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Article about Arthur Blank in New York Times


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Talking Business

Leaving Boardroom for Skybox

Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The owner of the Atlanta Falcons, Arthur M. Blank, talking to officials before a preseason game.



Published: September 5, 2008

When Arthur M. Blank retired from Home Depot in 2001, he was 58 years old, a powerfully built, energetic man with a young family and a billion-dollar fortune.

Twenty-two years earlier, he co-founded Home Depot with his friend Bernard Marcus, which they built into a retail chain that trailed only mighty Wal-Mart in revenue. In 1997, Mr. Blank succeeded his co-founder as chief executive; by 2001, he was beginning to think about retirement. His departure was hastened, however, when the Home Depot board decided it just had to have Bob Nardelli, who had lost the General Electric “bake-off” to Jeffrey Immelt.

Guys like Arthur Blank, “with an insatiable desire to succeed,” as one of his executives described him to me — don’t just ride off into the sunset. That’s not how they’re wired. They need new mountains to conquer. And if they’re rich enough, the mountain they often choose is the sports business.

John Henry, a wealthy commodities trader, owns the Boston Red Sox. Malcolm Glazer, who made his fortune in food processing, took over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when he was 67. Robert Kraft, a packaging mogul, owns the New England Patriots. Jerry Jones, Tom Hicks, Wayne Huizenga — when you think about it, the sports business in this country is dominated by self-made men looking for mountains to conquer.

So perhaps it was inevitable that Mr. Blank would buy the Atlanta Falcons, his hometown National Football League team, despite its long history of mediocrity. In February 2002, he paid $545 million for the privilege.

This is Mr. Blank’s seventh season as the Falcons’ owner. He has had some small successes on the field — the playoffs in 2002, and a run to the conference championship game in 2004. But let’s face it: his Falcons aren’t exactly the Patriots of the South. They are still a so-so team, with only two winning seasons since Mr. Blank bought the team. He’s on his fourth coach.

And then there was last season, Mr. Blank’s “annus horribilis.” With its star quarterback, Michael Vick, in the prime of his career, the Falcons decided to hire a coach from the college ranks, Bobby Petrino, who specialized in offense and quarterbacks. The idea was that if the Falcons were going to make a Super Bowl run, they needed to do it soon, before the team had to be rebuilt. Mr. Blank gave Mr. Petrino a five-year, $24 million contract.

Within weeks of Mr. Petrino’s hiring, however, Mr. Vick was accused of running an illegal dog-fighting operation at his farm in Virginia, the details of which were sordid in the extreme. He pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 23 months in prison. Without a decent quarterback, Atlanta went 4-12 — as the Vick imbroglio tormented the team the entire season.

Mr. Petrino, meanwhile, was a bust. He also turned out to be a liar, denying to Mr. Blank that he was about to bolt for the University of Arkansas — and then doing precisely that 24 hours later. “I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach,” Mr. Blank says now.

As I watched the Falcons debacle unfold last season, I wondered how it could be that someone so good at one business seemed so inept at another. Was this a case of someone whose skills were so oriented to the retail trade that they couldn’t translate to a different kind of business? Was the learning curve just too big? What exactly was the problem? On the eve of the new N.F.L. season, I went to Atlanta to find out.

“Before I bought the team, Robert Kraft told me that I was going to be surprised to discover that football is much more similar to business than not,” Mr. Blank said. He was sitting in a comfortable chair in his home office, his shoes off, his feet tucked up on the seat of his chair. He continued: “And I found that that was mostly true. I have the same sort of relationship with our associates as I did at Home Depot.” (“Associates” is Home Depot-ese for “employees.”) “And you have to listen to your customers — which in this case are the fans.”

Up to a point, he’s right. Football is a business, after all, and entrepreneurs like Mr. Blank often instinctively know how to improve it. **** Sullivan, a Falcons executive who followed Mr. Blank from Home Depot, told me that on his first day on the job, “he and I were literally looking at parking lots in downtown Atlanta.” Why? Because the fans had complained there wasn’t enough parking.

The Falcons almost never sold out when Mr. Blank first took over. He did surveys to discover what the fans wanted, and set about providing it. The Georgia Dome was upgraded. He raised prices on the most expensive seats — but lowered prices on 20,000 seats. He tried to provide, as he puts it, “a great game day experience.”

And it worked. The stadium not only filled up for every game, but there also was a long waiting list for season tickets. In short order, the Falcons were generating significantly more revenue than under the previous owners.

But for someone like Mr. Blank, fixing the business side is the easy part. The hard part is the football.

“Have you ever seen a playbook?” Mr. Blank asked me. He spread his hand wide so I could envision how thick it was. “When you see a playbook, you realize that it takes a lot to understand the game. What football executives know, I’ll never know. The best I can do on the football side is make sure we have the best people and get out of their way.”

Full article with link. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/06/business/06nocera.html?em

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