KNOXVILLE, TENN.: In a shower at the first Pilot Flying J Travel Center in Corbin, Ky., the wrapper on the miniature soap bears a greeting in three languages.
Mounted on the door is a sign that vows to “deliver the best shower experience possible,” and is signed, “Jimmy, president and CEO.”
The attention to detail seems beyond meticulous.
On the massive pots that hold coffee, red lights blink when it is time for the contents to be emptied and new batches made.
An employee must check the condition of the bathrooms every 30 minutes. Twice a week, they are scrubbed from top to bottom, ceiling included, then graded by categories on a score sheet that goes from 0 to 100. Perfect doesn’t happen, with deductions for a chip in the grout or graffiti that can’t be removed.
Jimmy Haslam III, whose $1 billion purchase of the Browns from owner Randy Lerner will be approved today at the NFL owners meeting in Chicago, seems to have a hand in every aspect of the business that was founded as Pilot Oil Corporation by his father, Jim, in 1958. With its headquarters in Knoxville, Jimmy Haslam frequently pops into the travel center in Corbin, just off Interstate 75 in southern Kentucky.
“I’ll never drive by a Pilot or a Flying J without stopping. That’s just not who I am,” Haslam said last month during a private interview in the boardroom at Pilot Flying J.
Its three-story main building is unpretentious, Haslam’s office surprisingly simple, perhaps because he’s rarely there.
Beside his desk sits a small television. A huge collage of family photos hangs on the wall. Pictures and sports items dot the bookshelf behind, curiously absent of gaudy University of Tennessee orange. On the other side is a massive whiteboard that has Pilot’s 2012 goals listed. Haslam usually sits at a less formal table in front of the whiteboard, the television remote within reach. A black travel bag that looks more appropriate for a sportswriter’s laptop than a CEO’s sits open on his desk.
Haslam said one reason for the lack of trappings was that he removed his Pittsburgh Steelers memorabilia when the agreement to buy the Browns was finalized. He must divest himself of the minority share of the Steelers that he purchased in 2008 and practically chastised himself that a newspaper cartoon that featured Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Pilot gas still hung on one wall.
At the top of the stairs on the upper floor is “The Scoreboard,” which tracks monthly sales figures in six categories, tangible evidence that Haslam is a numbers guy.
Notes for improvement
It is casual Friday and seemingly everyone in the main building of the complex is wearing jeans except Haslam, which he noted with a laugh. Employees pay $2 a week, which can be deducted from their paychecks, to dress down. The money raised, sometimes more than $600 a week, goes to a designated charity like the United Way, American Heart Association or a Knoxville-based cause. The young woman manning the reception desk is also wearing a “Rocky Top” T-shirt.
Renovation is under way downstairs, which includes an exercise room and Pilot Flying J University, a lunchroom-type area used for employee meetings that is filled with Pilot awards and artifacts, some dating to the 1950s.
In a few days, Pilot Flying J was to host regional managers for a four-day training school. Haslam said that he doesn’t teach at it any more, but that he would have dinner with the group Tuesday. During a three- or four-hour evening, he would give a brief company update and answer questions.
“Then I’ll say, ‘Give me four or five things we can do better. What are we doing best? What are we doing worst?’ ” Haslam said. “No one else will be with ’em but me. It will be a great time for us to ask questions and exchange information. I’ll have 10 of these filled up with notes.”
He pulled a 3x5 card out of the breast pocket of his shirt. Haslam said his mother, Cynthia, who died in 1974, was “real anal and organized,” which is where he believes he got his attention to detail. He called his father, Jim, “a great leader, big picture guy.”
Haslam has been scribbling on the cards at least since college.
“I’ve done it forever,” he said. “I remember I used to have my little card laid out and one of my roommates would put at the top ‘Breathe’ and at the bottom ‘Sleep’ and a couple other things I won’t say in front of you.”
Talking to NFL owners before every game since his first news conference Aug. 3 in Cleveland, Haslam said he might take notes during the conversation or wait until he gets back to his hotel or on his corporate jet to summarize it. Some of the things he learns he puts into practice at Pilot Flying J, other nuggets he will save for the Browns.
“I ask all of them, ‘What do your spend your time on?’ ” Haslam said of his soon-to-be NFL peers. “Some guys are heavily involved in the football side, some are not involved in the football side, some are a blend.”
Haslam loves his role at Pilot Flying J and his best friend, U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), wonders how he will handle stepping down as CEO to run the Browns. Last month, Haslam hired PepsiCo president John Compton to take over the day-to-day operations.
“We’re still going to be the chairman; I’m still going to handle the petroleum part of the business here,” Haslam said of another recent acquisition, Maxum Petroleum. “John’s a great talent, I feel fortunate to get him, and we have a very established senior group of great leaders here. But we’ll still be involved.”
Some Browns fans worry that Haslam will be like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, but Haslam insisted that’s not his plan.
“I will not be the general manager like Jerry is,” Haslam said. “I’m not saying he’s doing the wrong thing, he’s doing a wonderful job.”
When it was suggested that he seemed so hands-on, Haslam said: “Trust me, I’ve got five direct reports, three have worked here a long time, all five are much better in their area than I am. What I try to do is lead, direct them and make sure we’re focusing on the right things.”
Haslam said he is “a big believer in collective wisdom” but also wants his top-level executives to push back and to challenge things when they don’t understand the purpose of a decision.
“None of us are perfect, right?” he said. “Our style here is you can’t have too many smart people around the table. Different people are experts on different subjects.
“Out of that, if there’s good leadership and there’s respect and everybody listens and you don’t have a ‘Not invented here’ type attitude, which some people have. If you have a better idea than me, I’m happy because it helps our team. If you have that type of environment, I think you can be real successful and it’s fun. We work very hard here, but I think 95 percent of the people really like working here. And we put a lot of pressure on people.”
Apparently that pressure includes keeping quiet.
Quiet at Pilot
The manager in Corbin was reprimanded for speaking to the Beacon Journal, a follow-up phone call referred to the corporate office. A request to interview others who work closely with Haslam at Pilot Flying J headquarters was denied. One of the company executives from Youngstown, in Knoxville for visits to Pilot Flying J stores on the corporate jet, would not give his name during a conversation at a local restaurant. When a voice mail was left at the office of Haslam’s college fraternity brother Bobby Reagan, the owner of Reagan Consulting in Atlanta, Reagan phoned Haslam before agreeing to talk. University of Tennessee athletic officials or a representative from the Haslam Scholars program at UT would not comment on Haslam’s purchase of the Browns.
But Corker and Reagan believe Haslam has the right qualities to run the Browns.
“Jimmy would relate well to any type of person you put him in front of,” Corker, who met Haslam in college, said in a telephone interview last month. “Jimmy’s constantly talking to people on one hand who have achieved a great deal in business and on the other hand a lot of blue-collar folks. He relates well with them. I think he enjoys that very much.”
Corker said he’s never met a better business operator than Haslam.
“He is that driven to succeed,” Corker said. “Jimmy’s 58 now, and he’s kept the pedal to the metal. Since college he’s been at the same company, just think about the ability to focus that long on one thing.
“Pilot has had multiple partners when they’re expanding, then they’ll buy them out over time. All of their partners have done so well and they know the kind of people that [the Haslams] are, I’m sure people are clamoring to be involved. It’s the way they treat people, it’s the integrity, they’re so honorable. Jimmy is such an operator. I assure you, you will not meet a business person in the USA who has a greater focus.”
Corker said even the way Haslam became an NFL owner was carefully planned, starting with the Steelers.
“They knew the first step was to become a partner and for people to get to know them and for them to understand how the NFL works, for them to get to know the commissioner,” Corker said. “It speaks to how they go about doing things; they do it in a very pragmatic, thoughtful way, pay their dues.”
Reagan said Haslam is not someone who has to be the center of attention.
“Jimmy’s got lots of great business skills. He’s got good people skills, his intelligence, his humility, his empathy for others,” Reagan said last month in a telephone interview. “He’s got good analytical skills. He’s not afraid to learn from others, to bring talented other people around him. He’s always built teams, he’s always played well on teams.
“I’m not an expert on the NFL and pro team ownership. But there are owners who have such egos and feel like they’ve got all the answers, that they may hurt themselves. Jimmy is a confident businessman, but he knows what he doesn’t know.”
Fear of failure
As confident as he is while he prepares to take over the Browns, Haslam conceded that he has fears.
“I have a fear that there’s this high expectation that we’re going to make the Browns a continual, perennial winner. That’s what we think we can do, but we’ve got to do it,” he said. “So yeah, I fear that doesn’t happen. There’s 31 other very competitive, very smart people out there trying to do the same thing.”
He’s also considered the savior by a long-suffering fan base whose patience has been more than tested.
“That’s what I’m worried about,” he said. “I want to make sure we are.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read 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.