Pittsburgh Sports Report
May 2004

Cashing In On Sports
End Of Another Steelers' Dynasty
By Guy Junker

It's a little strange these days for Larry Brown not to see J.T. Thomas on a daily basis. Both had offices in the same building in Edgewood, home of B.T. Woodlipp Inc. Until last month, the two had been teammates for going on 31 years. Brown was already a member of the Steelers when Thomas was taken in the first round by Chuck Noll and his staff in 1973. Together they were part of three Super Bowl Championships. It would have been four had Thomas not missed the 1978 season while battling a blood disorder. But battle is what these two did best. On the field and off. After their playing days ended they built another dynasty of sorts, a chain of Applebee's restaurants in Pennsylvania and West Virginia that now employs over 1,000 people. But Thomas has sold his interest in the company and will now branch out on his own.

"I needed a break, my plate was full," says Thomas. The competitive nature that made them great athletes continued in the business world.

Thomas says, "Months ago I started joking that I would buy him out.He said 'how about I buy you out?'"

In the end, it was Apple American Group LLC of San Francisco that bought Thomas' stake. It now holds a majority position.

Brown remains on as president of Woodlipp and expects even more expansion of the company that already does $24 million in annual sales.

"We looked at where things were. It required continued building and we decided mutually to maximize, agreeing one would get another shareholder, an equity partner, to continue to develop the market. We're still friends," says Thomas.

Thomas and Brown were always versatile. Thomas played cornerback and safety for the Steelers, playing out Noll's "whatever-it-takes" philosophy. Brown did the same, starting out as a tight end and eventually putting on over 40 pounds to move to tackle. The ability to adapt is as important in business as it is in football. The duo started to dabble in the restaurant business while they were still playing for the Steelers, investing in two Burger King franchises in the east hills.

"The market was saturated with Burger Kings," said Thomas. "There were a few TGI Friday's in the area and the casual dining idea was just becoming popular so we wanted to jump at the Applebee's opportunity."

While the Steelers of the seventies made good money, they didn't take in the kind of jing the guys today do. So Thomas had to borrow $6,000 from his mother to make the move.He still has the cancelled check in a frame. With six grand each, Thomas and Brown started to build an empire. In fact, Woodlipp ranked first as the largest-minority owned business in the area on a list compiled recently by the Pittsburgh Business Times. These guys have more than Super Bowl rings to be proud of.

"You never know," says Brown. "We didn't start out aiming to do that. You go out looking to provide opportunities for your family."

Now Brown gets phone calls from others who are trying to start businesses of their own, and he's glad to give them whatever advice he can. "Start-up ventures are tough; there are so many factors that they are real challenges no matter who you are or where you come from. Finding capital is the real battle. And there are additional challenges for minorities who don't always have an immediate example, a mentor, someone to emulate."

As Thomas starts over, he certainly doesn't need to borrow from family to get started again. His plans are to bring a Red, Hot, and Blue barbecue franchise to Pittsburgh.

"I've come full circle, back to my southern roots. My first idea was to do a barbecue thing. Pittsburgh wasn't ready for that then but it's evolving," Thomas explains. "Now I even see collard greens in Giant Eagle!"

He's happy a little of his original home is now part of his adopted home.

"When you are a professional athlete, after leaving college, you don't really have a home," he says. "You just want to belong, and Pittsburgh embraced us back then. The steel mills were closing but our winning gave the city some confidence. It seemed natural to stay when our playing days were over."

Now the partnership is over. Sooner or later, all the great ones break up. Martin and Lewis. Simon and Garfunkel. Stan and Guy (tongue firmly in cheek). The time has come for Brown and Thomas. Maybe it's a good thing. With all of the success the two have had together in almost everything they've tried, why not spread the wealth around to more than one place?

Guy Junker covers sports business for Pittsburgh Sports Report.


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