The Player

Known as a hard hitter and team leader when he played for the Panthers, Mike Minter now runs a dozen businesses, when he isn't visiting troops in Iraq or touring impoverished towns in Africa

Mike Minter strolls into the conference room. He's barely five-foot-ten, but he moves with the easy rhythm of an athlete, and his biceps stretch the sleeves of his dark, pinstriped suit. As he settles into his seat at the head of a conference table, he thoughtfully strokes his carefully groomed goatee, drawing attention to a big, fancy, silver wristwatch. He looks like a model posing for a glossy magazine advertisement.

But Minter, the former Carolina Panther who retired from professional football last year, is no model. He's a mogul. He's president of Minter Enterprises, an umbrella corporation for about a dozen other business and philanthropic ventures. Minter, who grew up in a poor Oklahoma neighborhood, has worked hard to excel at sports and business, but he hasn't limited his efforts to worldly pursuits. He recently went to Iraq to visit troops, and in March he toured Africa on behalf of the YMCA to help raise funds for several impoverished towns.  

On this particular Monday morning, not long after the Africa trip, Minter is at his company's headquarters in Concord meeting with a rep from an architectural firm who's pitching an idea about forming a partnership. Emblazoned on one of the conference room's walls in big gold letters and bookended by two faux wooden columns are the words "Minter Consulting."

Also present are Molly Thompson, Minter Enterprises' director of marketing, and Steve Sumter, the company's COO and CFO. The three of them usually meet like this every Monday morning to brainstorm and talk about various projects.

As the architectural firm rep launches into his spiel, drawing diagrams and illustrations on a dry-erase board and throwing around words like "synergy," Minter scribbles notes on a leather-bound notepad placed before him. "And that's your gravy," Minter offers, as the rep highlights the profit potential of a forged business partnership.

Minter often converses in this kind of folksy, streetwise vernacular. He doesn't use the vocabulary of a typical corporate president. For a decade his work setting was a locker room and the gridiron, and his coworkers were other football players. Now, he's usually surrounded by savvy, experienced businesspeople who come from vastly different cultures and backgrounds. But Minter navigates this new world well, putting people at ease with his easygoing and relaxed demeanor.

After the pitch, Minter sees the architectural rep out, giving him a hearty handshake and a pat on the back. He then assumes his place back at the head of the table. Minter scans his electronic organizer for a second and then throws out an idea about starting a gym, but not a gym with weights, but "machines that make you sweat using steam."

"You mean, like, a sauna?" Thompson asks.

"Yeah, yeah, they look like tanning beds," answers Minter, who then explains how a company has offered him a discounted six-month trial period to test out these new individual saunas. "You can lose weight without working out," Minter says. "People will love it."

"I don't know, I'm not buying it," Thompson laughs, but says she'll look into it.

"All right, cool," Minter says, and with that, he's gone, leaving Thompson and Sumter to discuss the nuts and bolts of
the business.

"I'm a big-picture guy," Minter says after the meeting. "I drop the idea off, give them the concept of where I want to go with it, and then they put the meats and potatoes to it."

When asked how he likes business compared to playing football, he lets out a big, hearty laugh. "Aw, man, there's no comparison," he says. "Football is what I do. But what I like about business is that it gives me the same feeling—or an imitation of the same feeling—of playing football. It's the competitiveness, it's bringing a team together and saying, OK, this is our objective, let's go accomplish that objective."

Minter dabbled in business throughout much of his ten-year career with the Panthers. Last August, after years of chronic knee pain and three surgeries, he retired from football.

"Now it's real," he says. "When I was playing football, that was number one, that's where all my focus was. So I could play a little bit in the business world knowing that football was going to give me $4 million a year. It's different now. All of a sudden business gets serious."
Minter now presides over several real estate companies, a salon, a magazine, and Minter Consulting, which provides services including marketing, human resources, sales, finance, and accounting.

"When I was first starting my business I saw all the ups and downs of small-business owners trying to make it happen. [Minter Consulting] is designed to help other entrepreneurs get to the next level."

Overseeing the day-to-day aspects of the consulting business and most of Minter's other business enterprises is Sumter. "I'm more of the behind-the-scenes operational person," he says. "Mike is the outside face. He's great at the PR and marketing. Having said that, I wouldn't want to undersell his business skills. He's definitely got a great acumen for seeing an opportunity and being creative from an entrepreneur's point of view."
While he declines to give revenue numbers, Sumter says Minter Enterprises is a "multimillion-dollar company."

One of the most prominent and rapidly growing ventures is Ruckus House, a learning and day care center Minter cofounded with former Panthers teammates Mike Rucker, Stephen Davis, and Muhsin Muhammad. The first Ruckus House opened in Harrisburg in 2005, and the second one opened next door to the Minter Enterprises headquarters in Concord last summer. Minter and his partners are scouting other states to open additional schools.

"At the Ruckus House we have a mission," Minter says. "When that kid comes through our center, at the end of the day that kid understands his purpose in life. And if a kid understands his purpose at [age] five or six…aw, man, we got some true champions. That's what saved me."  

Minter grew up in a poor section of Lawton, Oklahoma, along with two older sisters and a younger brother. Minter was just eight months old when his father died, and a few years later his stepfather went to prison on a drug charge. His mother, who died in 2006, worked as a beautician, and struggled to support her kids. "She worked hard," Minter says. "My mom was my support system."  

In the third grade, perched in front of the TV, Minter watched the University of Nebraska play the University of Miami during the 1984 Orange Bowl. Before the game, the station broadcast Nebraska's season highlights reel.

"I said, man, I like that! I want to play there! I didn't even know where Nebraska was. I just knew I wanted to go. And from that moment my mind was made up."

While Minter had a loving family, it was one plagued by addictions. "All my people were alcoholics," he says. "Everybody in my family went through it—drugs, jail, all that."  

Despite being surrounded by dysfunction and drug abuse, Minter never went down that path—was, in fact, never even tempted.  

"I always looked five, ten years down the road. I've never lived in the moment. I saw guys way better than me not make it because they got caught up in the life. I know how hard it is to come out of the ghetto. What helped me was football; it was my sanctuary. When I got out on that field, nothing else mattered."

Minter started as a running back and free safety while attending Lawton High School. During his senior year he led the state with 1,589 yards rushing and twenty-one touchdowns on 187 carries. Lawton High School football coach Randy Breeze remembers Minter as a quiet and studious kid who spent a lot of time with the books, but was also a fierce football player. "He was very physical and strong," says Breeze. "You took a beating when you tried to tackle him." Minter's abilities garnered the attention of college scouts, including his beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Then, one day, Minter came home from playing ball, and there, sitting on the couch, was legendary University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne.  

"It was surreal," Minter remembers. "I've been watching this man on TV since I was a little kid, and now he's in my house. Mr. Tom Osborne is in my house. My sister and mama were asking all these questions about the university and all that. And I told him, ‘Coach, listen, I'm coming. You don't have to tell me nothing.' He shook my hand and gave me a scholarship. I was on cloud nine."

Minter played at Nebraska from 1992 to 1996, during which Nebraska won two national championships. Minter says that during his time at Nebraska he not only grew as a football player, but as a man as well. "I had never even been out of Oklahoma before," he says. "There's not too many black people in Nebraska, so at first it was a big culture shock. But I got to interact with all kinds of different people, and it taught me a lot."

The Carolina Panthers selected Minter in the second round of the 1997 NFL draft. For a professional football player, Minter, who played safety, was relatively small. But he was also a tough, hard-hitting player and team leader. Well liked by fans and players, his retirement announcement last August was a tearful affair. Even team owner Jerry Richardson welled up.

"That was tough," Minter says. "Mr. Richardson had been like a father to me, and a business mentor. But I knew it was time to move on."

Minter began assembling his company about six years ago, but only recently started to branch out and expand his interests. Some ventures under the Minter Enterprises umbrella include Imaj Salon and Spa, which Minter co-owns with his sister, Rosiland Beaty, and Fantasia Barrino of American Idol fame. The spa, which opened in late 2006 across from Concord Mills, offers an array of spa services, as well as a retail section with high-end jewelry, designer eyewear, handbags, and accessories. Last year, he bought Cabarrus Business Magazine.    

He also launched Minter Properties. The company is developing The Villas at Winecoff, a community in Concord modeled after Old World Italian villas. With construction scheduled to start in June, the development is targeting young professionals and empty nesters with about ninety single-family homes priced between $300,000 and $500,000. And looking to give back to his hometown, he launched Oklahoma Land Management, which aims to transform a small community near the Texas border with affordable housing and a renovated downtown. Minter hired his brother, William Johnson, to manage the company's construction and new home development division.

The first community Minter developed, in 2002, was Pine Creek, an upscale, gated community in Kannapolis with sixty-four homes ranging from $1.2 million to $4 million located on one-to-three-acre lots. Minter and his wife, Kim, along with their four kids, (two boys, thirteen and eleven, and six-year-old twin girls) settled in the community several years ago, as did Minter's good friend and former Panthers teammate Mike Rucker.
Rucker and Minter first met at Nebraska. "Mike was a few years older than me, and thought he was the big stud on campus," says Rucker with a laugh. "He tried to break us freshmen in."

The two grew closer when they were drafted by the Panthers, and now that they're neighbors, both families (Rucker and his wife have three kids) usually get together several times a week, and they often take vacations together. "We've become a really close-knit group," says Rucker. "And when we go out people see us coming because we're about ten deep."

While he hasn't made any official announcements, Rucker is contemplating retiring from football. And like Minter, in preparation for life beyond his football career, he's gotten involved in business, and developed Vision Realty Group. "Mike and I feed off each other," says Rucker. "We both understand that you can't play football forever. And when you're done, you can have $20 million in the bank but you're not going to just stay home and watch the Flintstones. You'll go crazy. So we got a head start when we were playing football, which makes the transition from sports to business a little easier."
Minter says that while his mother struggled with addiction issues, she was known for having a big heart, and wouldn't turn away anyone if they needed help. It's a trait that Minter says he now embraces, and he has integrated many philanthropic components into his businesses. At Imaj, 10 percent of the net proceeds go toward building homes for single mothers in need. At The Villas at Winecoff, a percentage of proceeds will go to Habitat for Humanity. And through the Ruckus House, Minter and his partners have set up a scholarship fund, which is awarded to select graduating seniors with a desire to become teachers.

"Every project we do has to be tied to something else," he says. "It's important for me to give back."

Perhaps Minter's most ambitious philanthropic endeavor involves his work with the YMCA. Last year he joined the Y's Metropolitan Board of Directors. In March, Minter, along with his two sons and about ten YMCA staff members, traveled to West Africa and visited Ys in Senegal and The Gambia.
The trip was part of a mission to help raise $90,000 for the Friends of West Africa Fund, which will help bring food, water, and educational resources to poverty-stricken areas. "Mike's role is to lead the volunteer efforts and help raise some dollars to support our YMCA relationship with our brothers and sisters in West Africa," says Michael A. DeVaul, the YMCA's senior vice president of organizational advancement, who also traveled to Africa.     

"The trip was an amazing experience," says Minter. "I wanted to understand how the YMCA works over in Africa, and I wanted to visit our homeland, to see where our ancestors are from. It was very emotional."

After a long morning of meetings, Minter, still looking smooth in his dapper suit, relaxes behind a desk in one of his corporation's offices. As he reflects about his life, he seems a bit awed and even a little giddy about where he is today. Not only did he live out his football aspirations, he's now president of a successful corporation and lives in a multimillion-dollar mansion in a community that one of his companies developed. Last year Osborne, his old college coach, invited him to Lincoln the weekend of the Texas A&M game. It was a big event, attended by high rollers and well-known political and business figures. As he walked around the stadium, visiting various private boxes and greeting old teammates and friends, it all felt a little otherworldly.

"When I first came out of Oklahoma, I didn't trust anybody," says Minter. "I was scared and nervous. Now, here I am with Tom Osborne. We go into one room, and there's Warren Buffet, and then there's Clarence Thomas. And I'm just tripping. Stuff like this blows my mind. I mean I'm just some kid from the 'hood in Lawton, Oklahoma."