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Bill Haslam

Madeline Rogero

Mayoral Candidates Start Squaring Off

  The Patrician Vs. the Populist

Bill Haslam and Madeline Rogero: A study in contrasts

by Joe Sullivan

Just Plain Bill Haslam. The name is almost synonymous with wealth, influence and philanthropy in Knoxville. With sales of $4 billion a year and 12,000 employees nationwide, the Haslam-owned Pilot Corp is about the largest business based here. Its founder, 72-year-old Jim Haslam II, has presided over so many boards, has raised and donated large sums for so many causes, and has had a major hand in shaping so many civic decisions that he's sometimes referred to as the city's patriarch. His two sons, Jimmy and Bill, have followed in their father's footsteps in running the family business, but they haven't loomed nearly as large as "Big Jim" in the public arena.

This past year, however, Bill Haslam has plunged further into it than his father ever did, by declaring his candidacy for mayor. Why a Haslam would opt to leave the corporate world for the world of politics is just one of many questions that overhang him as he pursues his bid for elected office. Also at issue are his qualifications for presiding over a city government whose decision-making processes are much more fractious than those to which he's been accustomed. And then there's the perception that he's the candidate of the business and professional establishment that wants to run the city from top down as contrasted with the grassroots-based approach to governance of his principal opponent Madeline Rogero.

Unlike Mayor Victor Ashe, for whom politics was a passion from school days on, Haslam didn't show much early affinity for political activism. True, he was president of his class at Webb School (along with being a stellar athlete and top student). "But I never saw that as a political thing," he says.

He did show a bit of an independent streak by going to college at Emory. This, despite the fact that his father was a UT trustee and booster of the highest order and that elder brother Jimmy was also a UT graduate. "I decided that going away to college would be a broadening experience, and I thought there was a certain advantage in the maturing process for anybody to go away from home," he says.

While at Emory, Haslam considered getting into high-school teaching and coaching. Upon graduation, though, he decided to join the family business. "At that time Pilot was just beginning to grow. We were just beginning what became the travel center complex that's now 90-something percent of our business. Literally, when I came to work we were just building the first one. So I looked around and thought here's a great business opportunity in a growing company. I'm going to try it and see if I like it."

Pilot's business up to then had been gas stations and convenience stores, mostly in East Tennessee with a few in surrounding states. The travel centers initially just added diesel pumps—but then came franchised fast-food restaurants and, as the concept proved itself, aggressive expansion of the territory.

By 1985, Bill had been fast-tracked to an executive vice presidency, a title he shared with Jimmy. Their father was quoted as saying, "Jimmy's in charge of today's business, and Bill's in charge of tomorrow's business."

As Bill recalls it, "The two basic decisions that we made were to get into the restaurant business and to become a national company." But each of those decisions put strains on the company's management resources. I worked real hard to go out and find those people who could do that for we found some people who had experience operating national restaurant chains and some financial people who were used to playing in that kind of world."

As Pilot grew to 250 locations in 39 states, it became the largest Subway franchisee in the country and one of the larger Arby's and Wendy's operators. But Pilot's operations were more complicated than most. As Bill explains it, "Other people had national chains, but they were operating pockets of units so they had 15 in a town or whatever, so that if a manager quit you could move another one over. But in Pilot's case, our nearest restaurant might be 300 miles away, which made things difficult."

In 1995 when Jim Haslam II retired as CEO, Jimmy succeeded to that post and also retained the title of chief operating officer. Did that leave Bill feeling like the odd son out?

"I don't feel like that at all," he says. " I was doing the things at that point in time that I like doing, and Jimmy and I took responsibilities back and forth a time or two. The reality is that my brother and I became better friends then and are better friends now than ever."

Haslam ascribes his 1999 move from Pilot to Saks, Inc. primarily to different reasons. "I think it was more an issue with me after 20 years at Pilot saying I think a broadening experience would be good for me and somewhere where my name's not on the front door, so to speak." Small world that it is, Saks' CEO, Brad Martin, was on Pilot's board of directors and offered Haslam a post that included developing an e-commerce strategy for the business. "That was right when the Internet was the hot field, and I thought that would be a great experience."

But what did Bill Haslam know about e-commerce? "Well, all my friends would know that I'm not the most technologically savvy person in the world. But my job was to come up with our strategy and then to hire the team and get it in place and then to figure out how that's going to interact with the parent company," he responds.

And how did all of that work out? Haslam says "I think everybody knows there were some reality checks about what the potential of the dotcom business was. Today, I think the good news is that our business made money for the company last year, which not a lot of dotcoms can say."

But Haslam was no longer around by the time these profits were recorded. In early 2001, he left Saks, except for a consulting role. The reason, he says is that the job required him to be in New York more than he bargained on. "By that time, my three kids were teenagers or almost, and I was flying every Tuesday morning and coming back every Thursday night late. I just didn't want to be away from my family that much."

Haslam returned to Pilot at least titularly as president, but he seems a little vague about his role. He puts more emphasis instead on his community involvements, especially as chairman of Project GRAD, and on his acquisition of the Tennessee Smokies baseball team.

Haslam's community involvements are by no means of recent origin. He's been the chairman of United Way and served as a director and fundraiser for organizations as diverse as the Emerald Avenue Youth Foundation, the Foothills Land Conservancy and the Salvation Army. As a parent, he figures he's coached more than 30 youth sports teams as his kids were growing up.

To some extent, Haslam's civic activism has been an outgrowth of his spiritual life. Although he doesn't wear his religion on his sleeve, Haslam has been active for many years in the evangelically oriented Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church, where he's now an elder. "One of the things my faith and church involvement have taught me is the importance of getting involved in the world...of having an understanding of what our roles should look like in a world that's full of a lot of pain," he says.

Following his departure from Saks, he also recalls being approached by several people encouraging him to run for mayor. "I said thank you but no thank you. It hadn't really been something that had been anywhere on my radar screen."

Then came what might be called an epiphany of sorts. On a family spring vacation in 2001, Haslam just happened to be staying at the same place as Bob Corker, who had just been elected mayor of Chattanooga. Corker had been Jimmy Haslam's college roommate and remained close to the Haslam family throughout his career as a developer, champion of affordable housing, unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate and state Commissioner of Finance.

"Bob and I are both big bike riders and runners, so every day we were going on these 20-mile bike rides, and I said, "Tell me why you did this," Haslam recollects. "He started explaining his view of what a mayor could do in a city, and I just got more and more interested in it to where I decided to come home and at least spend time talking to people about what do you think Knoxville needs right now. What are the big issues? It was a purposeful effort to talk to lots of different people in different parts of town and different socioeconomic situations."

And what Haslam heard spurred his decision to seek the job, he says. "I can't tell you how many people I talked to who all said the same thing in terms of Knoxville's on the cusp of something...but we haven't ever quite gotten over the hump to be a great city. That was number one, and the second theme was this is a great place to live, but we spend too much time fighting about the wrong things. There's nothing wrong with having good fights, but we have bad fights."

To skeptics, such rhetoric from a Haslam makes it sound like he's coming down from on high to lead the city to greatness. Although his suits are immaculately tailored, most of his campaigning has been in shirt-sleeves, and he doesn't come across as a noblesse-oblige sort of guy. To the contrary, he has a down-to-earth, engaging style that seems to be connecting at the grassroots level in all parts of the city. "No one is more personable than Bill Haslam, and he's doing a tremendous job in conducting a grassroots campaign because he realizes that's the way to overcome the perception that he's the monied candidate," says Lynn Redmon, president of Community Forum, an umbrella group of neighborhood organizations.

Haslam is acutely conscious of how his family name can be a two-edged sword in his campaign. He sees advantage in the fact that, "it's obviously a well-known name that a lot of people connect with a lot of good things that have happened around Knoxville." On the other hand, "The downside is people make certain assumptions about you and say 'Oh, well that's his last name; that must mean...and they fill in the blank with whatever they want to.'"

One of the blanks, he acknowledges, is lack of prior involvement in politics. But as he has immersed himself in the political arena, he insists that, "A lot of it is no different than anything else I've done. Most of it is relationships, whether it's the people you're working for or working with." And along with his business skills, hardly anyone who knows him would deny that Haslam has very good relationship skills.

He's also steeped himself in the workings of city government. Indeed, he's become almost a fixture at city council meetings, including council's all-day budget retreat, and at forums as diverse as the Nine Counties. One Vision. downtown planning process and a Fort Dickerson design workshop. "Part of preparing to run a city is to learn as much about it as you can," he says.

Haslam recoils at the notion that with his business background and connections he would take a top-down approach to running the city. "This idea that the business person makes decisions on a dictatorial basis is an old-fashioned idea. The best businesses are run in a much more collaborative way where the process matters and the results matter."

April 3, 2003 * Vol. 13, No. 14
© 2003 Metro Pulse