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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Aug. 24, 201012:00 PM EST

Jaguars' Wayne Weaver: 'It starts with me'


from staff

Wayne Weaver is chairman, CEO and principal owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars. He and his partners won the NFL expansion franchise on Nov. 30, 1993. The team’s inaugural season was in 1995. Weaver, 75, is a 54-year veteran of business, also serving as chairman of Shoe Carnival Inc. and chairman and CEO of Liz Claiborne Shoes. He previously was co-owner, president and CEO of Nine West Group Inc., which designs and markets women’s footwear, and before that rose through the ranks of St. Louis-based Brown Shoe Group. He and his wife, Delores Barr Weaver, have been married 55 years and have two children and two grandchildren. Weaver met with the Daily Record editorial staff Friday at his offices at EverBank Field.

What was your first job?

The summer I got out of high school I worked for the Georgia Power Co., and I was what they called a grunt on the line truck. You just pulled the rope and sent tools up to the linemen. In the truck you had two linemen and three grunts. In those days (when) you had to dig a telephone post hole, you had to dig it six feet deep. Your tools were a shovel that had a nine-foot handle on it, it was straight, kind of a pick-shovel. That was the only way you could dig out the dirt, and you had to break through rock. So after that summer, I said, you know, I don’t think this is what I want to do.

What happened next in your career? Having been in business 54 years, have you ever seen the economy like this?

My mother was in the retail business and ran retail shops, and so she got me an interview selling shoes with a local specialty store in downtown Columbus (Ga.), and so that’s how I got started. As it turned out, that shoe department was leased by a company out of St. Louis. They made me the manager of the shoe department, and they moved me to Norfolk, Va., and then to Newport News, Va., and ultimately I ended up in the home office. From there, I grew through the company, where I ran all of their retail companies. When I left there, I had just turned 43, and they passed me over for CEO, and I was running the biggest business in the company, the biggest profit division in the company. I said, either I’ve got to sit here until I’m 65, or I’d better go do something. So I started my own business with two other partners. This is 1978. The interest rates were 8.5 percent. We started our company. We were undercapitalized, interest rates went from 8.5 percent to 21.5 percent by 1981. So, no. I thought that was the toughest time I ever lived through, but I have to be honest. This economy is tougher.

What’s that telling you in terms of how long the downturn might last?

If you are realistic and look at all the underlying fundamentals of our economy, with the deficit, the debt continuing to accumulate, I think that we’re in for five, six years of really slow growth. Hopefully, we’ll have growth.

I believe in the entrepreneurial spirit of the American people, and I think that we are the most entrepreneurial people in the world.

We’ve got a long way to go. And people say, well, corporate balance sheets are the strongest they’ve been in years, and that’s true. But people are sitting on cash and not investing, because they are worried about this economy. I think that big business has to believe that the government is making the right decisions, the sound decisions, and I think that you’ve got to see growth, that you’re now going to invest in jobs.

How is all of this playing out in your industry, the National Football League?

We’ve kind of been painted with a brush that our (Jacksonville) market is too small, and in truth, we are the second smallest market. We blacked out so many games a year ago. The media tends to feed on each other. So once somebody writes that Jacksonville is too small, somebody else feeds on that.

Then you’ve got this elephant in the room of Los Angeles needing a team, and it’s the second largest media market in the United States. If you’re not going to expand, what team is going to go there? Obviously, the one that blacked out the most games gets the most publicity in terms of the likely team that they will move.

Jacksonville is going to be a great football market. We’ve got to grow generations of fans. People don’t understand that if you look at Pittsburgh, you look at Green Bay, they’re small markets. They’re not huge markets. But they’ve been there for 85, 90 years. They’ve grown generations of fans. We just have to figure out a way to struggle through it, and be a part of the growth, and we will.

Oakland, St. Louis, Tampa, Miami, Minnesota, Arizona, they’ve all had ticket problems. Is the media unjustly picking on Jacksonville?

I don’t think there’s any question that we’ve been an easy market to pick on because we did black out all but one game last year. And then we haven’t won as much, let’s be honest, in the last 10 years. Nobody likes to hear me say that, but we’ve got an average record. Now, having said that, people don’t realize that we’ve got the 10th-best winning record in the National Football League, and we’re tied for sixth best in the AFC. But you can’t live on past laurels. The last 10 years, we’ve been average. We’ve had good seasons, we’ve had bad seasons. But if you look at the body of work, we’ve been average, and average is just not good enough. So that’s part of it. Small market, not selling your stadium out, you become an easy target.

Does the negativity get to you personally?

Sure it does. It gets to me on a number of levels. First of all, I’m proud of what we’ve done here, and I’m also very self-critical that we have been average. That’s not what I want to be. I have never been that in my other businesses, and I made a commitment that we’re going to win a championship here, and I believe that we will.

Jacksonville is a great city. You can find all of our faults, and we all have warts. But it’s a great city. It’s a great place to raise a family, it has a great quality of life, you’ve got Beaches, and the river running right through our city. Not many cities have what we have here. In the national press, our city gets a bad rap. But I believe that we have sold more tickets than other teams in the National Football League. We’ve gotten a naming rights (deal) in a tough, tough economy. A lot of teams would like to be in the position that we are, to have EverBank’s name on our stadium.

How significant is it that a local company put its name on the stadium?

It’s huge. We’ve been talking to EverBank for a couple of years about naming rights. We’ve had some other people come in and make lowball offers to us. We wanted a brand on our building that we think is commensurate with the NFL, and we believe that EverBank is an iconic brand. Look at their business model, and look at how they have navigated through the banking crisis to come out the other side and have the wherewithal to invest and start growing their business. It’s a great story. They’ve created an awareness. A lot of people in our own city don’t know who EverBank is. Well, I’ll bet you today, most people know who EverBank is. All of a sudden on Monday night, on national television, you’re going to start seeing an awareness. So I think they saw this as an opportunity, a platform to really create brand awareness, and I think it’s going to be a great investment for them, and it’s certainly great for us.

The five-year, $16.6 million deal was criticized by some people. How would you respond to those critics?

It’s easy for all of us to criticize when we don’t get down into the details, and it’s really all in the details. One of the things that we felt was fair is that we have to participate in paying for the signs that go up on the building. And that’s very expensive. We also have to pay for all the wayfinding signs, and banners on the streets. So there’s a lot of cost involved in this. And it’s a short deal. We did it for the reason that we think that we’ll both understand what fair value is five years out.

I was proud of Mayor Peyton in this economy to say look, they’re paying for these other costs, we ought to defer our share, give up our share of the 25 percent. And you know, it’s hard. I read the letters to the editor, and people that have criticized this kind of thing. Why are we investing with this rich guy down here? But that’s the way people look at it. If you really start to think about the National Football League, our payroll is bigger than most companies, but the majority of these (team staff and players) own homes here. They pay taxes. They spend a bigger portion of their income.

A football team is an economic engine for a community. I believe that. A lot of economics professors will say it’s really not. It’s hard for me as a business person to look at it and say that if we spend millions of dollars to try to attract businesses and high paying jobs, why this doesn’t fall into the same category.

What would have happened if the City Council vote was in opposition of giving the City’s 25 percent share back to the Jaguars?

It would just send another signal (as to) how our community values the NFL. I don’t think it would have changed anything.

Where do you get your news? Do you follow the blogs?

I do read our message boards once in a while because I’m staying in touch with our customers. Last night, I did a broadcast. We had 3,500 of our season ticket holders calling in questions, and obviously I can’t answer questions from all of them, but you want to know what’s on your fans’ minds. You want that kind of feedback. About five years ago we organized what we called a champion squad, and they made 60,000 to 70,000 calls a season to our fans. You get a tremendous consensus of how you’re doing. How was your game-day experience? How’s your club experience? How’s your suite experience? How can we do better? Concession prices are high; we understand that, but they’re competitive.

At least when you know what the fans are thinking, you can give the other side of that argument. Our concession prices are no different than they are at the arena, or the movie theater. They’re higher than normal outside, but they’re competitive with the entertainment industry.

What is the biggest issue fans have?

I think it’s gotten expensive for a family to come to an NFL game, and we’re very conscious of that, and we’ve tried to do everything that we can do to be competitive.

(But game attendance) is expensive. You’ve got to make choices. When you go through a tough economy like this, you have less discretionary income, and you’ve got to make harder choices. And when you’re struggling to pay your mortgage, and put food on the table for your family, it’s difficult.

And I worry that in the National Football League, (the New York Giants and Jets) stadium that opened (last) week, $1.6 billion, $1.7 billion, was all privately funded. They were talking about for a family of four, it’s a $600 outing.

Ours is obviously a lot less, but one of the things that’s great about our business model is that we share so much of our income. In the league we share our gate, we share our television. It’s almost 80 percent of our total revenues that we share among all the clubs. Otherwise, cities like Jacksonville couldn’t compete.

But what makes it difficult for markets like Jacksonville, probably 20 of the 32 markets, is that you have to be at 90 percent of the gate to get a certain share.

Well, as you build these new stadiums in these power markets, it’s hard. You’ve got to be creative, you’ve got to find ways to do it, and I think we are.

It was a business decision to get in the football business with the NFL. You could have set up any kind of business that you wanted. Why do you love football?

Growing up in the south, we were bigger college fans. I’m talking about growing up in Columbus, Ga., in the 1940s. And Auburn-Georgia played their annual game in Columbus, so as a 6, or 7, or 8-year- old kid, I was running downtown and following the buses to the stadium.

Once I was married and raising a family, I was more focused on work and not so much on football until my family came along, and we became ticket holders in St. Louis.

But I lived in Connecticut for 20 years, and I think my son and I went to two or three Giants games, because you couldn’t get tickets unless you got them through business friends. It was a hard thing to do.

So the real answer to your question is, I got involved in this only because my brother has lived here in Jacksonville for over 30 years. Ron called me and said, how’d you like to invest with me in trying to bring an expansion football team to Jacksonville?

What happened when your brother called to ask you to invest in a Jacksonville football team?

My first reaction was, you must be kidding me, a team for Jacksonville? Because I didn’t know much about the market. Even though we had a condo in Amelia Island since 1983. I got involved in this only because Ron wanted to do it, and it was just a small investment. We got involved as limited partners with a group. I said, ‘I’ve been a CEO in my company for over 20 years, this might be something fun to do if it could really work.’ So it evolved from that.

What’s a typical day for you?

Sometimes, like this morning, I was here at 7:30, because I had a meeting. Some days I get here at 9:00. On Thursday mornings, we have a staff meeting. I’m not big on long meetings, but that’s where we really communicate with each other and make sure that we’re looking ahead at what we have to accomplish. I’m big on saying that once we have an objective that we need to accomplish, to make sure that we’re progressing toward our goals. I think the biggest problem in business is you set targets, and then you let them wander. I’m big on holding people accountable, to say we’ve agreed to do this, now let’s make sure we accomplish this goal. If we can’t, then let’s figure out why we can’t, and figure out how to do it better, or how to change directions.

Can business be more like football? The goal line is always there.

We set a target with Team Teal to sell 15,000 new season tickets. We thought that would be a very aggressive goal. Well, we’re just about there. I think we’re going to get there. We had hoped that we would sell more. Now that we know that we’re going to approach that, what we’ve had to do is go back and adjust and say, OK, how do we make up the rest? So that made us shift more into our group sales, into our single-game sales, our half-packs, and adjust our goals there. Originally we had a goal to sell 80,000 group sales, which is about 8,000 on average per game. Well, now our goal is, we’ve got to sell 100,000. When you see you’re not going to exceed the target, you’ve got to go back and make some adjustments.

What would you say of the efforts to sell tickets?

This is not a one-year deal, this is year after year, so it’s been a great process for us through these efforts. We’ve also learned other things that we’ve got to do better. It’s been the leadership of people like Carl Cannon and Ed Burr and Tony Boselli. They’ve done a great job with those efforts. A lot of people worked very hard and gave a lot of time to it, and that’s the reason

we were successful. Because we believed in it. There was a big buy-in by the community.

How’s the team going to do this year? You’re going to want to renew all those tickets next year.

I’m not one that’s going to predict how many games we’re going to win this year. I will say this. When you have an organization that buys into the goals that you’ve set, and everybody’s working hard toward those goals, usually it’s pretty successful, and I’m very optimistic that this team is going to do well.

(After last year) I talked to everybody in the organization in a constructive way, of how do we do things better, both on the football side and the administrative side, and obviously on the business side. I met with at least a dozen of our chief players, how can we do things better here, to hear from them. I interviewed everybody from the equipment room to our strength and conditioning (staff), saying how do we get better? What are the things we need to do to get better? And the same thing on the football side, with (coach) Jack (del Rio) and his people.

We decided that there were certain things that we needed to do differently, and everybody bought into it.

It starts here. It starts with me. If things are not going right, it’s my fault. I don’t blame anybody else. So I think that we all bought in. You know what? We’re on the right track here, but there are things that we can do better. If we do these things, and get everybody to buy in, good things are going to happen. I have to say that I’m really proud of the way everybody bought into our goals this year. And the chemistry of this football team, we’ve purged some people off the team that we felt hadn’t bought in, and on the football side, I think everybody has worked hard toward those goals.

You look at the pundits out there, I think that they picked us last in our division. But that’s good. Let people evaluate us. But I can tell you that everybody in this building believes that if we continue to work hard, we’re going to have success, and it may not all come this one season, but we’re doing the right things, and when you do that on an accumulative basis, then good things happen.

There are 31 NFL cities, 32 passionate fan bases. Everyone is so optimistic. Is this your favorite time of the year?

I love this time of the year. I love the preparation of getting ready. When I’m in town and around and can do it, I’m out there to watch practices. On game day, it’s great. It’s exhausting, because you live and die with every play out there with the players, and one thing that Delores and I don’t do is, win or lose, we’re exhausted, we don’t go out to celebrate or anything else.

There’s been a lot written about selling the team. What do you see happening?

At some point, I will sell the team. There’s no question about it, because I don’t have any family members that are going to take it. My plan would be to find someone that has the same passion I have for the market, and would be good stewards. But who knows? Things change over time. The rest of my family, my son, my daughter, they might decide that this is something they want to do, but more than likely, we do have to have an exit strategy. I hope and believe passionately that I’m going to find someone that believes that this is going to be one of the great markets.

We’ve just got to start winning more football games and build that energy and passion. I think our market is going to recover here. Maybe we’ll recover quicker (than) some other markets, and we’ll continue to grow.

Do you have a time frame for an exit strategy?

No. It’s going to be finding the person that has that passion for our community, and wants to be a great steward and wants to accomplish the same goals that we have for the organization. That opportunity may come sooner than later. You know, the truth is I’m having fun.

What else do you do for fun?

Delores and I are both outdoor people, I don’t know how to fish, even though I have been fishing, but I do play golf once in a while. My golf game’s not very good. We do interesting things. Before we got the franchise, we did a lot of interesting things. We both did the trek up Kilimanjaro, I run the Boston Marathon. We had a place out in Colorado for years. We liked to hike out there, so we like to be outdoors. I guess we would find some things like that to do, and maybe my golf game would improve, especially now that I’m old enough to play from the senior tees. I just can’t find anybody that’s old enough to play with me.

What’s your best lesson learned?

You do people a favor if you’re honest with them. And it doesn’t have to be negative. There are people that work within an organization that are just misplaced. They don’t have the passion for it. You’re better off telling people, ‘You know, this is not right for you.’ Or ‘if you want to do this, here are the things you need to do.’

And I’m a big fan of Jack Welch. He said, you ought to take and reward your best performers and lop off your worst performers. That’s hard to do, but that’s how you make your organization better, and that’s how you are fair to people.

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