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A look at Broncos ownership candidate Rob Walton

The longtime Walmart chairman once called Colorado his permanent home, and once followed Pat Bowlen's footsteps to the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii.

DENVER — Stan Kroenke and his son Josh each busted into big, swallow-the-canary grins.

Their shared cheery reactions were sparked by a suggestion from another conversationalist that one of Kroenke’s in-laws may be bidding to join him in the exclusive membership of NFL ownership.

“I don’t know that to be true, but if it is that would be wonderful,’’ Stan Kroenke said through his smile during the NFL owners meetings last week in Palm Beach, Fla. “But I don’t know that to be true.”

Very well. Stan Kroenke, who is the NFL’s reigning No. 1 owner after his Los Angeles Rams won Super Bowl LVI two months ago, is married to Ann Walton Kroenke, Josh’s mom. Ann Walton’s dad, Bud Walton, was a brother to Walmart founder Sam Walton. Sam’s oldest child, Samuel Robson “Rob” Walton, is 77 years old and sources say is interested in buying the Broncos.

The New York Post reported Rob Walton was going to submit a bid north of $4 billion for the Broncos franchise on Friday.

If true, it would remain to be seen if publicity of Rob Walton’s bid would hurt his chances of becoming the Broncos’ auction winner. To wit: Other bidders now have a target to beat.

A source familiar with the team’s auction process said it would “be weeks, if not months” before the Broncos’ new owner would become known. Broncos CEO and president Joe Ellis, who also serves as a trustee to late owner Pat Bowlen’s estate, said during those same league meetings in Palm Beach there were “more than five and less than 20” candidates bidding on becoming the team’s new owner, and many more who wanted in as minority partners.

Credit: AP Photo/Danny Johnston
Rob Walton, retired Chairman of the Board of Directors of Walmart Inc., on June 5, 2015.

Besides Walton, Philadelphia 76ers owner Josh Harris, entertainment and media magnate Byron Allen and separate groups headed by Alec Gores, Todd Boehly and Behdad Edhbali are among those who are also reportedly interested in becoming the next controlling owner of the Broncos.

If the winning bid comes from Rob Walton -- who Bloomberg estimates is worth $70 billion, give or take a billion or two -- he would have something in common with the Broncos’ previous owner: The Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. Pat Bowlen, who was 75 when he passed away in June 2019 following a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s, participated in Hawaii’s Ironman in 1983, finishing the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon run in a combined 11 hours, 30 minutes – a time that would have won the gold medal in 1978 when the world competition debuted. A year after Bowlen’s impressive feat, Rob Walton took a one-year sabbatical from his climb up the Walmart executive ladder to train for the 1985 Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. He reportedly finished in the middle of the pack.

To become familiar with Rob Walton’s background is to get a better understanding of why he would consider his going on the 78th year of life as good a time as any to take on a new venture of NFL ownership. This is a highly-educated Walton descendent, a lawyer who pilots his own private plane, hunts geese in Canada and pheasants in South Dakota, who once raced vintage sports cars. He is a former high school all-state and small-college football player who once called Colorado his permanent home.

He is a meticulous notetaker – Peyton Manning’s kind of guy – is said to have a photographic memory and, in keeping with the role often bestowed upon the oldest sibling, the point person in keeping communication open with his family and ginormous family business.

There is all that, and there is his attitude.

“I learned from my dad, change and experimentation are constants and important,’’ Rob Walton said in a superb Walton profile piece written by Andy Serwer for Fortune magazine in 2004. “You have to keep trying new things.”

One of the surest techniques in discovering what makes a person tick or unique is to ask about the parents. In Robson Walton’s case, the answer can fill 368 pages – which is what Sam Walton used to describe his life and Walmart success in his autobiography, “Sam Walton: Made in America.” Rob and his three siblings – John (who died in an ultralight aircraft crash in 2005), Jim and Alice – worked harder than most kids while growing up in Bentonville, Ark. They weren’t poor by any means but great wealth didn’t come until much later – dad's first Walmart store didn’t open until 1962, the year Rob turned 18.

Rob played football for College of Wooster in Ohio before transferring to the University of Arkansas, where he graduated in 1966 with an accounting degree. He then attended Columbia Law School in New York and after earning his Doctor of Jurisprudence started his professional career with a law firm in Tulsa, Okla., his birth home. When Rob was 26, his dad lured him back to his hometown of Bentonville, Ark., and the family Walmart business, where his legal expertise was used in consolodiating debt, taking dad's retail discount store business public and ever-expanding real-estate deals.

There was the one-year sabbatical for Ironman training in 1985. When Sam Walton died in 1992, Rob became Walmart’s chairman, a position he held for 23 years. As company chairman, he dealt with very public accusations that Walmart discriminates, is anti-union and pays insufficient wages. If the experience thickened his skin, he will need it if he becomes the new owner of the Broncos where every loss has blame directed somewhere, and the top is often the first target.

In 2015, when he was 71, Robson's Walmart chairman position was transferred to his son-in-law Greg Penner, who has long been married to his college sweetheart Carrie Walton, Rob’s daughter.

It is believed Penner, who lives in California with his wife and four children, is joining his father-in-law’s bid on the Broncos and possibly would take on a major management position with the Broncos if Rob Walton’s bid is successful.

Kroenke was already a highly successful real estate developer when he married Ann Walton in 1974. He owned the NBA Nuggets, NHL Avalanche and MLS Rapids until his purchase of the NFL Rams forced him to turn over controlling ownership of the Nuggets, Avs and Rapids to his son Josh.

Rob Walton has had property addresses listed in Scottsdale, Ariz., Bentonville, Ark., Aspen, Nederland and Boulder. The Penners have had property addresses listed in Snowmass Village and Aspen.

There are several Walton grandchildren living in Colorado and the Denver area. Per Walmart’s financial report from October 31, 2021, there were 105 retail stores in Colorado – 70 supercenters, 4 discount stores, 14 neighborhood markets and 17 Sam’s Clubs -- that employed more than 31,000 workers. Including players and coaches, the Denver Broncos have about 375 employees.

Success in the retail business is measured in dollars and cents. In the football business, it's about wins and losses. Among the characteristics often attached to Rob Walton is extreme competitiveness. Which apparently can lead to trying new things.

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