In turning the Falcons from a mediocrity into a Super Bowl franchise, billionaire owner Arthur Blank drew on the same principles that made his other business—Home Depot—a juggernaut. You’d do a little victory dance, too
ATLANTA — “Arthur will be in shortly,” the assistant says. Arthur Blank has a press conference and 14 interviews today, and he’s in the process of finishing another one now. The assistant exits and leaves five members of The MMQB alone in Blank’s executive conference room, in the mansion fifteen minutes north of downtown that houses his charity.
There, on the wall, hang three large digital prints depicting a montage of images from his Blank’s life. There is Blank as an infant, in his mother’s arms. There is Blank as a young man, college-aged, clean-shaven and serious. There is Blank as an adult, riding a galloping horse. There he is with his family and relatives. There he is lying in his swim trunks reading a newspaper. And there, larger than any other image, is a portrait of what he looks like now. He’s wearing a suit, with his tie straight, his hair coiffed, his mustache groomed.
The door opens and in walks Blank. He looks even more put-together in person. Today he’s wearing a dark suit, with a striped shirt, and a red tie dotted with miniature Falcons logos. He’s carrying a cup of Diet Coke, and he jumps a bit when he turns and sees a camera pointed at him. “It’s a good thing I don’t have a beer in my hand,” he says, grinning.
Never mind that it’s 11:20 a.m.; Blank has plenty reason to celebrate, having this much success with his second career. If you didn’t know, Blank co-founded Home Depot in Atlanta in the late 1970s, became a billionaire and retired from the business in his late 50s. Then he bought the Atlanta Falcons, a team on a downswing, and he changed the culture, hired the right people and built his NFL franchise into a reputable brand, too. This postseason, as the Falcons became the talk of the NFL, Blank was strolling the sideline in expensive suits and dancing with players after games. A little more than a week from now the Falcons will play the Patriots in Blank’s first Super Bowl appearance.
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Blank puts on a microphone, sits down at the conference table underneath his portrait and starts reminiscing. When the Falcons were put up for sale in 2001, he had just retired from Home Depot and was looking for something to do. He had been a Falcons season ticket holder for about 10 years, and, other than their lone Super Bowl run in the 1998 season, he had watched them wallow in mediocrity. “I said, Well, I have a choice,” Blank says. “I can either sit on the sidelines for the next 30 years of my life and complain … or [I can] try to buy it and fix it.” Imagine that: The co-founder of Home Depot taking on a fixer-upper. “My personality, the way I function, is to buy it and fix it.”
Blank bought the team for about $545 million, from the son of the original founder of the franchise. Only when he went to finalize the deal did Paul Tagliabue, the commissioner, remind him of what he had just purchased. “You know,” Tagliabue said, “the Falcons have never had back-to-back winning seasons.” That can’t be true, Blank thought to himself. “I mean, that’s not logical,” he says now. “It’s almost impossible.” But it was true.
At Blank’s new NFL owner orientation in New York—yes, such things exist — Tagliabue suggested he meet with another owner who would be in town at the time, Robert Kraft of the Patriots. They had breakfast one morning, and Kraft gave Blank some advice: Run your NFL team the same way you ran Home Depot. “If you do the same things, the same values, the same culture that you established, and apply it to the Atlanta Falcons, you’re going to be very successful,” Kraft told him that day.
Run the team like Home Depot? Blank had learned a lot in those early years. He and his friend Bernie Marcus founded the company after they’d been fired from their executive jobs with Handy Dan Home Improvement Centers in a company power struggle. The pair opened their own two stores in Atlanta, the vision being to sell home improvement supplies in giant warehouses, with no frills and a focus on customer service. That meant “listening to our customers and not arguing, not debating,” Blank says. “Have them tell us what they like and what they didn’t like. We changed our assortment, changed our pricing, changed our service levels. There were a variety of things they were telling us we needed to do a little bit differently. … We just said, the customer is always right.”
Blank tried running the Falcons the same way, until Michael Vick, his star quarterback, plead guilty in 2007 to federal felony charges for his involvement in an interstate dog fighting ring, which Vick had been operating on his property for about five years. The NFL suspended him indefinitely, and he served 21 months in prison. When he got out, many Falcons fans still wanted him back.
This time Blank didn’t listen to the customer. In Blank’s eyes, Vick’s transgressions were too much. He forced Vick to reimburse a good chunk of his signing bonus and then released him in June 2009. “It wasn’t a very difficult decision,” Blank says.
But, believing that Vick deserved a second chance somewhere else, he put in a good word with the Eagles, who signed Vick and employed him for five seasons after that. “I thought that Michael, the crimes that he was involved with were horrific,” Blank says. “He would say that. I would say that. Anybody virtually in America would say that. He was punished. He did his time. I think he’s a different human being today, in my opinion. I was glad to see him get an opportunity again.”
In the meantime, Blank had been making preparations for a future without Vick. In 2008, he’d hired Thomas Dimitroff away from Kraft’s Patriots to serve as his general manager, and he’d hired Mike Smith, a defensive specialist from the Jacksonville Jaguars, to be his coach. And Blank had let them draft Matt Ryan, a quarterback from Boston College, as Vick’s replacement, with the third overall pick in 2008. Blank had met Ryan at a group dinner and had watched a workout, but he was not involved much in the decision.
Blank has always viewed his role, going back to his Home Depot days, as an informed observer. “I hire the best people,” he says, “let them do their jobs, give them the resources to do it, give them the emotional support they need, make sure that our culture is working for them, [and] make sure they fit into the culture and [that] they’re getting all the support they need from others. And then I get out of the way, and get on the sidelines and cheer and support.”
The new regime worked well for a while. The Falcons strung together five consecutive winning seasons—the longest streak in their history. Then they stagnated, going 10-22, over the next two years, and Blank faced another tough decision at the end of 2014. Many fans and people around the league expected him to fire both Smith and Dimitroff.
Instead, Blank had a specific vision in mind. He had grown close to Robert Kraft over the years, working on various NFL committees with him, taking his advice. Blank admired the model Kraft had created, in which Bill Belichick, the coach, had control over bringing in players who fit his system. Blank saw a similar dynamic work elsewhere around the league, with Andy Reid in Kansas City, Tom Coughlin in New York and Pete Carroll in Seattle.
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He did fire Mike Smith, but he also approached Dimitroff and found that he would accept ceding some power to a new head coach, under this new approach. Blank decided to keep Dimitroff because he had impressed Blank with a few personnel moves. The most famous: Dimitroff traded five draft picks, including two first-rounders, to move up 21 spots and take wide receiver Julio Jones in 2011. Jones had since blossomed into one of the best receivers in football. “It was a very courageous decision on his part,” Blank says now.
Blank and Dimitroff went looking for a head coach, and then Blank’s mother, Molly, passed away, a few months shy of 100 years old. She was the dancer in the family, the one who always stressed looking presentable in public. Blank learned all that from her, and used her as a moral compass. “Sometimes,” he says, “when I’m looking for answers to questions, I’ll think about, what would my mother be thinking right now? She had a great set of values.”
Blank used that compass as he interviewed head coaches, and he soon found the candidate he believed was ideal in Dan Quinn, Carroll’s defensive coordinator from Seattle. Quinn and Dimitroff hit it off, Blank could tell. “I saw that compatibility,” Blank says. “They bonded beautifully.”
Their first task was rebuilding the Falcons defense, which had ranked last in the NFL the previous season. In the new structure, Quinn went to Dimitroff and Scott Pioli, the assistant G.M. and another Patriots product, and simply told them the specific type of players he needed. “He’s a little bit like a doctor,” Blank says. “He writes a prescription, and it doesn’t say, ‘Go to the drug store and bring back whatever they can give you there.’ He’s very specific in terms of the needs he has, the prescription that’s to be filled. He gives the prescriptions to personnel, to [Dimitroff], to Scott Pioli and others—and they fill them.”
Quinn and Dimitroff worked like that for two years, and their plan materialized perhaps sooner than expected this season. Seven first- or second-year players started on defense, and the unit’s play improved. Vic Beasley, Dimitroff and Quinn's first No. 1 pick, led the league in sacks. And the offense, driven by Matt Ryan (the likely NFL MVP) and Julio Jones, led the league in points and total yards.
The Falcons went 11-5, earned the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and reinvigorated their fan base, just as they were preparing to move into a new $1.5 billion stadium next season.
All the while, Blank watched from afar and paced the sideline in one of those expensive suits, his hair coiffed, his mustache groomed. Once the playoffs started, he began letting loose. After the Falcons throttled the Seahawks, Quinn’s former team, in the divisional round, Blank danced in the locker room with the players. At 74 years old. In a full suit.
At the NFC Championship Game, he was back pacing again. During pregame warmups, wide receiver Mohamed Sanu approached him and complimented his attire. Blank was wearing a burgundy jacket, a black vest and black pants—one of his flashier ensembles. Blank thanked him. “On Sundays,” he explained, “we all have a uniform to wear. You wear yours, and I wear mine. You have a job to do, and I have a job to do too.”
Keep on dancing, Arthur! pic.twitter.com/TpqRuB56Kj— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) January 22, 2017
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