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Investor Profile: James Haslam III

Posted Feb 15, 2010


(The first of a series profiling the Steelers new investors.)

It doesn’t take long to figure out why James Haslam III and the Pittsburgh Steelers are a good match. It’s because, from the standpoint of running a business, both believe in many of the same things.

Haslam, 55, known as Jimmy, is the President of Pilot Travel Centers, the nation’s largest retail operator of travel centers and truck-stops. The company was founded by Jimmy’s father, James Haslam Jr., in 1958. Currently headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee, the first Pilot opened in Gate City, Virginia.

Pilot Corporation is one of the largest independent retailers of over-the-road diesel fuel, as well as one of the top 25 largest restaurant franchises in the United States. The company operates approximately 235 travel centers spread across 35 states.

The company’s mission statement includes a section dealing with what it refers to as “Pilot Values.” Among the values described are a dedication to hiring, developing and retaining a quality work force; being a company that believes in teamwork and in doing the right thing; one possessing a sensitivity to the needs of its customers; and a business that is rooted in family and continually strives to improve even as it achieves consistent success.

Sounds a lot like an NFL franchise that is the only one to own six Lombardi trophies.

James Haslam Jr. had been a starting tackle for the University of Tennessee football team and after graduating in 1952 he served a tour of duty in the Korean War. When he returned from service he took a job with Fleet Oil Company, but his desire to own his own business led him to open a four-pump gas station in Gate City, a Virginia town located at the foot of the Appalachians. But this gas station also offered its customers the option to purchase cigarettes and soft drinks, and a concept was born.

In 1965, Pilot Corporation was bringing in some $2 million per year; by 1973, it operated more than 50 stores with annual sales of $30 million; in 1981, it had 100 of what were beginning to be referred to as “convenience stores;” and in 1984, Pilot started to branch out into the restaurant industry when it opened the first Pilot Kitchen in one of its Travel Centers. It was a deli counter that offered sandwiches, salads and soups. “It was basically a deli set-up with limited opportunity,” said Jimmy Haslam in a 1998 interview in Nation's Restaurant News. “We realized brands were the way to go.”

And today, Pilot has 13,000 employees nationwide; it operates more than 300 retail facilities in 41 states, featuring nationally recognized fast food restaurants such as Subway, Wendy’s, Arby’s, Taco Bell, Denny’s and McDonald’s; and it also owns and operates 40 convenience stores in the Knoxville area.

Off the field, so to speak, Jimmy and his wife Dee donated $10 million to the University of Tennessee to benefit two prominent university programs, fund endowed professorships, and create a prestigious honors program.

“Students and faculty are what make UT strong, inviting, and vibrant,” said Jimmy. “We are happy to create the Haslam Scholars program to bring some of the nation’s best students to the UT campus. It is our hope that the endowed professorships help the university attract leading scholars.”

Haslam recently took time to answer some Steelers-related questions:

Q. How did you come to be interested in joining the Steelers as an investor?

A. I was contacted by an investment banker representing the Steelers.

Q. What was it about the Steelers that made the team a solid investment proposition?

A. I was immediately impressed with Art and Dan Rooney’s business acumen and conservative philosophy.

Q. Before you became an investor, were you a Steelers fan?

A. No. I was actually originally a Dallas Cowboys fan and then an Indianapolis Colts fan.

Q. Are you a Steelers fan now, or is your relationship with the team more about business?

A. I am 1,000 percent a Steelers fan!

Q. Do you watch all of the games, and how would you describe yourself as a fan: Vocal? Critical? Nervous? Enthusiastic?

A. Yes, I watch all of the games. As a fan, I would describe myself as nervously enthusiastic.

Q. What current Steelers player do you enjoy watching the most?

A. Troy Polamalu.

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