Sunday, May 26, 2024

The big fall for top cat Jerry Richardson

Photo courtesy of Panthers/Mark Olencki

Leadership is this issue’s theme, prompting lots of thinking about the subject. In the process, I considered Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who has drawn massive attention since a December Sports Illustrated report about alleged workplace misconduct.

For decades, the Nash County native ranked among our state’s most esteemed leaders. The Charlotte Regional Partnership named its annual economic-development award after him and former airport director Jerry Orr. Richardson, 81, has been a business success with a franchise that will sell for more than $2 billion — his family owns more half of the equity.

But what about his leadership style? It’s hard to evaluate a public figure who hasn’t held a press conference in years and rarely grants media interviews. Meanwhile, the NFL’s profile and financial prowess expanded exponentially during his tenure. Rabid Panther fans invested more than $50 million for stadium financing and spend millions annually for Sunday entertainment.

It’s a different approach than the CEO I remember interviewing in Spartanburg for a story decades ago, before his Panther days. His company owned more than 2,200 Denny’s, Hardee’s and other restaurants. After chatting, we bypassed his own stores and enjoyed The Beacon Drive-In, a landmark burger-and-fries joint. I remember a gruff, no-nonsense executive who was struggling to revive his company, which was slammed by a $1.7 billion leveraged buyout in 1989 that contributed to losses in five of the next six years. Richardson, then 58, left in May 1995 to focus on a much more lucrative pursuit.

Abraham Lincoln said “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” To be sure, no one has the moral authority to judge another person’s character. Richardson helped attract the most prestigious sports league to North Carolina, became an influential NFL owner and made many little-publicized contributions. While making lots of tough personnel decisions, he’s employed only two head coaches since 2002. Many fans, players and others revere his impact.

But leadership has an ephemeral nature. Examples of powerful male leaders abusing their authority around women or people of other ethnicities, simmering under the surface forever, blew up in the last year. While adding Richardson’s name to that list is heart-wrenching, signs of hubris were evident.
After winning the conference championship in 1996, Richardson told a few reporters at the next training camp that the Panthers would be a winning franchise. “Don’t get me wrong, we might occasionally have an 8-8 season or a 7-9 season.” The team then had six straight non-winning seasons. The all-time record is 192-192-1.

As the owner’s willingness to respond to public questions evaporated, it seemed strange how everyone around the Panthers referred to him as “Mr. Richardson.” While a sign of respect, the salute hinted of an autocratic style.

Struck by allegations of boorish behavior that he has neither denied nor contested, Jerry Richardson lost much credibility very quickly. Perhap that is an important lesson for leaders.

We’re excited to add journalist Mark Washburn as a columnist. He left the daily newspaper business last year after lengthy stints in Charlotte and Miami. Mark has pursued stories across North Carolina for years and, as his first column shows, he’s a student of state history.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at

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