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Chapter 1: The Secret of Success
Most of all, I remember the energy, the euphoric, heartbeat-in-your-throat adrenaline rush of being atop the Mount Olympus of American sports. Today, the experience recurs as an unforgettable dream. It's January 1995, and I'm riding in a police-escorted motorcade snaking toward Joe Robbie Stadium through the teeming streets of Miami. My team, the San Diego Chargers, the NFL's perpetual underdogs, shocked the sports world by beating the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers at the end of the 1994 season to face the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX. All week long I've been as excited as a little boy. Throat raw from screaming, hands cramped from shaking, face frozen in an ear-to-ear grin, I'm surrounded by everyone I've ever loved: my wife, my four kids, my entire extended family, and friends, all of us cruising through sunny streets lined with cheering fans, a mass of humanity melding into a single overwhelming scream.
The energy is a wave, and riding it is simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. It propels me through a week of endless interviews, appearances, rallies, and parties, all lit by blinding TV cameras and played to a soundtrack of infinite voices of congratulations. The energy rises, ratcheting higher and higher until the Big Game, when 75,000 fans pack the stadium, singing the national anthem, cheering the kickoff, and...I won't bore you with the play-by-play. It took a while for the reality to sink in that we didn't win the Super Bowl. Our return to San Diego was anything but that of a defeated team: 200,000 ecstatic Charger fans clogged the streets to welcome us back in spite of our loss.
You can get hooked on this energy, this life force of victory. One taste and you long for it forever. When I finally crash back down to earth, I'm left with two questions: How did we get to the Super Bowl, and, of course, how can we get back again?
To comprehend fully the significance of our 1995 Super Bowl appearance, you have to go back a decade to the morning of August 3, 1984, the day I purchased majority interest in the San Diego Chargers. Buying a team was the realization of a lifelong dream. It was supposed to be the crowning achievement of fifty years of hard work. Little did I know that, at sixty, I was going to have to prove myself all over again.
The newspaper sports sections all asked the same question: Who is Alex Spanos?
As my family and I flew to a press conference in San Diego from our home in the small farm town of Stockton, California, the media painted me as a phantom, an unknown, an enigma covered in question marks. Being thrust into the sports headlines was new to me. Yes, I was well known in the business world as the number one builder of apartments in America. But I was absolutely unprepared for the frenzy that awaited me in San Diego. Both the fans and the media wanted to know who I was -- but, I would soon discover, for one reason and one reason only. They wanted to know if I had the stuff of champions, the magic of miracles, the ability to make the down-and-out Chargers win.
I had built my reputation in the construction and development business. But there's little glamour, publicity, or fame in construction. Builders aren't typically nationally known, except amongst their peers. My construction business represents ten or twenty times what I'll ever invest in football. But from the moment I bought the Chargers, I would become forever known as the owner of that NFL franchise.
A winner or a loser.
In my mind, I was, of course, a winner. But lately, I'd been missing the battle. Maybe things had become too easy, too normal, too safe. Maybe I yearned for a long-shot challenge, instead of the steady but sure work that my construction and development business had become. Maybe I longed once again to tap into that capacity that we all have within us for a come-from-behind victory when everyone has counted us out. I'd been there many times in my life. Maybe I needed to return there now. I've always said that the day when I'm satisfied with myself is the day they can bury me. And I certainly wasn't ready for that.
So as the jet took off toward San Diego for my first press conference, I was returning to the big game hunt that has occupied my entire life: the hunt for victory. The sportswriters wanted to reduce me to sound bites, something quick and easy for the public to digest. More than anything, they wanted to know the secret of my success and to assure the fans that I could transfer that success to the San Diego Chargers, who, in that summer of 1984, were sunk into the basement with six wins and ten losses.
Who is Alex Spanos?
What could I tell them? I had exceeded my wildest dreams in my business, raised four happy and healthy children, and been blessed with a long-lasting, soul-sustaining marriage with the love of my life, Faye.
We run a family business, a private company, reporting only to ourselves. We have no bureaucracy. Overhead is cut to the bone. In all my years in business I've never once worn a tie to the office. That independence has been a hallmark of our success. But now, flying out of the hometown where I was born and raised, surrounded by my wife, children, and grandchildren, I was leaving a world I knew and entering a world where I knew little. I was flying into an arena where I'd have to pass the ball to a team: managers, coaches, and players, none of whom I had ever met and all upon whom I'd have to rely. I was flying into a world where my performance would be gauged not by a balance sheet but by a scoreboard.
I've loved sports ever since I was a kid in Stockton, but my three brothers and I never got to play. We were too busy working at our father's lunch counter and bakery on Stockton's old Skid Row. Dad was a Greek from the old school, an immigrant named Constantinos "Gus" Spanos. From the time I was eight years old, I was expected to get up at four in the morning with my brothers and bake the day's supply of bread and pastry for four hours before going to school.
We were scared to death of Dad. He never once hugged us as boys or congratulated us as men. There was rarely a day that he didn't discipline us for some reason. Of course, in those days corporal punishment was not considered abuse. It was an accepted way of life in many families. "Spare the rod and spoil the child," they'd say. My dad was a big believer in the rod. He believed that a whipping could say more than any words he could speak. He'd take a small branch off a tree and strip the leaves and whack us right on the legs. To him, work was the only virtue, and time spent in sports was foolish.
When I made my fortune, I sponsored sports teams for kids across northern California, providing everything from new uniforms to new stadiums, so they wouldn't miss out on sports as I had. In the midsixties, I got my first taste of professional sports when, along with a group including the singer Pat Boone, I became involved with an Oakland branch of the fledgling American Basketball Association. The league didn't survive. But a path lit up before me, leading straight to the top of the professional sports world: the NFL.
I was too old to throw a football and much too manic to sit idly in the grandstands. I had but one option: I had to own a team. I started shopping around. Like everyone in Stockton, I was a San Francisco 49er fan. But the 49ers weren't for sale. So I made a bid for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1974. I was too late. A Florida-based attorney snagged the team. Then, in 1977, Al Davis, the outspoken, maverick owner of the Oakland Raiders, called me. He had been commissioned by San Francisco's Morabito family to help sell the San Francisco 49ers. Was I interested? Interested? Hell, yes! I offered $12 million. But the price quickly escalated to $18 million. Al gave me a 5 p.m. deadline on a Friday. I thought about it: Who's going to pay $18 million for a losing team that made a profit of only $100,000 that year? Thinking that no one would pay $18 million, I stuck to my original price. At 5:30 p.m. that Friday, thirty minutes after my deadline, the 49ers held a press conference: the DeBartolo family of Youngstown, Ohio, had bought the 49ers for $18 million. I'd lost out again.
I was like a fisherman who had briefly hooked a marlin only to have it spit the hook in my face. I became obsessed. Nothing could deter me from my dream. I could have bought the Oakland A's baseball team in 1978 for $8.2 million. But I wasn't interested in baseball. I had a chance to get into the newly formed U.S. Football League cheap, but, fixated on the NFL, I passed.
Then, through my friend Barron Hilton, I finally got a shot at the San Diego Chargers. The majority owner, Gene Klein, was having a rough year: the Chargers had been plagued by a fifty-seven-day player strike, widespread player drug problems, and several years of losing. After he'd suffered two heart attacks, Klein's doctors encouraged him to sell the team.
Friends and family tried to talk me out of buying the Chargers. Would I listen? Of course not. I wouldn't even be swayed by the members of my own executive board, who voted 10 to 2 against buying the ball club. I stood up in my boardroom, right in front of my four kids, my CPA of thirty-four years, and my attorney, and said, "I know I'm going against what I taught you about never investing a dollar unless you can get a good return. But I want this more than you can believe. I'm sorry. For the first time, I'm overruling all of you. When you get to be sixty, you'll know why I'm doing this."
I realized I was falling into the cliché of the successful businessman going crazy over the dream of running a sports team. But I hungered for one last challenge, one ultimate test. So, not believing in taking on debt, I paid $40 million cash. Then I flew south to San Diego. I was on yet another mission, a mission that, in many ways, I'd been on my entire life: to turn a loser into a winner.
I'd never once failed to accomplish exactly what I'd set out to do.
How hard could this be?
Touchdown in San Diego. Down went the landing gear, out came the stairs, and I stepped into a different world. The small crowd of fans at the airport and the members of the media at the team's training facility all looked at me for some word of wisdom, something that would raise their hopes of victory.
The first question from the media was something like, "Why do you want to own a sports franchise?" I told them that I'd never had the opportunity to play sports when I was a kid, and it had been my lifelong desire to own an NFL team. I told them that I had vowed to own an NFL team by the age of sixty. I rambled on about my business and my background and my dreams. As I spoke, I watched the faces of my audience. Absolute boredom. It didn't take me long to discover that they cared about my background for one reason and one reason only. They wanted to know if I had the stuff to make us win.
"When will we win?" they soon seemed to be shouting in a chorus.
Or more specifically: "How long do you think it'll take to get to the Super Bowl?"
I got swept up in their enthusiasm. I knew a little bit about show business from my friend Bob Hope. We eventually appeared together in a song-and-dance routine at charity events everywhere from San Francisco to Las Vegas to Moscow. We even performed on stage together at a special charity event held at Carnegie Hall.
"When Alex was born," Hope would tell audiences, "the doctor slapped him, and Alex said, 'Would you like to rent an apartment?'"
"When Alex plays golf, if he loses the ball, he doesn't even bother to look for it," he would say on another stage.
"He figures he'll just buy the property and find the ball while building apartments."
"Alex must be going to the moon," Bob said when he saw the A. G. Spanos Jet Center in Stockton. "He's bought all the real estate down here."
I learned more than dancing from Bob; I learned that when you're on stage, you perform.
So that's what I finally did in that first press conference. I performed.
"How long do you think it'll take us to get to the Super Bowl?" one sportswriter asked me.
I considered the question for a moment. I'd steered my entire life by five-year plans. Not once in thirty-five years of business had I ever failed to reach one of my five-year goals early. Granted, I didn't know anything about running an NFL team. But so what? I didn't know anything about construction when I started building apartments, but I became the number one builder of apartments in America. I didn't know anything about golf when I began playing the game, but I became a top-ranked amateur. I didn't know anything about dancing before Bob Hope taught me how to dance, but I ended up getting curtain calls at Carnegie Hall. How could getting to a Super Bowl be any different from achieving any of my other five-year goals? How can a Super Bowl be that big a thing? I didn't think. I performed. I made a statement that would immediately replace the Who is Alex Spanos? headlines.
"We'll spend whatever it takes for productive personnel," I said, "and, within five years, deliver a Super Bowl to Chargers fans."
Bam! That got 'em. My ears are still ringing. What enthusiasm! What energy! Oh, man, they were actually applauding. They figured I was going to come in and make things happen. I told 'em what they wanted to hear. I made a commitment, before I realized what professional football was all about. Maybe I was subconsciously trying to put myself and my team into that place where, I knew, victory lives-that place where the deadline clock is always ticking and where men and women rise to heights unimagined. I truly believed in my heart that we could build up the team and make it to the Super Bowl in five years.
But I was wrong. We wouldn't have even a winning season until 1987, and then we'd only scrape by with eight wins and seven losses. Then we began losing again...and losing, and losing. I couldn't cope with it; losing was a new and terrifying experience for me. Some Monday mornings, I'd shut the door to my office at the Chargers headquarters and actually cry. Other times, rage would overcome me. I'd come out of my office, charging. The coaches called me a "live volcano." They said they'd hear me coming into the office before they'd see me. But behind the bluster, I was suffering, becoming clinically depressed. I couldn't understand what I was doing wrong!
The press lambasted me almost daily. I didn't dare walk the streets of San Diego. Did they weigh my business success against my football losses? Not for a minute. Few fans even seemed to know I was in another business besides football. The San Diego Chargers became my image, my identification. And for eight years, all I did was lose.
Even Bob Hope began using me as a punch line.
"There goes Alex Spanos, owner of the San Diego Chargers," he'd say on stage. "The Chargers will win the Super Bowl next year-[pause to register audience disbelief]-and Joan Collins will become Mother Superior."
The worst day of my life came on the football field when the fans actually booed me. It was during a 1988 loss to the 49ers. We were down 48-10 and I was on the field praising quarterback Dan Fouts during a ceremony to retire his number. Boos began shaking the stadium. It was a moment of misery like I'd never experienced before. Afterwards, dejection hung over me for days.
My family encouraged me to sell the Chargers.
But I was stubborn in my refusals.
"I won't sell a losing ball club," I said.
Then it happened: we finally began winning. With our backs against the wall, with everybody counting us out, as the underdogs in a stadium packed with fans that despised us, we won. The road to redemption was tough, but on January 15, 1995, we achieved the impossible. We faced the 11-5 Pittsburgh Steelers on their home turf in the AFC Championship Game...and won. The media, the odds-makers, and even most fans predicted that we wouldn't score a single point. But we bounced back from a halftime deficit of 10-3, and overcame a stadium full of frenzied Steelers fans, to win a slot in the 1995 Super Bowl.
For the first time in the history of the team, the Chargers were going to the Super Bowl. What a moment! The Chargers' lightning bolt logo electrified San Diego. Yes, it was five years beyond my prediction, and, yes, we would lose that Super Bowl. But suddenly people didn't just concentrate on our failures. Suddenly, I was hailed as a hero on the fields where I was once booed.
So who is Alex Spanos, and what is the secret of his success? As my first press conference after buying the Chargers illustrates, life can't be reduced to a headline and you can't sum up success in a sound bite. So let me explain it with a story . . .
I stood on the border between mediocrity and success with only a thin wooden doorway dividing the two extremes. Mediocrity ruled the side of the door where I was standing: the basement of my Greek immigrant father's tiny bakery, where I worked hard at the ovens for $40 a week, fifteen hours a day, seven days a week. It was a world where I was safe, secure-and slowly dying. The other side of the door, where I would eventually find success, did not offer a welcome mat. It was a dark, uncertain, forbidding place, which, for a dead-broke twenty-seven-year-old baker with a wife and child and a second baby on the way, seemed much scarier than staying chained to the basement where I stood.
I had no guarantee that walking out of that bakery would lead me anywhere. But I would quickly discover that that pivotal step would place me in a new world where success, through hard work, was at least a possibility. One thing was for certain: if I stayed in that basement, I would be sentencing myself and my family to an absolutely ordinary life: work, struggle, retire, die. Just another guy buried beneath an epitaph of excuses.
All I had to do to step from one world into the other was open the door and walk! But for a moment I stood frozen. I am the son of a family of hardworking Greek immigrants, the spiritual descendant of millions who abandoned meager existences around the world to sail off to America, leaving behind everything they knew for a shot at what they could become. But the passageway out of that flour-clouded basement seemed as wide as any ocean. In writing this book, I kept returning to a singular question: Why me? Why did I become successful? I had nothing in the way of money, background, education, or connections. Eventually, I realized that the answer could be found in the place where I began my journey almost fifty years ago; the secret of my success stood squarely in that bakery's basement door. It was the type of door that I would walk through again and again and again in my life, each passage taking me one step closer to the place where I now stand. I knew nothing about the worlds on the other sides of these doors before I walked through them. I knew nothing about the fields that I would eventually enter-catering, construction, and, finally, football-before I walked through the passageways and began to learn what lay behind them.
So there I was, the lanky bakery boy in the flour-dusted apron, spending fifteen hours each and every day running an endless assembly line of doughnuts, cakes, pies, turnovers, and butter horns. I was sweating not only because of the heat of the ovens but also because of the even hotter temper of my dad.
The only thing that distinguished me from a million other dead-broke bakers was desire. I not only wanted more, I desperately needed more. Not much more-only $210 to be precise. That was the amount it would take to let my wife, Faye, check into the hospital for the delivery of our second child. Considering that the baby was due in six weeks, I figured a $35-a-week raise would get me by. I had every right to demand $75 a week from my dad. The union wage for a baker of my caliber was $125 a week, and that was for working six days a week, instead of seven. In that basement bakery, I'd spent months rehearsing how I'd ask my father for a raise. I braced myself for a fight. Five-feet-seven- inches tall, Dad could be a kettle of screaming anger. His name was Constantinos Spanos, although he later had his name legally changed to Gus. Just like a million other immigrants, he'd left behind his family of sixteen siblings, and everything else he knew in his tiny Greek village of Naziri, to come to America. He was twenty when he first glimpsed the Statue of Liberty from a ship on the morning of September 17, 1912. He became a butcher in South San Francisco before finally accepting a job in a cousin's restaurant in a small farming town called Stockton in the heart of northern California's lush San Joaquin Valley.
Dad firmly believed that all of his sons should get a college degree. My three brothers followed the family plan. My brother George became a lawyer and could do no wrong in my father's eyes. I could do nothing right. Things started out all right. I was sent to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, and later the College of the Pacific in Stockton, to become an engineer. I enjoyed life, lettered in swimming and diving, worked as a baker in the student cafeteria, and was on my way to earning that lofty engineering degree that my dad had preordained for me. World War II interrupted my plans. I became a sergeant in the air force. I returned home to Stockton with my lovely wife, Faye, who would become the bedrock of my world. I did everything right-except returning to school to get my college degree after serving in the military. School just didn't interest me. So with no job prospects in sight, I accepted my dad's offer to become a partner in his lunch counter and bakery. Three years passed. The promised partnership never materialized. I was still working at the ovens for $40 a week. Dad never communicated with me; he only complained.
Once, I'd been his favorite son. Now, he considered me a bum. He had sent me to college to become an engineer, and I'd come back empty-handed. He thought I was no better than he was. In his mind, I deserved to be working alongside him for low wages.
Finally, one afternoon, fixated on the $210 I knew I needed to get my wife into the hospital to have our second child, I mustered the nerve to ask Dad for a raise. He didn't say a word, just waved me away as if swatting a pesky fly. The next morning, after discussing the situation with Faye, I gave my father my two weeks' notice. Two weeks after that, I walked out of the Roma Lunch and Bakery, and I never looked back. Looking back on that incident now, recalling the scene without the veil of anger, I can see that my father planted the seed of my motivation, a seed that would rapidly grow. I literally had to succeed. I had to show my father, my family, my community that I was more than everyone expected me to be. I had to show them that I was capable of success in the only way success is measured: by achievement.
I placed a bet on the table with the only currency I had: I bet my life that I would succeed. I knew that the outside world beyond that basement door must be better than staying in that basement. I shut the door on my past and vowed that I would rather pull out a gun and blow my brains out than go back to the place I was fleeing. I stood outside that bakery and tasted my first breath of freedom. I was technically an unemployed baker. But in my mind I was a king.
My first order of business? Sheer survival. You have to begin with what you have. But what did I have to begin with? What did I have to sell? Few people started with less than I did.
I began with the cheapest commodity available.
I began with bologna.
These days, when people who don't know me ask, "Who is Alex Spanos?" I answer that I am a man who has lived to see his dreams fulfilled. I am undoubtedly a lucky man-lucky to have a healthy and harmonious family, lucky to see a lifetime of work pay off in success beyond my wildest dreams.
For the past ten years, I have considered writing this book, but I didn't undertake it until, in the midst of the Chargers' losses, I experienced a form of mental depression during which I would reminisce with an overwhelming, unbearable sadness about the bittersweet years of growing up in a large and boisterous family of Greek immigrants. I would wake up every morning to begin a day of nonstop business activities, and all I could think about were those early years. I would think of my father and my mother, and I would think of my brothers and how hard life had been for us growing up. I would find myself trying to make sense of why everyone's life had turned out the way it did. Most of all, a single question would repeat itself endlessly in my mind: Why did I succeed? What did I do so differently from the others in my family, my neighborhood, my hometown?
I kept coming back to my father, who taught us to follow his fierce work ethic through a practical method: from childhood, all of us had to work in the family business. My brothers and I would rise at 4 a.m. and put in three or four hours of work before school, every single day of the week, all through elementary and high school. We worked away our childhood years under our father's watchful eye. He kept us bound by the old country traditions and his abiding belief that only hard work shapes character.
Since then and throughout my life, I have kept pretty much the same schedule. Old habits do indeed die hard! My day still starts at 5 a.m., only now I'm making deals, not baking doughnuts. But the work ethic is still the same. Looking back, I have come to realize that hard work became an inseparable part of who I was and who I am today. In the beginning, I worked to escape my father's domination; later, when I got married, I worked to support my own growing family. What had started out as an unbearable yoke during my childhood eventually turned out to be a blessing, as the work ethic my father instilled led me to more and more profitable business ventures.
I owe what I am today to my father. He was my sole motivating force to become successful. If not for him, maybe I would not have expected and exacted such results from myself. When I left his bakery to make it on my own, I felt compelled to prove myself to Dad: that I was better than he believed me to be. Sadly, he never told me that he was proud of me, no matter my accomplishments. Until the day he died, in 1976, he never acknowledged my success to me. My father could never admit when he was wrong. He never forgave me for leaving his employ, and although I clearly understood that side of him, I could not help feeling hurt. As I grew older and wiser, that sharp, nagging need for his approval lost its edge, but it remains with me today. Whenever I think about him, which is often these days, a sense of loss and regret steals over my heart.
After I disappointed my dad by dropping out of college, he transferred all his affection to my brother George, who had done everything Dad had ever asked of him. George had always been the dutiful son. When he married and had his own family, he was a true family man, ever ready to make compromises for the sake of the family unit. When I think about the hardships we went through as kids, I always think of George and how well he bore it. He doesn't like to talk about the past, and every time I bring it up I see how he winces, as if to tell me, "Please, let's not talk about it, Alex." George has made his peace with the past; it's his way of being loyal to Mom and Dad. But unlike him, I want to remember. Because I can never forget.
I made my fortune in the small farming town where I was born. Stockton, California, in the heart of the lush San Joaquin Valley, served for most people as a stopover on the way to somewhere else. Back in 1955, Stockton had a population of 75,000. Today, it has grown to more than 250,000. I still maintain my corporate headquarters in Stockton. Living in Stockton makes me remember who I am and where I came from. A day does not pass when I don't reflect on my beginnings.
Until recently, when people sought my advice on achieving success, I replied intellectually. "Success has three key elements: vision, desire, and instinct," I would say. "The vision to know what one wants; the desire to see it accomplished; and the instinct that serves as a compass for making the right decisions at the right time." But in writing this book, I learned there is more to success than that seemingly simple formula. Opportunities are as abundant today as they were when I was growing up. Dreams can still come true; the impossible can still occur. But complacency and a hundred other demons of distraction can blind you to the opportunities that stand ever ready to propel you forward.
In writing this book, I learned that the secrets of success can be shown only by sharing: openly, honestly, and analytically. Sharing the strategies, the knowledge, the insights, the wisdom, and the stories of success. Throughout my life I have tried to give back to my community and my world, but these were mostly financial contributions to noble and needy causes, charities, and individuals. In sharing the stories of my success, I hope to pass on an intellectual legacy for others to follow in creating their own success story. This is what I mean by the title, Sharing the Wealth.
Because while success cannot be summed up in a sound bite, it can be explained in a story. Every success has its own story, and my story started when my father left his family home in Greece and landed on the shores of Ellis Island.
That was the beginning.