The first time I shook Hank Aaron’s hand, he had been retired from baseball for more than 10 years. I remember thinking that this hand had been on the bat for every one of his record 755 home runs. His grip was powerful, his hand meaty and large, yet his manner was reserved and his smile genuine. I would come to appreciate these traits in the years ahead.
That handshake occurred 27 years ago in New York City, across the street from the offices of Major League Baseball. It was to be the beginning of a lifelong friendship, and it was the only contract I ever had, or needed, with Henry Aaron.
At the time, I was the head of marketing for Arby’s and was in search of a big idea to raise the profile of the somewhat obscure restaurant chain. My plan was to head across the street and visit with Peter Ueberroth, the newly anointed baseball commissioner, who was determined to do for baseball what he had done as the organizer of the privately financed 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles: make money. But first, I wanted to meet with Hank and get him to agree to support my marketing idea, with no more than my word to rely on. I needed him to trust that I would live up to my promises.
An hour later, I was standing in front of the commissioner, offering the idea of having Arby’s become the official fast food of Major League Baseball. Why? Because, as I stated, baseball had been using our name forever, with no recompense.
Fully expecting a puzzled look from the merchandising team around the table, I continued to make my point.
“OK, let’s say there is a runner on second base and the batter gets a hit and the runner scores, the batter gets an…?”
Everyone answered in unison: “An RBI.”
“Precisely,” I said, “an ARBY – I.”
I won’t lie, the whole room groaned.
“I know, I know,” I said. “But try saying it again without thinking of me.”
I then outlined my plan to create the Arby’s RBI Award, which we would bestow on the American and National League leaders in Runs Batted In at the end of the season. Along with the award, Arby’s would contribute $1,000 to Big Brothers Big Sisters of America for every RBI delivered by the league leaders—a donation that would typically total $250,000 or more annually. We would name the award after the all-time RBI leader, Hank Aaron, who would be the face of the award program.
The group looked up and said, “You mean to tell us you can get Hank Aaron to agree to this idea? How do we know you can get him?”
“He’s waiting in the next room,” I said.
And so the relationship began. Arby’s became the official fast food of Major League Baseball and enjoyed unprecedented sales growth. Hank became an Arby’s franchisee in Milwaukee.
I remember how reluctant Hank was during those early days, never quite believing in anything or anyone fully. He continued to challenge me to live up to my word—by routinely living up to his.
Pretty soon, it became personal and the business side mattered less and less. He and his wife, Billye, came over for dinner one evening and my wife served Veal L’Aaron, the only original dish we ever created. My son, Gregory, who was 3 years old at the time, ran to open the door and saw this man standing there with a bat and ball in his hands.
Gregory had no idea who Hank was, but he was immediately drawn to him, because anyone holding a bat and ball was going to be a friend of his. They played on the living room floor, much to the embarrassment of my teenage daughter. Gregory sat on Hank’s lap during dinner.
When I started my franchising business, AFC Enterprises, in 1992, I asked Billye Aaron to sit on the founding board of directors because I so valued her counsel. One day, while we were negotiating having Hank become a franchisee of two of our newer brands, Church’s Chicken and Popeye’s, Billye leaned in and asked me how many black franchisees were then operating in the system and how many executive officers were black or women?
I paused and asked her why she would ask such a question of me after our years together.
“Simple,” she said. “Now you have an opportunity to make a real difference by creating possibilities for minorities as employees, franchisees, suppliers and executives.”
She went on to point out a roadblock to being able to make this difference: Despite good intentions, I just didn’t know enough people of color.
“So how do we fix that?” I asked.
“Easy,” she said. “Let Henry and me introduce you to them.”
So now a business relationship and personal friendship was raised to a new level, one I have often referred to as my awakening.
Meetings, dinners and gatherings followed. Each time, Hank and Billye would introduce me as their friend and partner. They put their reputations on the line in the black community by supporting me and standing behind my intentions and my actions. My respect for them grew and my understanding of the word “partner” became more sacred with each passing day.
I began referring to our franchisees as franchise partners and I insisted on meeting each new partner and handing them my home phone number in the event they needed to speak with me directly. I started holding family gatherings with our employees and referred to my executive team as my partners. I selected an investment fund to become our partner in an effort to help us grow and eventually seek a public offering.
By the time we went public five years later, the majority of our franchise partners were minorities. We had increased our purchases from minority- and women-owned businesses some 50-fold, and one-third of our executive team and board of directors were minorities or women. Moreover, the majority of my friends in Atlanta were now people of color.
We partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build homes for those living in substandard housing. We originally committed to build 100 homes, but the number was simply not adequate. In my 13 years as CEO and chairman of AFC, we built 455 homes in 12 countries housing more than 2,000 children. Most of those homes were for people of color and single mothers.
As fate would have it, Hank joined me on the site of the 100th house, situated in the shadows of Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves, for whom he played. The home was for a Nigerian family. I dedicated the house to him.
Little did we know that the five children who moved into that house would become a second family to me and all five would become students at Notre Dame.
By the late 1990s, Hank and Billye had begun to think of ways to make an even greater difference. I joined a small group of Hank’s closest friends and we gave life to an idea Hank and Billye had introduced to us regarding the support for young people who were intent on pursuing their dreams.
Hank often referred to the pursuit of his dream to become the greatest baseball player who ever played the game. Now he was in a position to make it possible for others to chase their dreams. The organization was called the Chasing the Dream Foundation. We set out to help 755 (his career home run total) children pursue possibilities in their lives that were not achievable without outside financial support.
Within a few years, we had raised enough money to support 755 children from the time they were 12 years old until they reached 18. Since then, Chasing the Dream has partnered with Major League Baseball and Boys and Girls Clubs of America to create two additional programs funded in perpetuity. One awards four-year scholarships to students, primarily former dream-chasers.
With all the wonderful work the foundation has accomplished, the event that still moves me the most was the night we introduced the initiative. We screened a documentary of the same name. My son Gregory, then 12 years old, asked if he could make our financial contribution to Hank in person. He stood up in front of the room and said, “I want to make this gift to my friend, Hank Aaron, and I want to thank him for helping me to grow up colorblind.” I cried.
Gregory would continue to draw on Hank’s friendship as he pursued his dream of attending Notre Dame. While it was necessary for Gregory to spend five years attending special-education schools, he never lost sight of his dream or the encouragement offered by his friend. In fact, one night Hank said, “Greg, if you ever make it to Notre Dame, you can count on me visiting you in your room.”
While in Washington attending the 50th anniversary of the landmark school desegregation decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education, I stood next to Gregory when he told Hank he needed to make plans to visit Notre Dame in the fall because he had been accepted to the University.
That great smile greeted the news with such enthusiasm; you could just feel the warmth and sincerity of the moment. As always, Hank was true to his word and joined Greg and 40 “roommates” who crammed into his room in Dillon Hall to meet his friend, Hank Aaron.
Two years later, Hank would stand in front of the Notre Dame family and receive an honorary degree for achievements on and off the playing field, a treasure he cherishes as much as any honor ever bestowed upon him. Of all the great accomplishments in his life, Henry often recounts the fact that he and Gregory now have degrees from the same institution.
Throughout these 27 years, Hank has gone on to become owner of five automobile dealerships and four restaurant brands. He has made it possible for many young men and women to become managers and owners of their own businesses. But he probably has no idea how much his partnership has meant to me.
I simply would not be the person I am today if it had not been for that handshake a lifetime ago. I have come to understand the true meaning of making and keeping promises and the enormous potential for partnership.
In my classroom, I remind my students that trust often seems to be a lost value and honor a seldom-practiced trait in our world. I’d like to think those who study at Notre Dame will not only learn the intricacies of their trade and the nuances of the different approaches to seek solutions to the great challenges of our day. I’d like to think they come to understand that a person needs to stand up and make a promise, fully intent on keeping it and being known for the capacity to be trusted. I believe this has the ability to set us apart. It carries with it the enormous potential of possibilities never imagined.
I started out simply wanting Hank to, figuratively, drive in one more run for me in a business sense. As partners in enterprise and in life, we ended up doing so much more. We changed each other’s games and lives, forever.