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How the Browns Were Built
Peter King
September 13, 1999
A behind-the-scenes look at the way a billionaire owner, a seasoned NFL architect and their crew assembled a new franchise in Cleveland
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September 13, 1999

How The Browns Were Built

A behind-the-scenes look at the way a billionaire owner, a seasoned NFL architect and their crew assembled a new franchise in Cleveland

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Lerner differs from Modell in at least two important respects. One: As chairman and CEO of the MBNA Corporation, an $80 billion credit-card empire, he won't have troubles with debt, as Modell did. Two: Unlike Modell, Lerner won't be involved in every decision regarding the franchise. "I'm not competent to judge the quarterback or the water boy," Lerner says. "I did not get qualified by osmosis when they awarded me the franchise."

Over doorways throughout Lerner's MBNA America offices is the following sign: THINK OF YOURSELF AS A CUSTOMER. In conference rooms are sayings such as COMPLACENCY IS DEVASTATING and SUCCESS IS NEVER FINAL. In his first few days in Cleveland, Policy would begin to meld his sporting acumen with the business philosophy of Lerner.

Lerner tells Policy that since 1991, when MBNA went public, the company has lost only one senior executive. Why? Because MBNA hires the best and treats its employees better than any competitor. "Get the very, very best people to work for the Browns," Lerner tells Policy. "It will cost what it costs; that's the least important criterion. Make sure they're nice people. If you don't really like the best person, then hire the second-best person. Life's too short. You don't want to work long hours with jerks."

Over the next few months a headhunter would identify the best, and Policy would pursue them. The new vice president of finance would be the former managing partner of Arthur Andersen's Cleveland office, Doug Jacobs. Policy would find his director of security, Lew Merletti, heading the Secret Service. The NFL's own top salary-cap expert, Penn-educated Lal Heneghan, would become the Browns' capologist. Policy would name Judge George White, a Carter-administration appointee to the U.S. District Court in Cleveland, director of the Cleveland Browns Foundation. Seeing this impressive roster, one NFL owner cracked, "What are they building in Cleveland—a football team or a Fortune 500 company?"

By the time they are done, the Browns will have secured approximately $30 million in marketing and local radio and television contracts, ranking second in the NFL to the estimated $35 million landed by the Dallas Cowboys. "Our primary goal is to win football games," says Lerner. "The secondary goal is to have income exceed the expense by as much as possible. Period."

OCT. 14: CLEVELAND

Executives from NFL Properties had recently shown Policy three new uniform designs for the Browns, whose previous uniforms the New York marketing folk consider more drab than those worn by Penn State. One new look featured a gaily modernized version of the Browns' elf design from the '50s. Of course, the traditionalists among Cleveland's fans—which is to say all of them—are worried sick that Lerner will want everything new. In a question-and-answer session at a Cleveland City Club luncheon, a fellow in a business suit asks Lerner if a new uniform or logo is in the works.

"No," Lerner replies. "If the league wants different uniforms, let them go out and buy their own team."

The reply brings down the house.

NOV. 12: WASHINGTON, D.C.

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