By Drew Olson Special to Published Nov 02, 2006 at 5:42 AM
In an age when many pro sports owners covet headlines and court publicity, Harris Turer keeps a low profile. For the Admirals owner, who is also the No. 2 shareholder of the Brewers,  modesty is a family trait.

Turer’s grandfather, Harry Soref, founded Master Lock in the early 1920s. Although the company was a global success, Soref and his legacy are somewhat overshadowed by the beer barons and other industry captains in Milwaukee.

After purchasing the Admirals in June of 2005, Turer hopes to make a name for himself. He spoke to about his team, his family, his philosophy and his philanthropic efforts.

Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks interview with Admirals owner Harris Turer. Tell me about your grandfather.

Harris Turer: I never met him. He died of heart disease (in 1957). What I’ve heard and read about him, he was not a college-educated man. He was an inventor, though, and a creative guy.

He worked in the circus for a number of years and that’s where he met Harry Houdini, the magician. My grandfather would work with him hiding keys to pick the locks. They were close. They basically grew up in the circus together.

OMC: What else do you know about him?

HT: My grandfather liked to play cards. After he started Master Lock, he’d go to Las Vegas -- before it was Vegas -- and played with guys like Bugsy Siegel and the people who basically founded the city as we know it today. They tried to get him to invest with them, but he didn’t do it. He didn’t want to get involved with people who might be trouble. The investment would have been a very big deal, but it was probably the smart thing for him.

He loved to play cards so much. His story was - if you take one card, it’s easy to tear. If you look at a deck of cards, like a phone book, it’s hard to tear. That’s kind of where he got the idea for a padlock that is layer upon layer of steel.

OMC: What do you know about him as a businessman?

HT: The thing that stands out to me is the incredible relationship he had with his employees. You think today about management versus the union and most of the time, it’s bitter. Sometimes, it’s decent and they get along. But, it’s not close. It’s like, "They’re there. We’re here." That’s not the way it was with my grandfather. He had an incredible relationship with his employees. That’s part of the reason the company was so successful. He cared dearly about them and they cared about him. He’d have employee picnics and he’d give them gifts. He just really cared about them. That’s how I try to treat my employees. We have an incredible staff here. They are so dedicated and they work so hard. Without them, I’m not going to be successful and this organization will never be successful. I wish I’d had a chance to talk to him about that relationship, but that’s one of the things that I took from reading about him.

OMC: When people think about successful business in Milwaukee, they think of Miller and Schlitz and Allen-Bradley and Harley-Davidson, but they don’t usually mention Harry Soref and Master Lock.

HT: For whatever reason, my grandfather is not really well known. It sort of bothers me in some ways. This guy created a company -- when you say ‘lock’ and you say ‘Master Lock,’ it’s almost like Coke. It’s a worldwide company. My dad tried to explain it to me when I was a kid, just how big it was. He said "Harris think of your school and all the lockers in the hallway. They all have Master Locks. That’s what I would do. I would sell locks to every school."

OMC: So your father worked there, too?

HT: My dad was a salesman there for a few years. He married my mom and didn’t work there right away. I guess my uncles wanted to make sure that he was trustworthy. He was a good salesman. He worked for the motion picture industry, selling movies to movie houses. Then, he worked at Master Lock as a salesman and did really well. There really wasn’t a lot of competition back then and the company was huge, but you’re right that (Soref) is really not well-known.

OMC: Why is that?

HT: I think part of it is that the production is no longer here. That’s the difference between a public company vs. a private. If it was still owned by the family, it would probably be here and that would be a good thing. The neighborhood where the plant was is a rough neighborhood now. I think having the company there and those good-paying jobs would mean a lot to the community.

OMC: Why did your family end up selling the company in the early 1970s?

HT: It was a family fight and they just said "We have to get out of this." It’s very unfortunate. You can imagine. There were five brothers and sisters, total. It was money. They argued over money. It was stupid. It’s annoying. It’s really unfortunate. Everyone had plenty. But, some wanted more.

OMC: Did that have an impact on you as a kid. Did the families take sides and were there cousins you couldn’t play with?

HT: Oh, yeah. There would be a couple times where I’d be somewhere and someone would say "Hi, I’m your aunt. I don’t like your mother. We don’t talk." And I just said "Oh, really?"

My mom -- it still bothers her to this day. I was an only child and it’s easy for me because I have no one to fight with over the money. It’s interesting because now we have two children. To watch their relationship is wonderful and as I watch it I just hope that they will always get along. I want them to be together and be close.

OMC: When you were growing up and attending Nicolet High School (Class of 1984), did you know that you wanted to get into business? I know most kids in that era wanted to grow up to be Robin Yount or Sidney Moncrief, but did you think about getting into sports as a business back then?

HT: Well, I loved basketball and I was pretty good at it, relatively speaking. But, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.  In school, there a lot of kids whose dads were attorneys and they wanted to be attorneys.

I knew I wanted to go into business, but I didn’t know where or what I wanted to do.

OMC: When did you decide? Was it in college?

HT: Right before I went to school in Madison, my dad came down with cancer. I had a ball at school, but my father was such a huge part of my life. The deterioration over that time was difficult to watch. A year and a half after I started college, he passed away. I had to come home and be there for my mom. I was 19 years old, but my parents were so great to me. They provided for me in every way possible and my mother needed somebody at home. So, I transferred to UWM.

My first job was with Ben Barkin and the Great Circus Parade. Someone told me to call Ben, because he knew everybody. So, I called him and he said "I’ve got something for you." It was like an internship. I ran a store for him. It was like running a little business of my own and I got to meet a lot of movers and shakers along the way. He had a lot of big donors that he was wining and dining. At that time, in 1989 or 1990, the Circus Parade was huge.

OMC: Where did that take you?

HT: Through that, I got to meet some people and I eventually applied for a management training program at what was then First Wisconsin. I ended up getting the position and it was a great learning job. I was there almost three years, and I learned everything from the bottom, how the bank was run, all the way to the top. I got to meet a lot of great people along the way and sort of get my head on straight. I was a teller. I did personal banking.  I learned a lot.

OMC: What types of things did you learn?

HT: I worked on 76th and Oklahoma, the southwest side. It was pretty much blue collar. These people would come in and they looked like they didn’t have much. They’d come in and I’d look at their accounts and my jaw would drop. They had a lot of money. I’d ask "Why are you investing in savings accounts and CDs? Have you ever thought about stocks?" And they would say "No, I’m not interested." This was in about 1991. If those people had taken a few hundred thousand dollars and invested in the market, they’d be so wealthy right now. But, they were conservative. These were people who had gone through the Depression. A lot of them were in their 60s and 70s, so they knew the stories of the Depression. They had money because they worked hard and they were savers. I gained a lot of respect for those people. They may look like they buy their clothes at Goodwill, but they were happy in their lives. It was interesting. It was very different from what I had experienced. You may say I lived a sheltered life on the North Shore of Milwaukee and I’m not going to deny that. But, those people made an impression on me.

OMC: What prompted you to buy the Admirals? What are your goals in owning the team?

HT: I always look at it and say it’s very easy to sit back and not do anything. I want people to respect me for me, and not because of my grandfather. It’s great that they respect him. He worked hard. He started a company from the ground up.

The Admirals are nowhere close to that level, but this is for me a very important thing to prove to people that I can do something on my own. I had the money to buy it, but I want to be successful. I don’t want to just own it. I want to be successful. That means not just having good things happen on the ice, which we can’t control, but to be a good team and a good part of the community.

When I bought the team awareness level of team was so low it was stunning. We’re trying to build that up. We want you to come to a game and say "Hey, that was really fun." That’s how we want people to talk about us. Winning and losing, we can’t really control. It’s out of our hands. What I do control is when you come and lay your money down and invest in our product, that you say "I had a great time. It was worth the money I put down." If we do that over the long haul, we’ll be a successful franchise.

OMC: What are the challenges of owning a minor-league team in a big-league town? From the outside, it seems that many of your customers don’t care who your opponent is on a given night or even who your players are, because that changes year to year. Is that an advantage?

HT: Yes. Over time, we have to develop more fans and awareness. We can always sell Admirals hockey. But, I don’t have to sell players. The Brewers, they sold the idea for people to come and see Carlos Lee. Well, at a certain point, Carlos Lee wasn’t around to sell.

I don’t sell jerseys with players’ names on them. If you want one, I’ll make one for you. But, I’m selling the fun and the excitement of coming to a hockey game. It’s a minor league  hockey game, but we can create our own atmosphere. When you look at the major leagues, there seems to be such a set group of rules and ways that franchises do things. Look at every Major League Baseball team’s Web site. They all look the same. We can take some chances.

OMC: Do you mean like having "Hairy Back Night," like you did last year?

HT: Exactly. That was a big night for us. We can take some chances on things like that. I can imagine Mark Attanasio with the Brewers saying "We’re going to do what?"

OMC: How did you get involved with the Brewers?

HT: It was during the time of the stadium debate. As a kid, that was one of the most important relationships with my father -- going to baseball games together. I know it sounds Norman Rockwellish, but we used to go to a lot of games. He was a big Yankees fan, because he was from the Bronx, and I hated the Yankees. But, I loved watching them. You recognize now that it was a respect thing. Beating the Yankees meant a lot.

So, my father and I went to a lot of games and I couldn’t imagine not having baseball here and not being able to share that with my children, even though I wasn’t even married at the time. For the community to lose the team would have been horrible. I don’t think people understood the ramifications of losing a team twice. I didn’t want that to happen, so I made contacts through my attorney, who I didn’t realize at the time was also Bud Selig’s attorney. I was told they were not interested. That was fine. The debate kept going on and finally I was told something might happen. It turns out that they had a group of people that wanted out (of the ownership group). John Canning and Steve Marcus and Jane Pettit and I came on board.

OMC: Those weren’t exactly great times for the franchise. You had some losing teams, the Ulice Payne episode and eventually the sale of the team. Did you ever think about getting out of the group?

HT: I did every capital call. To me if you’re in this thing, you participate. Why else are you doing it? Otherwise get out. It’s not for everybody. That was one of the problems with the old ownership group. A lot of them wanted out.

OMC: What about your philanthropic pursuits? You’re on the board of the Boys and Girls Clubs and have a few other things going on. How important are those things to you?

HT: I’m a very, very lucky person in life. I have an amazing family. I have great kids and a great wife. I’ve been blessed to have this kind of money. It’s a tremendous responsibility. The community is the reason we have this money. If it wasn’t for the people who helped my grandfather, we wouldn’t have what we have.

So, I think it’s important for me to give back. A sports team can be a great vehicle to do things and bring awareness. We will always have a game for charity to give back to the community. This year, doing it for the Boys and Girls Club. That’s going to be a big thing for me. Last year, we raised over $32,000 for Children’s Hospital. My main focus will always be children’s-oriented charities. That’s where you can change lives and have an impact.

I’m on the Board of Directors for the  Boys and Girls Club and what they do is remarkable. Kids that go to the clubs go there after school, voluntarily, and they want to be there. It’s not some convoluted idea somebody had.. They want to go there and for a lot of them, it’s a safe haven. It’s a meal. It’s such a tremendous organization.

I’m also involved in a new organization that hopefully one day establish a boarding school here in Milwaukee. I’m big on education, because I think there is a domino effect. You change one person’s life, they can provide a good life for their kids and they’ll give back.

OMC: What about your other passion in life -- UW-Milwaukee basketball?

HT: It’s fun. I love the atmosphere. I used to go to games when there was hardly anybody there. I realize that the 16,000 people at Marquette games aren’t at my games, but that’s where I went to school and I was proud of it. It was like my little team that nobody knew about, and all of a sudden here came Bo Ryan and Bruce Pearl and Rob Jeter and we were going to the NCAA Tournament. It’s been an exciting thing to be a part of. When we went to the Sweet 16, that’s when I was buying the Admirals. It was such a magical time. The night we beat Boston College, Jon Greenberg called me and told me he was going to become my president (with the Admirals). I needed a comrade to do this and he was the perfect guy. It all came together.
Drew Olson Special to

Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.