For football fans, legendary Dallas Cowboys receiver Drew Pearson will always be remembered for catching the first ever Hail Mary pass in the waning seconds of a 1975 playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings – just one highlight in an 11-year career that also included three Pro Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl ring. But just as impressive as his on-field exploits is the second career Pearson carved out after football. Drew Pearson Marketing is a licensed athletic-wear company that he and two partners built from scratch into a multimillion-dollar enterprise.
At the outset, Pearson says, launching a business career seemed like a snap. Name recognition opened doors as prospective customers jumped at the chance to meet him, and entire offices shut down in anticipation of his arrival.
“I got a meeting with everybody,” he says. “I’d get there and, whether [the meeting] was with a banker, a retail buyer, or anyone, prospects would see that Super Bowl ring and want to talk about my career. After an hour, they would look at their watch, I’d run through the presentation, and they’d say, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ A lot of meetings would go that way.”
Winning the actual business proved a little more difficult, however. In fact, Pearson says he often ran into obstacles with prospects who liked to boast of saying no to a celebrity athlete.
“I had meetings with customers who would say, ‘Yeah, I had Drew Pearson in here and told him he wasn’t ready for us.’ They relished the opportunity to say that and put me in my place a bit,” he says. “In many cases, that was another issue we had to get past.”
Pearson says that, while being a professional athlete taught him the value of hard work, dealing with losing and disappointment, and the importance of persistence, applying these lessons to selling proved something of a challenge.
“Dealing with the rejection was the hardest part,” he says. “When my partners and I would get turned down, my impulse would be to say, ‘Forget these guys. Let’s go do something else.’ But my partners understood that in sales, no doesn’t mean no; it means, ‘You need to try a different approach.’ It’s very different from the persistence of a professional athlete. If the coach says you can’t do something, you can go out, better yourself, and prove him wrong. But in business, the rejection is more frustrating because there’s very little you can do about it right away.”
Pearson says his other big struggle was developing the kind of patience that’s necessary in business but rarely required of football players. “In football, you find out whether you won or lost in three hours,” he says. “Not in business. You might have to go back to a retail buyer over and over, make more phone calls, write follow-up letters, show more product, and so on before you get a final decision. Realistically, it might take three years before you get the result you’re after.”
Before long, however, Pearson says that he and his partners were able to change the stars in customers’ eyes to dollar signs, beginning with a licensing deal to sell apparel at home games of the local indoor soccer team, the Dallas Sidekicks, and a contract to sell Olympic-themed headwear. But the lessons about persistence came in handy, Pearson says, when his team tried to step up into the big leagues and sought out licensing opportunities with the NBA, NFL, NHL, and Major League Baseball.
“They all turned us down,” he says. “We actually got turned down four or five times by the NFL alone – over the phone, face-to-face; they kept telling us we were not good enough.”
Soon enough, however, thanks in part to his team’s persistence, as well as assists from a diverse range of partners, including the Disney Corporation’s minority business development program and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Drew Pearson Marketing came back to win licensing deals with the NFL, as well as the NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball. In 2006, the company was sold for $8 million.
Asked why so many other successful athletes have proven unable to match his success in making the transition from the playing field to the boardroom, Pearson says the problem is often pride. Athletes stumble because they expect to start every new endeavor at the top.
“You can get a title, but that doesn’t mean you’re really at the same level as someone with knowledge who’s been doing this for a long time,” he says. “So these athletes are trying to own their own businesses or get involved in businesses they don’t understand, and the next thing you know they’re failing and filing for bankruptcy. But the ones who are successful in life after football are the ones who make that adjustment and don’t come out trying to be a CEO right away, but they are willing to learn and apply that drive and work ethic to make it from the bottom to the top.”
– Malcolm Fleschner
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