You wouldn’t expect the road of a professional racquetball player to lead to merchant banking, but Eric Muller, the IRT’s Chairman of the Board, has found the two careers share a skill set that serves him at the helm of men’s professional racquetball and in his selection last November as a partner with Goldman, Sachs & Co.
As a top junior player for many years, Muller joined the first USA Racquetball Junior National Team and won the Intercollegiate Championships before taking the Tournament of Champions title (a precursor to today’s Pan American Games), coaching the USAR junior national team, and winning USAR National Doubles with John Ellis and IRF World Doubles Championships twice, with John Ellis and Doug Ganim.
Which was Muller’s best win? The 3rd annual U.S. Open Racquetball Championships, when the student athlete resolved a scheduling conflict by sitting for a graduate school ethics exam in Memphis, Tennessee where the sport’s biggest tournament was held. After passing his test, he rushed over to make his quarterfinal match and defeated Mike Ray to claim a spot in the 1998 U.S. Open semifinals.
“I’ve definitely had some good wins over the years,” Muller said, downplaying the fact he ranked as high as #12 on the pro tour while also earning a BSBA, summa cum laude, salutatorian, from Boston University in 1994; a JD (Juris Doctor) from Harvard Law School, and an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1999. What the degrees and accolades don’t reveal is an easy affability and boyish good looks that don’t fit a stereotypical image for the smartest guy in the room.
Truly a nice guy off of the court, Muller’s demeanor has been described as “a bull” on the hardwood as he held his own against opponents. Muller competed in an era boasting seven current, former, and future #1 professionals, with a depth that included Cliff Swain, Sudsy Monchik, Andy Roberts, Jason Mannino, John Ellis, Ruben Gonzalez, and Drew Kachtik. Muller’s game style was tenacious, fearless, and not intimidated by higher-ranked players. “No one liked to play Muller because he never walked onto the court defeated,” explained IRT President, Jason Mannino, “He fought until the last point and used strategy, fitness, and his mental strength to maneuver the game into his favor.”
He approaches his current career similarly, as a Managing Director in Goldman’s Merchant Banking Division, where Muller helps lead the firm’s efforts to provide debt capital on a principal basis, often for multi-billion dollar leverage buyouts. Like racquetball at the highest levels, winning in business often requires getting creative, being aggressive, and strategizing where to place time and attention. “A big part of my job is building trust and long-term relationships,” Muller said, adding that enabling his team is also critical to success. “No one does it alone.”
In addition to a demanding day job, he advises the International Racquetball Tour (IRT) team, helping to make major decisions, develop long-term strategy, and build material relationships along with Mannino, who also focuses on the day-to-day. “Originally I’d planned on retiring when I turned forty,” explained Mannino, who celebrated that milestone birthday this year. “The main reason I stopped playing early was for love of the game, and for the chance to partner with Muller, a close friend who shares my passion for the sport and offers a business acumen I knew I could learn from.”
Their corporate philosophy is built on a core tenant they employ. “We are clear who our constituents are — tournament directors, players, sponsors and fans — and how decisions impact them,” said Muller. “Every decision we make has an impact on these four groups, and we have to use our limited resources in the best way we can to benefit these parties. Sometimes interests conflict.”
It’s not always easy to manage opposing positions, but Muller is clear on the IRT’s approach. “If we have a disagreement, we are upfront and unpack our thinking to explain why we’re doing what we are. We pride ourselves on follow-through, and if we say we’ll do something, we do. It changes perspectives, and has served us well over time. We have a lot of places to improve and are cognizant of these things. But our number-one focus has been hosting a full season, which we’ve done over these five years.” Muller’s thoughtful, direct approach makes what could be an adversarial perspective understandable, especially as it clearly comes from someone who cares about racquetball, what he does for a living, and the people he works with.
For Muller, his role with the IRT has provided a great way to stay involved in racquetball as the sport faces challenges. “There are a lot of things we can learn from other sports. I think racquetball’s leadership isn’t rowing in the same direction. Many of the various leaders in the sport have differing views on what is in racquetball’s best interest. The sport would benefit from more broad based buy-in to a common vision and strategic direction.”
The competitive edge and winning spirit that Muller has devoted to racquetball since his playing days has found an outlet in his career at Goldman, Sachs & Co. The kind of quiet confidence and strategic thinking that allowed him to ace an exam just before his biggest win on the court has also propelled Muller to the upper echelons of Wall Street and IRT leadership. It’s why he loves his job, and how he continues to give back to racquetball.
By Jen Sinclair Johnson
With a degree in communications from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Jen worked in financial marketing until pursuing freelance writing for newspapers and magazines,including a gardening column for three local and one state-wide newspaper. After discovering racquetball at her local YMCA, she quickly became a certified instructor, racquetball director, and tournament regular. She’s now finalizing her first novel: a mystery set within the quirky communities of her favorite sport and luxury taxidermy, making sense of the world by finding humor and beauty in how ordinary life is not.