From the vault: When Gillett’s lofty ambitions turned to NASCAR
By BRANT JAMES St. Petersburg Times (Aug. 4, 2007)
All Pete Rozelle could do was so say no. The worst would be hanging up on a daring 27-year-old looking for a new direction. But he didn't, thinking that this George Gillett Jr., founder of a successful software enterprise and very recently formerly of a Chicago-based marketing firm, was of the Gillette - as in razor empire - family. "I said, "Do you have a pro football team for sale?' " Gillett recalled of his seminal 1966 cold call to the then-NFL commissioner. "He said, 'No, but I've got part of the Miami Dolphins you could buy.' ... They say the rest is history." Forty years later, Gillett's empire (worth an estimated $250-million in 2006) includes the NHL's Montreal Canadiens, part of the English Premier League's Liverpool Football Club, several ski resorts, nearly 30 car dealerships and several organic foods companies. On Monday he will add a NASCAR team to his portfolio, buying a majority interest in Evernham Motorsports, which fields three Nextel Cup entries and a Busch Series program. Gillett, 68, an elusive but affable Midwesterner, has marked his career by taking chances on known commodities in need of a new approach. The expansion Dolphins' season-ticket base mushroomed with him as a minority partner as the team drafted the likes of Bob Griese and built the foundation for a championship in 1973, though Gillett had by then sold his share. Gillett's knack for marketing player personalities helped make the Harlem Globetrotters a national draw. He sold the team in 1976 and used some of the proceeds to buy Green Bay's Packerland and its inventory of poorly marbled dairy cattle. He made a fortune, convincing consumers to buy his "lean beef," an unheard of notion at the time. A reported billionaire by 50, he declared bankruptcy in the mid '90s, but came back partnering in a company that made Lunchables a school lunch staple. Gillett, often assumed to be a French-Canadian because of his last name and his hockey team, became the first non-Canadian owner of the NHL's Canadiens in 2001. This year, he and Texas Rangers/Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks partnered to buy perennial soccer power Liverpool for about $430-million and plan to erect a $400-million stadium. Gillett didn't try to reinvent hockey or soccer in places where they are holy, and he said he knows better than trying to fake his way through motorsports with partner Ray Evernham, though he is a fan. "It's fair to say Ray's primary emphasis and time commitment will be on the racing side," he said. "The key for us is that there's some things that we know and some things that we don't, and I'm not going to tell you we know anything about pro football drafting any more than I know how to make a car go fast. What we do is we concentrate on the things we do well, which is take care of the customer or the fan base." Gillett's interest in racing shouldn't be lumped with a spate of recent NASCAR mergers and partnerships: Red Sox owner John Henry and Roush Racing, Newman/Haas/Lanigan and Robert Yates Racing, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Ginn Racing. A self-described "best crasher in history," Gillett and buddies raced their personal cars at Slinger Speedway in Wisconsin as younger men; he sponsored late Midwest legend Larry Detjens and co-sponsored the car Buddy Lazier used to win the 1996 Indianapolis 500. He has close ties to the France family that founded and runs NASCAR. When in need of a racing metaphor, he conjures vintage names that come from years of interest, not quick study. And he already carps about other drivers running into Evernham cars. "Papa and Mama (France) and I knew each other pretty well and we talked about doing something as late as 1976, doing something in and around NASCAR," Gillett said. "Three and a half years ago we started actively looking at making an investment or being a partner in NASCAR, but we weren't interested in just coming in and bringing money." Dean Bonham, of Denver-based Bonham Group sports marketing group, called Gillett "one of the most interesting personalities in the business of sports" after assisting on a failed bid to buy the NBA's Nuggets, the NHL's Avalanche and the Pepsi Center in 2000. "Nothing keeps him down for long," he told ColoradoBiz magazine. "He's as passionate and enthusiastic about the business of sports as anyone I've met in my career. I think he was disappointed, but it was on to bigger and better things once the deal didn't go through." An intermediary introduced Gillett to Evernham, who won three championships as crew chief for Jeff Gordon. But as an owner, his team had bogged down in recent seasons. Evernham complained this spring that he would need 50 more employees to compete with resourceful megateams such as Hendrick Motorsports. Negotiations intensified five months ago and his immediate personal connection with Gillett may have signaled in what he called "the cavalry." "We've become friends. But again, it's a big business proposition, and it has to work good for everybody," Evernham said. "I want to win the Cup. I don't care if I have 100 percent or 1 percent (ownership). My goal when I started this thing was to win the Cup and I am going to do whatever it takes to do that." Kasey Kahne won six of the eighth-year organization's 13 Cup races when he finished eighth in points in 2006. The team hasn't won since and Kahne (28th in points), Elliott Sadler (22nd) and Scott Riggs (23rd) are well out of Chase for the Championship contention. Aerodynamics issues with the new Charger have bedeviled the team the past two years and more employees would help. Evernham is getting divorced, and Jeremy Mayfield, fired by the team last year, said in a civil suit that Evernham had neglected the team as he focused on developmental driver Erin Crocker. Gillett said he had not known about the relationship. "What's happened with Ray, is he's obviously been distracted the last year, year and a half of his life," Gillett said. "He's not been able to devote as much as time to the racing side. The business side and personal matters have distracted him, and while he's very good at business, it's not something he enjoys that much and he doesn't have the same level of superiority - at least he doesn't think he does - that he does on the racing side." Gillett and Evernham are both partners and friends. (They had a half-serious bet to drop their pants at the start/finish line at Indianapolis if Everhman's cars did not perform well, but both thought better of it, Gillett laughed.) But both are in this deal to further their own ambitions and advance the whole. "He loves to kid and he loved to be kidded," Gillett said of Evernham. "And my style and my son's (Geordie's) style is we're very open and no one is immune from comments, kidding or criticism. When we discovered Ray was self-deprecating in terms of his recent performance, that he had a great sense of humor, that was really what sold us. We'd already done enough investigation to know that he is an absolute genius at making cars go fast. That was never a question. "The question was, would he have a sense of humor? ... Because there's no way - unless your name was Richard Petty or Fonty Flock or Marshall Teague, one of the early guys when you could get winning streaks going - but in the new NASCAR, it's significantly more competitive and a lot more even. So you're not going to win every week, so you've got to be able to laugh every week, don't you think?" That might have just gotten a lot easier at Evernham Motorsports. Read the full Gillett interview at http://blogs.tampabay.com/racing/ Fast facts (circa Aug. 4, 2007) George Gillett Jr. Age: 68 Hometown: Racine, Wis. Net worth: Approximately $250-million (2006). What he owns: Coleman, the largest supplier of meat and processed meats in the organic industry; Wheat, Montana, comprised of organic farms, flour mills, bakeries and delicatessens; seven ski resorts; nearly 30 car dealerships; the Montreal Canadiens (NHL) and their home, the Bell Centre (since Jan. 31, 2001); this year he bought interest (with Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks) in Liverpool Football Club (English Premier League).