How Haslam Will Pilot the Browns

Press conference provides insights into Pilot Flying J owner's business philosophy

Greg Lindenberg, Editor, CSP

Jimmy Haslam

CLEVELAND -- Jimmy Haslam III, the CEO of Pilot Flying J Corp., has agreed officially to purchase a controlling interest in the Browns from Randy Lerner and met with the Cleveland media on Friday.

"I can't tell you how excited our family is to be a part of Cleveland and more importantly, the Cleveland Browns," Haslam said at the press conference, which revealed not only Haslam's reasons for buying the team and his plans for it, but also gave some insights into the underlying business philosophy that drives Pilot Flying J.

Click here to view the full press conference. And click here to read the full transcript (excerpted below).

Why buy the Browns?

"Everybody is fired up and excited about football. When people say, 'Why the Cleveland Browns?' [We say] because of the excitement and the importance of football, the Browns, to this community. We're all about that and we have one mission and one mission only, and that's to bring winning back to Cleveland. That's the sole thing we're focused on. We're really excited about the opportunity, and we want to bring a winning team back to Cleveland."

Why should fans be optimistic that Haslam is the right person to turn the Browns' record around?

"I hate to refer back to our business track record, but that's all I know to refer back to. If you look at our main company, Pilot Flying J, it's been in business for 53 years. We have a very, very senior group of individuals, a very set culture and candidly that's how we plan on doing it here. We're going to devote whatever time necessary it takes to get things right here in Cleveland and I believe they're on the right path now. We're going to take whatever steps necessary to bring winning football back to Cleveland." ...

"With a great iconic, storied franchise like this, we do think it's a large investment and our main business, Pilot Flying J, is our largest family investment, but this is our second largest family business investment and we're going to take it very seriously."

On plans to move to Cleveland and how much time he plans to spend in Cleveland.

"I think you'll find we're pretty transparent and open people. Our main home will be in Knoxville. [Wife] Dee is leaving as soon as this press conference is over to go look at homes here in Cleveland, and we'll split our time between Knoxville and Cleveland. I'm still going to be CEO of Pilot Flying J. It's a big company and I'll spend a pretty good amount of time running that, but we'll take, as I said earlier, whatever time necessary in Cleveland really to do two things, one, to bring a winner back here, but number two, to become a part of the Cleveland community."

How important it is to him to be out in front of the media and the community?

"Somebody asked me that when we were having lunch, about being hands on because we run our main business hands on. I looked over at Mike and I said, 'Mike probably doesn't want us to be hands on,' but I think our style is going to be involved. I think you'll find that we are open and transparent. Having a brother [Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam] and a very close friend [U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)] in high roles in politics, rightly or wrongly, we are used to the public scrutiny and being in the eye. I think you'll find us to be pretty available, pretty transparent people and I'll be honest, we're going to be out there selling the Cleveland Browns all the time. When we got off I-90 and saw the water tower here in Berea and it had the Browns helmet on it I thought, 'Way to go.' That's how you've got to think, right? It's all about the orange and brown, all about the Browns."

Should fans brace themselves for a culture shock like changing jerseys or naming rights?

"I would maybe define culture a little different than that. To me, culture is not about the uniforms or the naming rights. Culture is about how you come to work every day and conduct yourselves. My instincts, and here again I've been in the building five hours so I don't at all want to pretend to be an expert, particularly with this kind of guy over here to my side [Mike Holmgren]. I think the reality today is, you live in a marketing world and after Randy and I reached an agreement the other day, the first owner that called me was Robert Kraft and he said come up and see me and I'll tell you everything about football and business I know. It's a competitive world and the questions I've been asking today have not just been about how's Brandon [Weeden] looking or how Trent [Richardson's] looking, but how does this practice facility stack up against everyone else's practice facility? Do you have what you need to win here? How's our stadium compare for the fans? I think those are the things that are important to get right. Will we have naming rights? Probably at some time or could we change the uniforms? I don't know, but it is a marketing world we live in, and let's be realistic about that. I don't associate that with culture though. I think they are distinctly different. People may agree or disagree, but that's our philosophy. In our business world, we changed our logo and our design of our stores multiple times over the years, but the basic culture and core beliefs--what we call Pilot Flying J values stay the same and hopefully that helps you."

Will Haslam have time for both of his jobs?

"Have you been talking to Dee? I think it's going to be a challenge. We're involved on some other boards, and we're going to get off all of those and if you know us very well, we don't have a lot of hobbies beside work so now it's going to be work and football, but it will be a challenge. It's a big company that we run, but these are good, smart, talented people here and we're going to spend a lot of time in Cleveland, a lot of time in Knoxville. Our business is in 43 states, plus Canada, so we're used to traveling and being on the road and it's exciting and its fun, but it will be a challenge though to answer your question."

What role has football played in Haslam's life?

"Dad played football at Tennessee so we grew up in an athletic background. He was a great dad, Super Bowl, World Series, I've been to every kind of athletic event, as has my brother, that you can go to. I was raised in that kind of background. I played high school sports, was not good enough to play college sports, but been in that environment all the time. I'm a firm believer in athletics. I have an intern every year, that's a college kid, and the prerequisites are this, number one, they had to play high school sports, because I think that competitive aspect comes through and I think it's important in business.

Click here for more on Haslam's football pedigree.

Details on the negotiations.

I'm not being a wise guy, but if you've ever negotiated a deal--and we just finished another big one in our business--this one is really no different. I've never seen a negotiation that there weren't times that I thought, 'this isn't going to work out' or 'we aren't going to be able to get things together.' ...but the negotiations went well."

Meanwhile, although NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the sale--estimated at $1 billion--could be completed by October, Forbes has reported that he has expressed "concern over the buyer currently being an investor in the Pittsburgh Steelers." League rules prohibit someone from owning stakes in two teams, and the NFL team owners have yet to vote on the purchase.

Observers expect Haslam to sell his minority stake in the Steelers, but, according to the report, the Rooney family, the controlling shareholders of the Steelers, does not have the cash to buy out Haslam.

Pilot Flying J is based in Knoxville, Tenn., and has more than 550 retail locations across North America. Pilot Flying J is also one of the nation's largest wholesale fuel providers, delivering more than 500 million gallons of fuel to thousands of customers in 47 states and eight Canadian provinces. The company employs approximately 18,000 people and is the largest operator of travel centers and travel plazas in North America.