From the locker room to the board room, former athletes build small businesses

vbridges@newsobserver.comJanuary 27, 2014 

  • Battaglia video online

    Go to http://bit.ly/1filAaQ to watch Bates Battaglia talk about making the transition from hockey and reality TV star to business owner, and who he wants to win the Super Bowl.

— Shop Talk asked three former professional athletes what it takes to make it to the big time.

Their responses: hard work, consistency, focus, planning and team work.

Then we asked them what it takes to run a small business. Their responses were very similar.

Here are three stories of former professional athletes – using skills learned by becoming and competing against the athletic elite to build their own small businesses in the Triangle.

Work smarter – or harder

At Duke University, Wes Chesson became known for the shoestring play, but when he was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in 1971, he learned he would be living on a shoestring budget.

As a junior in the last football game of the 1969 season, Chesson and his teammates executed a play that took advantage of the Tar Heels not paying attention while in their defensive huddle. Quarterback Leo Hart pretended to tie his shoe as the Duke offensive line lined up for a sweep. The ball was flipped back to Chesson, who ran along the sideline for a touchdown and ultimate win.

As a starting wide receiver for the Falcons, Wesson’s initial annual salary was $15,000.

“I had to find a way to generate income during the offseason,” said Chesson, who lived in Durham and later Raleigh with his wife when he wasn’t playing football. “So I started in the insurance business.”

Chesson began selling credit insurance to banks in North Carolina during his first offseason and opened The Chesson Co. in Raleigh a year before retiring from the NFL in 1975. The firm employs four, including Chesson and his son, and buys, sells and services insurance for individuals and corporate clients.

Being in the NFL, Chesson said, helped open doors to potential clients, but it was up to him to close the deals.

“The main thing I learned was that hard work and focus and dedication are directly related to the end result that you obtain as both an athlete and as a businessperson,” Chesson said.

As an athlete, Chesson spent his free time working out, but as a businessman he spends it researching what is available, how pricing impacts his clients, and if it is an attractive investment.

“If I am not smarter than the guy I am competing against,” Chesson said. “I want to make sure I am outworking him.”

‘Like being a coach’

As much as Bates Battaglia would have liked to play professional hockey for the rest of his life, that wasn’t realistic. So, he invested in a business centered on something else that he loves – drinking beer.

“I retired at 37 years old, just sitting around doing nothing, I don’t know if I can handle that,” said Battaglia, 38, who opened Glenwood South bar Lucky B’s with a business partner in 2005. “So it keeps me busy and pays the bills at the same time.”

Bates played for the Carolina Hurricanes from 1997 until 2003, and helped the team reach the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002.

Battaglia had always thought about owning a restaurant and following in the footsteps of his father, Rich, who owned restaurants and bars in Chicago and other cities across the U.S.

So when the space at 609 Tucker St. in Raleigh’s Glenwood South became available, Battaglia and friend Mike Lombardo decided to open Lucky B’s, under the tagline the “classiest dive bar in town.”

For much of the past nine years, Battaglia’s dad covered for him while he was playing hockey and then off winning the reality show “The Amazing Race” with his brother Anthony.

“Now that I am retired, I’m trying to get a little more involved,” Bates Battaglia said of the bar.

For Battaglia, organization and preparation, habits he picked up playing hockey, have helped him run his business, he said. When he was a player, he had to be prepared for teams he was about to face. At the bar, he has to have shelves stocked on the weekend, and a plan to get customers to his bar on slow weeknights.

“You have got to know what you got, you have got to know your inventory, you have got to know who is working for you and what they are doing,” he said. “It’s almost like being a coach.”

No time to sulk

Determination, risk-taking, recovery and teamwork are important pieces in Terrence and Torry Holt’s formula for success in the commercial construction industry.

In 2007, the Holts, who both played football for N.C. State University and in the NFL, founded Holt Brothers Construction.

“Construction resonated with us because there is no field more suited to the teamwork to do a project,” said Terrence Holt, 33, president of the company. From estimators to project managers, everyone has to do their job so the project is completed on time and within budget, he said.

The brothers founded their company and absorbed Raleigh firm A & M Construction using their own capital. The move, Holt said, demonstrated their commitment and improved their positioning in the construction market.

“We have made investments in people, made investments in technology, and made investments with our time, talent and treasures to make this business, to validate this business and show that we’re more than guys that played in the National Football League,” Holt said.

The importance of strong leadership, teamwork and a general drive to be the best are all lessons learned from the NFL.

The right mix of younger employees versed in new technologies working with experienced construction veterans along with adequate communication and mentoring are also key to the process, Holt said.

Others lessons are as simple as when you fall, you have to get back up, Holt said. Small-business owners make mistakes, or lose a coveted bid.

“Sometimes things don’t go well. We can’t spend a lot of time sulking, worrying about that so much,” Holt said. “We have got to move onto the next project.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges

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