The Palmer Page Era: Should It Have Ended This Way? 
By Rob Dinerman
November 18, 2004 -
Last Friday’s USSRA press release announcing the resignation of Palmer T. H.  Page, the first-ever USSRA CEO, “to pursue personal and professional goals,” after just 14 months, was accurately assessed by Squashtalk editor/publisher Ron Beck in an ensuing newsflash in which he characterized the eight-paragraph document as “singularly uninformative as to possible reasons” for Page’s premature and brusque departure.

   So to this point have been the non-responses of the top USSRA officers, several of whom promised to speak candidly on the matter during the week prior to the issuance of the release but all of whom in the interim evidently underwent a change of heart, even in some cases becoming testy when pressed to discuss the matter: “Don’t push me, Rob!” one prominent officer menacingly warned when posed a follow-up query. After decompressing somewhat, he simply acknowledged that everything surrounding the fact, questionable timing (with a new season just underway) and abruptness of the 54-tear-old Page’s forced resignation had become “a touchy situation,” and he therefore preferred to let the press release speak for itself.

    The reticence is understandable, given the undisputed and multi-front advances the USSRA has made during the period since Page assumed the new position in September 2003. An Association whose membership numbers had been going flat for years and which was facing a budgetary deficit as well has undergone significant and quantifiable improvements on both of those important fronts, especially the latter category, in which more than three-quarter million dollars have been either given or committed in a fundraising effort whose most shining moment occurred on October 2nd at the USSRA Centennial Ball and Hall Of Fame Banquet, a hugely successful event that drew more than 600 participants (overwhelming even the spacious seventh-floor banquet room of the host University Club Of New York) and netted the Association approximately $ 400,000 in what was arguably the most successful squash extravaganza in the history of this country.

   Similarly, the advances the USSRA has made on the technological and Internet fronts (with the establishment of Railstation, a new online USSRA tournament reporting system), the implementation of a tiered membership system (keyed by the Founder’s Club for members willing to commit $ 50,000 or more to the Association over the next few years), the expansion and support given to squash-oriented youth organizations like SquashSmarts, Citysquash, Squashbusters and StreetSquash and an increased outreach effort to all regional associations across the country, including the ones with a lower profile, all represent positive changes in which Page has played a major hands-on role. Beginning with an ambitious 10-day, seven-city west coast swing last autumn within weeks of his hiring, the former top IBM executive has traveled extensively and tirelessly all over the country, and indeed the continent, introducing himself to members, soliciting their views on various matters and raising the profile of the USSRA, and he made a practice of attending virtually every national championship as a sign of support for the event and to be on hand to present the trophies to the tournament winners.

   One of his most significant trips, and certainly the one that covered the greatest distance, came just on the heels of the Centennial Dinner, when Page traveled to Mauritius to attend the 34th World Squash Federation Annual General Meeting and Conference to represent the United States before that prestigious world body. It had been hoped that USSRA current president Kenneth Stillman would be elected a first vice-president during the conference, but at the last moment he had to cancel his flight, and Page’s lobbying on Mr. Stillman’s behalf fell just one vote short of the needed total, which would have given U. S. squash far more influence and a noticeably higher profile had it come about. Shortly after the conference, WSF president Jahangir Khan (whose cousin Sharif was one of the 2004 Hall Of Fame inductees, with Page as his presenter at the ceremony) wrote Page an extremely laudatory thank-you letter commending him on the substantial contributions Page had made during his presentation.

   So why the brevity of Page’s tenure? As best can be gleaned from the few hints and veiled references that have emerged, it appears that the same forthright and forceful style that impelled both in his outstanding 30-year career at IBM and as a competitive player (and 2002 and 2003 age-group hardball champion) himself, and that permeated his 14 months as CEO as well, may have also imperiled it by ruffling too many people and giving them too great a sense that Page was only interested in pursuing his goals his way. There was a sense at some conference calls and committee meetings that Page may or may not have been truly listening to views that ran counter to his, and that in any event he had pretty much reached his decision beforehand and was unlikely to be dissuaded by any input he subsequently received.

   As well, in his zeal to further the financial growth of the Association, Page put a lot of pressure on tournament chairmen and committees to turn a substantial profit, resulting in higher entry fees for national tournaments that were resented both by the chairmen and by potential entrants, resulting in smaller-than-usual draws and hence subdued participation: the women’s national doubles actually consisted of only two teams, both of which were therefore “byed” straight into the final, and anger at the $250 per person entry fee for the biennial World Doubles in Philadelphia expressed itself in extremely limited turn-outs across the board.

    But should some interpersonal differences have been allowed to disrupt so many positive changes in so many areas? As it happens, Page was hired with the mandate of bringing a dynamic degree of leadership to an Association that realized it needed it; whether or not he went overboard in this pursuit is subject to speculation and debate, though clearly the enough members of the Executive Committee felt that he had to out-number his supporters among that group. One of his most loyal defenders noted that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs,” and it will never be known whether the relationship Page and the USSRA Executive Committee were forming might have settled in if given a little more time, as frequently happens in businesses when a new CEO enters the scene. It must be said that under Page’s stewardship, and especially in the wake of the Centennial event, the USSRA was exuding an exhilarating degree of momentum and development that it will be hard put to maintain in the wake of such a peremptory truncation of his tenure.

   The Executive Committee itself is undergoing plenty of transition of its own, especially in the wake of the recent resignations of vice president Charlie Johnson (who wouldn’t have been allowed to remain anyway after June, when the new regulation prohibiting people with a business interest in squash to remain on the Committee goes into effect) and two-time S. L. Green champion Damian Walker. Other members are slated to depart fairly shortly as well, and the day-to-day operations on the Association will be assumed by current Director Of Operations Mike Barnett while a search for a new CEO is conducted.

   At least three of the original applicants who vied with Page for that position during the summer of 2003 have already indicated their interest in it during the past week, and the search will initially focus on this abundantly qualified trio. Meanwhile, Page has already flown to Hawaii for a vacation that will later take him to Beaver Creek to ski before he returns early next month in time to participate in the Morris Invitational, a member-guest doubles invitational at the Apawamis Club in Rye, where he remains one of the club’s most popular and admired members.

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