The same principles that led to Willie Davis starring on the football field, helped him tackle the business world and succeed there too.
Davis, 82, was the Hall of Fame defensive end on the Green Bay Packers’ 1960s dynasty teams. Under their legendary coach Vince Lombardi and with players like quarterback Bart Starr and guard Jerry Kramer, Davis and the Packers won five NFL titles including the first two Super Bowls.
Davis went on to a successful business career that has spanned over 45 years and brought him acclaim and financial rewards as an entrepreneur in the beverage and radio industries. He’s also sat on the board of directors of several Fortune 500 companies.
“The emphasis on good habits is something that I learned from Coach Lombardi and have preached to myself over my years as a business leader,” Davis wrote in “Closing the Gap: Lombardi, The Packers Dynasty And The Pursuit Of Excellence.” “We can deceive ourselves by thinking that having a clear goal in mind is enough to keep us on track, but it’s not. … We must develop good habits to keep on the path.
“Good habits included individual responsibility, accountability, self-discipline, commitment, focus, and hard work. There is nothing new and revolutionary in this philosophy. We all know what kind of results these kinds of good habits can bring.”
They brought Davis such results as being named to the All-NFL team five times in his 12-year career while never missing a game. As the captain of the Packers’ defense, the lightning-quick 6-foot-3, 250-pound Davis was prolific at sacking quarterbacks in an era when that wasn’t yet an official stat.
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981.
Davis founded Willie Davis Distributing in 1970, which distributed Schlitz along with other beer brands, and All-Pro Broadcasting, which now owns several radio stations, in 1976. Both were struggling, renamed entities that he turned around by applying the lessons he learned as an athlete. Davis matched that with his intense work ethic and became “notorious for my attention to detail in planning,” he says.
Davis’ business acumen made him a sought-after board of directors member, and those he has served on include the boards of Dow Chemical (DOW), MGM Resorts International (MGM), Schlitz Brewing, Sara Lee, American Express (AXP) and Mattel (MAT) — and the Green Bay Packers.
Bart Starr wrote in the foreword to Davis’ book “Willie took his work seriously, both as a football player and later on in his many business ventures. That discipline has led him to unbelievable success. … Willie has been the same great guy. He’s been very humble, looking at hard work and success as a responsibility.”
“I am proud of my achievements,” Davis said, “but I am even more proud of the work I have done to earn them.”
The late billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, founder of MGM Resorts said, “Willie’s smart as a whip. … I thought so well of him and what he could bring to the board, but he was just such a kind person.”
Jim Robinson, former CEO and president of American Express said “(Davis) quickly became a contributing, thoughtful director who listened, did his homework, and worked as hard as he could.”
Born in Lisbon, La., Davis grew up in Texarkana, Ark. His mother raised him and his siblings alone after his father left the family when Willie was 8 years old. His family was poor, but his mother’s spirit was high.
Davis said his mother often told him, “‘I want you to go to school, get an education, get a good job, and be a better man than your father.’
“I would be as determined as her,” Davis wrote. “I would work as much as her. I would be as responsible and aggressive as this woman who was managing to work multiple jobs and raise three kids on her own. I owed her that.”
Davis’ first aim from childhood wasn’t to be a football star but a business one, so he could take care of his mother and siblings.
“I was always a goal-setter,” he said. “I saw what I wanted, and no matter what it was, I worked to get there. I knew I didn’t want to be poor. I knew I wanted to go to college and get a good job. … I was born determined.”
When young Willie observed how people flocked to a local family grocer’s store, he announced to his mother that he wanted to own his own business eventually. The European grocer became Willie’s friend and mentor, and he worked for him from age 10 to 17.
“I learned about loyalty, commitment, and compassion while developing a strong work ethic, a sense of community, and an understanding of how to connect with people,” Davis wrote.
After his mother refused to allow him to play high school football, Davis insisted and she relented. He went on to star and received football scholarships from colleges.
“I quickly developed a reputation as a ferocious and tenacious athlete who never quit,” Davis wrote. “I would … learn from my mistakes, set goals, and always look to execute better.”
Davis chose to attend Grambling State University largely due to their legendary coach, Eddie Robinson. “He was a father figure, a friend, and a disciplinarian,” Davis said. “Coach Robinson was about preparation both on and off the field. I attribute much of my success to (him).”
Davis was the 181st player taken in the 1956 NFL draft, selected by the Cleveland Browns. After a two-year army stint, Davis joined the Browns in 1958 and started soaking in the wisdom of their legendary coach and namesake, Paul Brown.
The Browns couldn’t decide if Davis was a defensive end or an offensive lineman. In a game against the New York Giants, though, Davis’ defensive tenacity caught the eye of their offensive coordinator, Vince Lombardi.
In 1960 Lombardi, as the coach and general manager of the Packers, traded for Davis, who had severe reservations about going to Green Bay, which at the time was considered the Siberia of the NFL. He even considered retiring from the league, at a time when walking away from an NFL salary wasn’t unheard of.
Davis then spoke with Lombardi and was overwhelmed by the coach’s determination and vision.
“We feel with his quickness, (Davis) can be a great pass rusher,” Lombardi said upon acquiring him.
In 1970, the 57-year-old Lombardi, who was dying of colon cancer, told Davis on his deathbed, “Willie, you are the best deal I ever made.”
“Coach Vince Lombardi was also the single most influential person in my adult life,” Davis said. “Coach Lombardi (turned) me into a Hall of Fame player and a business leader who has always reached for something more. … We learned that everything we put into preparing, working, and executing in each meeting, practice, and game was a microcosm of how we would live our lives. That’s why it was so important to him that we always work hard, that we succeed.”
“I did quickly develop respect for Willie, mainly because I saw how hard he worked,” said his former teammate Jerry Kramer. “I saw Willie going to the University of Chicago and working on his MBA. That was impressive to me because here was a guy thinking about his future, life after football, and planning ahead.”
During his playing days, Davis had a relationship with the Schlitz beer company and was in their management training program, and after his NFL retirement they suggested he buy a struggling distributorship in South Central Los Angeles in 1970. Davis invested everything he had and took a large loan, becoming the first black person to own a distribution company with a major brewery.
While he had no experience in his new position, “there are always mentors if we’re smart enough to find them and listen to them,” he wrote.
When addressing his employees for the first time as the new owner, Davis issued a decree: “I’m not sure how we will gauge our success or just how much we will accomplish, but we will not fail.”
“I have used a variation of those words with every one of my business ventures,” he wrote. “It’s pure Lombardi. … I couldn’t accept failure because I couldn’t comprehend it, and I didn’t want anyone in my company to entertain any notion of it.”
Son Duane Davis, the operations manager of All-Pro Broadcasting, said his father “has always stressed to me that passion is something you absolutely need to accomplish any goal.”
Willie Davis took his distributorship from the lowest of the 13 area branches in sales to the highest. He’d use his same principles with All-Pro Broadcasting to take the radio station from the brink of bankruptcy when he bought it and turn it into a thriving concern. Those principles included goal-setting combined with good habits, attention to detail, surrounding yourself with people of quality, and adherence to what he called “Lombardi time” — always being at least 15 minutes early.
When told that the radio industry business was fun, Davis told his employees the only way business is fun is if it is successful.
“He’s easy to work for … but still expects everyone to work hard,” said Edna Garnet, a Davis assistant for more than 40 years. “He’s also very fair, and he’s caring.”
“In football, we talk about not just physical strength but also mental toughness, a psychological fortitude that comes from being emotionally invested in what you’re doing,” Davis said.
“That’s what sets apart the winners. It’s the same way in life. There will always be challenges as well as opportunities, and only those who are physically prepared, mentally tough, and spiritually focused will be able to overcome or take advantage of the moment.”
Hall of Fame defensive lineman and five time champion with the Green Bay Packers. Respected businessman who thrived in the beer distribution and radio industries. Has sat on numerous board of directors.
Overcame: Impoverished circumstances and then a lack of business experience.
Lesson: It’s not just what you know, but what you can do.
“Know where you want to go and get there. … I can assure you it will not be achieved in just a few big steps but rather a series of small steps along the way. But figure out what you want to do, what you want to achieve, and then do the work to get there. It is possible.”
So Said Davis
“Good or bad, habits will soon become the natural thing to do.”
“If we are truly passionate about achieving that goal, we will plan, strategize, and work toward achieving it. Each time we hit one goal, we revel in it briefly and then look to what’s next. That’s how you succeed.”
“Achieving a goal and celebrating that achievement creates drive in an individual.”
“I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle — victorious.”
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