Sports - November 2005

Business group provides support for ex-pro jocks
By Chris Roush

Toby Kearney thought he had left professional sports behind in 1994 when he retired rather than accept a trade from East Coast Hockey League’s South Carolina Stingrays to its Hampton Roads, Va., Admirals. Though he had been selected in the fifth round of the National Hockey League draft five years earlier by the Calgary Flames, he played only a handful of NHL preseason games — not even enough to be listed on the team’s all-time roster — and he was ready to start a new career.

Kearney, who had a bachelor’s in agricultural economics from the University of Vermont, wound up going from the penalty box to the executive suite. He went to work for B&D Marine and Industrial Boilers, a Charleston, S.C.-based company that sells and services pressure systems, rising to vice president and a seat on the board in 1996. Six years later, he left the company to go back to school, earning his MBA from Babson College in Wellesley, Mass.

He took a job in Charlotte as a financial adviser for Merrill Lynch. A few months later, he met Warren Shinn, who runs a commercial real-estate and lending business, at a meeting of the Business and Innovation Growth Council, a nonprofit for entrepreneurs in Charlotte. Shinn — neither a relative of New Orleans Hornets owner George Shinn nor a former pro athlete — was putting together a group of retired athletes turned businessmen.

Kearney signed up, becoming a board member of the National Business Association when the nonprofit was unveiled in January. Designed to help former pro athletes with their business careers, it meets once a month in Charlotte but wants to expand to other cities in North Carolina and the U.S.

So far, a dozen athletes have paid $100-a-year dues to join. About 10 businessmen also have joined, buying $1,000 exclusive sponsorships and paying $100 quarterly dues to attend meetings. The nonathlete memberships, however, are limited by profession.

For example, Shinn says, “There can only be one nonpro-athlete attorney or CPA.”

At the meetings, the athletes and other members trade business advice, offer potential leads for deals and swap referrals. Kearney, now 35, has added accounts to his brokerage business from the contacts he has made. “And I’m talking to some people right now about some potential real-estate deals in the Raleigh area. You just make the connection and follow up.”

Such interaction might seem like basic blocking and tackling for most business executives, but it’s a whole new ballgame for most former athletes. “Some guys have side businesses while they’re playing, which I think gives them a head start,” says Wesley Walls, who retired from the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers after the 2003 season. He played for the Carolina Panthers from 1996 to 2002. “Other guys are like me and are focused on football, so it’s difficult when you leave the game. You’re now a rookie again.”

If some athletes never thought about money, some never had it. Jeremy Salemson, who founded Chapel Hill-based Corporate Investors Mortgage Group in 1996 after playing pro soccer two years, says his athletic career was never about money because soccer players aren’t paid as well as athletes in some sports. Salemson, whose company has an office in Charlotte, joined this summer.

The group tries to help former athletes ease into the business world while giving them the comfort of being around other players. Shinn had formed a similar organization — the National Funding Association — for commercial lenders in 1990. That group has more than 300 members and chapters in Chicago, Atlanta and Charlotte.

Shinn got the idea for the National Business Association in 2004 when he ran across a real-estate broker trying to attract former pro football players as investors. He talked to Rod Smith, a former NFL defensive back who retired in 1998. A Charlotte resident who is president of the NFL Alumni Association’s Carolinas Chapter, Smith liked what he heard. “I hope it allows more athletes to get involved in the business community,” Smith says. “Players do a better job today of saving their money while they’re playing but have no experience with networking and finance and being connected to people in those areas.”

After meeting with Shinn and Smith, Kearney introduced them to Brian Henry, a professional volleyball player from 1990 to 1996 who also worked at Merrill Lynch. Along with Leonard Wheeler, a former NFL player, they started the group.

Henry hopes contacts he’s making will help get a fledgling business off the ground. In August, he left Merrill Lynch to become chief financial officer of Katwood Mulch, a new company trying to raise capital and find customers. “If someone like Rod Smith sees someone that needs my products or services, I’m the first one that he thinks about when sending a referral. I increase my marketing without increasing my expenses. My business has been spread out” — no pun intended — “a lot farther because these guys have been looking out after my interests.”

Walls harbors similar hopes that the group will help his new career in real estate. After retiring, he spent a year traveling and working on his farm in South Carolina. But in March, he went to work at the Charlotte office of Lincoln Harris, a real-estate company. Walls has a few retail clients and has worked to put together deals for office and industrial space. “I’m trying to find out what I do best. What I hope to take from the luncheons are relationships and a means of networking to let people know I am out in the business world.”

Smith, who got a bachelor’s in economics from Notre Dame, is one of the few members who remains active in sports. He is a color commentator for ESPN college football games and appears regularly on a Charlotte sports-talk radio show. But he also wants to work outside sports. He has had jobs for a medical-device company and life insurer Northwestern Mutual. He’s interviewing for other jobs. “As a professional athlete, you are your own business, and athletes are starting to embrace that. I always thought of myself as an independent contractor when I played football.”

Kearney hopes that former pro athletes eventually can slide into a second career without having to use fame to get a foot in the corporate door. It happened for him at Merrill Lynch. “I was talking to my boss the other day, and it came up that I played hockey. He had no idea.”