By the time Jim Speros was a freshman at Clemson, he had learned the art of cutting a deal. The key tactical move, he decided, was the element of surprise.
There was that business card he had printed up while he worked at his parents' restaurant in Potomac. It listed him as president of Normandy Farms. Only problem was, he was still maitre d'.
"We went to work one day," says his mother, Linda Speros, "and a friend told us, 'I got your son's card.' I said, 'Pardon me?' We didn't even have business cards ourselves."
It was the blush of ambitious youth. But it worked. His parents, Leo and Linda, let him keep the title, if not exactly the responsibility. With that innocent act of self-promotion, it was clear that young Speros was headed for bigger and better things in life.
He was headed for Baltimore, where last week he pulled off the deal of his young life. On Thursday, his 35th birthday, at approximately the same time he was brought into this world, Speros was formally introduced as the owner of a Canadian Football League expansion franchise that will play at Memorial Stadium next season.
Standing triumphant at the dais of a downtown hotel, Speros had outlasted the skeptics, won over the politicians and galvanized Baltimore's long-suffering football fans. It was a moment that had taken nine arduous months to happen. It was a moment, though, that seemed destined from the beginning.
"We always knew Jim would be an entrepreneur," his mother said.
The family knew because he was always organizing or leading or coordinating. Not long after he graduated from high school, he asked his parents for a $14,000 loan to purchase a Nissan 280ZX. Reluctantly, they agreed. Two summers later, working double shifts at the restaurant, he reimbursed them.
"We all knew Jim was someone who really wanted to be an achiever in life," said brother Pete, 33, a certified financial planner in McLean, Va. "He always thought big. You can go back 10 years ago, to where he talked about owning a football team. He had his sights set on this a long time."
Whenever the seed was planted, Speros took a most circuitous route to reach Baltimore and the dream of his life. Out of Clemson, he spent four years as a strength coach with the Washington Redskins and Buffalo Bills. From there, he detoured into commercial real estate, where he was broker of the year for the Washington area and vice president of his company in just two years.
Just before the real estate market crashed, Speros branched into the restaurant business, purchasing franchises in the Champions sports bar chain. Again, he met with success. Two years after joining Champions, he was named to the board of directors, exchanging his rights for a stock position in the company. And in 1989, he launched his own real estate enterprise, Speros Companies.
He has three homes -- Lake Newport, Va., Potomac, Md., and Bethany Beach, Del. He married a former beauty queen, has two young children and is a dedicated family man. He estimates his net worth between $12 million and $15 million.
Speros says he wants to bring local college football back to 33rd Street, as well as the state high school playoffs. Based on his track record, it appears unwise to bet against him.
'He gets stuff done'
"If you look at Jim's record, what he's accomplished in a short time, at how successful he's been in so many areas, it's really something," said Pete Carroll, new head coach of the New York (( Jets and a good friend of Speros'. "He gets stuff done. Nothing's too big. In the business world, he's extremely successful. He's been able to maintain a high profile and swing with the big hitters."
What sets Speros apart is his persistence and his "effervescence," says Joe Namath -- not the Joe Namath, but a Bethesda CPA who will join Speros' team as business manager.
"He's a doer," Namath said. "He gets doors open that most people wouldn't get through. If there's a way to get something done, he will find it."
It was his diversified background that proved to be critical in gaining a lease for Memorial Stadium. In wading through the political intrigue that surrounded the lease, he summoned his skills as a salesman. Most of what he learned in business, he applied to the tedious football process.
"I never had a financial letdown, I never got myself into any bad deals," he said. "I attribute that to the people I surround myself with. The attorneys, the accountants, the consultants I use are smarter than I am.
"I do know what I am. I'm an organizer, a businessman, an entrepreneur. I'm a visionary. I'm the guy who can see through the woods. That's what excites me, that's what gets me up in the morning."
His accountant and consultant from the beginning of the process was Larry Hoffman, whose firm of Hoffman, Dykes and Fitzgerald is located in Tyson's Corner, Va. Hoffman says Speros is a hard driver who can walk the fine line between meddling owner and insightful leader.
Hands-on, off-toes owner
"You've heard of the expression, 'Player's coach,' " Hoffman said. "Jim is going to be a coach's owner. He won't be in the dictatorship type role. I think he will be hands-on, but at the
same time, he will have respect for the people around him. He won't step on toes, won't get in the way."
Speros' determination and willingness to roll up his sleeves is what most impressed Jim Martell, chairman of Champions Sports Inc., during their three-year association in the restaurant business. Martell sees Speros emerging as the new breed of owner.
"Jim is the new image of owner," Martell said. "He's not [like Washington Redskins owner] Jack Kent Cooke. He's not temperamental, except when it comes to the [Colts] name. He does listen to people.
"If he wants to do something, he's going to do it. He's going to succeed. He'll be like a linchpin for a whole new era of football. He's really a nice guy and very few people are like that."
His background suggests that once Speros finds success in a venture, he goes off in search of another mountain to climb. It has even become a family joke, says brother Pete.
"The thing is, Jim's never left anything without being successful at it," he said. "He has been guilty of moving around and not being satisfied.
"But I think this is where he really wants to be. This is something he's always wanted to do. I really think this is the top of the mountain for him."