New Jacksonville Jaguars owner strives to be salesman for the city

Fresh off a 14-hour flight from Japan, Shahid Khan approaches the podium before a crowd gathered in the ballroom of the downtown Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront. If he's tired, it doesn't show. It's been a month since Khan bought the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL franchise from Wayne and Delores Weaver for $760 million.

The February luncheon marks a formal coming-out party for the 61-year-old billionaire owner of Flex-N-Gate, an Illinois manufacturer with plants on three continents that makes original equipment parts for virtually every major automaker from Acura to Volkswagen.

Khan, called "Shad" by friends, reaches the microphone. He begins with a story from his overseas trip, explaining that he had taken along Jacksonville Jaguars jerseys as gifts for Japanese auto executives.

"Some of the CEOs, I gave it to them and they were really excited and liked everything, and we talked about the Super Bowl and every single one of them had a simple question: 'Where is Jacksonville?' " The room erupts into knowing laughter.

Jacksonville's business community is confident these days but still very aware that the city lacks the visibility and status of places like Miami, Orlando and Tampa Bay. The business crowd expects Khan to deliver a winning football team, but they're expecting a lot more. Khan's international connections and personality make him a natural ambassador for a city in search of a higher profile. As the owner of a multinational company, he might move some badly needed jobs and other business investment to Jacksonville.

Charities are excited about his record as a philanthropist.

There's something else, as well: In a city with little diversity in its business community and a heritage of Southern racial dynamics, Pakistan-born Khan, along with the recent election of the city's first African-American mayor, instantly offers the city a more cosmopolitan profile that better serves its business aspirations.

Born in 1950, Khan grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, a city of 10 million near the border with India. His parents were considered middle class — his mother a math professor and his father a lawyer-turned-entrepreneur.

Ultimately, Khan's parents sent him to study engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He arrived in late January 1967 at age 16, staying at a YMCA for $2. The next day he encountered 2 feet of snow and a blizzard that shut down the city. "For me, it was a challenge, an adventure," Khan says.

Khan landed his first job in America as a dishwasher making $1.20 an hour shortly after arriving. "In '67, that was big money," he says. "When you convert that to Pakistani rupees, that is more money than 99 percent of the people over there are making." At the University of Illinois, Khan set out to assimilate. He didn't hang out with other immigrants and pledged at a fraternity, Beta Theta Pi. "He immersed himself completely in the U.S. culture," says friend David Sholem, a lawyer in Champaign.

Learning American culture included mastering the art of winning people over. "I had a very active social life," Khan says with a laugh. "I look back fondly on those years to this day." He met his wife, Ann, at a college bar. They have been married for 31 years and have two adult children.

He also had his first encounter with American football, attending games with his fraternity brothers, some of whom played for the Fighting Illini. Khan graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1970, with the U.S. in the middle of a recession.

Looking for work meant encountering a lot of doors shut in his face. "Obviously, rejection is a part of life, whether you are asking somebody out or asking for a job," Khan says. His job-seeking strategy: Rather than just mailing out resumes, he angled to get past a secretary and talk to a manager directly. "Then you would try to sell them — 'I can do this for you,' " Khan says.

The shoe-leather approach paid off, and a small auto parts manufacturer in Urbana named Flex-N-Gate hired him to help engineer custom bumpers. After becoming the company's chief engineer within five years, he left to start his own business. In 1980, he purchased Flex-N-Gate for $1 million and has spent 30 years building it into one of the largest auto parts manufacturers in the world.

Khan also owns two other companies, Bio-Alternatives, a biodiesel fuel company that his son, Tony Khan, helps manage, and Smart Structures, which monitors the structural health of bridges.

As Khan's business grew, he and Ann continued to live in central Illinois. They were generous donors in the community, giving $1 million to a local YMCA. He's also donated more than $18,000 to Illinois-based candidates for Congress — from both parties — and was an early backer of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

The Khans have given generously to the University of Illinois. Last September, they gave $10 million to build an annex to the building that houses the College of Applied Health Sciences and have also funded endowed professorships. They funded an outdoor tennis facility that bears his name and gave money toward a stadium renovation.

Khan's interests shifted from being a sports fan to owning a team about eight years ago. For Khan, friends say, team ownership reflects a genuine interest in the NFL, a solid business investment and a legacy for his children. Newly hired Jacksonville Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey sees something else — Khan's competitive drive. Khan saw an opportunity to turn a struggling team around, Mularkey says, and "build something special."

His relationship with previous Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver began the same way he went about getting his first job after college — with a cold call.

"It was part of just going around introducing myself to people," Khan says. By late November, Khan and Weaver had hashed out an agreement at a hotel bar to sell the team for $760 million. Forbes reported that Khan borrowed $350 million of the total.

Hardly anyone in Jacksonville had heard of Khan; Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown says he didn't learn of the deal until just before it was announced.

Khan is not new to Florida.

Before buying the team, he paid $6.6 million for a home in Naples last year and is a Florida resident. He used to visit Jacksonville a few times a month since Southeast Toyota, a Flex-N-Gate customer, uses the port to ship cars. Since the deal was announced, Khan has divided his time between Illinois, where his "day job" is, and Jacksonville.

Khan has faced criticism from some workers and residents who live near a now-closed Flex-N-Gate bumper plant in Michigan about the company's use of the carcinogenic chemical chromium-6, which they claim is causing a rise in cancer in nearby neighborhoods. Michigan is conducting soil samples to determine if the site is contaminated. Meanwhile, civic and labor groups say they want the NFL to investigate Khan.

Amid a media barrage, Khan got a warm reception from Jaguars fans and civic leaders. At a game after the sale was announced, fans wore paper versions of Khan's signature handlebar mustache. The honeymoon has largely continued since then, the only grumbles coming after some fans felt Khan didn't move aggressively enough to acquire former Denver Bronco quarterback and former Jacksonville resident Tim Tebow, who — at Tebow's preference — was traded to the New York Jets.

Khan faces many challenges.

The Jaguars deal with the problems of other teams in cities with smaller economic and corporate infrastructures. Along with hiring Mularkey, Khan has hired a new president, Mark Lamping, formerly CEO of MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, and launched a program to sell discounted tickets for kids.

"We are a young team, 18 years old. We don't have the multigenerational effect," Khan says. "We are doing everything to connect the next generations."

On the field, the Jaguars are sticking with last year's draft pick, former University of Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who struggled in his rookie NFL season. With Khan's endorsement, the Jaguars are also taking an unorthodox approach to recruiting players, specifically looking for happily married players under the theory it would make them better performers.

Newly signed running back Laurent Robinson and backup quarterback Chad Henne both signed multimillion-dollar contracts after bringing their wives to their interviews. The team also earned generally favorable reviews for its draft picks, trading up two spots in its first selection to nab sought-after Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon.

So far, Khan continues to hit all the right notes. At the JaxUSA luncheon speech, Khan follows his "where-is-Jacksonville?" story by saying he's is "in training to become Jacksonville's No. 1 salesperson." He assures the crowd he wants to "win on and off the field," that the success of the team and Jacksonville are intertwined.

"Jacksonville has to be thriving or the Jaguars are not thriving," Khan says. The luncheon crowd treated him like a rock star — a woman even appeared to hand him a bouquet of red roses. "There was a little fear at first just because no one knew Shad," says Jerry Mallot, president of the JaxUSA economic development agency that hosted the luncheon. "All anyone knew was that a guy from Pakistan with a big handlebar moustache was buying the Jaguars.''

For Mallot, Khan's speech is a signal he's accepting the role the city's leaders have in mind. "Our hopes and expectations have been realized," Mallot says. Khan says those expectations need to come with some patience. Certainly the Jaguars or myself are not the one-man solution to every issue," he says. "But we want to do our part and help."

This article originally appeared in Florida Trend magazine's June issue. To read other Florida Trend stories and interviews, go to floridatrend.com.

New Jacksonville Jaguars owner strives to be salesman for the city 06/23/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 23, 2012 4:31am]

    

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