KNOXVILLE, TENN.: Jim Haslam’s soaked business suit and waterlogged tie were dripping evidence of a Haslam family ambush of outrageous proportions.
It was early 1975, a month or two after his wife, Cynthia, died at age 42 from what they believe was a heart condition. As Haslam and his children Jimmy, Ann and Bill grieved, then-18-year-old Ann moved back home from the University of Tennessee to assume some of her mother’s duties so “Big Jim,” the founder of Pilot Oil Corp., could return to the road.
A tireless worker, “Big Jim” owned one of the first car phones. His call to Ann one day to let her know he was on his way set up one of the best practical jokes in a family whose zest for life was not lost with the shocking passing of its matriarch.
Bobby Reagan, one of Jimmy Haslam’s Sigma Chi fraternity brothers at Tennessee, was living with the Haslams as he attended graduate school, while a couple other college friends stayed with Jimmy in the gatehouse on his parents’ 65-acre property. Last month, Reagan recalled how his favorite prank from a family full of instigators sprang into action.
“Bill, Jimmy and Ann and a couple others of us were there, and we decided we’d lock the side door so Jim would have to come to the front door,” Reagan recalled in a telephone interview. “Then we would bombard him, in his suit, with water balloons, hoses and buckets of water from the window above the front door.”
The plan worked perfectly. Big Jim was attacked.
“He loved every minute of it,” Reagan said. “He was laughing, everybody was laughing. It was hilarious.
“Cynthia had a great sense of humor and always had a smile on her face. All the kids all have that same trait and enjoy life and love to have a good laugh.”
Glass always half full
Reagan believes the ability to look on the bright side will serve Jimmy Haslam III well when he takes over as Browns majority owner. Randy Lerner’s sale of the Browns to Haslam is expected to be approved by a vote of NFL owners in Chicago on Tuesday, then there will be a waiting period as the reported $1 billion deal closes.
In a private interview at Pilot Flying J headquarters Sept. 21, Haslam said he had been talking with his father and brother Bill, now governor of Tennessee, about owning an NFL team “for 10 or 15 years.” That thought took a serious turn in 2008 when he became a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, of which he will divest.
Those who know Jimmy Haslam might be surprised by the team he ended up buying. But they believe the 58-year-old’s personality, humor and business acumen make him the perfect choice to rebuild the storied franchise.
“Jimmy is a powerful figure. He’s very intense. That would be the word I would use to describe him more than anything else,” his best friend, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said by telephone last month. “Very friendly. My daughters love Jimmy because he’s always kidding around with them in a very upbeat way. Jimmy is just full of life.
Humility an asset
Reagan said Haslam’s humility should also help his entry into the NFL.
“Jimmy’s the kind of guy who can transition very quickly from somebody who’s serious and focused on business to having a great laugh,” said Reagan, who has owned his own firm, Reagan Consulting in Atlanta, since 1995. “As much success as he’s enjoyed, he doesn’t brag. He puts himself down.
“Even when I was talking to him about the negotiation for the purchase of the Browns, he’s saying, ‘Bobby, it’s not any different than any other deal you’ve done.’ Well, it is. There are several additional zeroes involved. But he’s not holding himself above anybody else as he does that.”
When Corker and Reagan think of Haslam, his competitiveness immediately comes to mind. Reagan saw it in all its bloody glory in the middle of a UT intramural football game.
“I was playing linebacker and he was a defensive back,” Reagan said. “Somebody’s ring caught my chin and a quarter-size piece of my chin was hanging off by a flap of skin. I started to go off the field to get some medical attention. Jimmy starts yelling at me, ‘Get back out on the field. Don’t quit.’ I played the last quarter and a half with my hand holding this flap of skin to my chin. Fortunately after the game he drove me to the hospital so I could get it sewed up.”
A former mayor of Chattanooga who still keeps a home there, Corker loves to ride bicycles. In September two years ago, the Corkers and the Haslams, whose wives Elizabeth and Dee are also best friends, biked around the Italian countryside of Tuscany with another couple.
“You had an option to ride 30 miles, 60 miles or 90 miles. I would ride 60, Bob would ride 75 to 90 every day,” Haslam said.
When they got together for a weekend in Chattanooga this summer, Corker and Haslam climbed on their bikes again.
“I’m kind of joy riding. He’s always measuring, keeping score,” Corker said. ‘‘He’s saying, ‘We did an hour and six minutes around the loop last time, let’s make sure we do a little better this time.’ He’s a competitor in everything he does.”
Work, family, exercise
Haslam also possesses a relentless work ethic. He lists his priorities as “work, family and exercise,” and said he plans to start the latter in Berea soon. When he’s in Knoxville, he arrives at the office at 5:30 or 6 a.m. to hit the employee gym. He kept that schedule even during weeks when he visited six to 10 states inspecting travel centers and truck stops.
His drive serves as a bond with some of his close friends, including Corker.
“We would both be considered over the top in that regard,” Corker said. He added that they also share the ability “to cut to the chase very quickly.”
Corker said Haslam is such a dynamic speaker that he often joked how he hated to follow him to the podium when Haslam was the finance chairman of Corker’s campaign for the Senate in 2006.
“When Jimmy comes up to say hello to you, he will invade your space,” Corker said. “He gets right in your face. When he comes up to shake hands with you — he’s a big guy, anyway. He’s a totally intense and focused guy and anybody who’s around him for 10 minutes will find that out.”
One who did was Jack Welch, chairman and CEO of General Electric from 1981-2001. Corker said he and his wife and the Haslams attended an event recently and bumped into Welch and his wife, then got together for cocktails the next night.
“Jack Welch was probably worn out after 40 minutes of Jimmy with question after question after question, “ Corker said. “When we finished I remember Jack saying, ‘Nice interview.’ ”
On the board at 20
Haslam loves what he does at Pilot Flying J and never thought about trying his hand at anything else. He was 20 when his mother died and he took her seat on the board at Pilot.
“I always wanted to do this, one, because I’m really close to my dad, and two, because the business always interested me,” Haslam said. “When I was 13 or 14 and you couldn’t get a job anywhere else, I pumped gas. In college I had different jobs. I built swimming pools one summer and worked in a meat packing plant one summer. Most summers and most times after school I worked with Pilot.”
Not surprisingly, Haslam is a man of few regrets.
“When I was at Tennessee I regret not running for student body president,” he said. “When I came out of high school I had a chance to play college football at some small schools like Davidson and Wofford, I-AA-type schools. I don’t know if I regret that or not because I had such a great experience at Tennessee meeting people like Bob Corker.
“We’ve never been big look-back people, we’re more look forward, good and bad.”
He was referring to the Haslams but might also be including himself and his wife, Dee, whom he has known since they attended the Webb School in Knoxville.
Susan “Dee” Bagwell got married right out of high school and had a son, but by the time they were both seniors in college, Dee was divorced. For spring break, the Haslams went on a family vacation to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and happened upon the Bagwells, a prominent Knoxville family in the television business. Haslam said Dee’s father, Ross Bagwell Sr., was the founder of what is now HGTV. Dee is CEO of production company RIVR Media.
“Everybody I was with had a girlfriend with them and I didn’t,” Haslam said. “Dee walked down the beach and one of my friends said, ‘Why don’t you ask Dee out?’ The rest is history.”
They were married when they were 22 and will celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary in December.
Haslam said Dee tells him often to slow down or take a vacation. She travels with him frequently, especially to Cleveland and New York. The house they recently purchased in Northeast Ohio might be decorated by Elizabeth Corker, whom Corker said did the interiors for the Haslams’ other homes in Nantucket, Knoxville and at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn., at the foot of the Smoky Mountains.
“We’ve been married a long time and she understands,” Haslam said about how Dee copes with his schedule. “We’ve grown up together and we’ve always worked hard. Her dad worked a lot of hours. She grew up in that same kind of environment.”
The Haslams have a son Jim, daughters Whitney and Cynthia, and four grandchildren, with a fifth due in March. Two of their grandsons, ages 2 and almost 1, live in Knoxville, and Haslam likes to stop by to see them after work. Two other grandchildren are three hours away in Nashville. Haslam seemed thrilled that Cynthia and her husband, David, have found a Browns Backers bar there where they can watch games.
Living in Cleveland
“We bought a house in Cleveland for a lot of reasons, but one is so our grandchildren can come,” Haslam said. “I look forward to taking them to practice, meeting players. I can remember my dad taking me to Tennessee practice when I was 5 or 6 years old. Great experience.”
Haslam’s friends wonder how Haslam will handle the Browns and two other companies and are relieved by his hiring of PepsiCo’s John Compton to run Pilot Flying J, but they cannot contain their enthusiasm about his football venture.
Reagan called it “an exciting new chapter in his life.”
Corker said he would be stunned if Haslam’s success in business doesn’t translate to the NFL.
“He’ll focus, he’ll do what needs to be done, he’ll bring the right people in. He’ll be very much a part of the community,” Corker said. “The Cleveland fans are going to love his spirit for life. I will be shocked if the Cleveland Browns are not major contenders in a very short amount of time.”
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.