Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam Cleveland Browns deal: There is 'zero' chance he will move the team

He says team is one of the NFL's iconic franchises

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The Haslams made a fortune selling gasoline and diesel fuel, but now they're focusing on a second family business.

The Cleveland Browns confirmed Thursday that owner Randy Lerner has agreed to sell a majority stake in the professional football team to Jimmy Haslam, CEO of Knoxville-based Pilot Flying J, and his family.
In an interview with the Scripps Knoxville newspaper News Sentinel, Jimmy Haslam said Thursday that the group buying the team is comprised exclusively of family members, although he said that his younger brother, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, is not part of the deal.

Jimmy Haslam is currently an investor in the Pittsburgh Steelers and said that when he became involved with that team, he indicated to the Rooney family -- the team's majority owner -- and the National Football League that "if a franchise ever came available and it was in the right place, we had interest."

He went on to say that the family was contacted in mid- to late June, and they were introduced to current Browns owner Randy Lerner. Haslam added that there is "zero" chance he will move the team -- a highly sensitive topic for Cleveland fans -- and described the Browns as "one of the NFL's iconic franchises."

"The attention and the following the Browns have is tremendous," he said. "And so to have that kind of fan base … (and) interest in football made this a hugely attractive franchise to us."

Haslam is expected to sell his interest in the Steelers.

ESPN reported that Haslam would buy a controlling interest in the Browns for more than $700 million, and would later pay more than $300 million to complete the deal.

Haslam declined to discuss the sale price in an interview with the News Sentinel. Asked how he's financing the transaction, he called it a "personal matter."

Haslam is the president and CEO of Pilot Flying J, a Knoxville-based chain of gas stations, convenience stores and travel centers that has more than 550 retail locations and approximately 18,000 employees. The company had more than $21 billion in revenue in 2010, according to the Knoxville Business Journal Book of Lists.

Pilot Oil Corp. was created in 1958 by Haslam's father, former University of Tennessee football player James A. Haslam II. Jimmy Haslam joined the board at age 20, while he was still a student at UT.

One of his first responsibilities was figuring out how to move Pilot into the convenience store business — a new concept at the time — and the company grew rapidly in the ensuing decades. In 2010, it acquired the travel center business of Utah-based Flying J, and last year Pilot Flying J was ranked by Forbes as the 11th-largest private company in the United States.

Jimmy Haslam is known for being intensely focused on the details of operating Pilot, and he alluded to that hands-on reputation during an interview on Thursday.

Haslam said his family will own a home in Cleveland, but that their "main base" will continue to be in Knoxville. Asked if his own role at Pilot Flying J will change, Haslam said no.

"We have a very senior group that have been in place for a long time, and we're highly confident that everybody will step up and do their normal outstanding job," he said. "(We) had a long conference call last night … briefed them on the transaction, briefed them on our plans. We will remain very involved in Pilot Flying J."

As for the management of the Browns, he said that "we're going to surround ourselves with talented people who are very good at their particular function."

Founded in 1946, the Browns have a storied history, but their fans are also familiar with heartbreak. The team has never played in a Super Bowl, but in the 1980s fell excruciatingly short — including the 1986 AFC Championship Game, when Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway drove his team 98 yards in the closing minutes to defeat the Browns in Cleveland.

Even worse, perhaps, was former owner Art Modell's decision in the mid-1990s to move the team to Baltimore, earning him the eternal enmity of Browns fans.

In 1999, NFL football returned to Cleveland when the Browns rejoined the league as an expansion team, although the team has struggled on the field since then.

Steve DiMatteo, editor of the website Dawg Pound Daily — a reference to the team's Dawg Pound cheering section — said the team's fans are "rabid." "You have to love the passion," he added. "I think they're one of the most passionate fan bases in the NFL when you consider just how bad they've been since 1999."
 

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