How Panthers owner Jerry Richardson got all his money

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This article was originally published on February 2, 2016.

You may have only come across Jerry Richardson as the dour-faced gentleman who sips on a big Bojangles’ cup from the owner’s box during every Panthers game. He generally looks like this.

But the story of how he came to sit in that box is complex and interesting and improbable and kind of inspiring.

Richardson’s business career really begins at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., where he set all kinds of football records as a wide receiver. He then played two years in the NFL for the Baltimore Colts, in 1959 and 1960. He didn’t become a star, but he did catch a championship-winning pass from Johnny Unitas.

Richardson took his bonus from winning that game and began a series of business moves that turned him into a multi-millionaire.

While Richardson was playing football, over in Greenville, a man named Wilbur Hardee took a look at what McDonald’s was doing in pioneering fast food and decided to give it a try. Yes, he created Hardee’s.

Richardson and business partner Charles Bradshaw (his quarterback at Wofford) became the first franchisees. They opened a shop in Spartanburg in 1961, and ultimately grew their restaurant chain to encompass more than 500 Hardee’s in about a dozen states.

Within 15 years, Richardson and Bradshaw had named their business interests Spartan Food Systems Inc. and turned it into a publicly traded company. They bought the Quincy’s Family Steakhouse chain and ultimately sold their business Trans World in 1979. Both of them stayed on as senior executives in the company as it went through a series of business permutations, acquisitions, leveraged buy-outs and spin-offs.

Richardson eventually became CEO of Flagstar, then South Carolina’s largest publicly traded company, and ran the Denny’s restaurant chain. He oversaw 123,000 employees and $3.7 billion in revenue at one of the largest food service companies in the world.

In 1993, toward the end of his career, Richardson and several investors paid the NFL $206 million to create the Carolina Panthers as an expansion team. That may have proven to be the most shrewd business move he made. The Panthers are now worth north of $1.5 billion, according to Forbes.

In 2007, Richardson became an investor in a team that purchased Charlotte-based Bojangles‘.

Not without controversy

Since creating the team, Richardson has been among the league’s more active — and divisive — figures. National writers still skewer him from time to time. And locals haven’t always been friendly either.

Richardson stepped down from Flagstar in 1995, the first year the Panthers began play. The company had faced several lawsuits alleging racial discrimination in its Denny’s restaurants and had been losing money, but the departure was a surprise. Richardson said he wanted to devote his time to the Panthers.

He also has become one of the staunchest negotiators when NFL owners and players hammer out their collective bargaining agreements. In 2011, there were a ton of media reports that Richardson insulted the intelligence of Peyton Manning and Drew Brees — including asking them if Richardson needed to read the revenue charts for them — as they worked on a contract.

Richardson has also been a stiff negotiator with the city of Charlotte. A little more than two years ago, he got the city to commit $87.5 million toward upgrades of Bank of America Stadium in exchange for a commitment to stay in Charlotte for six years. He said at the time that he was committed to keeping the team here, but said a future owner could have other plans after his death.

Of course, the criticism was louder when the Panthers were putting up losing seasons. Winning helps. But it’s also faded because Panthers players and staff have been so effusive in their praise. Richardson has been a firm believer in Cam Newton.

He’s also paying for the entire Panthers organization — from interns on up — to attend the Super Bowl this weekend in California.

Here’s hoping the Big Cat brings them all home with a trophy. And maybe some fast food on the way home from the airport.

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Andrew Dunn
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