John Havlicek : Merchandiser Nonpareil

Brother Dominic is still doing verrry nice work for Xerox, his colleague says. Verrry nice. The good man still gets the big jobs done for the monastery, 10,000 perfect copies of the Gloria with the scrollwork just so.

And if Xerox needs to get the inside track with a client, Brother Dominic puts on his robe and goes over. He's very good with the machines, can tick off the selling points like he's giving you the Joyful Mysteries.


"Of course, we're in different divisions," says his colleague, John Havlicek. "He's in ISD. Information Systems Division. I'm in BPD."

Business Products Division, you understand. This is John Havlicek, small businessman, telling you as an entrepreneurial soulmate why you should buy the Xerox 2350. This desk-top copier can reduce my size 14 sneakers to an 8 1/2 .

He is also John Havlicek, pensioner, assuring you that you, too, can "retire like a superstar" with an IRA from the good old Boston Five. And a while back he was Jean Havliceque, gourmand francais, telling you that Yoplait yogurt est fantastique.

Four years after he hung up his Celtic jersey for good, Havlicek has been reincarnated as a merchandiser nonpareil. The man is everywhere these days - trade journals, airline magazines, national slicks, newspaper ads. His voice - warm, confident, sincere - is on the radio. The 6-foot-6 frame, several pounds less than his playingdays, fills TV screens.

Havlicek goes to meetings and tells Xerox salesmen that they're like the 1969 Celtics competing against the Wilt-Elgin-Jerry West Lakers. "We were faced with a formidable team," the Old Captain tells them, "just as you're faced with the Japanese, IBM . . ."

It's Keynes according to the NBA, and it translates easily. You can't stay in a rut, Havlicek tells the salesmen. Sometimes, in business as in basketball, you have to change your strategy in mid-series.

"I bring up the time we were down three games to one to the 76ers and came back," Havlicek says. "And I talk about how you have to keep pushing because you don't know what's around the corner."

It's hard to read their reactions, he admits. But the Xerox people seem to like his metaphor. Somehow, it goes beyond mere "jocktalk." Havlicek is a small businessman, with three Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburger restaurants already open in New York's Westchester County, another three on the boards and rights to still another dozen.

He's got the credibility they want. Havlicek has hung his own money out there in the middle of the recession. He can talk comfortably about inventory control, cash flow and employee motivation. And he believes in his product.

Somebody once polled consumer/fans about sincerity quotients, about the believability of certain athlete/pitchmen. And Havlicek finished second to Stan Musial, "baseball's perfect knight" as the statue outside of the stadium in St. Louis calls him.

Now, some athletes will endorse products they'd never use. Not only will Havlicek not do that, he won't even endorse some things he does use.

"I won't do a beer commercial," he says, "even though I drink beer, because I think it limits you in other areas. After I was shown on TV drinking champagne after a championship, I got about 30 letters from ministers and priests saying that it wasn't the same example I'd portrayed. I decided it wasn't worth the flak."

A Xerox 2350 is more in line with the image. The 2350 is trim, durable and consistent. You get the same crisp product on Saturdays in May as you did on Wednesdays in October. In fact, Havlicek actually portrayed the 2350 during a skit at a company meeting.

"The various copying machines were all basketball players," he says. "And they were down by about 20 points at halftime. So the coach comes in and starts asking, What's wrong with you? One machine says, Me, I'm so outdated I can't even function. And so on. So the coach says, I'm going to get me a superstar. So I come out on the stage and he says, You think you're pretty good? I say, I'm the best. I'm the new 2350 . . ."

Havlicek actually has a 2350 in his office at home. He uses it all the time. When the Boston Five signed him on to promote their IRA plan, Havlicek went out and opened his own IRA with them.

And after he got his hamburger franchises off the ground, he went out to Ohio for a week at Wendy's Management Institute and earned his diploma.

He loved every minute of it, the whole assembly-line cosmos. "Remember, I'm a guy that used to fold his socks over coathangers," Havlicek says. "I like that stuff, the details. How many hamburgers there are in a bag of meat. What the temperature of the grease should be in the french-fry cookers. The levels of condiments. The calibrator you put under the soda dispenser. If it isn't equalized, you can be making a lot of money or losing a lot. I know all those things now."

He talks about role players, how some people are simply better suited to french fries, others to the grill. Every day Havlicek calls his partner Larry Fleisher (who used to negotiate Havlicek's Celtic contracts for him) to talk about The Numbers.

And every week or so Havlicek will fly down to White Plains, N.Y., squeezing into the Command Airways commuter just like any other small businessman-on-the-go, and check out the operation personally. If he orders a burger, he pays for it out of pocket. His family, you may remember, ran a general store in Ohio; Havlicek still has the enormous brass cash register at home.

He has the instincts, the visibility, the believability. It was only a matter of time before corporate America found him. "I would have done the advertisements before," Havlicek says. "They just didn't come around."

During his playing days, he endorsed Rawlings basketballs (and later his own make), Swanson's Hungry Man dinners (with Tommy Heinsohn) and Williams 'Lectric Shave (with teammate Steve Kuberski).

When he retired, he assumed his days as a billboard were over. "I always figured," Havlicek says, "that when you were playing, that's when things would come your way."

Then last fall, Xerox happened to be looking for someone who could sell compact copiers to small businessmen. They wanted someone who was (a) a small businessman himself and (b) tall.

"We wanted a guy who's not flashy," says Kevin McKeon, an executive for Needham, Harper & Steers, the New York agency that handles Xerox advertising. "A guy who's well known, but he's in their position. Everyone likes John Havlicek. Everyone knows him. He'd lend a lot of credibility to Xerox."

So the agency called Havlicek and asked him if he was going to be in New York anytime soon. "I'll make it a point to be in New York," Havlicek told them.

When he arrived, they set up a demo commercial with a handheld camera. "They wanted to see if I could talk and read," muses Havlicek.

At first, says McKeon, Havlicek seemed nervous. "We thought, oh, oh, another athlete/actor. But he loosened up really fast."

"How would you like to talk to the president of Xerox?" the agency people asked him.

Where is he? Havlicek wondered. On the phone?

"No, no, right in this camera. Tell him why you'd like to be with Xerox."

So Havlicek began talking about quality and championships and tradition, drawing parallels between Xerox and the Celtics. "I gave them a two-minute spiel right off the cuff," he says.

And the president loved it. The creative people immediately went to work on a package that had to be ready for the bowl games. Newspaper ads, with Havlicek in busines suit and sneakers. Television commercials, with Havlicek in striped shirt and rep tie. When I stopped running around the courts, I started running my own restaurant.

He did a sales film at Boston Garden, twice shooting six hours at a stretch, then shooting six hours more after a Celtics-Philadelphia game - from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. - when the cameraman messed up. "They were cleaning the Garden," Havlicek remembers. "And someone would yell, Quiet on the set. So the people had to drop their brooms and sit down."

It had to be authentic. The creative people wanted Havlicek in a Celtics warmup. They wanted the Garden. But mostly, they wanted the parquet floor. "It was really a symbol to them," Havlicek says. "I've always thought it was the leprechaun, the shamrocks, the banners. But they were really interested in that floor."

And the man who played on it for 16 years. The Xerox people have signed him for a year with an option for more. They want him to go to Portland, Seattle, Albuquerque and points east to chat with their sales people and their executives over cocktails and draw parallels for them. The role player has become role model.

That's also what attracted the Boston Five people. They felt they had an attractive plan and a good pension trust department. What they wanted, with the whole banking fraternity offering retirement plans, was something to set them apart.

"We were looking for someone who was honest, believable, successful and well-known," says Patty Bond of Schmalenberger & Nargassans, the Boston agency that handles the Boston Five account.

And, ideally, someone who's already in retirement. A pensioner's role model. Havlicek planned ahead during his working days, the implication goes. Now look at him.

The fact is, that Havlicek doesn't really need all this. On the eve of his retirement, he was asked to sum up his financial status in 10 words or less. "I don't have to work if I don't want to," Havlicek had replied.

He has deferred income due him from his playing days. He'll get an NBA pension. He has his Wendy's investments. He has a lovely house on two acres in Weston and weeks upon weeks of free time to use for vacations.

But somehow, he feels he has to earn his time off. He says he wouldn't feel right jetting off to Aspen to ski (as he did a week or so ago) or casting for bonefish in Florida or hunting deer in Maine and not working for it somehow.

So he makes his commitments weeks ahead and goes to the airport as just another small businessman trying to get by. Except that this small businessman finds himself signing autographs from takeoff to touchdown.

"They all get their airline magazine and bring it up to me," says Brother Dominic's colleague. "There's a picture at every seat."

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