Jonathan Kraft has been stepping out of his father’s shadow
Jonathan Kraft, heir to the family throne, strides into his spacious executive suite at Gillette Stadium most mornings before sunrise. The lights come on, revealing an array of nearly 75 photographs, a tribute to the people who matter most to Kraft, president of the Super Bowl-poised Patriots.
Not a single framed image includes a member of the Patriots.
The omission may seem odd, given that the Patriots Sunday night will compete in the seventh Super Bowl of his family’s 21-year stewardship — and that Tom Brady last week described Kraft and his father, Robert, as “family to me.’’
But Kraft’s photo gallery honors only his true kin. No Brady. No Gronk. No Belichick.
After serving a quarter-century as his father’s right-hand man and fiercest defender, Kraft has stepped farther than ever out of the 73-year-old patriarch’s shadow, closer to the day when he alone represents the face of the family’s global empire.
He may lack some of his father’s charisma and taste for celebrity. His temper may run hotter, as those he has verbally accosted over perceived slights have discovered. And he has yet to embrace the virtues of forgiveness: He remains highly contemptuous of the politicians and pundits he believes have wronged him in the past 20 years.
But on the day of Jonathan Kraft’s succession, the dynasty will pass to a sharp-edged chief executive whose focus rarely wavers from his father’s passions: family, philanthropy, and making it big in business, whether it’s recycling cardboard or chasing Super Bowl titles.
“There is no question that when the transition takes place, there will be nobody more prepared on the business side than Jonathan,’’ said Jack Connors, a prominent Boston civic leader who has long known the Krafts. “On the other hand, he is a shining example of a great family man who cares deeply not only about his family, but the world in which his family is growing up.’’
At 50, Kraft leads a tightly controlled life in which he has little time for the sentimentality that can cripple a winning business. He is no less a Patriots fan than when he masterminded the financing that enabled his family to buy the franchise in 1994 and complete a new stadium in 2002.
But he generally places the team’s financial interests above friendship, and while Kraft may always treasure Brady and his historic contributions to the franchise, the quarterback one day may need to join another football family if the Patriots deem him too great a business risk when he is 40 and his contract expires after the 2017 season.
Brady’s father, Tom Sr., seems to better grasp an NFL reality: presumed family bonds often dissolve.
“It’s a cold business,’’ the elder Brady told the New York Times Magazine. “And as much as you want it to be familial, it isn’t.’’
Kraft declined to speak publicly for this story. His spokesman, Stacey James, said Kraft does not seek or welcome media attention, other than his weekly radio appearance on the team’s flagship station during football season. Other associates indicated he is wary of being portrayed as a prince-in-waiting.
Two Sundays ago, millions of television viewers could have misjudged Kraft as that silver-spooned prince when CBS zoomed in on the owner’s box during the AFC Championship game.
The camera caught Secretary of State John F. Kerry leaning forward from his second-row seat to share a few words with Robert Kraft. The younger Kraft was sitting next to his father, wolfing popcorn and displaying no interest in the conversation.
Kraft has long endured mockery about his family lineage, that he holds a gold key to the Lucky DNA Club. But those who know him say he has shrugged off the insults and embraced the role of his father’s understudy.
Once again Sunday night, Jonathan will be front and center next to Robert in the owner’s box at University of Phoenix Stadium, visible to a gigantic television audience. But soon after he will refocus on the global enterprise he rules as president of the Kraft Group, navigating the rough and tumble of commerce in 90 nations.
In the last two weeks, while Super Bowl euphoria should have reigned at Gillette Stadium, Kraft’s daily routine was disrupted by Deflategate, an embarrassing sequel to the Spygate and Aaron Hernandez episodes that have stained the franchise’s image.
Otherwise, he was all business, monitoring the family conglomerate: container ships laden with paper products steaming to ports around the planet, trains carrying Kraft commodities across China and Russia, paper mills churning 24 hours a day in the Carolinas, sales teams operating from Gothenburg, Sweden, to Kuala Lumpur, 8,500 employees toiling from Patriot Place to Tel Aviv.
The Patriots represent only a fragment of the family’s empire and command only a fraction of Kraft’s attention. For all his love of football, he has found his calling in high finance. He has long lived for the art of the deal, the hum of a factory floor.
The oldest of four brothers, Kraft entered the workforce the first summer he was old enough to drive. At 16, he began leaving his Chestnut Hill home at 3:30 a.m. to work 12-hour shifts in a family factory in Leominster, 45 miles away.
After he graduated from Belmont Hill School, where he managed to letter in football despite his limited athletic ability, he entered Williams College and spent two summers working overnight shifts in a paper mill in Florence, S.C.
From Williams, Kraft went to the Boston-based consulting firm Bain and Co., where he was dispatched to a Chrysler factory in Michigan to streamline operations. He won over the blue-collar assembly workers by delivering gallons of Legal Seafoods chowder on his weekly commute from Boston.
It was at Bain that Kraft met his future wife, Patti Lipoma, a rising star who grew up in Texas loving football. She attended Rice University and, after Bain, Harvard Law School.
Kraft has said he regretted leaving Bain after two years, believing he had more to learn. But he was eager to join the family business and hungered for an MBA from Harvard Business School.
When he arrived there in 1988, Kraft found himself sharing a row in class with Peter Slavin, now president of Massachusetts General Hospital, and Rena Clark, a mechanical engineer from Texas.
Clark first viewed their acquaintance as an intriguing social experiment.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t know initially what a little black girl from southeast Texas would have in common with this Jewish kid from Chestnut Hill,’’ she recalled. “But we became fast friends, and a lot of it hinged on that I grew up in a town where football was king.’’
By then, the Krafts had begun building their own football kingdom. Robert Kraft and a partner, Steve Karp, had paid $25 million to buy the home of the Patriots, Sullivan Stadium, though the team was still owned by an out-of-town entrepreneur, Victor Kiam.
While Jonathan Kraft’s father angled to buy the Patriots, the son filled his free time by the Charles River coaching sports. A Patriots diehard since Robert first bought season tickets when he was 7, Jonathan applied his gridiron acumen not to the Crimson men’s varsity but to women’s flag football.
Soon he was coaching both intramural flag football and basketball for the women of his class.
“He was a great coach, a wonderful motivator,’’ Clark said. “He wasn’t Belichickian, but there were occasions when he showed up to our women’s basketball games wearing a suit and tie, reminiscent of Pat Riley and the Lakers.’’
Was he joking?
“No, he was taking it very seriously,’’ said Clark, who later served as a vice president for the Kraft Group and Patriots, managing corporate giving and community initiatives.
“It was a good time,’’ said Clark, now an executive with New York-based GenNx360 Capital Partners.
In 1994, four years after Kraft received his Harvard MBA, he devised an innovative financial plan for his father to buy the Patriots and prevent then-owner James Orthwein from moving the team to St. Louis. He was 29.
The family’s winning bid of $175 million set an NFL record at the time. Today, the Patriots are valued by Forbes at $2.6 billion, second only to the Dallas Cowboys ($3.2 billion).
Forbes has estimated Robert Kraft’s personal worth at $4.4 billion, and Jonathan is one of the primary beneficiaries, with brothers, Daniel, 49, president of international operations for the Kraft Group; Joshua, 47, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Boston; and David, 43, who has contributed to the family’s business and charitable endeavors.
It’s no secret the Krafts, in attaining their wealth, have inflicted some bruises and suffered a few. Particularly ugly have been several attempts to promote their interests with state and local governments.
By all accounts, Kraft remains contemptuous of some political leaders, including former Governor William F. Weld and late Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, for their roles in the family’s failed effort to build a football stadium near the South Boston waterfront in the 1990s.
The calamity cost the Krafts millions of dollars and scarred their reputations, though some of the damage was self-wrought. In public relations gaffes, they complained about the process in ways that allowed critics to cast them as entitled and insensitive to the local community.
Kraft once was quoted by the Globe as saying of the opposition, “I don’t know if it’s anti-Semitism, or anti-Kraftism, or anti-footballism, but it’s really strange.’’
Kraft still seethes over the Globe’s coverage, some of which he considered inaccurate, and he has verbally assailed several of the paper’s reporters over that and other topics. He also still speaks derisively of some community leaders long after the controversy.
But Connors, his friend, suggested there is no benefit in grudges.
“I don’t think it was personal,’’ Connors said. “I just think it was the parsimonious nature of Massachusetts politics and government.’’
Kraft responded to the defeat by working with construction and insurance companies to develop a complicated, $325 million financing plan to privately build the current stadium in Foxborough.
Yet his political problems persisted. As co-owner with his father of Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution, Kraft has been stymied for years in trying to build a soccer stadium in Boston. The most recent defeat, in 2007, involved a site across from Boston Police headquarters.
Kraft was angered that Menino approached the family about building there, then withdrew his support because of community opposition, after the Krafts had heavily invested in the project.
Now the Krafts are trying again to build in Boston under a new mayor. But their inability to deliver on a stadium continues to dog them. Last year, Boston Magazine declared the Krafts “the worst owners in Major League Soccer,’’ partly because of the stadium issue.
Not so, said former Revolution coach Steve Nicol.
“They don’t know what they’re talking about,’’ Nicol said of the critics. “I saw all the models and the plans in 2007 when it looked like the Krafts were going to get a new stadium. I assure you, it wasn’t for lack of effort.’’
In Foxborough, the community is still healing from a bitter debate after the Krafts sought approval in 2012 to lease property to Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn for a gambling casino. Former town manager Kevin Paicos depicted Kraft’s methods as especially counterproductive in the failed initiative.
“It was clear from Jonathan’s demeanor that he expected special dispensation, and I found that somewhat objectionable, to say the least,’’ Paicos said.
Paicos blamed himself in part for initially supporting the effort, which could have made the Krafts hundreds of millions of dollars and the town tens of millions in tax revenues. He said the Krafts privately persuaded him to support placing the casino question on the town ballot but did not inform him that Foxborough had voted in 2004 — six years before he arrived in town — to ban a gaming enterprise near the proposed Wynn site.
Paicos’s role in the controversy effectively cost him his job in Foxborough. Now the interim town manager in Southbridge, he described the Kraft family’s business practices as “very predatory and avaricious.’’
“They seemed to be constantly trying to overwhelm the town rather than work with it in a mutually beneficial way,’’ he said.
Others in town spoke more favorably of Jonathan Kraft. Mark Sullivan, a former selectman whose re-election loss in 2012 was largely due to the casino controversy, said Kraft called to console him after his defeat, reminding him that even Winston Churchill lost an election after World War II.
“He’s a tough businessman who is out for the best interests of his company,’’ Sullivan said. “But he always treated me like a gentleman, with honor and dignity. I consider him a friend.’’
In football, Kraft has made many friends, NFL owners among them. They describe him as a visionary for spearheading advances in digital media both for the Patriots and the league.
“Jonathan has led the way in cutting-edge innovations that have set a model for the rest of us to follow,’’ said San Diego Chargers owner Dean Spanos. “He has taken the league to a new level in terms of our business.’’
Vikings owner Mark Wilf, who like Kraft is descended from Holocaust survivors, sits on the NFL’s digital media committee, which Kraft chairs. In addition to pioneering e-commerce for the NFL, Wilf said, Kraft played a crucial role in developing a revenue-sharing plan that enabled the NFL to forge a labor agreement in 2006.
He especially praised Kraft’s philanthropy.
“Each of us has tried to continue the connection to our Jewish heritage and our giving back to the community,’’ Wilf said. “Jonathan is passionate about his business, his heritage, and his community, and I have great respect for him.’’
Helping the underprivileged
As a trustee at Belmont Hill and Williams, Kraft has made major contributions to improve access for underprivileged students. At Harvard, where he serves on a governance committee, he has enhanced a $1 billion fund-raising campaign by ensuring the school reaches out to young alumni. He also has provided a major gift with his father to advance precision medicine by connecting the business school, research institutions, and hospitals to try to bring scientific ideas to life, according to dean Nitin Nohria.
Slavin, the MGH president, said Kraft has made similar contributions as a trustee there.
“Jonathan has emerged as one of the most accomplished and effective business and philanthropic leaders in the region,’’ Slavin said. “I don’t know how he does it all and still has time for a wonderful family life.’’
To Kraft’s friends, it is accepted that coaching his children’s athletic teams ranks among his highest priorities. He has spent 15 years coaching them in football, soccer, basketball, and lacrosse, beginning with five years as the offensive coordinator for the Brookline/Jamaica Plain Pop Warner Patriots.
Kraft’s oldest child, Harry, was the Pop Warner quarterback. Harry went on to star at Belmont Hill and has been recruited to play next year at Dartmouth.
At first, Harry was the only private school player on the socially diverse Pop Warner team. And though Jonathan Kraft bought the team new uniforms, refurbished the field with artificial turf, and staged team banquets at Gillette Stadium, where the children met the likes of Brady and Devin McCourty, he was viewed by many in the program as just another coach.
“Before you know him, you think this VIP is going to be a diva,’’ said Ian Cotterell, of Roxbury, Kraft’s head coach. “But he is no diva. He is a down-to-earth person who always gets his hands dirty.’’
Kraft quietly helped many inner-city kids in the program enter private schools.
“The experience really changed my son’s life,’’ said Veronica Picon, of Roslindale. At Kraft’s suggestion, her son, Dago Picon-Roura, joined Harry at Belmont Hill.
Frank Williams, a Brookline kid who played on the Pop Warner team and excelled last fall as a freshman at Bates, described Kraft as “a great role model for all of us.’’
“He loved the kids and the sport,’’ Williams said.
Kraft has committed countless additional hours to coaching his daughter, Sadie, a sophomore at Rivers, and his youngest son, Jacob, a seventh-grader at Dexter Southfield.
Last month, Kraft bolted from the owner’s box at Gillette in the third quarter of a Patriots game against the Dolphins to coach one of Jacob’s games. Then he scrambled to change plans before the AFC Championship game when he learned that another of Jacob’s games was scheduled for the same time.
Kraft quietly arranged to pay a $180 change fee so he could coach Jacob’s team Sunday morning, before the masses began converging on Foxborough for the title game.
As evidence of the satisfaction Kraft has taken from enriching children’s lives through coaching, he wept last year when a former Pop Warner player left him a voicemail on the day he graduated from high school, thanking the Patriots president for all he had done.
Kraft will not forget the boy. He is like family. He appears in a photograph on his office wall.