By Dan Minor - Buffalo News
Chris Gronkowski visited the University at Buffalo in 2005 when as a Williamsville North student he was being recruited as a fullback. Like many an athlete recruit before and after him, he stayed out partying late into the night.
That fits the narrative about Chris and his famous family, who have reached the American cultural marquee because of brother Rob, who is in the midst of an all-time great NFL career with the New England Patriots.
It’s an image with its own name, “Gronk,” which calls to mind athletic acumen, grueling workouts and blowout parties. Vanity Fair called them “America’s first family of jocks.”
Less known is what happened the next morning: Chris Gronkowski showed up for the SAT test at 7 a.m. and scored 790 out of 800 on the math section.
The story’s context makes it a bit less fun, as Chris already had strong scores from previous SAT tests. But it shows the other side of the family of five brothers ranging in age from 24 to 34 who are pursuing a fast-growing web of business ventures. Many of those initiatives are intertwined. Some are run primarily by a single brother. All are supported by the entire family.
Chris would go on to decline a chance to enroll at the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania, where he planned to attend the Wharton School, and instead pursued his football passion at the University of Maryland.
He would play in the NFL for several seasons, during which time he helped his wife, Brittany, start an engraving business called Everything Decorated.
When he was injured in 2013, the couple settled in Texas and focused on that company, with Brittany running day-to-day operations and Chris working on business development. Everything Decorated has more than 17,000 five-star reviews on Etsy, an e-commerce platform for crafts and art products, and is the “leader in the personalization market for wedding gifts,” Chris said.
There are five employees with plans to move to bigger offices.
He has a new company, Ice Shaker, which offers an insulated, spill-proof, stainless-steel cup for the reusable bottle market. He has sold more than 5,000 cups since the product’s debut in late December and views that as the beginning of a much bigger business.
Chris co-owns three businesses with his four brothers: InSite Media Services, which manages Rob’s brand and negotiates all his sponsor deals; Gronk Bus, which leases two party buses in the Boston area; and Gronk Nation, an online promotional vehicle for the family.
Chris is 30 years old.
The genesis story of The Gronk Era has become an American legend, told in countless national feature articles. Gordon Sr. was an offensive lineman at Syracuse University in the 1980s and co-founded G&G Fitness Equipment with his brother (Gordon Sr. bought his brother out shortly after the company was founded). G&G started with one store on Transit Road in Amherst and gradually expanded to 14 retail locations throughout the Northeast, with a commercial sales team that sells directly to fitness facilities.
He and wife Diane (they later divorced) would have five sons, each of them inherently excellent athletes who used their father’s gym in the basement of their Williamsville home. Through brotherly competition and Gordon Sr.’s guidance, they pushed each other to new heights.
The oldest, Gordon Jr., played minor league baseball and the next four brothers played in the National Football League. Rob and youngest brother Glenn currently play for the Patriots.
In the meantime, the Gronkowski family is known for its hard-partying ways, driven by volumes of confirmed stories about Rob and embraced by the family as an extension of their lifestyle. Working hard and playing hard is the brand.
But it’s a mistake to overlook the intelligence and intentionality of the Gronkowskis. They function informally like a business, mixing the school-oriented skill sets of Chris and Dan Gronkowski, 32, with the sales and marketing instincts of Gordon Jr., 34, and Rob.
Youngest brother Glenn has a fledgling professional football career at age 24, but he’s a good bet to make an impact beyond the gridiron: He graduated from Kansas State University with two bachelor’s degrees, one in management and the other in marketing, and a 3.81 grade point average.
“School always came first in the household, and my philosophy with sports was to get them through college on an athletic scholarship,” said Gordon Sr., the father. “All the competition happened with grades, too. Who could bring home the highest GPA?
“Everybody thinks we’re dumb jocks and that’s what I laugh about. Sports teaches you how to be smart and competitive, how to lose together and then rebuild and win together,” he said. “Put that together with school and it’s a deadly package.”
G&G Fitness is known for its retail locations, which generally have large showroom floors that demonstrate high-end equipment. That remains a big part of a company that does more than $30 million in annual revenue, but it no longer represents the aspirational side of the business. That’s where Gordon Sr.’s sons come in.
Dan Gronkowski,the second-oldest son, attended Williamsville North High School and the University of Maryland, where he was recruited as a quarterback but switched to tight end. In five years at the college (he was a “redshirt” freshman who played for four more seasons), he earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing and an MBA. He also received a team award for having the highest GPA. He was in the process of being nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship, one of the world’s most prestigious post-graduate scholarships, but decided to pursue a professional football career. He played in the NFL from 2009-13, after which he started working for G&G Fitness.
Dan Gronkowski is often credited by his family as being an inventive and strategic thinker, and he’s orchestrated two new business segments for G&G: development of its own products under the Gronk Fitness brand and a sophisticated e-commerce operation.
There’s a little business seminar in the story: G&G was earning a minuscule margin off high-priced accessories so it was decided to cut out the middleman. The company identified Toronto-based Unified Fitness Group, which is already a significant manufacturer for the Canadian market, and worked with that business to develop Gronk Fitness products. G&G Fitness now sells its own product to consumers at a much lower cost – and still has a bigger margin.
Online sales of Gronk Fitness products are a fast-growing segment of G&G’s business and Dan Gronkowski said there’s a long way to go. He said most fitness products are devoid of a story – market leader Rogue Fitness isn’t exactly evocative – but the Gronk brand tells people that “it’s time to lock it in, get in the zone and push yourself,” he said.
Dan, who lives in Amherst with his wife, Brittany, conveys no small ambition for the Gronk Fitness brand, which grew about 200 percent from its first year in 2015 to the second.
“I want to be one of the big accessory lines out there, and I think in five years we can be at that level,” he said. “We have a big opportunity.”
He runs a startup business, Herd Sports Chew, which developed an alternative to tobacco chew that contains healthy supplements. His business partners are Steve Seedhouse, who earned a Ph.D. in molecular pharmacology and cancer therapeutics from UB and now works in Manhattan; and Shane Sims, a childhood friend who played professional hockey.
The other key element to G&G’s recent growth is the commercial sales team, which works directly with fitness facilities. That includes equipment purchases but also the installation of “functional areas,” a trend in the fitness world.
G&G purports to be an expert in all facets of functional fitness, from the type of equipment to layout of a facility.
Oldest son Gordon Jr., the former baseball player, joined the G&G team two years ago and runs the commercial segment in Boston, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont. The 34-year-old is considered by his father and brothers to be the most socially adept of the bunch – comfortable in any situation – and thus a skilled salesman.
“He knows how to read people and deal with people,” Gordon Sr. said. “Once you meet him, you’ll like him forever.”
Gordon Sr. credits his sons with helping him find a new passion for his business, which he said had grown stale after a successful two-decade run. He plans to leave the company in equal shares to his five sons.
The newfound vigor has extended to a new opportunity, Mobile Digital Billboard, which involves a truck with large LED signs that runs advertisements in four-hour blocks. The first truck just arrived; an entire fleet is envisioned.
During an interview at G&G’s Transit Road store, Gordon Sr. casually hoists himself onto a rack for dips, an exercise that works the triceps. He continues chatting as if this were a normal activity for a 58-year-old doing a media interview, describing how LED trucks are a chance for advertisers to reach consumers directly, which is a challenge in this era of dispersed digital advertising venues.
“Think of the law firms, the casinos, the car dealerships that could use this,” he said. “I think we’re going to have 20 trucks in the next two or three years.”
InSite Media, one of the businesses owned collectively by the brothers and managed closely by Dan, negotiates Rob’s sponsor deals, an arrangement that would typically be handled by a professional agent. The company also serves as the exploratory vehicle for opportunities that will enhance his brand.
As Dan Gronkowski explained, Rob simply doesn’t like to sit still, so his family helps him capitalize on his obsessively active lifestyle. For instance, if he’s going to the Kentucky Derby, they might arrange a visible party at which he’ll appear for an hour and take some cash home “for something he wants to do anyway.”
When InSite Media narrows in on a mutually beneficial sponsorship opportunity, the sponsor company ends up doing final negotiations with Rob’s father, who says he developed a relationship with Monster Energy that led to a multiyear endorsement deal for Rob. (A Monster spokesman confirmed Gronkowski Sr.’s account.)
“I know his market and I know if he doesn’t get one, there will be another one,” Gordon Sr. said. “There are so many out there, we can pick and choose.”
Rob Gronkowski has about 10 active sponsorships, but Insite Media fields interest every day.
The company does earn fees from its activity, but Dan said it’s far less than a typical company would take. Neither he nor Gordon Sr. would quantify how much Rob earns annually from endorsements, but the father said, “It’s a lot of money we’re talking about.”
Family members meet questions about Rob’s success with earnest statements about his impact and image, and there’s a genuine all-for-one aura, as if their internal dynamic is unperturbed by the external force of an internationally famous group member.
Chris, for instance, said his businesses have grown with very little help from the Gronk brand. But on the subject of Ice Shaker potentially needing investment cash to achieve its scalable ambitions, he said: “If I ever need it, I’ve got Rob.”
Family members said Rob has never spent a cent of his NFL earnings, which total about $34 million in cash, according to Spotrac, a database for the salaries of professional athletes. Gordon Sr. said Rob spent just a fraction of his sponsorship dollars, as well.
Rob earned A’s as a high school student and an approximately 3.0 GPA at the University of Arizona, where he spent three years before jumping to the NFL. Since that time, he has traversed several significant injuries to put himself on course for one of the greatest tight end careers in NFL history, catching passes from Tom Brady and generally presenting a nightmare for opposing players and coaches.
Rob, 28, is a force off the field, too, with a seemingly constant series of appearances at high-profile events. In 2017, you could find him in a scripted appearance at WrestleMania 33 in Orlando, where he hopped into the ring and “helped” his buddy Mojo Rawley, a professional wrestler; or filming promotions with The Rock for the recently released “Baywatch” movie.
He does fundraisers for military members and underprivileged children; hosts sports camps; and racks up headlines while partying, often, sans shirt.
These appearances convey the random fun of a world-famous jock but they’re also strategic. Rob’s brothers call him an instinctive self-marketer with a long-term plan and, in emailed responses to Business First questions, Rob shows that kind of self-awareness.
“When you are a kid, you always say things like, ‘If I was a professional athlete I would do this or that.’ Well, 99.99 percent of those people never got that chance and I am the one guy who does all those things they would want to do and allows them to come along for the ride.”
He said his sole professional focus right now is football, but he has a broad view of his long-term future. He wants to stay involved in the fitness world and said he would like to be in movies (he racked up a few appearances in recent years) or host a show.
In the meantime, and with the help of his family, he has no self-doubt about the character he plays.
“I know how to push buttons to take people to the limit,” he said. “I know when to strike when I see an opportunity, especially on social media. I know how to put content out on myself that will get people talking, which strengthens my brand.”
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