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Arthur Blank on book, pain of Vick saga and what he did post Super Bowl


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https://theathletic.com/2024628/2020/08/31/schultz-arthur-blank-on-book-pain-of-vick-saga-and-what-he-did-post-super-bowl/

 

By Jeff Schultz 

Arthur Blank has a new book, “Good Company,” in which he writes about his desire to bring the same philosophies he used at Home Depot to his other businesses, including owning the Falcons and Atlanta United. Blank spoke with The Athletic but asked that questions pertain only to subjects in the book and not the current state of his franchises.

You had already co-authored a book with Bernie Marcus on the startup of Home Depot. What was your motivation to write another one?

We knew at HD that the real reason for the success of the company, the most important reason, was the core philosophy, the core values, that we understood and lived by for the 23 years that I was there. I transferred them over to a football team, a soccer team, a foundation, a guest ranch, our golf retail business. The businesses are all different, the geography is different, but the values are all the same. They would produce not just great financial success but great success in terms of what younger people are doing some version of today. They’re looking for deeper answers, what’s the purpose of life. That’s a good thing. The connection between values and success is a beautiful thing. The beauty of the book is it gives a lot of examples of how we’ve applied it in many different settings.

I need to ask you about one story in the book: When you were 10 years old, robbers followed your father home from the pharmacy where he worked and held a gun to his head asking for money. And your mother said to one of the robbers, “What would your mother think about this?”

That’s what she said. One guy was taking my father through the apartment looking for cash, which we didn’t have. The other guy was sitting with a gun on his lap, listening to my mother saying, “This is not what you want to do for the rest of your life. What would your mother say?” This guy has a gun. ****, he could’ve beat us over the head, shot us, I don’t know what, but she’s giving him a lecture. The other thing that was funny was the guy put me in the bathtub when he finished looking in the house, and I said something (profane) to him. I used the F-word, I know that. He looked at me and said, “If I told your mother the word you just used, she would wash your mouth out with soap.” Here’s a robber saying that. It’s still stuck in my mind.

Weren’t you scared?

I don’t remember being scared. It was more like an adventure. I was the first one to kind of get out because I was wiry, and they didn’t tie me as tightly. Then I untied my mother and father and brother. We had one phone then, and they cut the line so we couldn’t call anybody. But to me, it was just a crazy adventure. The part when I got scared was when I went into the hallway and heard the racket, and my father was on his knees, and the guy had a gun to his head. That scared me.

After you left Home Depot, you were looking around for something, and you had wanted to buy the Falcons for a while. Why did you want to own a sports franchise?

I had been a season-ticket holder for the Falcons. I had club seats for a number of years. They never had back-to-back winning seasons. Like every other fan, I was frustrated. I played football in high school, I loved the sport, and I followed it professionally. When the opportunity came to buy them, I wasn’t really thinking about it as an investment. I thought I could do a better job than the ownership was doing here. I didn’t mean that in a mean way. I just thought given our business background, etc. Really I just wanted to show that Atlanta could be a competitive team, we could fill a stadium, we could do things to get us in the top of the league.

What position did you play in football?

I was a wide receiver, a defensive end and a cornerback, believe it or not. I was a skinny kid, but I had no regard for my body. I played pretty recklessly.

You referenced Jackie Robinson a few times in the book and said your dream was to be him.

I played baseball. That was my first love. I never went to a New York Giants or Jets game when I was living in New York. We didn’t have any money or access to tickets. But occasionally we’d go to a game at Ebbets Field. It was designed so that you were sitting right on the sideline. The Dodgers, as you know, were not only the first team with Jackie Robinson but also Roy Campanella, Don Newcomb and a whole bunch of African American players. So the crowd in Brooklyn was very diverse. My dad would save up money, and we’d go to doubleheaders and be there for the whole day. It was a great experience.

Did you really close the deal with Taylor Smith for the purchase of the Falcons on a napkin?

Yeah. The napkin is up at Flowery Branch.

Is that unusual for you?

At HD we’d get into the budget meetings, and we’d have these debates between division presidents and myself and other senior management, and we’d commit to a certain level of volume or margins or profitability, whatever it may be, so to make it real, like a blood oath, we’d make them sign on a cloth napkin, “Yes, I agree, I’ll produce X number of volume, open up new stores, the margins would be this,” and then they’d sign it. And it’s a funny thing, but once somebody signed it, it became very personal. Like, “Holy ****, I really signed it.” They would take out those napkins periodically, and they’d say, “We had a plan!” and then at the end of the year, they had a big celebration. So I remember having dinner with Taylor, and after we agreed, I took out a napkin, and he said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m just writing out our deal on a napkin. I know it’s going to take a couple of days, but I want us to agree tonight.” He said, “I have to talk to my siblings.” I said, “No you don’t. You have power of attorney, and I want us to sign this tonight.” It took him to a different level of commitment.

I know after your purchase, Robert Kraft forewarned you owning an NFL team was a different animal than owning Home Depot, particularly regarding the media.

His real counsel to me was: “You built a unique culture at Home Depot. Run the business the same way. The only thing that’s different is the media. Guys like Jeff Schultz are a pain in the ***.” No, he really didn’t say Jeff Schultz. But I remember thinking, “We were running a public company. We went from nothing to a zillion dollars in volume and profitability.” He said, “You’ll find out,” and he was right. The other thing, and this goes back to when Michael (Vick) broke his leg, at HD or when anybody at one of our businesses gets hurt, they get a cast on, and they come to work the next day. In football or soccer, you can lose a player for a year, and it’s painful.

Was that when it really hit home?

It hit home in early 2002. I remember at the closing, Paul Tagliabue said, “You rank 37th in attendance and these other things,” and I said, “That can’t be Paul. There’s only 31 teams.” The Texans weren’t competing then. He said, “If we do a forced ranking, with the same gap, you’d be 37.” I’m like, “****, that’s below the bottom of the league.” He said, “Yeah, that’s where you are: Below the bottom of the league.” So that first year, we had very aggressive ticket pricing. We doubled the amount of parking. We did a variety of things, listening to fans, going to the back of the plane to talk to players on that trip home (from St. Louis to end the 2001 season). The answers were there. We just had to have humility, ask for the answers and not second-guess what we were hearing.

You referenced Michael and the dogfighting arrest as an existential crisis for the organization. But what did that do to you? Because he lied to you, obviously.

I think the biggest learning I drew from that was, Curtis Martin came to Atlanta (in 2007), and he took me to dinner. I didn’t know Curtis. This is when Michael was in jail. He said, “I’m not asking you to forgive him. But where Michael came from was one of the worst places you can imagine. A lot of the things there, like the dogfighting, that was business as usual there.” The police would drive past that every single day because they were getting calls about domestic violence, other forms of abuse, shootings. It wasn’t that silence was consent. But it just wasn’t a big deal. So one’s background, the neighborhood they grew up in, the community and the family they grow up in, really does have a tremendous shaping of their own personality. That’s helped me and a lot of our foundation’s work because it helps me more clearly understand things that are passed to the next generation. Unless that link is broken, it does repeat itself. And it’s very hard to break it.

You write about having dinner with Michael after he got out of jail. Was there a point when you were so angry with him that you thought you would never want to talk to him again?

It never got to that point. My kids, particularly Joshua, he was really devastated. Josh was about 11 years old, and I remember him saying, “Dad, how could he do this?” Because we always had dogs. It was hard to explain it to him.

What did you say?

It wasn’t a good explanation.

I don’t think I’ve ever asked you this. What was more difficult: Going through that or going through the Super Bowl?

(Long pause.) That’s a good question. I think going through the Michael thing was harder because it affected our fans so greatly — deeply, not just for a loss but beyond that. He was a strong leader, a strong identity for the franchise. It was difficult for my family. Obviously, the issue of dogs and animal care was always really important to me. The Super Bowl was different. I was concerned about the fans again, concerned about my family. I had to keep it all in perspective. At the time, I switched immediately into the parent, caring, fatherly — how do I take care of everybody else’s feelings? A couple of years later, the enormity of the opportunity, the loss and the way we lost really hit me more than even then.

I remember seeing you after the game, and you were walking from podium to podium in the interview area, looking somewhat traumatized, trying to listen for answers as to what happened.

Haha. That may have been true. But really, I was trying to look for people I could embrace so I could tell them it was going to be OK. I mentioned this in the book: Thomas’ (Dimitroff) son, Mason, was just a little guy then. I remember seeing him when I came out of the locker room. He was crying, just bawling. I put my arms around him and told him what I felt a parent would tell him. I felt like I was doing that with everybody, including our coach. My focus at the time was really: How do I help others get through this? How do I help them heal? Part of that helped me move on, as well. But in retrospect, looking back now, you realize those opportunities are so unique. They just don’t happen very often. Usually, they don’t unless you’re the New England Patriots. Hopefully, we’ll have another opportunity.

Two days after the game, you got your executive staff together for what seemed like a group therapy session. Your message was: Hold your head up. But that had to be such a tough moment.

It was very hard. You’ve been involved in this business much longer than I have. You have to have talent, you have to be good, you have to be well-coached, you have to have the right players. But a lot of things have to fall in place to get through the whole playoffs, and this is not a round ball so it does bounce crazy sometimes.

In the book, you mention the worst three moments you’ve been involved in: The end of the Super Bowl, Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino.

I was thinking of another one. I was a huge Brooklyn Dodgers fan. When Bobby Thompson hit the home run off Ralph Branca … when you said that my mind went to that.

I should’ve said, your time as an owner. You wrote that your mistake was moving too fast on hiring Petrino. How soon did you know you made a mistake?

A couple of weeks into training camp. I had two players call me independently. Players never call me at home. Two players who I kind of trusted and knew. They basically said, “What the **** did you do?” They gave me a whole bunch of examples. I knew then it would be tough sledding.

Petrino blindsided you and everybody else with that late-night news conference in Arkansas. But you also told me and Zach Klein on a podcast years later that you had planned to fire him after the season.

Yeah. We were going to make a change. In fact, I remember having a meeting with Bobby in his office sometime before. I think the feeling was (mutual). He realized this professional game was different from college. Nick Saban might say the same thing. I remember the year we drafted Matt Ryan, we were working out other players before the draft, and somebody said to me, “Do you mind if I ask you a question? Why did you ever hire Bobby Petrino?” I said, “Well, college coach, he had some success with his style of offense.” He said, “I could’ve told you he was not going to get along with any professional football players. College kids didn’t like him even then. He had his thumb on us all the time.”

The Vick and Petrino things happened one right after the other. Did you do any soul searching? Like, “I’m trying to do everything right. Why is this happening to me?”

In life, you take responsibility for what you can control and your decisions. You realize other things in life can happen to you. The option there is how you respond. In that space, I knew there was nothing I could do except to respond in the best way that I could and hope for another opportunity. With Michael, I learned we could have the best environment (in the facility), but a player could be tremendously influenced beyond the boundaries of Flowery Branch. Generally, when Michael was in Atlanta he was fine. He didn’t work as hard as he could have. Mike would tell you that today. But all the dogfighting stuff happened when he went home.

You wrote about how prostate cancer gave you a new perspective. But you’ve always been the, “There’s no finish line,” kind of guy. Did it really change you? Because I hear it both ways.

I haven’t slowed down. I didn’t really change at all. I’ve talked to President Carter about this. He’s 95 years old. He’s still going, and so is his wife. Whether it’s driven by faith or driven by life experiences when I was 15 and (his father died at 44), I want to stay engaged and keep doing (things) as long as I’m alive. And I think it will help keep me alive. It will create a sense of purpose for me and everybody I’m connected to. I don’t think I’ll get that if I just go to the golf course and try to play golf, which would be a futile thing for me, anyway. I interviewed somebody this morning for our foundation. They asked me how comfortable we are speaking out. We live for those opportunities. That’s where we belong. We belong on the edge of everything.

 

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Really enjoyed this article. 

Arthur Blank really took this franchise to another level. Outside of 2007, there hasn't been a year under his ownership I didn't think we had at least an outside shot of winning a Super Bowl. With the Smith family, it was quite literally a pipe dream. 1998 was like being on LSD - you couldn't even believe you were there. 2016 - it was like, "we've paid our dues, we're a good football team, let's get it." 

Super Bowl LI was a terrible loss, but, I really do think it plots Blank, Ryan, Julio, DQ, and the rest of these guys to have one of the great triumphant finishes - ever. 

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He really is a fine man, isn't he?  The type of team owner for whom I'd thank god every day if I had the great fortune to work for.  

And you have these pea-brained hotshot players out there sometimes talking about owners in terms of 'mistreatment' or 'slavery'.   What horse sh*t.  

Men like Arthur Blank not only make these guys multi-millionaires, but they care about them like their own family in most cases.  

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4 hours ago, octoslash said:

He really is a fine man, isn't he?  The type of team owner for whom I'd thank god every day if I had the great fortune to work for.  

And you have these pea-brained hotshot players out there sometimes talking about owners in terms of 'mistreatment' or 'slavery'.   What horse sh*t.  

Men like Arthur Blank not only make these guys multi-millionaires, but they care about them like their own family in most cases.  

Great leader he is. First instinct, he is worried about others. Thinking how he can help.

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11 hours ago, Goober Pyle said:

Like every other fan, I was frustrated. I played football in high school, I loved the sport, and I followed it professionally. When the opportunity came to buy them, I wasn’t really thinking about it as an investment. I thought I could do a better job than the ownership was doing here. I didn’t mean that in a mean way. I just thought given our business background, etc. Really I just wanted to show that Atlanta could be a competitive team, we could fill a stadium, we could do things to get us in the top of the league.

A warrior. He wanted Rankin Smith out. He enjoyed competitive football. His way was to buy the team and create a winner. He was successful. Love this story. 

Great post, thanks Goob. @Goober Pyle

 

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7 hours ago, octoslash said:

He really is a fine man, isn't he?  The type of team owner for whom I'd thank god every day if I had the great fortune to work for.  

And you have these pea-brained hotshot players out there sometimes talking about owners in terms of 'mistreatment' or 'slavery'.   What horse sh*t.  

Men like Arthur Blank not only make these guys multi-millionaires, but they care about them like their own family in most cases.  

Half of this post is unnecessary. I agree with the Arthur Blank stuff but imagine having such a strong opinion on an experience you don't have. No insight. No nothing. Just an article about one owner.

I really hope we all can be a bit more curious in our thoughts and others experiences. It's funny that the same man you praised, learned this very lesson outlined in the article when he had a convo with Curtis Martin about Vick.

Thank goodness for Arthur Blank who learned lessons even through all of his experiences.

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