Amy Sawaya Hunter, Director of Customer Strategy for the Utah Jazz, focuses on developing real relationships in her career.
If there were a poster child for the importance of developing relationships—real relationships—throughout your career, Amy Sawaya Hunter would be it. Developing relationships is her gift. Hunter is genuine, articulate, and sincere, with a smile in her voice. It’s hard not to feel valued when speaking with her, and she knows exactly what she is talking about.
Hunter’s life has been marked by meaningful relationships that in one way or another have propelled her forward. Indeed, she says, “I would not be where I am today without the incredible family, friends, and professional peers I have been lucky enough to encounter along the way.”
Finding the Right Road
When Hunter entered college, she was positive of her future vocation: an environmental scientist who would travel the world making incredible discoveries. Inspired by her high school science teacher, Hunter spent her freshman year at BYU immersed in the sciences, and she loved every minute.
But as she came to better understand what a career in environmental science might entail, she had concerns. “I didn’t want a job that would take me away from my family and friends for six months at a time,” Hunter says. “Being around people I love are the greatest moments of my life, so I didn’t want a job where I would have to be away.”
As she was considering what to do, Hunter counseled with her father, William J. Sawaya, a long-time associate professor of global supply chain management at BYU Marriott who retired in 2011. He suggested giving business a try. Hunter took his advice. The family aptitude must run deep, because she found herself reading her supply chain textbook for fun. “And I thought, ‘Hmmm, maybe I like this subject,’” Hunter laughs.
Ultimately, she left BYU in 2010 clutching a bachelor’s degree in management with an emphasis in supply chain, services, and operations management. But true to her nature, her career path has pulled her away from warehouses and right into the places where people connect. Currently Hunter is the director of customer strategy for the Utah Jazz, where she is identifying every touch point the organization has with its customers—from parking to concessions to box seats—and trying to make those moments the best experiences possible.
A Path Full of Connections
Hunter’s first job out of school was at Overstock.com in Midvale, Utah. She landed it after attending a career fair at BYU. There she ran into her mother’s college roommate’s son, who was manning the table for Overstock.com. (How many people would recognize their mom’s college roommate’s son? Clearly Hunter’s gift for developing lasting relationships comes honestly.) He took her résumé, and not long afterward, she was hired.
That was a turning point. “Working at Overstock has defined my career. The people I met there continue to shape my path,” she says. In fact, her current boss at the Jazz was her first boss at Overstock.
“My time at Overstock was just this incredible rush of learning and growth,” Hunter recalls. She started working with demand analytics and eventually moved into marketing, where she fell in love with process improvement and project management.
When Hunter felt it was time to look for new opportunities, a previous supervisor at Overstock referred her for a position at a small, family-owned business called Blue Chip Group, which specializes in emergency food storage.
“I don’t know exactly how God works in our lives; it’s all conjecture on my part,” Hunter says. “However, I do think God doesn’t care where we work. I think He wants us to do something productive and be happy. But sometimes, God does lead you.”
Her time at Blue Chip Group felt like one of those moments. It was a brief career stop, but again, relationships pop up when she talks about it. “I met one of my best friends in the whole world who has changed my life. So it’s been beautiful to watch God work,” Hunter says.
Overstock came into play again when a former colleague invited her to join a newly formed e-commerce team at Fanzz, a company owned at the time by the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies. Hunter jumped at the chance and got a taste of the startup life as she helped establish the online arm of the sports apparel company.
At Fanzz, Hunter had the opportunity to manage a team, and that experience led her back to school. “I decided to get my MBA because I wanted to learn how to manage people,” Hunter says. “I wanted to be the type of leader who I admired.”
Hunter stepped back into student life at Arizona State University, and again her father provided counsel. “Amy is incredibly dedicated and focused,” Sawaya says. “On occasion when she was in graduate school, I encouraged her to loosen up, let a grade slip a bit, and work on her social life. I was wholly unsuccessful. For her to have done as I urged would have violated her integrity.”
That said, Dad’s advice did not go completely unheeded. Hunter acknowledges that graduate school was a time of personal growth as well as professional development. “It was a lot of me learning how to decide what’s good enough as opposed to worrying so much about perfection and achieving the best of everything,” Hunter says. “That balance is something I’m continually aware of: deciding what areas of my life can be good enough so I can focus on things that have more importance.”
Hard Work Pays Off
Perhaps Hunter has her dad to thank not just for the advice but for instilling her inner drive in the first place. A strong work ethic was simply a way of life for the Sawaya family. Hunter grew up in Orem, the youngest of eight children and the great-granddaughter of Lebanese immigrants. “My drive to work hard absolutely came from my parents,” Hunter says. “Saturdays were family days and were mostly filled with tending our garden, cleaning the house, or whatever tasks needed to be completed.”
Hunter admits she may not have always been thrilled to spend her Saturdays doing chores, but she also acknowledges that she “learned young that the feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment from setting about a difficult task and accomplishing it is worth the effort.”
Hunter’s hard work and quick insights have caught the attention of leadership at every level. Steve Starks, CEO of the Larry H. Miller Group, first worked with Hunter at Fanzz. When a position opened with the Utah Jazz, Starks thought of her. At that point, she had just finished her MBA, so the timing couldn’t have been better.
“Amy is an incredible teammate and quickly gained a great reputation in our organization,” says Starks. “She is highly intelligent, works hard, approaches projects strategically, and exemplifies the culture we aspire to. We are lucky to have her as a colleague and friend.”
Hunter’s husband, Spencer, agrees. “There are many who recognize what makes her special. She has been the beneficiary of a lot of face time with C-level executives who know a good egg when they see it,” he says. “People who operate at the highest levels understand that cutthroat tactics only get you so far before ambition must give way to ability [and] the quiet consistency of excellent work.”
A Year for the History Books
On March 11, 2020, the Utah Jazz were about to tip off against the Oklahoma City Thunder when a medical staffer ran onto the floor to speak with referees. Within minutes both teams were sent back to their locker rooms. Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19. In a matter of hours, the NBA suspended the entire season.
When the season resumed several months later, the death of George Floyd had added another layer to an already tense year. The NBA painted “Black Lives Matter” on their courts, and players and teams joined in the national conversation about race and social justice.
In Hunter’s role as director of customer strategy for the Utah Jazz, she pays close attention to those touch points between the organization, the players, and the customers. While her study of customer interactions used to primarily focus on ticket takers or ushers, now she gathers feedback on issues from mask wearing to race relations. And she reads every single response. It can be intense.
“There were times last year that I would just have to walk away from my computer for 30 minutes and say, ‘Okay, people are unhappy, and they are allowed to be unhappy, but I need to take a break,’” she says.
Despite the troubles, Hunter has nothing but admiration for the way her organization has responded. “I am deeply impressed with the way our players, the NBA administration, and the Utah Jazz handled things,” she says. “The variety of circumstances creates great opportunities for us as an organization to do better. I am grateful for leaders such as Gail Miller and Ryan Smith who are determined to do better, who take those opportunities to rise up.”
A Voice for a Cause
To add to an eventful 2020, in November, Hunter and her husband welcomed their first child. Hunter’s father captures the new mother perfectly when he notes, “Don’t ask about her baby unless you sincerely want to know a lot about him.”
Motherhood is a tender thing for Hunter. She was in her 30s before she married and became a mother, so it feels like a long-hoped-for season of life. “Mothering my son has been the most incredible experience I have ever had,” Hunter says.
This new experience is also a connection to her own mother, who died of cancer when Hunter was 15 years old. Unfortunately, cancer has been a theme in Hunter’s life: several of her stepsiblings have battled the disease, including one who has died, and her stepmother has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the same cancer that took Hunter’s mother.
In addition, Hunter and her sister have been diagnosed with the BRCA1 genetic mutation, indicating a marked risk for ovarian cancer and breast cancer. Both women are taking it in stride and agree that “knowledge is power,” says Hunter. With that knowledge, Hunter has started a lifetime track of preventative measures that include regular screenings and will eventually include preventative surgeries.
True to her go-after-it mentality, obtaining better insurance coverage for screenings and preventative measures—for herself and others facing similar challenges—is emerging as a personal cause. “The hill I will die on is trying to get insurance to fully recognize the value of preventative screenings,” Hunter says. “In whatever way I can find and in whatever opportunities I am given, I try to use my voice to tell people about my personal experience and why it is important to me.”
And as a footnote: “We don’t say we lost our battle to cancer in our family, because that means the cancer won,” Hunter explains. “I don’t know the workings of God. Like Nephi, I know He loves me, but I don’t know the meaning of all things. But I do believe that God can turn something painful and hard into something beautiful. So they didn’t lose, and there was no failure. The God I know has a plan. He loves us, and He will make it all right in the end. And if it’s not all right, then it’s not the end.”
Full Name: Amy Sawaya Hunter
Grad Year: BS 10
College: Marriott School of Business
Original Post date: Winter 2022
Author: Lisa Ann Thomson
Originally posted on the Marriott School's Leading Alumni.