With sweat and smarts, Pakistan-born Shahid Khan built a $3.4 billion manufacturing juggernaut from the ruins of an Illinois auto parts maker. To celebrate, he just bought one of the worst teams in the NFL, with the pledge of a similar turnaround. Only in America, folks.
Shahid Khan narrates the fall of American manufacturing. â€œThe Allith-Prouty plant closed there. That was 1,400 jobs,â€ he says, pointing out boarded-up buildings on our left. Some 300 people used to work at the welding plant next door. â€œGone,â€ he shrugs. Another 7,000 or so were lost when Hyster trucks closed shop.
As we pass more dilapidated warehouses and bulldozed dreamsâ€”800 jobs lost at the mill around the corner, 1,200 across the wayâ€”we seem like tourists in an industrial wasteland, the ruins of a manufacturing golden age, with crumbling Danville playing the role of Pompeii or Luxor, although those ruins might be better preserved, Khan notes with a rueful smile. â€œAround you, right now, I can count 30,000 jobs that just disappeared,â€ he says, shaking his head.
With flowing black hair and the thick handlebar mustache of a man used to leaving a lasting impression, the 62-year-old Khan, driving a shiny white Grand Cherokee, is a swashbuckling contrast to the desolation around him. While Danville and the rest of the Rust Belt were deteriorating over the last 40 years, Khan was moving in exactly the opposite direction. The sole owner and CEO of Flex-N-Gate, he built one of the biggest automotive parts suppliers in America almost from scratch from his headquarters just 35 miles away and now employs more than 13,000 people at 52 factories around the globe. Sales reached $3.4 billion in 2011. FORBES estimates his net worth at $2.5 billion, placing him in the top half of the soon-to-be-released 2012 Forbes 400.
An enormous accomplishment for anyone, itâ€™s more like a Mars landing for a middle-class kid from Pakistan who came to Illinois for an engineering degree at 16. Khanâ€™s is the kind of American success story that has filled boats and planes with dreamers for the past 150 years, one that gives a face to the fact that skilled, motivated immigrants are proven job creators, not job takers.
Khanâ€™s American Dream continued this January, when he purchased the NFLâ€™s Jacksonville Jaguarsfor $770 million. In so doing, he became the first ethnic-minority owner in a league synonymous with cheerleaders and tailgate parties, Thanksgiving grudge matches and that most secular of U.S. holidays, Super Bowl Sunday. Buying into the NFL, he says, was a statement about the opportunity America offers.
Itâ€™s also a statement about his can-do entrepreneurialism. The Jags are to football what Rust Belt manufacturing has been to U.S. industry: the financially challenged, least popular team in a league otherwise envied around the world. A mere 0.4% of NFL fans in a recent ESPN poll cited the Jaguars as their favorite franchise, ranking them dead last out of 32. (Recent headline in The Onion : â€œNew Commercial Posits Existence of Jaguars Fans.â€)
They have the fourth-smallest market in the league, with just 1.4 million people in the Jacksonville metro area. They havenâ€™t had a winning season since 2007, nor won their division since 1999, nor been to the Super Bowl, ever. And they play in a cavernous stadium, 76,877-seat EverBank Field, which Mark Lamping, the Jagsâ€™ new team president, describes as â€œa church built for Easter Sunday,â€ which in this college-football-crazed region means the annual game between the University of Florida and the University of Georgia. Filling a stadium that size every other Sunday might be simple in New York or Dallas, but itâ€™s proved nearly impossible in northern Florida. In 2005 the Jaguars surrendered, covering nearly 10,000 upper-deck seats with tarps, but they still had trouble selling out, resulting in local television blackouts, which suppressed fan interest even more.
But now they have Shahid Khan, who knows how to find the bright side in a dismal situationâ€”and says he has a plan.