Ah, for the scent of burning Bronco

A former NFL linebacker waxes poetic about the essential appeal of candles bearing your favorite team’s logo. From ColoradoBIZ.

Tom Graham’s Sweet Smell of Success
By Stewart Schley

The last thing you’d think, knowing that Tom Graham once ground out a living as a middle linebacker in the NFL, is that the guy would be all gaga over fragrances. But here’s Graham, father of Broncos tight end Daniel Graham, talking excitedly on his cell phone on a Thursday morning about…candles.

Candles! The kind with wicks. The kind that make your den smell like a Girl Scout cookie.

“I’m a bit of a romantic. I love candles and fragrances,” says Graham.

He must. For years, the former Bronco has been trying to launch a business that revolves around the seemingly incongruent pairing of football and scented objects.

Now, Graham’s finally getting so close he can smell it. His Denver company, Pro Freshener, is about to go to market with a collection of fragrance diffusers, candles and air fresheners emblazoned with NFL logos. It’s a business built on simple observations: Lots of people buy candles and air fresheners, and lots of people love professional football. Also, as Graham knows, the NFL wants to broaden its appeal to women. Putting three and three together, Graham figured he could make a good living making and selling inexpensive air fresheners and candles stamped with team logos.

Sensible enough, but as Graham has discovered, starting a business that demands approval by the licensing people at the NFL has demanded every bit of tenacity the 57-year-old Graham ever displayed on a football field. “They are very strict and very good at guarding the brand,” says Graham.

Graham thought he’d be in business years ago. But when a partnership as a sub-licensee to another manufacturer unraveled, Graham had to apply anew for his own NFL deal. He might as well have tried out for the Broncos as a 52-year-old.

The NFL doesn’t just dole out licensing authorizations. Getting approval to sell a T-shirt, cap, desk lamp or poster featuring an NFL Properties logo is like submitting to a friendly FBI debriefing. League officials demand detailed financial statements, business plans and profitability metrics from their licensees. And once you get one, the heat turns up instantly: You’ve got one year to prove to the league you can meet your numbers.

To get his application in order, Graham sought help from Ron Rizzuto, professor of finance at the University of Denver’s Daniels School of Business. Working with a DU graduate student and the professor he now fondly calls “Doc,” Graham wrote a detailed business plan spanning everything from manufacturing costs per item to a marketing plan for online distribution.

Last spring, after a torturous wait, Graham got word from the NFL: he was in. Even so, Graham was still scrambling to get financing in place. After turning down two potential investors and with time running thin, Graham did something he told himself he wouldn’t: Went to his son for money. Daniel Graham had just signed a free-agent deal with the Broncos that included a $10 million signing bonus. “I sat down with him at the 11th hour and I said, ‘Son, look, I need you to step up,’” says Graham.

The younger Graham did, investing $500,000 to get his father’s business off the ground. Since then, Graham and his partner have been lining up distributors, showing their stuff at NFL Merchandising conventions, doing deals with manufacturers (Graham raves about Dianne’s Custom Candles of Burnside, Minn.) and keeping the faith. “You have to be persistent and tenacious,” Graham says. “You can’t stop pursuing a dream.”

After a trade show for retailers staged by the NFL last month in Miami, Graham got a call he’d been dreaming about. The TV-shopping network QVC was on the line, wanting to know about getting a batch of Graham’s products to sell during its live broadcasts. Graham overnighted a box of samples and, when we visited, was waiting for the verdict. For the ex-linebacker who lasted seven seasons in the NFL and had endured lots of sleepless nights over the last few years, it felt like Graham was winning again.