Legends in Business Q&A

Julius Erving retired from professional basketball in 1987 and has since divided his time between entrepreneurial projects and community service efforts. Most visibly, Erving is the president of The Erving Group, a private investment company. He also serves on the Board of Directors for several companies including Saks, Inc. and Fusion Telecommunications.

NBA.com recently interviewed Julius Erving to learn about some of his highlights and challenges both on the court and in the business world.

1) You are clearly a leader in business, just as you were on the basketball court. One of the greatest challenges in leading a successful business is bringing together individuals of different personalities and backgrounds, and using those diverse resources to take a business to the next level. How have you been successful in accomplishing this?

For me I think the transition from sports person to business person was a natural one. When I went to college, I enrolled in the business school at UMASS, took a lot of courses before leaving school after my junior year and then went back and finished and got my degree in a program called University Without Walls. I studied management/marketing and always had a feeling and a desire to be in the business world. As it turned out, my area of expertise or good fortune came more in the MnA area, mergers and acquisitions. Being able to get an equity play in the Coca-Cola bottling company, Queens City Broadcasting, Garden State Cable, and companies in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey allowed me to get a foothold in the Northeast which is where I was born and raised and chose to spend many of the years of my life after my basketball career. The teams that I played for, the New York Nets when they were in Long Island and the Philadelphia 76ers, also made that a natural avenue for me because of the platform that I got from my sports career.

2) You serve on the Board of Directors for several companies, including Converse, Darden Restaurants, Inc., Saks Incorporated, and The Sports Authority. In these roles, how are you able to influence the decisions these companies make to ensure they are inclusive/diverse workplaces?

I am on two boards. One is a technology company and the other is a retail company. I have been with the retail company eight years and in retail I think I am not really trying to be there to influence fashion. Iím probably there in terms of governance and relativity to the sports marketplace more so than the general marketplace. If you are one of twelve directors, then it is one person, one vote. I like to speak up when I have something to say. I donít try to look at it as a full time job. I look at it as a full time responsibility because you have a fiduciary responsibility to represent the publicís dollars with your input. I am not the ultimate decision maker for either of the businesses, but the role is a very healthy one. Itís one where you get to probably learn more than you teach and Iíve learned more about retail and certainly more about technology by being on these two boards than I probably could ever teach. The stuff that I have gone through with my life experiences always allow me to offer a little something.

3) You control ownership shares of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Philadelphia which is the U.S.ís third-largest African American owned firm (source: phillycoke.com). What tips would you give to an entrepreneur looking to start a minority owned business in the United States?

We sold out of that company and I would say that during our tenure there for over 20 years, there is a degree of luck involved, but itís not all luck. I think one of the things I could share is that once it was identified that my partners and I wanted to get into the beverage business, we actually pooled money and literally we waited seven years, from 1978 to 1985, before the opportunity came about. We were patient during that time and we said when it comes, we want everyone to be ready to make it happen. And it was a seven year wait Ė from age 28 to age 35 Ė before that happened. Fortunately for me, I was playing basketball during that time and was able to get in two years before retiring Ė I retired from basketball at age 37. I think you have to put patience out there and then diligence in terms of going through the process of finding out what it is that you are looking for, where it exists and how to get in. If itís something that is very special, maybe there is no easy answer and maybe it does take waiting a while to get in. And I am sure for Dave Bing with the steel business, it wasnít something that happened overnight. It was probably something that he was doing and messing around with in the offseason. Then he saw the ability to own a piece and ended up going the whole thing. So there was a process that took time. It does take patience. We do live in the MTV generation of, I need it now, let me have it yesterday. But if you go back, the Ď70s and Ď80s werenít like that. Some of the icons of today are people who did establish themselves probably in the 1990s and a lot of things have changed since the 1990s. In sports, the economics became astounding. That is why you have so many guys making five and six million dollars sitting on the end of the bench, not even getting to play.

4) During your years of playing basketball there was a great rivalry between the Sixers and the Celtics. How would you describe that competitive environment? Are there parallels between that competitive environment and those in which your companies participate today?

Very much so. Boston-Philly is kind of like Coke and Pepsi or Saks and Neiman. I donít deal with Pepsi products because Iím a Coke guy and I donít go to Neeman Marcus because Iím a Saks guy. And I donít cheer for Boston because of Philly. That is the simple scenario. Going a little deeper than that, I think there is a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual component to the makeup of a person. In sports, you are burdened sometimes by what you can do physically because many times people donít look at you, your mind, your emotions and your spirituality. They tend to judge you by what you are able to accomplish physically. But when you transition away from that physically centered arena, it is a totally different game. Your mind now is front and center. How you think, how you process information and the decisions you make that affect you and the company and others is how you get judged. It is always healthy if all along during the process while you are in the world of sport, you donít allow yourself to just be viewed physically and you continue to develop yourself in a parallel way mentally, emotionally and spiritually as well as using your physical gifts. Youíre going to be better because youíre going to be more of a complete package as a person. That has to occur simultaneous to your playing, so I think the guys who have made the better transition and who are having more successful business lives have been doing it part time. They had offices set up. They had corporations set up. They had foundations set up, holding companies set up and they were learning the game while they were still performing. Great examples are Dave Bing, Clyde Drexler, and Dominique Wilkins. So that transition is less than a major transition, less of a challenge, and something that flows naturally.

5) What were the most defining moments in your basketball and business careers?

A defining moment in my basketball career was the transition from ABA to NBA, the five years I spent in the ABA. Itís odd how it sometimes gets treated. There are some people who choose to act like it never existed, while others choose to make it seem like it was amateur basketball, and still others look at it for what it is. The challenge for competition, ABA versus NBA, was hot and heavy. Some guys were ABA and some guys were NBA, but they were guys coming out of colleges across the country after competing against each other and just making a decision as to which way to go. It was very individualized and, no special caveats for me, but I was being recruited by the Virginia Squires. I signed a contract with them and thatís where I went to play. Thatís where I ceased being an amateur commenced becoming a pro. That was a big decision. There were two decisions actually Ė one was leaving school early and the other was starting my professional life. It fortunately allowed me to be there for 16 straight years. Defining moment business wise, I think the Coca-Cola opportunity outweighs everything. Being a partner with Philadelphia Coke bottling and waiting for it to happen with Bill Russell and Bill Cosby was significant to me. I was the younger of the three and here we were, making moves and doing something very groundbreaking for African Americans.