Originally created 10/04/99

Businessman shares his views



Frank Lawrence, owner of Bobby Jones Ford and one of the newest arenafootball2 franchises, sat down with Staff Writer Frank Witsil in his office to talk about his plans for his new team and changes in the car business.

Since Mr. Lawrence bought the team, he said his life has gotten busier. He's had hundreds of calls from a variety of people who want to be close to professional sports. He's talked to promoters, potential players, women who want to be cheerleadersand even people who are willing to volunteer.

In the 40 minutes it took for an interview, he got eight calls.

Q: What is the Frank Lawrence story?

A: I am a native Nashvillian, went to grade school there. My father was transferred with the General Shoe Corporation to Huntsville, Ala. and I went to high school there. I played football in high school I got an athletic scholarship to Middle Tennessee State in Murphysboro, Tenn., played football three years there. We won to one Citrus Bowl while I was there.

Q: You won a ring?

A: Well, I got a watch. They gave watches away back then, they didn't give rings. Got me a Tangerine Bowl watch. But anyway. Went into the military, went into the Army. Came back finished school with a young family, moved back to my adopted hometown of Huntsville, Ala. Went to work into the automobile industry there for the Chevrolet dealer as a salesperson.

I graduated from college and went to work for Carnation Co. calling on supermarkets and grocery store chains. I was working for less then $500 a month, trying to feed a family of five. Got an ad that said, do you want to earn $1,000 a month. I knew I needed $1,000 a month to feed my family so I went to work selling automobiles. I'll never forget my mother's comment to me: You know you've got a college degree and you're going to sell used cars.

Q: So how did you get from there to here?

A: Well, I worked for some people, the Key Royal Automotive Group. They actually had a chain of 25 dealerships and they offered me a chance very quickly into management. I worked from them in their Huntsville location and then I was transferred to Birmingham to teach other sales people -- I worked all over the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, all over Europe teaching people how to be sales people and sales managers. I was in their ... we had a consulting business I worked in. We had a division that taught people how to be in the auto industry. We taught sales training and sales motivation programs all over the world. I had never been out of Madison County in my life, hardly, and all of a sudden I was traveling all over the country and all over the world.

Q: Madison County, Ala.?

A: Yeah. I hadn't made many trips out of Madison County.

Q: How long did you do that for?

A: I did that for three years for them, then earned enough money to buy my first dealership -- it was a Toyota dealership -- in 1973 way before Toyota was popular. I recognized an opportunity early on and we did well and sold it in 1977 and went into the used car business and then bought a Pontiac/Cadillac dealership shortly after that. Felt like a Cadillac franchise was a good franchise and wanted to be a Cadillac dealer. So I bought a franchise in Gadsden, Ala., that had been closed and had been bankrupt three time. We turned it around and made it successful and sold it 1990 and moved it to Augusta in 1991 and bought this dealership.

That's basically my history.

Q: How did you go from being a Chevy man to a Ford man?

A: To be quite honest with you I felt like Ford had some product coming for the 90s and the 2000 millennium that were far and away better than some of the competition. I moved to Ford because some of the products that they had coming were -- starting with the Explorer. We were the first in the (Sport Utility Vehicle) I recognized an opportunity, much like Toyota early on. You know you spot trends in this business. Our business, I guess the key to our success had been maybe hard work and recognizing trends. Good timing is always important.

How did I get way from Chevrolet and go to Ford? I felt like the opportunity, first, was available and second, I thought they had a lot of new and exciting products coming.

Q: Has that proven to be true.

A: Absolutely. We are successful beyond our wildest dreams.

Q: What's the arenafootball2 story. How did you get hooked up with that?

A: Again, I see an opportunity. A good business opportunity for us. I recognize that is this particular product that we have, arena football, is so unique that I feel like our fans, once they witness this, are going to be extremely excited. It's going to be great entertainment. Again, I felt like the timing had been right. The Lynx (hockey team) had been successful here. I felt, as I have said several times in some interviews, if you could sell hockey, you certainly could sell football. Because our fans had grown up with football. I view this as a great business opportunity as well as bring something fun and exciting to the Augusta -- Richmond County Civic Center which has a lot of dark days in the summer time.

Q: The story goes that you and your wife went to a game and liked it so much that you decided to buy your own team. Is that true?

A: No, that's not true. What happened was, a great friend of mine, Bob Scranton, who was a principal owner of the Birmingham Barrons minor league baseball team, contacted me three or four months ago. He said, `Hey they're putting together a football league together.'

The people that are putting the arena football deal together, one of the principals in that deal is Art Clarkson, who owns the Huntsville, Ala., team. I had known him from his days with the Birmingham Barrons, he and Bob were partners. Bob said Clarkson was looking for an operator for the football team in Augusta. An inquiry was made from the hockey team and they were not interested. Clarkson contacted me. Sent me some information.

I told him I was going to be in Nashville, Tenn. and I told watch a game. A friend of mine owns the Nashville Catz. I looked at the product. I went with my wife. We were excited about it and decided it was just a good business opportunity for me to be involved in.

We did a lot of research as far as the franchising, as far as the sports entertainment business. We didn't just go out, pick up and buy a football team. We did a lot of studies into the in the sports entertainment business. We felt lke there was a good opportunity in Augusta and that's why we bought it.

Q: It has been said that Augusta will major in minor league sports. Do you agree with that.

A: We think football can be just another successful minor league venture. We have baseball. Hockey is successful. Augusta is certainly a market -- we are a regional shopping as well as entertainment center for many of the towns around us. They come to Augusta. We give them another reason to come.

Q: Do you envision other sports coming to the area?

A: I don't see anything on the horizon. I don't know what might be coming. But I think Augusta is a good sports town.

Q: What about the team name and team colors, have you worked that out?

A: We have actually gotten a tremendous response from the fan base in Augusta... Actually some of the team names -- the River Dogs was a name, the Alley Cats was a big name that was submitted, the Stallions were a big choice in the local market. The Mustangs were by far the tops. Even though I'm a Ford dealer and had Mustang products, we actually didn't get to select that because Milwaukee has already got that name and we're not going to be able to use that choice.

Q: So it is one of those three.

A: It will be one of those three names, yeah.

Q: How about colors?

A: It will predominately be red, black, white, and I guess, some gold. Orange, blue, were some of the color selections. One of the names of the arena was the Corral. The game would be played: Welcome to the Corral, Home of the Augusta Stallions.

Q: How has the experience been for you?

A: Exciting.