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Former baseball player focuses on charity

Nicole Toczauer | Tuesday, December 6, 2011

On the baseball field, Hank Aaron opened new doors for African-American players. After retiring in 1967, he continued to expand opportunities for others through entrepreneurship and humanitarianism.

Aaron, a baseball Hall of Famer, and his former business partner Frank Belatti, an adjunct professor at Notre Dame, presented “Athletes, Entrepreneurship and Franchising” at the Mendoza College of Business in the Jordan Auditorium Tuesday evening.

The two spoke about helping others through both direct charity and properly run business in the final installment of Entrepreneurial Insights, a fall lecture series that held 11 lectures this semester.

Aaron said he hoped to be remembered most for helping others achieve their dreams.

“Coming from an isolated city in Alabama, I wanted to play baseball badly and I chased that dream,” he said. “I decided after I retired I’d do everything I could to help some child or someone chase their dreams.”

Aaron and his wife, Billye Williams, established the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation to support ambitious youth in 1994.

The foundation struggled in its early years, he said.

“The foundation was just fuddling around and we weren’t making much money. But my wife … said she would have a birthday party for me and would handle it,” Aaron said. “She went to Coca Cola and other companies … and the night of the dinner we made over a million dollars.

“The money and having the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, at my dinner was a blessing. We needed this money badly.”

Aaron said the foundation awarded 755 grants to deserving youths, one for each of his home runs. He said the challenge of running the foundation in addition to his restaurant and auto businesses offered valuable lessons.

“Going from baseball to business, the number one rule is you have to put your heart and soul in it. I woke up every morning at five to go to dealerships when I began my automobile businesses,” he said. “The disadvantage is the idea of thinking you’ve been successful in one, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to transition to the other.”

The help of friends and business partners, such as Belatti, led to Aaron’s success, he said.

“We all talk about how much we can achieve in a lifetime but I look around and say there were teammates on base when I look at those home runs,” Aaron said. “The restaurants weren’t only my doing. God put a blessing on me to have people like [Belatti].”

Belatti said he met Aaron in 1985 while working on a promotion with Major League Baseball. The pair built their business relationship based on trust rather than contracts.

“We shook hands and that is our only contract. That says a good deal about how honorable Hank Aaron is and about the power of a handshake,” Belatti said. “The power of a handshake is an incredible thing.”

Since then, the two worked to develop a business model with a contemporary and competitive backbone, Belatti said. Sustainable models created jobs with a sense of personal ownership and ended the cycle of disenfranchisement, he said.

“Create jobs that you believe are highly sustainable and have an aspect of ownership. Change the mindset,” he said. “Part of a change in the social strata and economic strata might not otherwise happen.”

Belatti said trust was important in running a business. He met with each franchise they worked with to establish a sense of trust.

“For every franchisee who came into the system, I had them come to my office so I can meet them face-to-face. I wanted to shake their hand and make them a promise,” he said. “I gave them my home phone number so if they ever need me, they can call me directly.”

Belatti said Aaron was a true entrepreneur. Aaron created opportunities for others rather than focusing on revenue, he said.

“An entrepreneur is willing to put his or her career on the line and take risks in the name of an idea and an ideal. Hank often talks about how many new managers, owners and jobs he’s created,” Belatti said. “We don’t talk as much about the money.”

Aaron said his experience in baseball and entrepreneurship taught him two things: creating opportunities for others was essential to addressing economic and social issues and there are no shortcuts to success.

“You may not ever hit a single home run but the thing you have to remember is you can always be a great doctor, lawyer, teacher or someone great. You’ve got to crawl, got to walk, got to take your time to get where you’re going,” Aaron said. “And believe me, you do have time.”