STOW: If he hadn’t taken a leap of faith and quit his job on his 30th birthday, R.J. Nemer wouldn’t have spent last Thanksgiving in Dubai.
He wouldn’t entertain clients at a rental house during Masters week.
He probably wouldn’t know anything about Ferraris.
All of that became possible when the graduate of Walsh Jesuit, the University of Akron and UA law school decided in October 1997 to pursue his dream job and open his own sports management firm.
His father, Bob, was a close friend of Eddie Elias, the founder of the Professional Bowlers Association and the owner of a marketing agency in Akron. As a child, when Nemer spotted Elias on television in the front row at a sporting event, he told himself, “I want to be that.”
Nemer never got a chance to ask Elias for a job. Elias suffered a stroke in 1995 and died in 1998. So after passing the bar, Nemer took a clerkship at Summit County Probate Court, then was hired at a Northeast Ohio law firm.
“Every Monday I walked into work and I thought to myself, ‘I wish it were Friday,’ ” Nemer said during an interview in his office Wednesday. “It dawned on me, ‘I don’t think going through life and wishing five out of seven days away is really that smart.’ ”
So on his birthday, Nemer resigned, determined to follow in Elias’ footsteps.
“People were more than willing to tell me I was going to fail and that I didn’t know what I was doing and nobody would ever sign with me,” Nemer said. “I used that as fuel. I said, ‘Really? Watch me.’ ”
Nemer, 45, is starting his 16th year as president of ICON Sports Management in Stow. It represents 27 clients, including Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson, Kevin Streelman, Fred Funk, former Kent State All-American John Hahn and noted instructor David Leadbetter. Nemer’s intial recruit, Lancaster, Ohio, native Joe Ogilvie, remains in the fold.
Twelve of ICON’s 26 players participated in this year’s U.S. Open. Nemer said three or four will compete in the British Open July 18-21. Poulter, Streelman and Ryan Moore have qualified for the $8.75 million World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational Aug. 1-4 at Firestone Country Club.
ICON has grown to a staff of 12, with two in the United Kingdom, one in Sweden and one in Orlando. Besides handling client appearances and marketing, the company sets up golf outings and pro-ams, manages houses and handles hospitality for the Masters, books appearances in the United Arab Emirates and has a project involving a golf course design in China.
Start in basement
When Nemer launched ICON in a tiny basement office in the valley, he was alone, but he dreamed big. Instead of ordering one voice mailbox from the telephone company for $10 a month, he got 10 for $18.
“I made a recording, ‘For representation, press 1, for events press 2,’ and went through 10 different departments,” Nemer said.
His lone extravagance was a signed LeRoy Neiman lithograph of the clubhouse at St. Andrews, which cost Nemer $800 and still hangs behind his desk.
“When I got the bill I said, ‘I can’t afford this, that’s like three plane tickets,’ ” Nemer said. “Every expense freaked me out. If I ran a copy and it was incorrect, I’d turn it over and use it as scrap paper.”
He knew so little about business protocol that when he attended his first golf tournament for ICON, he bought a ticket and stood outside the ropes in Greensboro, N.C. But he found someone willing to introduce him to Nike Tour players, which led to a dinner in Florida with Ogilvie, who agreed to a six-month trial.
“I don’t think R.J. knew the difference between a driver and a putter,” Ogilvie said by telephone Thursday while on a family vacation in Utah. “But he didn’t put me in a box. He said, ‘What are your interests? What kind of companies do you want to be affiliated with?’ Lawyers understand the right questions to ask and he asked those questions probably better than anybody else by far. He looked at me as a brand and that was important to me.
“He’s not going to help me with my putting or if I’m hitting too many hooks. But he’s going to make sure my business affairs are in order. He’s very organized, he’s very diligent and he’s very honest. I like entrepreneurs. It was a leap of faith to step away from being a career attorney and I really admired that.”
A handshake with Ogilvie launched Nemer’s career. A chance encounter at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in 2008 led to his representation of Poulter, his most famous client.
Nemer was waiting in a hotel lobby for a dinner companion when he struck up a conversation with a man who turned out to be Poulter’s caddie. Poulter soon arrived. The Englishman was looking for someone to handle him in the U.S. Nemer knew of Poulter’s IJP clothing line and had once worked at Saks Fifth Avenue, so they talked about Poulter’s designs.
Managing a star
Because of Poulter’s global interests — not to mention his passion for Ferraris, of which he owns four, with one on order — much of Nemer’s time is devoted to Poulter.
“Managing him is like running a small business because I oversee everything,” Nemer said. “I manage his bank accounts, all the accounting, all the legal functions, everybody reports to me and then I talk to him about it.”
But in Nemer’s relatively modest office, there are no photographs of Nemer and Poulter together. Pictures of Nemer’s two children with wife Laura, also an attorney, rest on a shelf. Amid the contracts on his desk sits a chocolate cupcake and a bag of candy to keep him going.
Among his prized possessions is a brushed silver paperweight given to him by a close friend on Christmas 1997. It reads: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail.”
Nemer thought about failure, even making a chart of why he would make it and why he wouldn’t before he launched.
“The only reason for success was ‘Because I think I can,’ ” Nemer said.
“When I went to leave the law firm, I asked the managing partner, ‘If somebody came to you and said, ‘I have this great job, this great opportunity’ and quit to pursue this pipe dream and fell flat on my face, would you hire this person?’ He said, ‘I’m not going to answer that question because you will never interview for a job again.’ He was more confident than I was. I got lucky.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.