DENVER — On a Sunday evening, May 8 -- Mother’s Day as it turned out -- Joe Ellis sat down to dinner with a group of two prospective buyers for the Denver Broncos.
The dinner was at Le Bilboquet, a French restaurant in Cherry Creek that specializes in Foie Gras and steak tartare. And French fries, of course. Peyton Manning held his retirement party at the place back in 2016.
Accompanying Ellis, the Broncos’ CEO, president and controlling owner delegee, on this nearly perfect early spring evening (72 degrees was the high that day) was Steve Greenberg, the financial advisor the Pat Bowlen estate trustees (another Ellis role) who was hired to coordinator the sale of the team, and Greg and Carrie Walton Penner, who were co-leading the Walton family bid to purchase the NFL franchise.
S. Robson Walton, the money man, was flying in the next morning, Monday, May 9, for the family’s official visit to the Broncos’ stadium in downtown Denver and team headquarters in Englewood, which is across the street from the Centennial Airport, where he parked his private jet. And by “he parked” we mean Rob Walton parked the plane. He pilots his own transportation.
The arrangement was somewhat symbolic of how it’s going to work for the Broncos once the Waltons and Penners officially take charge in the next six weeks to 60 days, depending on when NFL owners deliver their expected vote of approval. Greg and Carrie Penner, Rob’s son-in-law and daughter, will take care of the day-to-day business for the Broncos. Rob Walton, who turns 78 in October, will pilot his plane in from time to time, attend the games, speak regularly with general manager George Paton, head coach Nathaniel Hackett and his favorite Penners. But he will keep his primary residence in Arizona.
It’s the Walton’s world and the rest of Broncos Country is now living in it.
The Flying Waltons
Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, wrote his autobiography, “Made in America” as he was in a race against cancer that took his life in April 1992. In his life story, Sam talked about how he not only bought his first plane in 1954, but got his pilot license to fly it, for little other reason than to save time. A workaholic, Sam often flew to towns that had similar variety stores as his. He would fly in to check them out and bring back ideas to his own store.
He wasn’t rich in 1954, although his Ben Franklin dime store was doing well. And Sam Walton was ahead of his time. As of last year, there were more 22,000 private jets operating around the world, including those owned by John Elway and Russell Wilson.
But in 1954, many if not most Americans were afraid to fly commercial, much less fly a twin-engine prop all by themselves. Rob was among Sam’s children who learned to fly, also. Piloting, biking and hunting have been Rob’s life passions. When Rob succeeded his father as Walmart’s chairman in 1992, he went to work at his small, spartan, windowless office in Bentonville, Ark. for about 10 years, but then spent the next decade living elsewhere – including Colorado – and commuting to his office via private jet four or five times a month.
"Rob’s a good pilot," former Walmart CEO Lee Scott once said in a Rob Walton profile written by Andy Serwer for Fortune. "He follows all the rules."
It’s a practice that will serve Rob Walton well as the Broncos’ new controlling owner. He may not be always present, but it would not be accurate to call him an absentee owner. Pulling a plane in to Centennial Airport is only a few minutes further away than those who, say, park at the Broncos Team Store before walking around to the practice field entrance.
"Rob has no interest in discussions about whether the Clorox should be on the third shelf," Scott said. "But with real estate and legal and those sorts of areas, his knowledge base and his ability to drill down is remarkable. He also has a photographic memory. He can tell you about a store that we opened in Paducah, Ky., and that it's near a Burger King and three miles from the interstate and why the Kmart has a slightly better location."
For all his wealth, Rob Walton does not put on airs. During his many introductions at Broncos' headquarters in early May, Walton if seated would stand up to shake hands. Whenever someone called him, Mr. Walton, he would say, "call me Rob."
Robson may sound autocratic but it was his mother's maiden name. Helen Walton's dad was Leland Stanford Robson, a prosperous banker and rancher in his own right.
With the Broncos, the Penners may not care whether equipment manager Chris Valenti places the extra shoulder pads on the second or third shelves. But if some players are complaining about the pads’ material, the Penners will hear about it before Walton does.
The Penners, as we’re now finding out, are officially Colorado residents. They have two homes in the state, including one where they can drive to their new offices at 13665 E. Broncos Parkway (as Uber knows it. The mailing address has the number 13655). Greg and Carrie met while they were undergraduates at Georgetown University from 1988-92. They both got their Master’s at Stanford.
Greg Penner, 52, grew up in Los Angeles and later founded Madrone Capital Partners, an investment management firm. Somewhere along the way, he gained the trust and friendship of his father-in-law. For in 2015, when Rob Walton stepped down after 23 years as Walmart’s chairman, it was son-in-law Greg who succeeded him. There have only been three chairman in the history of Walmart, which opened its first store in 1962 and went public in 1970 – Sam Walton, Rob Walton and Greg Penner.
After a five-year slump from 2010-14 in which the combined sales growth was virtually zero, Walmart has enjoyed steady growth each year since 2015, peaking with 8.7 percent gain last year.
Carrie Walton Penner, 51, has been a leader in the charter school movement. Through the Walton Family Foundation, the Waltons have provided hundreds of millions of dollars to help start more than 1,600 schools.
As part of their sales agreement to purchase the Broncos, the Walton-Penner listed just four names: Rob Walton, Greg and Carrie Penner, and Mellody Hobson, 53, a chairwoman of Starbucks and president and co-CEO of Ariel Investments.
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