At the exact moment LeBron James was ducking bridges atop a double-decker bus, winding through Miami in the Heat’s victory march Monday, Brian Hartline was hundreds of miles north, unceremoniously unloading a truck.
Dressed in a T-shirt and mesh shorts, Hartline had little time to eat lunch, let alone party. Not when he has an empire to build — one convenience store at a time.
Whereas most of his teammates are spending the summer break kicking back in exotic hot spots, Hartline is back in Columbus — where he played in college at Ohio State — trying to kick some entrepreneurial butt.
“It’s just another way to compete,” Hartline said. “Owning a small business was always a dream.”
Now he, along with childhood friend Ramy Malka, owns two.
Nearly six months after Hartline and Malka, both 26, opened the Smart Stop Drive-Thru snack shop, they’re tackling their most ambitious project yet. The business partners and lifelong friends are renovating a ramshackle gas station and car wash they bought in the area.
Hartline is no absentee owner, parachuting in to write a check and take the credit. His equity is equal parts financial and sweat. When Hartline is not working the register and talking up customers at Smart Stop, he’s hauling gear and meeting with contractors at the gas station.
“It’s amazing,” said Tyler Maag, another longtime friend who works as the store manager. “The first question people ask me is about how Brian is. I’m like, ‘He’s so cool. He’s down to earth.’
“Not too many people you come across that are at his level and are still able to keep everything in a straight line.”
That makes him the exception. Pro athletes are by and large awful businessmen.
A familiar story: a deep-pocketed football player gets talked into investing in business ventures — such as car washes or restaurants — he knows nothing about with people he shouldn’t. When it goes under, he ends up on the hook.
The results aren’t pretty. Sports Illustrated reported in 2009 that roughly four out of five NFL players go bankrupt or face serious financial stress within two years of their retirement.
These are mistakes that Hartline hopes to avoid. Instead of taking out huge loans to buy into the business, Hartline spent what he had. He strategically invested part of his new five-year, $31 million contract, signed in March, into the gas station project.
“Numbers are numbers,” Hartline said. “If you have more coming in than you have going out, then you’re not going to go broke.”
Throughout the process, he has leaned on former Dolphins John Offerdahl and Jason Taylor for advice on how to transition from player to businessman.
And, most importantly, Hartline found the right partner. He didn’t need to look very far.
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