The Haslam Family: Knoxville's Co-Pilots

Surveying 50 years of Haslam money and power in East Tennessee

To understand the scope of Haslam influence on Knoxville over the years, you have only to take a short bike ride along Neyland Drive. Of the three largest structures you will see along the city's north waterfront—the squat, dark City County Building, the beige, boxy Thompson-Boling Arena, and of course the hulking mass of Neyland Stadium—all bear the fingerprints of Big Jim Haslam to varying degrees. So does the Knoxville Convention Center on Henley Street, and of course the new Haslam Business Building on the University of Tennessee campus. Haslam was prominent in pushing for the construction or expansion of all of those big-footed facilities. Less concretely but just as surely, he was a powerful force in the administrative and athletic direction of UT for decades, and a leader in the business and political life of the city.

The tale of Jim Haslam's rise to prominence is the subject of stacks of glowing profiles in local newspapers and magazines going back at least to the 1970s. Lawson McGhee Library has folders full of clips charting the growth of the company now known, after its most recent merger, as Pilot Flying J. In most versions of the story, he makes his first appearance already nearly grown, on the University of Tennessee gridiron under the disciplined tutelage of Gen. Robert Neyland. Haslam was a tackle on the 1951 national championship team, and his senior year he was captain of the 1952 squad, which went 8-1-1 before losing to Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Interestingly, little is ever said about Haslam's pre-Knoxville life. It is almost as if the Haslam lineage starts with Neyland, whose tough-minded philosophy of success shows up again and again in Haslam's credo—in many articles, he talks about the importance of having "a game plan"—while his own parents are barely mentioned.

Haslam's oldest son, Jimmy, provides some of the background: "His father was a career military guy. Dad was born in Detroit, went to junior high and high school in the New York City and Philadelphia areas—he actually went to high school his freshman, sophomore and junior years to Lower Merion, [Pa.,] which is where Kobe Bryant went. And then his senior year, his parents retired to Florida. He went to St. Pete High, came here on a football scholarship. My mother's father died when she was young, and my grandmother remarried—my grandfather was in his 30s when he died. My dad has two sisters who are now deceased, he was the youngest child. My mother was an only child."

The mother of Jimmy, Bill, and their sister Ann (who falls between the two brothers in age) was Cynthia Allen, whom Jim Haslam met at UT. She died unexpectedly of a reported heart attack two decades later, in 1974, at the age of 42. At the time, Jimmy was 20, Ann was 18, and Bill was 16.

"It was tough, it was really tough," Jimmy says. "That's one of those things that you think, I can't believe this is happening to us. But it did. It was tough on all of us, really tough on my dad."

Jim Haslam remarried a few years later, to Natalie Leach—a fellow class of 1952 UT graduate. In the decades since, they have been sort of the reigning couple of Knoxville civic society, between the two of them sitting on or leading a phone directory's worth of boards and clubs. They have also given millions of dollars to hospitals, arts organizations, social service organizations, and educational institutions. Capping it all off was a $32.5 million gift to the University of Tennessee in 2006, the largest single donation in the school's history.

And the roots of all that largess lie in what is by now familiar family lore. After an Army stint in Korea following graduation, Jimmy says his father had three job offers to consider: "One was to be the football coach at South Pittsburg High. One was to go to work on Neyland's staff—Neyland instead hired Johnny Majors when dad turned it down. And third was to go to work for a guy in the gasoline business, wholesaling gasoline." The gasoline job was in LaFollette, Tenn. Haslam took it and returned to Knoxville to put down roots. "My mother was from here," Jimmy says, "and, you know, you and I understand—and it's still that way, back then it was probably even more so—there is an advantage to having been a former UT football player. And probably having moved around a lot when he grew up, too, it was natural to stay."

One thing led to another in the gas business, and eventually came the fateful 1958 purchase of that gas station in Gate City, Va. From there, the growth of Pilot can seem almost inexorable in retrospect. But in reality, it was a product of constantly shifting strategies and partnerships, as American travel, transport, and lifestyles changed. In 1965, Marathon Oil Co. invested $4 million in Pilot, and remained a corporate partner until the Haslams bought out the stake in 1988. In 2001, the two reunited, partly, when Pilot formed a joint venture with a Marathon truck-stop subsidiary. Pilot again bought out Marathon in 2008, en route to becoming the largest travel-center operator in the country.

There have been occasional controversies along the way. As Bill Haslam's political opponents have noted, Pilot was among the regional gasoline retailers fined for price gouging in the days after Hurricane Ike in 2008. In 2005, the company agreed to pay $720,000 in overtime wages to 110 assistant store managers, plus a $43,000 federal penalty. The next year, it paid $90,000 to settle a Federal Communications Commission complaint over its sale of CB radio transmitters.

The most recent federal scrutiny came over Pilot's merger with Flying J. The Federal Trade Commission signed off on the deal July 1, after the combined company agreed to sell off 26 of its stations. The deal took more than a year to put together. A map of the United States in Jimmy Haslam's office at Pilot's headquarters on Lonas Road is covered with blue and red thumbtacks. The blue ones are Pilot locations, the red ones are Flying Js. There are about 550 in all, reaching from New York to California and southern Florida to Saskatchewan. And they are now all part of the same company, with Jimmy Haslam at its head.

Last year, Forbes ranked Flying J and Pilot as numbers 13 and 14 on its list of America's largest private companies, with revenues of $18 billion and $17.3 billion respectively—although Pilot had the distinct advantage of not being in bankruptcy. The combination will produce one of the 10 largest private companies in the country, with more than 20,000 employees. If Bill Haslam is elected governor of Tennessee, with its $30 billion budget and 37,000 workers, it might be a close call which brother ends up running the larger enterprise.

As he built his company, Jim Haslam also moved increasingly into political activism. He is a solid Republican, as were Neyland and most of the East Tennessee power structure. One of his earliest and longest-lasting partnerships was with Howard Baker Jr., whose father from 1950 to 1964 held the congressional seat currently occupied by Jimmy Duncan. Haslam supported the younger Baker's first, failed run for Senate in 1964, and then each of his subsequent successful campaigns, in 1966, '72, and '78. In 1980, Haslam was the Tennessee finance chairman for Baker's abortive presidential run. He also became a major supporter of the political career of one of Baker's staff members, Lamar Alexander.

The Washington Post estimated in 2004 that since 1988, the Haslam family had contributed $728,437 to Republican candidates and the party. Jim Haslam was a "Pioneer" level fund-raiser for George W. Bush in 2000 (meaning he gathered more than $100,000 in donations), and a "Ranger" in 2004 (more than $200,000). Since then, according to the website opensecrets.org (run by the Center for Responsive Politics), in the 2006, '08, and '10, election cycles, the Haslams have given another $573,380 to federal-level candidates, PACs, and Republican Party organizations. The checks have gone to candidates across the country, and range from donations as small as $200 to several for more than $28,000 to the Republican Party itself. (One Democrat got a single $2,300 nod, maybe in recognition of his conservative leanings or just out of Vol solidarity: Heath Shuler.)

Closer to home, Jim Haslam was a founding member and leader of the board of the Public Building Authority, formed to oversee the construction of the City County Building. A longtime advocate of unified city-county government—a cause that repeatedly failed in ballot referendums—Haslam at least managed to squeeze them together under the same broad, modernist roof.

And when Alexander became governor, he appointed Haslam to the University of Tennessee board of trustees. When Alexander left the governor's office eight years later, Haslam in turn helped get him named UT president, a move that drew some outrage from the university's academic community. It was the first of several controversial UT presidential picks that Haslam was involved in, including the back-to-back selections of Wade Gilley and John Shumaker in the late '90s and early '00s, whose short terms were each marked by personal embarrassments. (Haslam's final term on the board expired in 2007.)

There was a perception over those decades that Haslam more or less ran UT, or at least the high-profile parts of it that he cared most about: the presidency and the Athletic Department. Dr. Anne Mayhew says that's an exaggeration. But Mayhew, a retired UT professor of economics and history, a former president of the Faculty Senate, and a vice chancellor for academic affairs, grants that Haslam wielded considerable influence over the rest of the Board of Trustees. "He was first among equals," she says, "because he would and could devote considerable time to the university. He was very well-informed about a wide variety of issues there."

And on a personal level, she says Haslam was not blustery or impervious to other points of view. "He always knew that I was a good Democrat, and as he would say, a contrarian," she says. "And so we would agree to disagree. He's charming and friendly and pleasant."

At the same time, she says, "Do I occasionally worry about a university that depends so heavily on one family? Absolutely."

By the time of his younger son's run for city mayor in 2003, the sense of Haslam's personal clout in the local political universe had diminished somewhat. The most notable blow came in August 1999, when in a surprise vote the Knox County Commission declined to reappoint him to the PBA board. It was partly fallout from the unified-government fight, and partly the result of feuding over plans for a new justice center, the grand project of then-Sheriff Tim Hutchison. It was hardly Haslam's first clash with the more rural, populist elements of Knox County Republicanism. He had long been a leader of the West Knoxville, business-community wing of the local party, the group derided by Cas Walker as the "silk-stocking crowd." But his exclusion from the board of an agency that he had essentially helped create was a shock, and a sign of a changing landscape.

Earlier that year, in a News Sentinel feature on Haslam's two sons, Jimmy signaled a disinclination to follow his father's path in the civic realm. "While Dad has been pretty much the dominating community and civic leader for a pretty long time in Knoxville," he said, "I don't think Bill and I will do that for several different reasons. Number one is, I think it is probably better now for several people rather than one to play that role. And number two, Pilot has gotten to be a big company now, and Dad has been great to give his time because, candidly, he's had us here to fill the void."

Obviously, his prediction didn't quite prove true for his brother. But the larger point holds. The realms that Jim Haslam dominated for so long, from his own company to the city and the university, are all much larger than they were several decades ago. It's harder, and maybe impossible, for any one person to fill all those roles. (Haslam himself seemed to recognize that when he founded—and, for years, led—Leadership Knoxville, to foster new civic voices.)

Bill Haslam is well aware of perceptions of his father's influence over the years, both good and bad. "When I ran for mayor, that was kind of the issue," he says. "Is this Bill running for mayor, or is this Jim just wanting to have his hand in something else?"

But he adds, "I think if you look back to kind of what my dad's done for 50-plus years that he's been in Knoxville, I honestly think it's been for the good of the city. Now, would there be times that people go, ‘Gosh, you know, I wouldn't have done this,' or ‘I wouldn't agree with this.' But in the end—again, I'm prejudiced—I think Knoxville's a lot better city because Jim Haslam lived here and started a business here. I'd kind of challenge anybody that would argue that."