ATHLETICS ALUMNI IN THE NEWS
"Touchdown" Tim Biakabutuka
April 27, 2007
in a new direction
Originally printed in the Charlotte Business Journal - April 27, 2007. Written by Erik Spanberg, Senior staff writer.
The foot was saved. But sitting in the visitor's locker room, Biakabutuka didn't need a doctor to tell him his career was at, or near, an end.
He looked down at his mangled foot and shook his head.
"Man, this is how it's going to end, huh?" Biakabutuka said to the team chaplain, Mike Bunkley, as doctors and team officials scrambled to assemble surgery plans.
Bunkley, who had seen Biakabutuka through several devastating injuries during his Panthers career, shook his head.
"The end is not written yet," the chaplain said. "We don't know when the end really comes. All we can say right now is that this is a setback."
As it turned out, Biakabutuka's broken foot in 2001 became a beginning. The beginning of a second career that would turn an NFL running back into, of all things, a jeweler, the owner of what is now a two-store chain called Beya Jewelry. Football came easy to Biakabutuka. Business would not.
On the field, Biakabutuka possessed a vision and cutting ability that left tacklers snatching at air. In business, he needed to learn how to draw customers to him, develop a new set of instincts.
Forging a new career meant drawing on everything that had come before. His sometimes fractious relationships with his college coaches; the abiding concern and counsel offered by Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, whose private jet whisked Biakabutuka back to Charlotte for surgery after his injury; and, most of all, from his family, who instilled in him a determination to succeed.
Almost from the moment the Panthers made Biakabutuka the eighth player selected in the 1996 NFL draft, he was plagued with injuries. A torn knee ligament ended his rookie campaign after four games. Turf toe and ankle injuries dogged him the following year.
Now this. More agonizing rehab ahead, served with an agonizing side dish of waiting to heal.
It took three surgeries and a year of therapy before Biakabutuka could test the foot again.
The Panthers cut Biakabutuka in February 2002. Interest from other teams lingered into the summer of 2003, but, still struggling with pain and lack of mobility, Biakabutuka retired.
The abrupt end of a lucrative career is the norm for pro football players, as most of the college elite selected in the NFL Draft this weekend will soon find out. By the measures of NFL running backs, Biakabutuka's injury-marred career was atypically long. Most NFL running backs play four seasons or less, according to a study commissioned by the NFL Players Association.
Tim Biakabutuka isn't really Tim Biakabutuka. Born in Kinshasa, Zaire, his full name is Tshimanga Biakabutuka (pronounced Tuh-MONG-ah Bee-OCK-ah-buh-too-kuh). His last name translates to "born again," which would turn out to be a reflection of his religious faith and resilient nature.
Biakabutuka's journey from African child to American entrepreneur was filled with uncertainty. He was the sixth of 12 children, but was separated from his older siblings at age 6 when his parents took the five youngest with them to Montreal in search of a better life. The move brought the family a radical change in climate, culture and character.
"It's funny, when we were leaving (Africa), I remember thinking that we were going to become white," Biakabutuka says in an interview 27 years later.
He remembers little of Zaire, save a few glimpses here and there: chasing lizards in the field, walking to the military base and stories his mother told him later about his childhood there.
In Montreal, the family lived in an apartment. The children shared two beds in a room that doubled as their mother's sewing room. Armed with an industrial-strength machine, she sewed at night to keep the family afloat. Biakabutuka's father was working on a Ph.D. in psychology at the time.
One of the luxuries football afforded Biakabutuka was a quiet room and a comfortable bed, a stark contrast to a childhood filled with noisy late-night sewing sessions. The family lived in an immigrant neighborhood teeming with ethnic tension.
Biakabutuka's father ruled the house with a strict, authoritarian stance. Affection came in limited supply, but corrections and discipline were abundant.When Tim was 8, a neighbor came over to play with him outside his apartment. The child punched Tim in the stomach, an act witnessed by Biakabutuka's father from the window.
Tim went inside and his father smacked him. Hard.
"He said, 'Don't ever lose a fight and come in this house,'" Biakabutuka recalls. "That stuck with me. From then on, I was in a lot of fights. Always fighting -- school, home, everywhere."
Today, Biakabutuka is estranged from his father. The two men last spoke three years ago, a rift he describes as a family matter. He hopes to mend the relationship, but admits a stubborn streak keeps father and son from making the initial gesture.
"I might not have made it if my father wasn't so strict," he says. "And I respect him for that. But I think I will be different (when I have children). To me, it's OK for a man to cry. It's OK to be affectionate."
His mother preached faith, but Biakabutuka found no use for it. Christians, he thought, used religion as a crutch.
Still, he found some use for his baptism suit. Inspired by the oil-boom soap opera Dallas, he would don his coat and tie and pretend to be the chief executive of his own, fictional company. He was 10 years old at the time.
In high school, he found more trouble as one of five black students at a predominantly white school that also had a faction of skinheads. Racially motivated rivalries convinced school officials to start a football team to build camaraderie.
Biakabutuka had paid little attention to the sport to that point, but coaches encouraged him to try out for the team anyway. He impressed from the start. "Playing football was not a big achievement for me," he says. "It was just something that I could do naturally. It was effortless."
His performance on the field caught the attention of several major U.S. schools. The University of Michigan landed Biakabutuka. When he left home for college, Biakabutuka's father held a family meeting and told his son he was a grown man and would, from that moment on, be on his own.
Biakabutuka arrived at Michigan with a rudimentary command of English and a sizable chip on his 6-foot, 200-pound frame. He proved to be so difficult for his coaches that they ordered him to attend a series of anger management sessions.
"He wanted to do things the way he wanted to do them," says Fred Jackson, a Michigan running backs coach who worked with Biakabutuka. "You had to teach him the chief runs the ship, not the Indians. But once he got going, he was tremendous. He made cuts people couldn't dream of."
By his junior season, Biakabutuka ranked among the best runners in the nation, rolling up 1,818 yards rushing, including a whopping 313-yard performance against rival Ohio State. Despite that success, NFL scouts and others discouraged an early departure for the pros, citing a need for more seasoning.
All of which convinced him to go pro anyway. The Panthers took him with the eighth pick and, following an ugly holdout, he signed a six-year, $12.5 million deal.
Biakabutuka bought his mother a house and helped other family members with his newfound wealth. He bought a big bed and a big TV for himself as well as a house. Other than that, he says, the money made little difference in day-to-day life.
With one big exception: Biakabutuka began mulling business ideas. Though he acknowledges paying little attention to academics at Michigan, Biakabutuka says he has always been intrigued by the business world.
In the Panthers locker room, Biakabutuka and a few teammates mulled potential business ventures. Nothing serious emerged until his injury in 2001, when Biakabutuka began going stir crazy while sidelined from football. Even as he began rehabbing for a possible comeback, thoughts of business never strayed far afield.
Like many athletes, he found tackling financial issues more intimidating.
He had plenty of money from football to live on, but acknowledges being too generous with some family members. Worse, an acquaintance suggested investing in what became failed ventures, costing Biakabutuka $200,000 in losses.
Biakabutuka owns a majority stake in Beya, which launched in December 2003. The company is named for Biakabutuka's grandfather and one of his brothers. Now the venture includes two stores, opened with an initial $2 million investment, in Ballantyne Village and Birkdale Village. Biakabutuka's stores carry an array of exclusive jewelry lines from designers Yossi Harari, H. Stern and Gurhan.
His inventory also includes a homegrown Christian-themed line, gold and diamond jewelry designed by Biakabutuka. At the same time Biakabutuka began putting his business plan together, he had also immersed himself in religion. At the urging of Bunkley, the Panthers chaplain, Biakabutuka had taken halting, gradual steps toward faith during his playing days.
His NFL injuries gave him a sense of vulnerability. Teammates who practiced Christianity -- Mike Minter and others -- provided compelling examples of how to practice faith without sacrificing strength.
"Nothing in my life brings me more peace and joy than my relationship with God," Biakabutuka says. At the same time, "I don't need to put (my faith) in people's faces -- I don't see the point."
Faith is well and good, but hardly enough to nurture a business.
"People don't realize how hands-on he is," says Katrina Bell, a former personal assistant who now serves as operations manager for Biakabutuka's business ventures from the company's Fort Mill headquarters office.
"Everything in the stores, from the colors to the lighting, Tim picked it all out. If you look, you can tell it's a man's touch."
Seventy-hour workweeks have become routine, though Biakabutuka has taken up rabbit hunting as a diversion. Says Bell: "I don't think Tim sleeps."
Biakabutuka isn't exactly the best advertisement for his own wares. He often wears no jewelry at all. Staffers implore him to wear a nice watch before going to meetings -- a subtle bit of product placement.
For Biakabutuka, Beya's cases of diamond-encrusted rings and Swiss watches are all about profit margin. But, like any business, nothing is as easy as it looks. Panthers owner Richardson, an occasional mentor, offered doses of encouragement and reality.
Remember, Richardson told Biakabutuka, you were at the top of your profession as an athlete. When you move into business, as Richardson had 50 years earlier when he launched a chain of burger-and-fries restaurants after a brief NFL career, you're on new terrain.
Richardson quietly advises former players, but only when his counsel is sought. "He's a sharp guy," Biakabutuka says. "Listening to him, it's like he wrote the book on leadership."
Soon enough, Biakabutuka began to see the wisdom of Richardson's words.
If you have eight employees, you have eight more headaches, Richardson told him. And if everything goes well, those complications multiply: inventory, cost control, real estate decisions, insurance, on and on.
This explains why Biakabutuka plants his nose in the business section of the nearest Barnes & Noble every chance he gets, searching for answers, tips, ideas. Forget Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine; Inc. magazine is his preferred leisure reading.
Just this month, as the football world turned its attention to assessing college talent for the NFL Draft, Biakabutuka went on a scouting mission of his own, sizing up Cartiers and Piagets at a watch trade show in Switzerland. Ask Biakabutuka for an assessment of an NFL team and you get little; ask about Tiffany & Co. and he morphs into an enthusiastic analyst, rhapsodizing over the company's "brand identity," its trademark silver and every other discernible characteristic short of crooning Moon River, the signature song from Breakfast at Tiffany's.
With a 3,143-square-foot store at Ballantyne and a 1,790-square-foot operation in Birkdale, inventory ranks as a paramount concern. To keep costs down and meet his aesthetic sense, Biakabutuka wants an uncluttered, clean look. His Christian-themed line provides advantages, too: He sells it online, a multipurpose benefit similar to a running back being able to run, block and catch a pass out of the backfield.
In fact, experts say, the attributes of pro athletes can be transferred quite well to a business career. "They're inherently competitive, they strive for excellence and they're coachable," says Carl Kester, a finance professor at Harvard Business School who also teaches current and retired NFL players about starting and investing in businesses.Biakabutuka's stores are running deficits. While he declines to share the numbers, Biakabutuka expects to reach profitability late this year.
Combined, the stores generate annual sales of around $2 million. Biakabutuka wants to reach $5 million in the next few years.
There are headaches, though. The developer of the Ballantyne shopping center finished the project late, a loss of field position that meant more startup costs and inventory expenses.
Now his focus is on making people aware of the location and building a loyal clientele.
"I'm thinking about all of the overhead in here," Richardson said. Biakabutuka laughed in agreement.
Since Biakabutuka broke his foot six years ago against the Redskins, he hasn't returned to an NFL stadium. For a while, he lived in a condo close enough to the Panthers' home field to see and hear the fans cheering in the upper deck. It was in 2003, the year Carolina made its Super Bowl run.
He loves business and its challenges, but acknowledges the pain of seeing players in his draft class still active on NFL rosters. If all had gone right, Biakabutuka would only now be winding down his NFL career. Instead, he's winding watches.
Biakabutuka regrets the way his pro career was ruined by injuries. He never had a 1,000-yard season, never played in a Super Bowl. "You wonder why, but what can you do?" he says. "If I didn't have ability, it would have been easier (to leave the NFL). But injuries got in my way."
Biakabutuka laughs at his rare bout of introspection and prepares to head back to the store. Looking back isn't something he does often.With that, he offers a handshake and returns to work. Biakabutuka may be a bit slower.
And now, instead of tacklers chasing him, he's chasing shoppers.
But he's living up to the family name.
Neighborhood: Baxter Village, Fort Mill
Position: President, Beya JewelryEducation: University of Michigan, three years, hasn't completed degree
Favorite book:The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer
Favorite movie:The Godfather
Favorite musician: Bob Marley
Likes about Charlotte: Weather and people
Dislikes about Charlotte: Restaurants close too early
Favorite city: San Diego
Favorite TV show: The King of Queens
What he likes about jewelry business: Interacting with people
Person you most admire: Mike Bunkley, Panthers team chaplain