Former NBA player Junior Bridgeman: The secret to success in business is ‘something you knew all along’

ULYSSES “JUNIOR” BRIDGEMAN, one of the world's wealthiest former athletes and the CEO and president of Heartland Coca-Cola, on Wednesday was the guest of the 21st Century Business Forum.

As Ulysses “Junior” Bridgeman approached the end of a solid 12-year NBA career in 1987 and pondered life as a restaurant franchisee, he wondered whether there was a secret that separated the business success enjoyed by team owners from the athletic success of the players who worked for them. He came to realize the answer was no, and that the secret of success in business and athletics wasn’t really a secret at all.

“The secret was something you knew all along,” which was that in order to be successful in any endeavor “you had to be committed to what you’re going to do, you had to be willing to put in the hard work and you had to be willing to pick yourself up when things didn’t go as you thought and to keep going,” Bridgeman said.

Bridgeman never earned more than $350,000 a season in the NBA, yet managed to parlay that modest salary by today’s professional sports standards into a business empire that has put his estimated net worth at more than $600 million. Bridgeman shared his thoughts on what it takes to succeed in business and in life in Wednesday’s episode of the 21st Century Business Forum, a webcast that features monthly one-on-one interviews with some of the nation’s most prominent business minds and thought leaders.

Bridgeman started with a single Wendy’s franchise and over the next three decades would come to own 263 Wendy’s locations and 123 Chili’s restaurants in 20 states. He currently is owner of a Coca-Cola bottling and distribution operation headquartered in Kansas and late last year bought the iconic Ebony and Jet magazines out of bankruptcy.

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As a former athlete, Bridgeman ran into doubters who wondered whether he’d make it in business. He knows other aspiring entrepreneurs have faced the same skepticism.

“There will always be more than enough people to tell you what you can’t do” or why you will fail, Bridgeman said. “I think you have to listen to all of them, but don’t make them the true compass of what you’re trying to do and the true compass of your life.

“You have to look within yourself and determine, ‘Is this something I’m really dedicated to doing and that I want to see happen,'” and if it is, giving it your all to accomplish your goal, he said.

Hard work and dedication are words Bridgeman comes back to repeatedly when talking about what it takes to achieve success. Yet while material wealth is a measure of that success, the 68-year-old Bridgeman said it’s not about the money at this stage of his life.

“It’s about helping other people better their lives,” he said. “That’s what the driving goal is.”

Indeed, in Bridgeman’s view, “If you can’t look back over your life and see where you’ve helped someone, a group of people, a number of people make their lives better, if you can’t do that, then however many years you’ve lived I say you’ve just lived in vain. You’ve missed the mark.”

The Business Forum continues in January with former Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees, now a network studio analyst and successful businessman and investor. It airs on Jan. 12 at 12 p.m. Register to view the webcast free here.

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