Shahid Khan: The New Face Of The NFL And The American Dream
This story appears in the September 24, 2012 issue of Forbes.
With sweat and smarts, Pakistan-born Shahid Khan built a $3.4 billion manufacturing juggernaut from the ruins of an Illinois auto parts maker. To celebrate, he just bought one of the worst teams in the NFL, with the pledge of a similar turnaround. Only in America, folks.
Driving down a dusty back road in Danville, Ill., Shahid Khan narrates the fall of American manufacturing. “The Allith-Prouty plant closed there. That was 1,400 jobs,” he says, pointing out boarded-up buildings on our left. Some 300 people used to work at the welding plant next door. “Gone,” he shrugs. Another 7,000 or so were lost when Hyster trucks closed shop.
As we pass more dilapidated warehouses and bulldozed dreams—800 jobs lost at the mill around the corner, 1,200 across the way—we seem like tourists in an industrial wasteland, the ruins of a manufacturing golden age, with crumbling Danville playing the role of Pompeii or Luxor, although those ruins might be better preserved, Khan notes with a rueful smile. “Around you, right now, I can count 30,000 jobs that just disappeared,” he says, shaking his head.
With flowing black hair and the thick handlebar mustache of a man used to leaving a lasting impression, the 62-year-old Khan, driving a shiny white Grand Cherokee, is a swashbuckling contrast to the desolation around him. While Danville and the rest of the Rust Belt were deteriorating over the last 40 years, Khan was moving in exactly the opposite direction. The sole owner and CEO of Flex-N-Gate, he built one of the biggest automotive parts suppliers in North America almost from scratch from his headquarters just 35 miles away and now employs more than 13,000 people at 52 factories around the globe. Sales reached $3.4 billion in 2011. FORBES estimates his net worth at $2.5 billion, placing him in the top half of the soon-to-be-released 2012 Forbes 400.
An enormous accomplishment for anyone, it’s more like a Mars landing for a middle-class kid from Pakistan who flew into Illinois for an engineering degree at 16 and never left. Khan’s is the kind of only-in-America success story that has filled boats and planes with dreamers for the past 150 years, one that gives a face to an ironclad fact: Skilled, motivated immigrants are proven job creators, not job takers.
Khan’s American Dream continued this January, when he purchased the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars for $770 million. In so doing, he became the first ethnic-minority owner in a league synonymous with cheerleaders and tailgate parties, Thanksgiving grudge matches and that most secular of U.S. holidays, Super Bowl Sunday. Buying into the NFL, he says, was a statement about the opportunity America offers.