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But there is a financial sophistication beneath this down-home veneer. When TW Services took over Denny's, four years ago, the chain was in terrible shape. Richardson traveled to Denny's headquarters in La Mirada, Calif., spent a year there and reorganized and revitalized it. The chain is once more throwing off cash.
McColl, who is now CEO of NCNB, the country's seventh-largest bank, says what most impressed him about Richardson in the beginning was his ability to motivate hourly wage people, the heart of the fast-food business. "His restaurants were taut ships—clean, with good service," says McColl. "And here was an operating officer who could cook, serve customers and clean up the trash. He led by example."
Richardson still shows up occasionally at various Hardee's to help with the breakfast rush, making biscuits or spilling gravy over them. However, the story that they like to tell in Spartanburg to convey Richardson's hands-on style has him visiting the home of one of his hourly wage workers, who had suffered a death in the family. Upon leaving, Richardson noticed the grass was a little high. He shucked his coat, found the mower, cleaned up the yard and left. You would work hard for that man, wouldn't you?
Up to now the Richardson saga has been a local legend at most. And he would like it to be smaller than that. But he may be on the verge of bursting upon the country's sports pages. Ever since he got the idea to bring an NFL team to Charlotte, N.C. (located 70 miles northeast of Spartanburg), the possibility has increased that he just might pull it off. He had never contemplated owning a team, and, in fact, he had been burned out on football after watching Mark play at Clemson and his other son, Jon, play at North Carolina, sometimes on the same day. But when George Shinn landed an NBA franchise for Charlotte in April 1987, Richardson got to thinking.
Two months later he called Mark, who had just gotten his M.B.A. at Virginia, and asked if he would like to head up Richardson Sports and commence the campaign. It does not always pay to take a businessman's motives at face value, and Richardson's stated intentions—"I wanted to do something for an area of the country that has been awfully good to us"—beg for a cynic's translation. Yet he is that rare aspiring owner, one who is trying to reel in a franchise at relatively little expense to the city or its taxpayers. Richardson intends to foot the bill for the 70,000-seat football-only stadium, a $150 million project. He was shopping for suburban sites when Charlotte stepped in and agreed to lease him property in its central business district at $1 a year for 99 years. The stadium will be built only if the NFL grants Charlotte a franchise.
Richardson has made Mark, 31, and Jon, 32, daughter Ashley, 30, and his wife, Rosalind, partners in Richardson Sports, and has gathered a number of North and South Carolina tycoons of similar temperament as limited partners. When two of North Carolina's richest brothers were invited to invest they said, "O.K., but does anybody have to know about it?"
While Richardson and some of the others in his bunch like to lie low, Mark seems born to the job of front man. And Charlotte marketing maven Max Muhleman, who is assisting Richardson in his bid for an NFL team, seems a handy guy to have around when it comes to creative geography. In persuading Richardson, who grew up in Fayetteville, N.C., that the franchise should not be a city team, nor even a state team, but a team for the Carolinas, Muhleman put together research that shows that the drive-in market (the population living within 150 miles of the proposed stadium) is 9.6 million and the combined Carolinas TV market is more than 3 million households. It's all quite convincing.
Of course, on top of the stadium, the Richardson group would have to come up with another $100 million or so in franchise fees. What's more, he would be stuck, inevitably, with one of the league's worst teams. He seems not to be bothered by either prospect. "Is it scary?" he says, repeating the question. "It's not scary. It might get a little complicated, but not scary." He has attempted trickier moves than this, Johnny U's backup receiver has.
The idea of failure, which seems not to have occurred to him before the question, makes him nearly defensive. "Let's think about our life," he says, sliding once more into the modesty of plurality. "We went to a small school, played pro sports, were lucky enough to make it to the world championship and win. We started a company from scratch and took it to the New York Stock Exchange. We brought the company back to Spartanburg, one of the largest employers in the state of South Carolina." He stops himself as if to examine his luck, all luck. "A rather interesting life," he says.
It's the kind of life that happens, we're left to guess, when the backup receiver gets to call the plays. His old pro quarterback, for one, marvels at the transformation. "He was just one of those guys who thought there was something more out there for him," says Unitas. "I guess he did pretty good for himself, didn't he?"