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Soul Proprietor: Jon Bon Jovi

What's a rock star doing running a football team? Being entrepreneurial, for starters. Business owner Jon Bon Jovi talks with Inc. magazine.
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Rock legends are usually known for hemorrhaging money on cocaine or being glad-handed into harebrained oil pipeline investments. Most of them are poster boys (and girls) for Suze Orman. Not Jon Bon Jovi, whose latest entrepreneurial adventure embodies an intuitive business savvy that has marked his entertainment career since his first album debuted in 1984. Since last fall, Jon has co-owned the Philadelphia Soul, an expansion team of the Arena Football League. He plunged into this venture not as an absentee owner, but as a passionate football fan and a successful marketer who guided his own career through the fever-chart topography of pop music, selling 100 million albums and counting. The Arena Football League has been struggling for legitimacy -- in the long and intimidating shadow of the NFL -- for 18 years. But recently, under the colorful leadership of commissioner David Baker, it has begun to grab some traction. There's an NBC network contract, and there's a clutch of owners who don't see themselves as B-list players: John Elway, Jerry Jones Jr., Casey Wasserman (grandson of the last true mogul Lew), and Bon Jovi himself. Bon Jovi and partner Craig Spencer, a local Philadelphia businessman, assembled a team from scratch and built an organizational culture within just a few months on learning they had won the franchise. The team hasn't been a hobby or an investment toy for either of them. Bon Jovi is intimately involved; I observed a meeting of the team's management where he knew the details and sweated the small stuff: Is there enough merchandise to sell? Where should the autograph tables be placed after the game? Bon Jovi named the team, created the mascot (the Soul Man), has a strong hand in designing the on-field events, and devotes a ton of his time to the enterprise. Today, the Philadelphia Soul is leading the AFL in ticket sales, advertising sales, and merchandising revenue. Bon Jovi also had a personal hand in selling advertising to national sponsors such as Samsung. And he works the local media, too, bringing players to local radio stations, guaranteeing airtime. Much of the team's commitment to the community and charity work springs directly from his vision.

As I looked into this story, though, what proved most compelling was Jon himself. The basic contours are well known -- a kid from Jersey who never lost touch with his roots, who is still married to his high school sweetheart after 15 years and has four children. But what emerged was a different dimension -- a thoughtful, self-aware global celebrity with a savvy sense of marketing and genuine leadership skill.

Creative people often fail dismally in business. They believe they are their own sole wellspring of ideas. They don't listen. They feel no obligation to cultivate people, so convinced are they that their magical endowments should inspire worship. Bon Jovi thrives in both worlds. I spoke with him at the New York City offices of Jon Bon Jovi Enterprises. He was relaxed, casual, unguarded. Not only was there no entourage, there were no handlers in the room. When I finished the interview, I was convinced that he is a genuine Inc.-style entrepreneur.

Why'd you call the team the Soul?

In order to succeed over the long haul -- no matter what business you're in -- you need to transcend all fads and fashions. I wanted a name that was timeless and classic. The Toronto Raptors are named after a dinosaur. They were popular during Jurassic Park, but now what? But anybody can have soul.

And how's the team doing so far?

On the field, not as good as I hoped. Too many heartbreaking losses. Off the field, it's fantastic. All our interim financials show we'll break even in our first year, which is just unheard of.

Is this about business or fun for you?

Both. Besides my passion for the game, I saw opportunity. The league didn't have a uniform deal, didn't have a merchandising deal. I saw how we could take this to Europe, to Japan, just as I did with my band.

It can't be just about the business opportunity though.

Maybe I'm crazy but my vision of this was hard work, dedication, and commitment to each other makes for a successful organization. I told our coach, Mike Trigg, when I hired him that we had a "no thug" rule. I want our guys going out into the community. Once, we found a guy was selling his T-shirt on eBay. He complained about his living quarters, said, "I don't room with nobody." So we said, you're right, you're not rooming with anybody. Get out.

Tell me about the famous missed-the-plane incident and how it influenced you as an owner.

In week two, I stayed overnight because we were taking the whole family with us. So I come out in the morning and see my captain and my star d-back sitting on the curb. They missed the plane. They were so upset by the loss that they stayed out late and overslept.

I had two choices: leave them on the curb or take them home. It was a tough decision -- going against my own rules. But I didn't know enough about who these men are. They were so good in camp. So I said fly home with me. In retrospect, I gave them a reward. But it gave me a couple of hours to talk to them about what the AFL was about, what their histories were, what was going on in their lives.

So they were on Bon Jovi's plane for a mile-high gripe session. What did you learn?

I didn't know that our team members were told to take their own cars to the airport and meet there. What happens if you get a flat tire? I didn't know that we didn't have uniform duffle bags so all 24 guys walking into the airport would look like a professional sports team -- not a gang. I didn't know they were given a per diem to go out and eat a meal.

I said to myself, starting tomorrow I don't care that it costs more money, we're going to take a bus everywhere. Have team meals on the night before the game, team meals after the game. Curfews Sunday night after the game, and everyone back home in bed.

"I saw opportunity. We could take this to Japan, Europe, like the band."

You also checked with other owners?

I didn't just make this up. I called Bill Belichick [the coach of the New England Patriots]. I called everyone I knew in the NFL and said give me input. And the team was so grateful because now when they walk into an airport they're all in jacket and tie, carrying those bags, having a lot of pride.

You acted like a CEO very much in touch with reality. Is that one of your management secrets?

It's very easy to be George Bush Sr. and go into the supermarket and not know they have scanners because it's easy to be unattached from everyday life. And that's what too many people in business do, in entertainment do, in politics do, and they forget what's out the window.

How do you reconcile the need for control with the need to share power?

I think it's important to go into the Soul offices and meet people and talk to them. The girl that works at our front desk came up with a radio spot, and I made sure I sent her an e-mail thanking her because it was a great creative spot and I appreciated her going beyond answering the phones. I said I know you're only an intern, I saw the initiative, and I'm making sure everyone is going to know that you did it and thank you.

You don't believe in a lot of overhead, do you?

Jon Bon Jovi Enterprises is lean and mean. I've got just two people here [gesturing at his Manhattan offices]. I've been self-managed for 12 years now. I had a creative falling out with my manager at the time, and the options were to go to another big management company -- and be a part of the puzzle -- or create my own. Twenty percent was just going out the window for something that wasn't necessary.

So it was like starting your own business -- with yourself as a client.

My record deal was done. CAA was booking the tour. I just had to handle the creative and continue my relationships with the record company; I've been with the same record company for 20 years.

Sometimes I've found that CEOs and people passionately engaged in their business need to step back and secure a fresh perspective. You did that with your band, didn't you?

"I called everyone I knew in the NFL and said give me input."

We had four albums from '84 through '90, two of which were a couple of the biggest rock records ever -- Slippery When Wet and New Jersey. We were overworked. When bands implode, the truth is that the machine is revving so hot, no one is thinking what these kids are dealing with. They're thrust into being the heads of corporations, and they're just guys in a garage with a guitar. Ask Guns N' Roses.

What was your solution?

I encouraged all the guys in the band to find other outlets -- anything -- so that they could bring information back to the fold that would give us something to write about. I wanted to grow as an individual. When we got back together two years later, in '92 -- although we had never broken up -- it was with a whole lot of information times five. All of those things added up to our reinventing ourselves with a record called Keep the Faith when all our peers were being pushed to the wayside.

Rob Light, your agent, told me you are the only artist from your generation who "came out the other side" when grunge transformed rock.

That's when all these different managers said it's over for this style of music, it's over for this band. And I said to myself this is the exciting part, it's just the beginning. I asked the band to trust in me, and said that if they believed in the vision we could be bigger than ever.

You also went to Europe and toured there. Then It's My Life got you back into the pop marketplace; it was wise as a business and aesthetic strategy.

We've been in and out many times. When radio wasn't that open-armed to us, we went and found where to go. We took it to places where it wasn't what you would expect, such as Europe and Asia.

I've spoken to a lot of people about you, and they all say you are what you are. Authenticity matters in any business -- your customers know when you're faking it.

I'm not trying to be the 18-year-old new kid. And I'm not hanging out with Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen and pretending I'm an old guy. I'm just me. Every time I release a song I know I may have to sing it in 20 years, so therefore I better be happy with it, really happy with it, and not do it just because it's going to be a hit.

There's a story that you once took some tracks to a pizza parlor and did a focus group with kids.

We were making demos for what was our third album in Sayreville, N.J. -- my hometown -- in a little demo studio. The game of telephone makes it sound like I was so smart to poll these people. But the truth is that I went around the corner to have a pizza, and a bunch of kids were in there, and they said we know you guys, you made two records, blah, blah, blah. So we invited a dozen of them back, and their reaction to various songs helped influence the decision-making.

You're in a creative business. What do you think of change?

My new saying is, I love progress but hate change. That's why I have the same wife, the same band, the same guys working for me, the same everything. I don't hang out with the Hollywood clique. No yes men. Can't do it. Don't have time for it. Seen through it.

Do you have a role model?

Frank Sinatra. He's the guy I aspire to be half as cool as for half as long. Frank did 60 movies, toured till he was 80, got a President elected. That's who I want to be.

You've had a few disappointments in Hollywood and elsewhere. How have they affected you?

Go and get rejected on a movie set. Have failures because it strengthens you as an individual. The diversity that is part of my career has been great to help me learn about who I am and where I want to go.

That's part of the puzzle of who I am. That humility that comes from the movie business has added an increased depth to what the band is, what I am as a person. You'll have to trust me on this, but it would be easy as a successful musician to start to believe the hype. I

Adam Hanft, of consulting, advertising, and publishing firm Hanft Unlimited Inc., writes the Grist column for Inc.

Last updated: Jul 1, 2004




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