the NFL, the marketing group.”
With no prior experience whatsoever in the marketing field, and having given absolutely no consideration to a career in marketing in the past, Cleek interviewed with the NFL and got hired in the corporate sponsorship division at 23 years old.
Now, 14 years later, he is still in the sports business industry, having recently been named the senior vice president of sales and business development at Roush Fenway Racing.
Since getting involved with sports, Cleek has proven himself in working for some of the most successful properties in professional sports, including the NFL, the New York Giants, ESPN, the Harlem Globetrotters, and the PGA of America and Ryder Cup.
Most recently, before joining Roush Fenway Racing, Cleek led national and global partnership sales for all PGA of America assets, including Ryder Cup, PGA Championship, Women’s PGA Championship, Senior PGA Championship, PGA Grand Slam of Golf and all other PGA media, hospitality and property initiatives.
While Cleek attributes a “stroke of luck” to how he got into the sports business industry, he credits B&E and his mentor, Susan Robison, for getting him to where he is today.
During the summer after his junior year at WVU, Cleek had the opportunity of a lifetime to work at the White House as an intern, and credits Robison for helping him get there.
Robison helped Cleek get into an internship program called the Washington Center, a program that essentially places juniors and seniors in college into an internship in Washington, D.C., whether it’s in the Senate or Congress.
“I got accepted into the program and chose the White House as the location I’d like to work, so I had to complete a whole separate application which Susan helped me with,” Cleek said. “I was then accepted into their summer of 2000 internship program as one of 200 interns, probably from 60,000 or so applicants – and I owe it all to Susan, who guided me through the whole process.”
Cleek completed the summer internship, which was during the time of the Clinton administration, and was offered a full-time position at the White House. He accepted the offer to stay on until the end of the Clinton administration, which was in January of 2001. Cleek then returned to WVU to finish his last year of studies in finance before graduating and eventually moving to New York City.
In a word of advice to students and graduates, Cleek said they need to take a more entrepreneurial approach than most of their classmates in order to sell themselves and move forward in their careers.
“Be different right now, because there are a lot of younger people who live their whole lives on social media and try to do all of their job searching online,” Cleek said. “Personally, I don’t even look at resumes when I am hiring someone. I first think about who it was that referred them to me, then do some homework on them, and then meet with them to talk about their life story and what they are all about. I think that is much more important than a resume.
“In this day and age, new graduates need to do different things to stand out in their job searches, since there are thousands of resumes being received each day. When a company is looking through all of these resumes, how can one person stand out? The job they want is going to be based on forming some type of relationship with the company they want to be with, whether it’s through a friend who can make a phone call for them, a professor or even a mentor, like Susan was for me. These are the things that will put them in the one percent.”
Cleek has been back to the College a few times to speak to students, and said the B&E alumni bonds are thick.
“B&E has very distinguished alumni and I think one of the riches of the school is that there’s such a pride in West Virginia and in Morgantown, and that once you graduate from the College, you stay in touch forever. I never hesitate to e-mail a fellow Mountaineer out of the blue to introduce myself, because I know that just like me, they continue to represent the college, even with however many years it’s been since graduation day.”