New Yorkers and Louisville natives Dan Roth and Evan Roth returned to their hometown Wednesday to interview businessman Ulysses “Junior” Bridgeman about finding success after basketball, but during the event, topics ranged from the University of Louisville to presidential nominees.
The event was a live recording of the Roth Brothers’ podcast “Breaking the Mold,” which features prominent businesspeople who forged an unusual path. Kentucky to the World, an organization that promotes the state by publicizing the achievements of Kentuckians, sponsored the event.
Bridgeman, for those who don’t know, was a UofL basketball player and former sixth man for the Milwaukee Bucks. When he retired, he became a Wendy’s franchisee, built up a food empire and, in April, he signed on as one of three independent bottlers for The Coca-Cola Company in the United States.
According to Forbes, Bridgeman is the fourth highest-paid retired athlete after Michael Jordan, David Beckham and Arnold Palmer. Bridgeman’s 2015 earnings reached $32 million.
Bridgeman is “one of the great success stories about leaving the NBA,” said Evan Roth, a founding partner of New York City-based wealth management firm BBR Partners. His brother Dan Roth, it should be noted, is equally successful, serving as executive editor for LinkedIn.
The Roth brothers interview started off with a faux pas when they referred to Bridgeman as chairman of UofL’s Board of Trustees. Whether or not he will end up on the board is in limbo. With little notice, Bridgeman was appointed to the board by Gov. Matt Bevin after the governor dissolved the existing Board of Trustees.
“I got a call from the governor, and it went exactly like this — 10:30 he said, ‘I need you to help me with the University of Louisville. I need you to think about being on the board,’” Bridgeman said. After hesitantly saying OK, he recalled Bevin saying, “’The press conference is in half an hour; I’m going to announce you’re on the board.’ So that’s how I got here.”
He did not comment on the ongoing turmoil at UofL, except to say it is important for the university to remain strong.
Before starting his NBA career, Bridgeman was a star guard at UofL. Growing up in a poor family outside of Chicago, “basketball was the only way I knew how to get into college,” Bridgeman said.
From there he made the jump to the NBA, but as his career was winding down, he wasn’t quite sure what to do. A friend in the banking business suggested he buy a franchise from Wendy’s, which at the time was less than 20 years old.
He bought a store in Chicago, and the first couple years — while he was still finishing out his basketball career in Milwaukee — he broke even, bringing in just over $1 million in revenue. Wendy’s corporate suggested he buy stores closer to where he was living, so he acquired a few in Milwaukee, but they only earned $600,000 to $800,000.
“We barely made payroll,” Bridgeman said.
And on top of that, he’d spent all the money he had to buy the stores. Bridgeman thought he was going to become another professional athlete who couldn’t hack it after leaving the NBA, but he kept with it. Bridgeman said he built trust and respect among his employees by bailing them out of jail — at the time, Milwaukee police took people to jail for traffic violations.
“Once the people start to understand what you’ll do for them, they’ll understand what they can do for you,” Bridgeman said. “That became the culture of who you are.”
Today, his company offers various programs for employees to further their education and move up either within the company or move on to a new job.
Bridgeman credited the people he’s met throughout his life, including Walmart founder Sam Walton, with teaching him how to run a business and how to treat employees.
“Everybody that I’ve met I’ve stole something from,” he said.
Now, Bridgeman is thinking about his legacy and what he wants to leave to his kids, which is why he penned the deal with Coca-Cola. He noted that there are Coca-Cola bottling operations that have been around for 100 years.
“That would be the thing for the family,” he said. “It’s about the kids.”
Those were the magic words for Coca-Cola, who Bridgeman said vetted him extensively, asking about his family and personal life. The company wanted to make sure there’d be someone to handle the day-to-day for years to come. Bridgeman tapped one of his sons, Justin Bridgeman, to lead the operations.
The evening concluded with questions from the audience, including a few for the Roth brothers. It was a question for Dan Roth, who has interviewed both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during his career, that perked up the crowd’s ears. What are his impressions of the candidates?
Roth interviewed Clinton recently for LinkedIn, and although he said he dislikes interviewing politicians because their responses often are canned, he stated: “Hillary Clinton was surprisingly warm.”
Trump gave off the opposite impression when Roth interviewed him back in 2004 for Fortune. At the time, “The Apprentice” was starting its first season. Roth said he reached Trump by phone and informed him that he was writing a story about the businessman.
Trump quickly said, “Dan, I am going to sue you for libel,” Roth recalled. To which Roth replied that Trump couldn’t sue him for a story he hadn’t even written yet.
Roth added that once Trump found out the story would appear on Fortune’s cover, he warmed up.