Arthur Blank laughs now when he thinks about the day.
It had been almost a year since Blank left The Home Depot, the hardware store he founded with his partner Bernie Marcus. He was at a board meeting in Dallas, Texas for Staples — the office-retail company where he served as lead director of the board.
Blank had been negotiating to buy the Atlanta Falcons with Taylor Smith, who served as the team's owner after his father Rankin Smith, who founded the team in 1965, passed away in 1997.
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Blank had his eye on the team, and Taylor knew. Blank remembers that almost every time he saw Taylor, he reminded Blank that the team wasn't for sale.
"I said, 'I already know the team's not for sale, Taylor.'" Blank told Atlantafalcons.com, remembering the moment in the basement of his home with a smile. "You're just here to visit, nobodies gonna get nervous, Taylor. There's no media around or press around. Nobody followed you in here. We're down here in the basement. We only got one lightbulb in here; nobody followed you in here or anything."
But by late 2001, the two were nearing a deal, though Taylor was still nervous.
He frantically called Blank while he was at the Staples Board meeting. Taylor told Blank that he was afraid that word would get out that he was selling the team and that his family might be embarrassed by the sale. Blank soothed Taylor by telling him that he would leave the conference early and meet him that night to ease any concerns.
Blank rented a large suite at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Buckhead, renamed the Whitley in 2017. The two gathered there that night, discussed the sale, drank two bottles of red wine in the process – though Blank says neither were typically wine drinkers – and ate steak.
Still, Blank and Taylor were about $20 million apart on the number to sell the team.They eventually agreed to meet in the middle at $545 million. Blank still remembers the bewildered look on Taylor's face as Blank grabbed a napkin and pen and began writing their agreement down.
"He said 'What are you doing?'" Blank recalled with a laugh. "So he got really nervous about that napkin. [He kept asking] 'Why a napkin?'"
Blank explained to Taylor that the cloth napkin wasn't to replace any official legal documents, but it was a practice he picked up from budget meetings at Home Depot – essentially Blank's version of a blood oath. Division presidents at Home Depot would agree to meet specific numbers in terms of margin, volume, and profitability, and Blank would have them sign a cloth napkin that they would revisit in a year.
The napkin, now framed and hanging in the Falcons headquarters in Flowery Branch, GA, read:
For Atlanta and
To the Heritage
and tradition in the
past and the future."
The two carefully signed the bottom on the napkin, ensuring the oath wasn't stained by any of the wine or steak. And Blank left the extravagant suite to Taylor for the night.
"He was single at that point, so I said 'If you wanna use the suite tonight – I was married, so I said 'I'm going back home' — you can use the suite tonight. There's a big piano in there; you can have a party, whatever you wanna do,'" Blank said, while laughing. "I'm not sure what he did. I did leave him there in the suite. I think he was just afraid of us walking out of the hotel together in the evening."
The sale was finalized in February of 2002.
Just over twenty years since that day in the Ritz Carlton, the Falcons value has ballooned well past the number that Blank paid to purchase the team. Forbes values the Falcons at 3.2 Billion, the 20th highest valued franchise in the NFL.
Blank built the new Mercedes-Benz stadium which opened in 2017, and the Falcons have had some of their best seasons in Franchise history. Featuring electric players like Michael Vick and Julio Jones and moments that fans will never forget, like defeating the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship in 2016.
Still, he knows that there is much room for improvement.
"We've got a long way to go, and I've often said that this is to me, it's about how many rings can we accumulate, and we don't have enough," Blank admitted. "We've got a magnificent stadium. We've got a great new coach and a great new general manager. We're thrilled with both of them. We're moving in the right direction. Seven games last year, we won them all in the last possession, which is very impressive. And that shows you the kind of grit that is being built into our team and to our roster and only gets better this year.
"... so It's been a great decision for us, and I think for Atlanta, but we need more rings."