x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Shahid Khan lives the American dream as Jacksonville owner in NFL

Considered an outsider, the Pakistan-born multimillionaire joins the elite club of franchise owners where it all started for him as a businessman.

New Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, right, stands by as team founder Wayne Weaver speaks at a news conference.
New Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, right, stands by as team founder Wayne Weaver speaks at a news conference.

Americans do not quite know yet what to make of the overnight celebrity Shahid Khan, the latest inductee into one of their most exclusive clubs: owners of National Football League franchises.

With his wavy Beatle-ish hair, handlebar moustache and affection for hipster apparel, the 61-year-old Pakistani-American multimillionaire has the countenance of a jazz musician or an upscale nightclub boss.

At the podium, the man known as Shad to friends and strangers alike speaks with a slight accent as he alludes to his adopted country, displaying particular fondness with the phrase "American dream" - which he is blissfully experiencing.

He took an American bride, has accumulated vast riches with the unexciting job of supplying parts for Americans' cars, and has fought a distinctively American battle with the Internal Revenue Service, the federal agency that assesses and collects taxes.

Americans soon will get better acquainted with Shahid. The unanimous approval last week by his new peers to buy the Jaguars distinguishes him as the first non-white, non-native majority owner in the league. He, in fact, bought up all of the Jacksonville team for US$760 million (Dh2.8bn).

"We have lived the American dream," Shahid said at a news conference one day after his new employees left an unfavourable first impression, losing 41-14 to the Atlanta Falcons. "If there was one thing missing, it was owning an NFL franchise."

Shahid then tossed out a thoroughly American metaphor: "Our bucket list is totally done." ("Bucket list" is a roll of activities or achievements that one hopes to complete before dying - or, in western world vernacular, "kicking the bucket.")

During these polarised, unsettled times in the US, it was inevitable that a born Pakistani of Muslim faith assuming a powerful role in its most cherished sport would stir some indignation.

The sale announcement coincided with news that at least two major sponsors of a TV reality series All-American Muslim withdrew because of pressure from an advocacy group that considers the programme "propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda's clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values."

Derisive comments about the league welcoming Shahid have popped up on blogs and internet media sites. Most infamously was one remark from a Jaguars fan who wrote that he could no longer cheer on a team at the controls of an outsider.

Some sceptics surely are unaware that Shahid became a naturalised citizen years ago, and that the arc of his life is one to which many Americans aspire.

As for his spiritual practices or beliefs, without detailing them, he said, "Religion is a private, personal matter. In no way, shape or form will it affect the operation."

Most who have encountered Shahid or are familiar with his remarkable tale have expressed nothing but admiration.

Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys owner, lauded Shahid for his "commitment, passion and skill".

"An All-American story," said Wayne Weaver, the previous Jaguars' owner.

The saga began 45 years ago, when Shahid moved to the Chicago area and enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A snow blizzard of epic proportions greeted him, planting doubts about his destination choice. Rather than relocate to warmer climes, he dropped anchor there - assuming a job washing dishes for $1.20 an hour - and remains a resident to this day.

Between college classes, Shahid punched the clock at auto parts manufacturer Flex-N-Gate, which dovetailed with his major, electrical engineering. It was there that, one year after graduating, he was assigned to develop a lightweight vehicle bumper whose continuous piece of metal would limit rusting or corrosion.

While still in his 20s, Shahid pooled his savings of $16,000 with a $50,000 loan to launch his own company. It was called Bumper Works, with 100 workers.

Success did not happen overnight, though the business did grow enough to allow him to acquire Flex-N-Gate. Struggling to strike deals in his region with auto makers, he travelled to pitch his products.

One locale, by happy coincidence, was the Florida coastal town of Jacksonville, where Toyota shipped cars to a port for distribution in the South-east.

"I got a huge financial break here," he said, smiling at the memory.

Shahid made such an impression that Toyota hired him to supply the bumpers fastened onto incoming trucks. His design has become the norm in the auto industry as he held a virtual monopoly for a while on the market.

"Sales people will promise you anything, and you may or may not get that," Bob France, a former South-east Toyota executive, told the Florida Times-Union newspaper. "Shahid was easier to deal with because, being an engineer, he designed the product, so it was easy for us to install."

Shahid's business zoomed to where Flex-N-Gate, with various parts now rolling off its assembly lines, ranks as the 14th largest automotive supplier on the continent. Some 12,450 employees are scattered across 48 plants and nine engineering and product development sites in five countries.

His business portfolio has expanded in recent years to include a bio-diesel tech company and a firm that focuses on structural health monitoring of bridges.

None of those ventures spurred interest in the mainstream media. His latest did, and it speaks to his Americanisation more than any other Shahid property.

Hailing from a country stirred by the relatively laid-back sport of cricket, Shahid was introduced in college to a violent, high-speed game that feeds Americans' craving for adrenalin rushes.

He quickly embraced football, with its pageantry and high-wire thrills. As his wealth soared, he became a benefactor to his alma mater's athletics programme, as well as to their academic areas.

The fraternity of NFL owners consists of many of the nation's richest men and women. According to Forbes magazine, nearly half (15) are billionaires. Shahid, whose net worth has not been evaluated publicly, could make it an even 50 per cent.

Admittance to the group is akin to winning the lottery. The worth of franchises continues to climb unabated, and nine-year extensions with the television networks last week for a 60 per cent hike in rights fees assures that the Jaguars were a wise investment.

Any astute businessman looks out for his best interests. In Shahid's case, that could mean moving the Jaguars, who have drawn poorly at the gate in the league's 29th largest market, out of Jacksonville. Populous Los Angeles, starved for a team, beckons.

Shahid's message to the locals: Do not worry. He declared his intentions to purchase a home there while voicing a belief that fate paired him with the city.

"For me, Jacksonville is my calling," he said, echoing words spoken a week earlier at the owners meeting.

There, he stressed, "I'm totally committed to Jacksonville."

Unmentioned was a binding stadium lease that would be expensive to break as well as a clause in the sale, reported by the website nfl.com, that uprooting the team from Jacksonville would cost him $25m, payable to a charity chosen by longtime resident Weaver.

The Jaguars, though, were not Shahid's first choice. His bid on the St Louis Rams last year was progressing through the pipeline until a minority-share owner exercised his option to buy the entire team. Jacksonville, by sheer luck, happened to be the next franchise up for grabs.

The city's response at the ticket booth might determine the Jaguars' staying power in Jacksonville, which has witnessed just one postseason win this century. Tarps are pulled over 9,700 seats at the stadium, reducing capacity and the appearance of non-support in the 73,000-seat venue.

On some Sundays this season, Shahid and his son anonymously repaired to a sports bar in their hometown to watch Jaguars games on TV. It heightened his appetite for taking charge.

"How many times have you sat at home on a Sunday afternoon and said, 'They ought to do doing this' or 'They ought to be doing that?" Shahid told the website jaguars.com. "Now to have the ability to do that? There are basically only 32 people who get the opportunity …"

Many fresh owners cannot help but dive right in, overhauling staff and evaluating players. Shahid, who claims he is comfortable with delegating authority, promises not to meddle but will be hands-on. The first order of business is finding a new coach.

The only known potential barrier to sanctioning the sale was Shahid's conflicts with the IRS.

The government ruled that he owed $85m because a tax shelter established in his name was improper. Shahid claims to have paid the correct amount and has sued the IRS, along with an accountant who has been convicted of fraud in another case.

The dust-up proved no impediment to the other owners - some of whom have had their own run-ins with the IRS, the authority that Americans love to hate.

Given his background, Shahid brings a rare global awareness to the brotherhood of owners. Some have resisted commissioner Roger Goodell's efforts to spread the football gospel overseas by staging preseason - and, someday, regular season - games there.

Shahid indicated he would raise his hand to volunteer sending the Jaguars long-distance to play, with the idea of building a far-reaching fan base.

"To get the name 'Jacksonville' out there," he explained, noting that Goodell aspires to expand the current overseas fare of one game annually in London.

"I think the NFL, in the long run, will probably be doing something like that," he said. "Why shouldn't we be one of the flag carriers?"

With the NFL flag in one hand and the American flag in the other, Shahid marches toward the mountaintop in a nation that bills itself as the land of opportunity.

"Dream on," goes a popular American expression. But for this American, the dream is on.

* sports@thenational.ae

 

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