— This time last year the Atlanta Falcons organization was embroiled in what seemed to be never ending turmoil. The face of the franchise, Michael Vick, ultimately pleaded guilty to charges related to dog fighting (he is currently serving a 23-month sentence in federal prison). Then, with three games left to play, first-year head coach Bobby Petrino abruptly quit to take over at the University of Arkansas.
All the hard work of billionaire owner Arthur Blank had resulted in this. Upon purchasing the Falcons in 2002, Blank took an organization from consistently having one of the NFL’s lowest attendance records to garnering a season ticket waiting list of over 90,000 requests. In what must have seemingly felt like a final knockout blow, stadium seats were empty and the waiting list virtually gone. A harsh reality for a gentleman who co-founded one of the nation’s most successful companies, Home Depot, and who attributes much of his success to an inherent belief in customer satisfaction. No one could have prevented it.
After an offseason that brought in a first-time head coach and general manager, in addition to a rookie quarterback, improving on last season’s 4-12 record seemed like an optimistic goal. Nine wins later and having clinched a playoff appearance, a recent headline in the Atlanta Journal Constitution read, “Falcons in Super Bowl Not So Far Fetched.”
As the proud owner of the comeback team of the year, Mr. Arthur Blank spoke via phone to go “In Depth” ...
Bensinger: Coming into this season, your expectations were what?
Blank: That we’d have a team that would be competitive. That was my hope and aspiration. I loved the work that Thomas Dimitroff and Coach Smith had done in the offseason with free agency and the draft. I liked the work our players had done during spring practices and then through training camp. I was probably more optimistic than most, but I obviously didn’t think we’d end up in the playoffs this year. I’m thrilled for Atlanta and our organization.
Bensinger: What most accounts for the unbelievable turnaround?
Blank: I think there are two reasons. One is Thomas Dimitroff and the other is Coach Smith. Thomas’ work during free agency and the draft was outstanding. Coach Smith not only cares about players, but actually is very much involved in the talent evaluation and the process of selecting players. Also, Coach Smith’s leadership and the quality of the coordinators and the position coaches he’s hired has been outstanding.
Bensinger: You’ve mentioned their relationship previously. What is it about that?
Blank: They have a tremendous amount of respect for each other. They work very closely together. Their football philosophy is a shared philosophy which is very important so they don’t lock heads over players. They see the football team through the same lense.
Bensinger: Your most memorable moment as owner of the Atlanta Falcons football team would be what?
Blank: Getting to the playoffs this year because it was so unexpected. We were viewed as a team that would get between 2 – 4 wins and then ending up with potentially 10 or 11 is really an incredible season. I think just having the opportunity to compete has been incredible.
Bensinger: How disappointing was last season?
Blank: It was a very difficult year for us. We had worked hard to build a franchise and had obviously made a long term commitment to our quarterback. That’s a decision that I feel badly about, but certainly one that I had nothing to do with in terms of what Michael [Vick] had done. A bad set of circumstances developed for Atlanta, the football team, the community, and our fans. I was even more committed to getting that fixed and moving beyond that. My focus this last year was to get the year behind us as quickly as we could. We did have to play all 16 games. That’s kind of the rules of the NFL. We couldn’t call it off sooner (laughs). Then, we went ahead and did our work in terms of building our leadership for the future.
Bensinger: Your reaction when you first heard the rumors about Michael Vick being linked to dog fighting.
Blank: I didn’t believe it. I had no reason to believe it. Before I even spoke to Michael, people who I spoke to initially who had already spoken to Michael said he denied it. He told me and our coaching staff and a number of other people in our organization that he wasn’t personally involved. Clearly, it didn’t turn out that way. Then, it became shock, disappointment, and obviously a certain degree of anger as well.
Bensinger: How did you come to realize that the allegations were indeed true?
Blank: When the smoke signals begin to mount and you begin to see the fire. You realize this isn’t just smoke and mirrors and that there really is a fire. I followed the developments on a daily basis as everybody else did in Atlanta and the NFL. I wasn’t sure whether if it was just Michael’s friends or if he was personally involved. It turned out that not only it was his friends, but that he was personally involved as well.
Bensinger: What transpired during the first honest and forthright discussion with him?
Blank: Michael said he was very sorry for what he had done and that he was very disappointed in himself. He was very apologetic to me personally and also to our fans and community.
Bensinger: How much communication have you had with him while he’s been in jail?
Blank: He and I have written probably three or four times back and forth. I haven’t seen him, but we’ve stayed in touch in that way. I’ve been supportive of the process he’s going through. Hopefully, after spending a couple years in jail, he’ll come out a different person. I’m hopeful that will be the case and certainly wish that for him, his family, and the National Football League.
Bensinger: If you’re open to sharing, what’s been written in the letters between both of you?
Blank: The letters have been private and I’m going to keep it that way. I obviously believe in second chances and sometimes even third chances. I’m hopeful that Michael can come back and be a role model for young folks and be able to go into some of these communities and talk to some of these young boys and girls that are making choices. He should try to explain the different paths you can take with good and bad decisions. I think someone like Michael can be a good role model in that regard, but obviously that depends on him.
Bensinger: You signed Bobby Petrino to a five-year, $24 million dollar contract heading into the 2007 season. Your reaction when you learned he was suddenly quitting with three games left to play to take a job with the University of Arkansas.
Blank: Very disappointed. Look, I don’t believe in keeping people locked into jobs they don’t want to be in so if coach wanted to leave at the end of the season we would have worked out something. But I felt, based on the message he delivered to our players throughout the season that we’re here to finish and we don’t quit, it didn’t quite matchup with his own behavior with three games to go. I was very disappointed for our players, fans, and our program.
Bensinger: What do you think of Coach Petrino today?
Blank: I like Bobby on a personal level. I think he’s a fine football coach. Obviously, he understands he’s probably more of a college coach than a pro coach. I assume he’ll be successful at Arkansas over a period of time. I certainly wish him well. I wish it was handled differently during the year.
Bensinger: I want to go way back. Prior to conceiving the idea for Home Depot, you were fired from Handy Dan, a home improvement chain. Tell me about that day.
Blank: Myself and my partner Bernie Marcus were fired. Not really for cause, but because of more of a political situation. We left. We spent the better part of a year looking at a variety of different opportunities. We decided to go into business for ourselves in the same home improvement industry and develop a large warehouse downmarket store twice the size of anybody else’s with twice as many people on the floor and gross margins at probably about half of what everybody else was operating on at that time. A lot of inventory, low prices, and great service levels. In 1979, we opened up our first stores in Atlanta.
Bensinger: In your book, “Built from Scratch,” you said that you created a company where employees matter and where people could be free to make mistakes. Explain that and the benefits of it.
Blank: If you believe in the wisdom of many versus the wisdom of a few, which I do, then you really want to unlock the minds of all of your associates and empower them where they feel they can make suggestions, offer ideas, and know they’re being listened to. For many many years, we used to say at Home Depot that probably 90-95 percent of the ideas about how we improve our company came from our customers. It didn’t come from us. It came from being good listeners and responding to what the customers were telling us. That’s how we built our business.
Bensinger: Based on your experience with other companies, to what extent is that an uncommon concept?
Blank: We lived those values. A lot of companies say it, they don’t live it. I think that’s really what separated us from a lot of folks in retailing that we were competing with. You know, they would put up on the wall a code of customer service, but when it came to actually delivering on great customer service they wouldn’t invest the resources or set the priorities to make that happen.
Bensinger: What experiences from running Home Depot do you think best prepared you for your ownership of the Falcons?
Blank: All the things we did in running our company would be applicable to the Atlanta Falcons. You have to put associates first. You want to listen to them. You have to understand your customers, your fans, and that they’re a critical part of what we’re doing. That they’re the shareholders for our franchise and I’m kind of a conduit to represent them in making the right decisions. What makes the NFL world different is that you have the risk of injury with players. Obviously at Home Depot, if somebody broke a leg, they took a day off and came in the following day. You don’t lose a player for a year. Also, the amount of exposure you have to the media is much greater in the National Football League than it would be in any business situation. I didn’t necessarily understand that having built the second largest retailer in the United States and third largest in the world by the time I retired in 2002. We’d have a lot of media attention, but that pales in comparison to what goes on in the National Football League.
Bensinger: Upon purchasing the team, your first orders of business were what?
Blank: The first order of business was to develop a trust relationship with the fans and have the fans understand that this owner was committed to winning and was going to do whatever it took to make sure we had a winning formula on the field. Also, bringing in players over time that had the right kind of character which made them proud of what they were doing in the community. Then, have a great gameday experience for the fans, win or lose. We put emphasis in all of those areas.
Bensinger: What was critical to making the gameday experience more attractive to fans?
Blank: You want to make sure fans bring their families. It’s a big investment of their money and time. You want to make sure they’re getting real value for their time and financial commitment. We have Falcons Landing which opens a couple hours before the game. We try to have a very competitive team on the field. We try to do things at halftime and timeouts to have the right kind of activity level to make sure fans feel like they’re getting the right kind of value for their hard-earned dollars.
Bensinger: During your first year as owner, you slashed ticket prices offering 10,000 season tickets for $100/each. Why?
Blank: During the first year, we reduced prices on about 20,000 seats and about 10,000 were at those price levels. When I spoke to the players I said I can’t suit up and I can’t draw plays for you, I’m your new owner tell me what I can do to help you the most and they asked me to fill up the dome. The dome had the second lowest stadium utilization in the National Football League at that time. So I said whether they’re paying $10/ticket or $100/ticket we have to get the place filled up. It will get confidence, enthusiasm, and energy back in the building. We’ve been able to maintain a very low ticket pricing structure since then.
Bensinger: How would you assess the job you’ve done thus far as owner of the Falcons?
Blank: I would give myself an “A” for effort and probably a “B” for results. I would have given myself a “C” before the start of this season, but probably a “B” now. With [General Manager] Thomas Dimitroff and Coach Smith, we finally have what I’ve been striving to get for a number of years. It’s the kind of consistency and quality at two critical positions to have a successful franchise over time. We have the ability now to really build a successful program like the Steelers, like Packers used to be, like the Giants now, and the Patriots. [It’s about] having a team that’s competitive for a number of years to come. That’s what I want to do. We established the platform and have the right people in place now to do that.