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Ex-Cowboy Tips His Hat to Teamwork : Apparel: Drew Pearson's venture grew to a $77.5-million business in 1993. He credits hard work and surrounding himself with savvy partners.

October 09, 1994|JOHN McFARLAND | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ADDISON, Tex. — Along with the success Drew Pearson has enjoyed in life, he's had to put up with plenty of ribbing. That was true 20 years ago on the football field, and it's true today in business.

Take the 1975 National Football Conference title game, when the Dallas Cowboys trailed Minnesota by four points with less than a minute left. Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach launched a 50-yard desperation pass to Pearson, who outleaped the Vikings' Nate Wright.

Pearson's catch gave the Cowboys a 17-14 victory and sent them to the Super Bowl.

That play, known as the Hail Mary, is perhaps the shining moment of Pearson's National Football League career. But the ex-wide receiver has had to defend it ever since.

"He claims I pushed him," he said of Wright. "And I claim I didn't."

Pearson also finds himself defending Drew Pearson Cos., a 9-year-old venture that last year sold 24 million hats, most with officially licensed pro sports logos.

"I used to get a lot of snide remarks: 'Hats? Hats? Why are you getting into that? What, you can't find a job?' " Pearson said.

But as he did after the Hail Mary play, Pearson is getting the last laugh. DPC had 1993 sales of $77.5 million, and was selected as Black Enterprise magazine's 1994 company of the year.

"It's nice to know this is what hats can do for you," said the 43-year-old Pearson, whose company is the 15th-largest black-owned industrial-service business in the country. (One of his Cowboys teammates, Jean S. Fugett Jr., led the nation's biggest black-owned firm, TLC Beatrice International Holdings Inc., until early this year.)

DPC has 37 licensing agreements, which include the NFL, the National Basketball Assn., Major League Baseball, the Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros. Its hats are sold in stores worldwide including Foot Locker, JC Penney, Sears and Target.

Nye Lavalle of Sports Marketing Group-Dallas said the business is among the top 10 in pro baseball and basketball hat sales, and the top five in NFL sales.

DPC is tiny compared to sporting goods giants like Starter and Russell Athletics, but it still manages to compete.

"I certainly think they're viewed as a fine organization," Russell spokesman Wesley Haynes said from the company's Alexander City, Ala., headquarters. "They definitely deserve the award."

Although hats are just one part of the sportswear industry, DPC sells only hats.

DPC's three-person design team constantly churns out unique designs, about 60 for each season. The hats may feature lightning bolts with the Pittsburgh Steelers' colors, swirling Houston Rockets hues or even Looney Tunes characters like the Tasmanian Devil decked out in New York Yankee pin stripes.

"We try to come up with more innovative designs, more fashionable designs so that the buyer and the consumer can have an alternative," Pearson said.

Pearson has also graced his hats with distinctive labels: his initials surrounding a Dallas Cowboys-like star.

"They're not only getting a Minnesota Vikings hat or a Dallas Cowboys hat, but they're getting a Drew Pearson hat as well," Lavalle said.

Finding a market niche has been central to DPC's success, but Pearson's name has also been a factor, Lavalle said: "He has an identity."

Drew Pearson hats are marketable because he remains popular 11 years after his playing days ended. He is the Cowboys' all-time leader in receptions, with 489. And in 11 seasons with the Cowboys, Pearson had 7,822 receiving yards, caught 48 touchdown passes and was an NFL All-Pro three times.

But Pearson had some trouble settling into life after football. Brief stays in the broadcast booth and on the sidelines as a Cowboys assistant helped Pearson decide he wasn't an analyst or a coach.

Midway through the 1985-86 season, tired of 16-hour days as the Cowboys' receivers coach, Pearson contacted entrepreneurs Ken Shead and Mike Russell, who had pitched a hat-manufacturing venture to him several times in the past.

Two days after the season, DPC was born.

"Our first office was Ken Shead's house," said Pearson, one of the three employees when the company started. It now has 150.

Pearson said football taught him the importance of trusting the business sense of Shead and Russell, who had been in marketing and sales for Sperry Co.

"Everybody can't be a quarterback in football, and in business, everybody can't be the financial guy, and everybody can't be marketing guy, everybody can't be administrator," said Pearson, who is also part owner of a Dallas sports bar. "So you have to go out and get those people and bring that expertise around you."

In DPC, Pearson handles league relations and public relations; Russell specializes in marketing; Shead deals with sales and new business; and a fourth partner, Dave Briskie, specializes in finance.

DPC initially struggled to get financing or major licenses, and had to start out catering to local high schools.

"Our initial approaches to the NBA, the NFL, baseball and Disney met with quite a bit of resistance," said Shead, adding that they were rejected for every major contract at least four times.

The company's big break came when it was awarded a merchandising license for the 1988 summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. After that, the big leagues eventually came around. The NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball granted licenses to DPC in 1987.

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