The first time Shahid Khan saw snow was when his plane landed in Chicago in 1967 in the middle of a blizzard. He was 16, and arriving from his native Lahore with about $500 in his pocket to study engineering at the University of Illinois. He was not prepared.
“I’ll never forget that feeling where the sole comes off your shoe, snow seeps in, your socks get full of that cold, wet moisture,” he told the Chicago Tribune.
Mr Khan, who goes by the name of “Shad”, trudged off to a $2-per night YMCA and, 45 years later — with his signature handlebar moustache and flowing mane of hair — graced the cover of Forbes magazine as the “face of the American dream”.
The car parts billionaire became the first non-white magnate to purchase an American football team — the Jacksonville Jaguars, for a reported $760m.
Two years later, he moved into British sports with his acquisition — for a rumoured $300m — of London’s Fulham football club from Harrods’ owner Mohamed al Fayed. He also acquired a new nickname: the Tash with the Cash.
The London expansion was part of an emerging trend of US tycoons owning teams on both sides of the Atlantic, with the idea that they can share know-how and even cross-pollinate their fan bases. The Jaguars now play in London each year while Fulham has toured the US.
“They are two separate entities, but there is common ground where two-plus-two equals five,” he told the New York Times in 2013. “It’s kind of saturated in the US so the growth will be internationally.”
This week Mr Khan is aiming for another sporting trophy, with a bid to take over Wembley Stadium, the “home of English football”, for £600m. If the deal is completed, Wembley could become the base for a National Football League team in London — possibly the relocated Jaguars — putting Mr Khan at the forefront of the league’s international expansion.
Trying to sell the deal to sceptical Londoners this week, he pledged to make investments in the 11-year-old stadium that the Football Association, its current owner, may not be capable of sustaining. “We have to keep it fresh. We have to keep it a venue that people will keep coming to,” he said.
Mr Khan spruced up Jacksonville’s stadium and is marching ahead with plans to upgrade Fulham’s historic Craven Cottage on the Thames in west London. The club had a rocky start under his ownership, falling out of the Premiership as coaches and executives bickered over the use of statistics to measure players. It is now on the up and challenging for a return to England’s top division.
Judging by Mr Khan’s arrival in America and his early struggle to gain a toehold in the ferociously competitive automotive industry, he is a good bet to prevail. Those days displayed his tenacity and flexibility — as well as an ability to blend the best of his adopted home and his nurturing, education-focused southern Asian upbringing.
“You take that and you transpose it here and it’s absolutely a one-two punch, a combination for success,” he told a Silicon Valley conference of Indian-American entrepreneurs five years ago.
The child of Pakistan’s emerging middle-class was first drawn to the American Midwest by his father’s job selling surveying equipment. He noticed that many of the engineers who dealt with the machines were from Chicago.
Within days of arriving at the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus he had a job washing dishes — a task that he did not view as a step down but with a sense of wonderment. “What a great country, you know, that you can come here, get a job, and the next day, without doing anything, you’re making more money than 99 per cent of the people in Pakistan,” he recalled in a 2015 interview at the Chicago Ideas Week.
Mr Khan, who is married to his university sweetheart, graduated with a degree in industrial engineering before he was 20, and then snagged a job at a metal shop that dealt with farm equipment. One of his jobs was building bumpers for pick-up trucks, which involved welding and grating as many as 15 components. “It was really hard work,” he said.
Others had dreamt of a single, seamless bumper. Mr Khan, spending nights at the university library, eventually succeeded. His design was not only easier to build but lighter and less prone to rust.
Its timing was fortuitous: The 1970s oil crunch was under way, and Detroit was desperate to reduce the weight of its cars to improve their fuel efficiency. With a $50,000 loan from the US small business administration and an order from GM, Mr Khan started a business.
There was a problem, though: Mr Khan’s bumper soon became so successful that GM decided to install it across its range, requiring volumes he could not produce. They ended up giving the work to larger competitors.
“The jig was up,” Mr Khan recalled thinking.
Before quitting, though, he decided to take another chance. Japanese carmakers were just breaking into the US market, and dealing in smaller volumes. Mr Khan offered free flights home to Japanese graduate students if they would accompany him as translators and help him cold-call auto companies. It worked.
By 1984, his company, Flex-N-Gate, was supplying Toyota, even bringing its production chiefs to Illinois to adapt plants to the Japanese company’s lean manufacturing system. By 1989, he was Toyota’s sole North American supplier, and began branching into other areas of the parts business.
Flex-N-Gate weathered the 2008 financial crisis better than most of its rivals, leaving it in a good position when the industry recovered. Its owner spent some of the windfall on the Jaguars, indulging a passion for American football he developed during his university days in the Midwest.
The Jags are mired in a small market by NFL standards and have had little on-field success during their 23-year history. But the acquisition, which required the approval of the NFL’s billionaire owners, admitted Mr Khan to an elite American fraternity.
“For me this is kind of a humbling day,” he said after the NFL commissioner formally announced the deal in 2013. “It’s really a realisation of a life-long American dream.”
Claiming the keys to Wembley would be another dream.
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