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A Second Wind

Every professional athlete faces retirement. But after these four bowed out, they found success in new careers, applying the same talent and work ethic that made them sports stars.
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Michael Jordan, July/August 2005

(continued from page 1)

"They don't need to work, and they're afraid to fail," Largent says, shaking his head. "They've lost their fear in that one domain, but lift them out of that domain and all the insecurities come flooding back."

He worries about the motivation of a player who has been financially secure since he signed his first contract, a player who never experienced the need to go out and get a job. "These are people who have more money than they know what to do with, and more time than they know what to do with, and that combination to me is gasoline and matches," he says. "Unless a person is incredibly mature or incredibly disciplined and grounded, I believe it will absolutely lead to disaster."

Largent tugs on his suit jacket, his lips pursed. Then he shakes a hand and strides out of the conference room to his office, where a state senator is waiting.

Serge Savard
NHL Hall of Famer/Real estate investor

Nobody got rich in the National Hockey League when Serge Savard was playing defense for the Montreal Canadiens. "Players today make more money in one month than we made in our whole career," he says. "But I don't envy them. We had a very good life."

At 24, Savard was in the early stages of a Hall of Fame career with the Canadiens and an association with the franchise that would bridge three decades, when he bought his first apartment building, in 1970. "You didn't need much cash to do that," he says, "and I was interested in real estate even then. I was also making $10,500 a year, so I knew my hockey income wouldn't be enough."

Everyone in hockey worked in the off-season, which for most players lasted from April to October. But Savard's Canadiens teams raised the Stanley Cup in eight of the 14 years he played in Montreal, winning four in a row at one point, and lasted deep into the playoffs almost every year, so his window of opportunity was often substantially shorter. By the time the Canadiens had finished celebrating another championship, training camp was only weeks away.

For that reason, and because of the heady, self-motivated players that the franchise tended to collect, those Canadiens were more likely to become entrepreneurs than simply get jobs for the summer. Success was in their blood, on and off the ice. "Nearly everyone on those teams became very successful," Savard says. "Ken Dryden, Guy Lapointe, Larry Robinson, Jacques Lemaire, Mario Tremblay. Of course, a lot of them stayed in hockey."

Savard stayed in hockey, too. A week after he played his final game, in 1983, he was named the Canadiens' general manager. He stayed in the position 13 seasons, winning two more Stanley Cups with teams he constructed. He made far more than he ever did as a player, but he never stopped buying and selling real estate.

He was involved in a project to complete an unfinished Montreal apartment building, lending both his famous name and his expertise. Later, he bought the Chateau Champlain hotel in Montreal and landed an affiliation with Marriott. Over the years, he acquired partners and a reputation as a shrewd developer, but also as a winner with 10 Stanley Cup rings who puts his work ethic behind his projects. "You can't just put your name on it and expect it to succeed," he says. "[Former Islanders star and NHL Hall of Famer] Michael Bossy put his name on a restaurant. He was a good player, and it was a pretty good restaurant. But he wasn't ever there, he wasn't the owner, and it didn't work."

In 1984, Savard visited Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. He bought property there, sold it, then bought a $295,000 beachfront lot to develop for himself. Five years ago, he built a house. Now, having struggled through enough of Montreal's frigid winters, the 59-year-old businessman spends about half his time on the island, living in a six-bedroom, 5,000-square-foot mini-mansion overlooking the waves and working on his golf game.

On a breezy January afternoon, he settles into an easy chair and watches the Weather Channel, taking stock of where he is—and where he isn't. "65, 67, 70—not too bad," he says, reading off the local temperatures for the weekend. Every few minutes, his phone rings. His partners, Bernard Thibault and Mario Messier (who wasn't a hockey player, but sure sounds like one), consult frequently with Savard. After one call, Savard heads back to his chair and says, "I love real estate because it always rewards you in the end, even if you go through five or six bad years. Especially if you're smart enough to only buy prime land." That $295,000 lot on Hilton Head is now worth $3 million in land value alone.

A true defenseman, Savard's business philosophy is to take few chances. The company works on only a few projects at a time, making sure each is successful before moving on to the next. "My goal is not to be a powerful corporation, it's to be a good company," he says. "To be successful, but to grow slowly." On his most ambitious project, Savard is still waiting for the finish line. During the Clinton administration, his company built a 690-room hotel in Cayo Coco, Cuba. Called El Senador, it has four swimming pools, a cigar lounge specializing in vintage Cubans, and a gym, and includes villas constructed on pilings in the middle of a lagoon. He figured relations between the United States and Cuba would soon be normalized, and he wanted to be in position to take advantage.

Instead, George W. Bush was elected, and policy went the other way. As a Canadian, Savard is permitted to share ownership of the resort with the Castro government, but as a businessman, he knows it's a losing deal. He relies on filling the property with Canadians and the occasional European, and waits for the day when the 295 million potential customers on his doorstep will be able to visit.

In the meantime, he has his golf, long walks on the beach with his wife, Paulette, the soft ocean breezes, glasses of wine and good cigars. He also has all those Stanley Cup rings to remind him of past—and ongoing—success. "Sometimes I wear the first one, from 1968, because the first one always means something," he says. "Sometimes I wear one of the others. It's nice to have the choice."

Dave Bing
NBA Hall of Famer/Owner and CEO

The elegance of Dave Bing's attire—a pin-striped business suit, a shirt the color of Cabernet Sauvignon with a snow-white collar and French cuffs, and shoes of Italian leather—would suggest that he owns the bustling factory he's walking through even if his name weren't on the building. He passes laborers in coveralls and earplugs hunched over machinery; those who see him offer a silent wave. "We like it loud," Bing shouts over the din. "That means we're busy."

Dave Bing played 12 seasons in the NBA, from 1967 to 1978. He scored 18,327 points (leading the league in scoring in 1968 with an average of 27.1 points per game), recorded 5,397 assists (six per game over his career), and appeared in seven All-Star Games, including 1976, when he scored 16 points and was named the Most Valuable Player.

But the statistics he has amassed since his retirement are even more impressive. These days, The Bing Group employs 1,414 people, making it the largest privately owned business in Detroit. It had $372 million in revenue in 2004 and will hit about $600 million in 2005, thanks to recent acquisitions. Its goal is $1 billion by 2008, which would make it the second-largest minority-owned business in the United States. "These presses range from a quarter of a million dollars to a million and a half," he says now, walking past a row of massive machines. "This one here is going to be a new one, state-of-the-art. Two million dollars. That will take me up to a new level."

The Bing Group is the amalgamation of several companies, all owned by Bing. One buys steel from manufacturing mills and cuts it to size. The next takes that cut steel and stamps out automotive parts. A third welds parts together and does basic assembly, while a fourth adds other materials such as plastic, leather and foam and makes seats, side-view mirrors and other pieces of cars. "It's a very low-margin business, particularly the steel, but we have a vertical integration that the others don't," he says. "That gives us the advantage."

Bing knew little about the industry when he founded Bing Steel in 1980. He only knew that he wanted to be in business. His father, Haskell, had run his own construction firm in Washington, D.C., and Bing worked there as a water boy and then a laborer, haunting the neighborhood rec centers at night to hone his athletic skills. Basketball brought him to Syracuse University—where he majored in economics and business administration—and then to the Detroit Pistons, whose disappointed fans had assumed they'd be getting local hero Cazzie Russell in the draft.

Bing won over the city with his consistent, heady play. By the time he was traded to the Washington Bullets in 1976, he'd decided to settle in Detroit when his basketball career ended. He couldn't envision staying in sports. "If you were going to stay in the league as an African American, it was as an assistant coach or, maybe, a coach," he says. "I didn't see myself doing either one."

In Detroit, the economic opportunities were centered in the auto industry. Bing had spent six summers working at the National Bank of Detroit, two more at Chrysler, and then completed a training program at Pentagon Steel. His bank contacts and basketball success enabled him to get a loan, which wasn't easy for fledgling African-American entrepreneurs in 1980, while the time spent at Chrysler and Pentagon gave him a glimpse of a possible niche. Bing Steel lost $80,000 in its first six months, and Bing started to question his plan and his aptitude. But he began to get orders during the second six months. One year on, he knew it was going to work.

"I didn't have corporate experience or exposure," Bing says. "But I think being exposed to a team sport helped me grow. I think I was pretty clear-eyed as to what my strengths and weaknesses were."

Knowing the steel industry wasn't a strength, but he could hire people for that. He had people skills from two decades of competitive basketball, knew finances from classes at Syracuse, and had an innate sense of marketing. "Steel is essentially a commodity," he says. "I'm out there doing the same thing the next guy is doing, so I have to outcompete." That's something he well understood. One business turned into four, giving him economy of scale.

But even as the owner and CEO of a company heading toward $1 billion in revenue, Bing still comes to work every day. He estimates he knows close to half of his employees on sight, at least by first name.

His office is filled with basketball memorabilia. Yet he insists his life's vocation has been steel, not basketball. "I've done more in my second career for people than I ever could have done in my first," he says. "People depend on me for their income. Playing basketball made people happy, but that was temporary. Now I've had people work for me for 20 years. I'm responsible for people having a nice car, a nice home, helping their kids get an education. I've got quite a few people—maybe more than I'd like—who are earning six figures from me."

His local fame as a businessman has come to transcend that as a player, which he perceives as pure positive. There are enough black role models who are athletes and entertainers. "Kids come see me, they think, 'Here's a black guy, he came from an inner-city environment, he had a public school education. Yes, sports helped him, but this is something we can do, too.' " He has spent time through the years with Detroit-area schoolboys who went on to the NBA, advising Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Derrick Coleman, Steve Smith and others on how to keep a level head. Yet he did it as Dave Bing the steel magnate, not Dave Bing the shooting guard. "They hardly knew that I played," he says.

Now he sees the money some of them are earning and considers it both a curse and an opportunity. It will be too easy, he believes, for an athlete to put his money in the bank and live off the interest. "Any of us who aspire to be successful in life, the barometer is always money," he says. "But when you have a lot of money, it takes a certain kind of individual to say, 'Now what to do with it? Is it just for me and my family? Or can I mushroom it into something larger?' "

If several of today's NBA stars would combine their resources, "they'd be surprised with what they could accomplish," Bing says. "Parlay what you have, take it to the next level, without risking your lifestyle. Learn how to leverage. You could make a real difference in the community. Most of these players are from urban America, and—well, you take the city of Detroit, it's on its knees. We've probably got ten guys who came out of the Detroit public school system who are playing in the NBA. They could make a major impact."

Bing is the model. For his latest project, he's physically changing the face of the streets around his factory, which sits in one of Detroit's most desperate neighborhoods. He's filling lots with homes that sell for as much as $200,000. A bus driver for the city bought one, a schoolteacher bought another, a retiree moved in, so did one of his employees. More houses are going on the market every few months. Part of it is self-motivation: if the neighborhood can be resurrected, the value of Bing's 30 acres of commercial real estate will skyrocket. But beyond that, he knows that only entrepreneurship can fill vacant lots with houses. Someone has to go first, take a chance on an area, put money in with the hope of getting money out. "If this neighborhood is going to come back, if this city is going to come back, we need a middle class," he says.

He pilots his car through the streets, past crumbling homes and burned-out businesses, then back through the gates of his factory. He didn't have a billion-dollar business in mind when he started Bing Steel in 1980, he'll be the first to acknowledge, but he did have a vision of future success, a life beyond athletics. The lesson he'd like to leave behind is, sometimes that's all it takes. v

Bruce Schoenfeld often writes about wine and sports for Cigar Aficionado and recently authored The Match: Althea Gibson & Angela Buxton (HarperCollins).


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