Business Lessons From an Ex-NFL Player Turned CEO

Tony McGee shares leadership lessons from the football field

(Image: HNM Logistics)
(Image: HNM Logistics)

For many professional athletes who spend years perfecting their craft, the biggest plays come off the field when they have to reposition their purpose. In early 2004, McGee decided it was time to hang up his cleats for good. Upon retirement, things looked great for McGee. He had many things going on, from a job with ESPN to ownership in Orlando-area restaurants, but he soon realized that with so much going on he couldn’t concentrate on one thing. The former University of Michigan football player who played 11 years in the NFL refocused his interests and today he has successfully transitioned from the football field to business ownership. Four years ago he founded and became the CEO of HNM Logistics, a full-service freight forwarder specializing in shipping and logistics. Named to Orlando Business Journal’s Fast 50 List in 2014—which recognizes the fastest-growing private companies headquartered in Central Florida based on revenue growth—McGee is positioning HNM for Super Bowl-type success.

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Why did transportation and logistics become the area of business that you decided to operate in?

First and foremost a lot of the areas that are cool, fun, and sexy are usually oversaturated. I believe that you have to go into an area that is in need. I know and understand that everyone needs product to be shipped and moved. From that standpoint we felt like even if we do have a downturn in the economy, logistics can ride that wave. In this industry you can continue to do business in the face of economic obstacles, which was a big factor for me when beginning in this industry. In addition, there is not a lot of representation from minority owners due to the barriers of entry being so high in terms of the insurances, capital needs, and certifications. I surrounded myself with the right people and together we were able to provide solutions to our customers, and have become a strong provider in our area.

How did the NFL help to prepare you for business success?

The biggest thing it did was provide me with capital to get me started. Beyond that it really made me understand the role of leadership and how important inspiration and motivation can be for a business. As a coach, GM, CEO, or a business leader you get people to value you by how hard they see you working and incorporating them within a team concept. I am constantly pulling in stories from the experiences that I have had as an athlete to motivate the team as situations occur on a daily basis.

I learned that if someone is doing something that is not beneficial for the whole, you have to be very firm in the decisions you make in regards to that person in the situation.

What did you do during your NFL career to develop your entrepreneurial skill set and business acumen?

When I retired I participated in the broadcast boot camp, took some seminars, and had the great opportunity to attend the Kellogg School of Management Executive Training Program. The curriculum items and case studies from this program exposed me to a wealth of knowledge. Beyond these seminars and programs it is important to take it upon yourself to make sure that you are staying in tune with what is going on within your industry while continuing to educate yourself.

What leadership qualities and traits have you transferred from the football field to your business?

Surrounding yourself around the right people is imperative. People that will challenge you, and simultaneously people that you can delegate to. It is important for the organization and management to provide the platform for the employees or players to perform. Any tools that are needed to do the job is taken care of so they can go out and execute.

Similar to the training and studying you do as an athlete, this is work. Not only working hard, but working smart while strategically going against the grain. Sometimes this means taking something that is already being done but doing it better.

What key pieces of advice do you have for athletes who want to transition into business ownership?

  1. Really go above and beyond to build your network. Not people that you know, but people that know you while you are playing. When you stop playing people will call you when they feel like it, when you are playing people usually call you back immediately.
  2. If you want to transition into business start to build credit history, and a profile to make yourself creditworthy. Anything that you want to do, begin to do it now. You want to have something with a track record so you can really focus your energy and efforts toward growing and developing that once you are done playing.
  3. Always surround yourself with people that have as much to gain or lose from partnering with you as you do. You do not want to be the only one in the room that is liable if things do not go well. As athletes we tend to partner with our brother, cousin, or the friend we grew up with as opposed to successful people who have been successful for many years. Build your network with people who are successful, and will challenge you. Get rid of all of the yes men.
  4. In anything that you do, have your exit strategy in place. Never invest more than what you can [afford] to lose. If you are investing, use the money that you can afford to lose, not the money that is vital to your well-being.

Daron Pressley (@daronpressley) is an entrepreneur and former Fortune 500 sales and marketing executive who has been featured on outlets including Fox45 News, Black Enterprise magazine, and The Washington Post. Knowledgeable in marketing and branding, Pressley works with professional athletes, organizations, and individuals to develop strategies to create, build, and grow brands. As a speaker, Pressley has reached more than 20,000 students. He also provides dynamic insights on leadership and branding via his website: