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Risk-taking leads to big Patriot wins

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in Leaders & Managers

Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, has spent 16 years turning one of the sorriest NFL franchises into one of the most feared and admired. Along with head coach Bill Belichick, he and the Patriots have won three Super Bowls and more games in the past 10 years than any other NFL team in any decade.

It’s quite a winning streak. But that’s only half the story. In his pursuit of the team and the stadium, Kraft revealed how gifted he is at risk-taking.

It all began in the late ’70s, when he began his pursuit of the Patriots. What happened next is a lesson in how leaders use both smarts and gut feelings to make decisions.

In 1985, Kraft bought an option on 300 acres of land surrounding Sullivan Stadium. He paid $1 million a year for the right to buy the land for $18 million, giving him a decade to figure out how to buy both the stadium and team.

One year later, the Sullivan family put the Patriots up for sale without the stadium. Kraft passed on the deal. Two years later, the Sullivans went into bankruptcy, and Kraft and a partner bought the stadium for $25 million.

In 1992, he had another chance to buy the team. But he passed again. Ownership went to James Busch Orthwein, who wanted to either sell the team or move it to St. Louis.

To get out of the stadium lease, Orthwein offered Kraft $75 million, but Kraft turned him down—and offered to buy the Patriots for $172 million.

He knew he would need a new stadium in order to build a team of champions. “We could not compete and win in that old stadium,” Kraft says. “It was not a family atmosphere.”

It was another eight years before Kraft got the stadium he really wanted. (That took another risk—threatening to move the team.)

He took yet another profitable risk in 2000, when he hired Belichick as the Patriots’ head coach and de facto general manager, and drafting quarterback Tom Brady in the sixth round that year. Nobody else in the league wanted either.

Why did he pick up Belichick? “My gut,” Kraft says without pause. “That’s how the best things in my life have happened.”

— Adapted from “Football’s true Patriot,” William D. Cohan, Fortune.

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