Around the NFL  

 

Bill Belichick, business icon? Patriot Way hits the office

Print


Patriot Subaru aims to bring Belichickian strategy to the workplace. (Photo courtesy of Patriot Subaru)


If there is a New England Patriots-type dynasty in middle-tier auto sales, then such a powerhouse exists on Portland Road in Saco, Maine, just down the way from Funtown Splashtown USA and Yvon's Touchfree Car Wash.

Owner Adam Arens started his Subaru dealership in 2003 and, after years of tireless work, created a sales machine driven by what he sees as tenured, happy employees with full medical benefits, a profit-sharing and financial management program and a strong employer-worker relationship with a boss who draws inspiration from the NFL football coach working just two hours south. The company appeared on the "Best Places to Work in Maine" in 2013 at No. 4 in its category, just behind Portland Webworks, and has finished first every year since.

Arens called the place Patriot Subaru -- named for the troops, though after he recently opened a second location nine miles from Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts (the closest Subaru dealer to the Patriots), he could understand the confusion. His connection with the football team runs a little deeper.

An avid reader, Arens devoured material relating to Belichick's leadership structures and philosophies. It's ingrained in his interview process and his vision for his company. He considers Patriot Subaru's setup as similar to that of the actual Patriots, with Belichick and owner Robert Kraft at the top, and Tom Brady (his employees) next in line. He looks for Patriot-type players (hard-working Average Joes who leave their personal troubles aside) when he has openings and values overlooked skill sets when stacking his departments.

"There's the Kraft-Brady-Belichick model that we draw from," Arens told me by phone a few weeks ago. "It's the longevity of the pairing. The longer you're together with your wife, the longer we're together with our associates and employees and customers, the better we are for each other. It takes effort, but the beauty of their threesome there, they have distinct roles and responsibilities.

"Then, they identify this wonderful associate (Brady) everyone passed over. I think we do that here. We're looking for average people to give them a great environment in which they can flourish. That's what [the Patriots] do in their company, as well. It comes down to managing. Do your job. It's that simple -- and many business leaders can say that, but we really mean it."

In February, Bill Belichick's fifth Super Bowl win in New England gave him one more than Steelers legend Chuck Noll and, to many, cemented his legacy as the greatest head coach in NFL history. But as he begins a quest for No. 6, it's increasingly clear that his influence has spread far beyond the field. Company CEOs, small-business owners, teachers and authors consider themselves disciples of the Patriots head coach. They post his slogans on their walls and study his NFL revolution against the backdrop of other industries in hopes of finding an advantage. Some even dress a little like Belichick.

All agree: If Belichick ever decided to leave the NFL, there would be too many Fortune 500 companies knocking down his door to count. Is this what it means to truly transcend the sport?

"Employee engagement is perhaps the No. 1 differentiator of top-performing companies and mediocre companies," James Lavin, the author of two volumes of Patriots books called "Management Secrets of the New England Patriots," told me in an email. "You won't find a more engaged employee anywhere than Belichick or Tom Brady. They work their butts off and inspire everyone around them to do the same."

* * * * *

So what, on a practical, day-to-day level, makes a business owner consider himself or herself Belichickian? NFL.com asked various business leaders who associate themselves with Belichick's teachings -- and also chatted with some ex-Patriots who have firsthand knowledge of how the iconic coach operates.

The categories seemed to align, with one major exclusion. Most of the business owners agreed that their success is based more on employee longevity, and while that crosses over with Belichick's desire to install an all-encompassing culture, most in the non-football world don't have to worry about regular roster churning.

With that in mind, here are a few examples of Belichick's influence on the business world:

Willingness to hire outside the box

Arens remembers hiring an employee who had a terrible case of dyslexia and had trouble completing paperwork, therefore making it hard for the person to find a job. Arens noted that the employee was motivated and affable with a good personality, so he decided to put the employee on the floor as a salesperson and swing over an associate from another department to finish the administrative and contractual parts of the sale. Like Belichick's players, who often do not meet the standard height or body requirements of their respective positions, it was more about utilizing the natural gifts and maximizing people your competition might have discarded.

"Somebody is going to sell 20 cars a month and have incredibly good customer satisfaction and do the good things we want them to do," Arens said. "I'll find somebody else to do their paperwork for them."

Heath Evans, an NFL Network analyst who played in New England from 2005 through 2008, had 34 career rushing attempts in four and a half pro seasons before joining the Patriots midway through the '05 campaign. In just seven games with New England (including the postseason) during that abbreviated debut campaign, Evans logged 51 rushes for 192 yards and added another 11 receptions. Belichick has always been known to use diverse skill sets in different ways -- receiver Troy Brown played defense; nearly his entire front seven knows how to play at least two positions -- but Evans said the magic comes in finding the people willing to do it. In Evans' case, Belichick already knew he was the type of person who would do anything to switch from fullback to running back, and then back to fullback once the team no longer needed him to anchor part of its power game.

Like Arens, it's more about finding the drive than the actual ability.

"The talent to be able to scout the emotional and mental DNA of a player is far harder than the ability to scout the physical attributes and skill sets of a player," Evans said. "And I would argue, based on a fundamental belief that the Patriot Way is the best way to run a team, that emotional and mental DNA is far more important and valuable than the physical attributes and skill sets."

Meticulous planning

Jeff Heisner, the owner of Lexington, Massachusetts-based turf company HomeField Sports, said channeling Belichick is about rigid preparation. In the turf business, that could mean responding to a job at a Doggy Daycare where 40 dogs need to be moved into a smaller, confined space while Heisner's group installs the synthetic surface. They need to be in and out under a certain time in order to avoid a puppy meltdown.

"You have to make sure all the materials are already on site," Heisner said. "You cannot wait around for this or that. You need to have everything ready to go to hit the ground running so you can get the dogs back in the bigger area."

Heisner used one of Belichick's favorite words, "focus," to describe the core of his borrowed philosophy. The night before a job like this could involve intense, isolated planning, leaving nothing to chance.

"He brings it to his game plans, and I bring it to my projects -- I gotta focus on everything I need," Heisner told me. "Who will do what, when? If I lose my focus and get bogged down in other mundane issues, mistakes happen. I realize that. I know that. I remind myself all the time: Focus, focus, focus."

As an aside, Heisner points out that he also wears a hoodie to work and has, jokingly, contemplated cutting the sleeves off.

Both Evans and former Patriots Pro Bowler Willie McGinest said the over-preparation is such a security blanket for players. It keeps them motivated. It eases their own aggravation to see Belichick showing up to the morning meeting in the same rumpled clothes he wore at the close of business the night prior. Maybe it's not good enough for a game against the Giants -- or a stable of angry Cairn Terriers -- but it provides the necessary ease, or even arrogance, required to get a difficult job done on time.

"You definitely want that -- you want your coach to care and you want your coach to be driven," said McGinest, also an analyst at NFL Network. "When he gives you the blueprint and puts all the work in and he goes above and beyond to give you the resources -- there's nothing else left for you to do. We used to scratch our head because, even before the big games, we kept going over the same things and it would get redundant. But it was because we wanted to make sure we didn't leave anything out. That's the intriguing part about what Bill does. He goes above and beyond."

Adapting to a rapidly-changing environment

George Roberts, a former executive vice president at Oracle who is now a venture partner at OpenView, said simply surviving in the tech industry is Belichickian. The Patriots head coach has not only adapted to, but defined change in the NFL over the last two decades. From the re-emergence of slot wideouts, multiple defenses and no-huddle offenses to the popularization of joint practices, bottom-roster churning and the advantageous utilization of the salary cap, there aren't many true breakthroughs in the modern game that can't be connected with Belichick's Patriots.

"You constantly adjust what you're doing to be successful based on the talent you have at the time, or the league at the time, or the NFL at the time," Roberts said. "It's just like CEOs. They've got to constantly change what they're doing based on the current competitive market that they're in.

"Every year, you should re-evaluate where you're at and how you're going to be successful. A common mistake most CEOs make is that they don't re-evaluate their teams and their markets. Change is the only constant you face in business, just like the NFL."

Evans, who remembered Belichick telling him that his plans for the 2005 and '06 rosters were so different that his position no longer existed, said following him in these endeavors is easy because "there is only one head, one voice to follow."

"There's only one way to do things and it's the right way, the hard way, the disciplined way," Evans said of the approach in New England. "That was very natural for me and opposite of what I experienced elsewhere. From Day 1, it's not, Oh, am I going to buy in? It's, I can't WAIT to buy in."

* * * * *

After engaging in hours of conversations with aspiring Belichicks and the players who experienced the real thing, a startling realization came to me: How many of Belichick's endeavors are similar in spirit to the hackneyed, empty attempts undertaken by thousands of bosses everywhere to improve office morale and increase productivity -- but just a little bit better in execution?

Your company has stuffy and uncomfortable employee parties where management figures are encouraged to associate with the rest of the office. The Patriots simply abolished individual introductions and came out of the tunnel during the Super Bowl announced as one. Players said they never felt closer.

Your company's boss assumes faux responsibility in public for a decline in performance. As Lavin noted in his book, longtime Patriots assistant coach Pepper Johnson would force himself to do pushups during practice for tactical errors he committed, opening himself up to scrutiny and jeers from his players.

Your company preaches the value of hard work before hiring the same rudderless employees from the same university pipeline. The Patriots' defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia, is a former aeronautical engineer who went to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and only got hired in New England full time following months of work for little pay -- and only after he revamped the entire organization's approach to film review and data collection.

"You want to be able to find potential in anyone," said David Palank, a principal at the Washington D.C.-area San Miguel School, which specializes in creating opportunities for children of poverty.

Palank, a former college football player at Salisbury University, relayed some of the tidbits in Lavin's book to his staff before the start of school a few years back.

"When there's an issue, we can either focus on the problem, or finding a solution," he said.

While some of this business idolization could just be misplaced fandom, there's no doubt Belichick embodies the C.E.O. in some of us.

Could the secret to success be that beautifully simple? Be considerate. Be on time. Be prepared. Believe in people.

Just do your job?

Belichick did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Print

Fan Discussion