TUSTIN — Raj Bhathal is living the American dream in more ways than one.
As owner of a pro football team, the Newport Beach resident finds himself in one of the most select and sought-after clubs in the nation. Bhathal's team is the World League's Orlando Thunder.
"It's really exciting," Bhathal said. "I've been in business for 26 years and have been very successful and this new venture is great."
But Bhathal is no wealthy neophyte meddling in the team's day-to-day operations. He's not taken to dancing on the sidelines after victories like New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, or publicly blasting players and executives like George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees.
"I would be happy if my name would not get printed any place," Bhathal told the Orlando Sentinel this month when denying a report that the team was for sale.
"I have no ego. I'm a private person," Bhathal said in a recent interview. "I have hired highly professional people and let them do the job."
In the Thunder's case, the key person is Dick Beam, who spent 10 years as the Rams' director of operations and is now Orlando's CEO and general manager.
"He's given me everything I need (financially) to get it done," Beam said of Bhathal. "He's been wonderful about it."
Bhathal, 50, who immigrated from India in 1962 to attend South Dakota School of Mines, founded Tustin-based Raj Manufacturing with his wife, Marta, in 1968, and built the firm into one of the nation's largest swimwear manufacturers.
In 1990, Bhathal, a Ram season ticket-holder and ardent pro football fan, had read about the NFL's plans to back and establish an international spring developmental league. With the assistance of his friend and then-neighbor Paul Bartelt, a former Raider front-office employee, Bhathal began seeking a franchise and the best place to locate it.
Bhathal first sought a team in California, but the Sacramento Surge, the state's only franchise, went to Sacramento developer Fred Anderson.
Forced to look elsewhere, Bhathal encountered three Pro Football Hall of Fame members during his search. The first was Tom Landry, who for 29 years was the only coach the Dallas Cowboys ever had, and was seeking to invest in the San Antonio franchise.
"I was looking into San Antonio," Bhathal recalled. "Tom could manage the team for us and become a partner."
Landry eventually did become a limited partner with the Riders. Bhathal went on to have discussions with Tex Schramm, the former Cowboy president and the World League's first president, and Raider managing general partner Al Davis.
"Al Davis said, 'Raj, if I were you, I would put a team in New York or Los Angeles and the third best is Florida, and if I were you, I would go tomorrow to Florida,' and that's what I did," said Bhathal, who was also buoyed by a World League study that showed that Orlando was the best marketing opportunity in the league. "I thought Orlando was a much better town and had a much better stadium (than San Antonio.)"
Bhathal was introduced as the team's owner on Nov. 28, 1990. The Orlando Sentinel reported he originally owned 70% of the franchise, whose total cost was $11 million. Bhathal has since bought out one of the minority owners, Donald Dizney.
The Thunder had many obstacles to overcome in 1991, its first season. One was the ghosts of start-up pro football teams of the past--the World Football League's Florida Blazers and the U.S. Football League's Orlando Renegades. Burned in the past, fans took a wait-and-see attitude about this latest venture.
Another problem was the 70,000-seat Florida Citrus Bowl created little urgency to purchase season or advance tickets.
Because they were not from Orlando, Bhathal and Bartelt, who relocated to Florida and became a part-owner and director of operations, found a cool reception in the city. A perception that continues in some circles today.
"No one would miss (Bhathal and Bartelt) if they left," a former employee said.
Said Bartelt: "Everybody who meets Raj thinks he's great. It's been difficult for Raj because he is from Southern California and maintains his business and residence there. This is a small town and it's difficult for somebody outside of Orlando to break in with some of the local people because he doesn't spend a lot of time here."
Bhathal flies in for the home games and participates in a league-wide conference call each Monday. He estimated that he spends about 20% of his time on Thunder business.
"As long as you have proper management there and with the technology we have, you can run a business from anywhere in the world over the phone," Bhathal said, adding that he cannot move to Florida because of his Southern California business commitments.