It’s been close to a decade since Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal announced his retirement after a 19-year career.
O’Neal’s profile has only expanded in his second act as a studio analyst on TNT’s Inside the NBA and NBA TV. Thanks to high-profile endorsement and investment deals, you’re likely to see one of several ads featuring the big fella during commercial breaks.
While his strong opinions and back and forth with current stars of the league have drawn a considerable amount of attention, what can’t be ignored is the fact that O’Neal has very visibly become one of the most successful former athletes turned businessmen in the history of professional sports.
His investment philosophy is based on fun, making people smile and products that help make others lives better. It’s that philosophy that has helped build O’Neal’s business empire to what it is today.
I spoke with Shaq on behalf of The General. After experiencing exponential growth in 2020, the 58-year-old auto insurance company is launching a new ad campaign to address the perception of the company, due to their previous low-quality ads, and deliver a refresh that reflects the quality the company has prided itself on.
My conversation with O’Neal touched on being true to himself with any endorsement or investment opportunity, what he’s learned over the course of his life about business and his financial advice to current professional athletes.
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Why was this the time for a brand refresh for The General?
Shaq: I’ve been working with The General for a long time. I’ve always known that they were a quality insurance company, and my goal is to help the world understand that. I joined forces with The General in 1989 when I bought a used Bronco for $1,500. The guy wouldn’t let me drive off of the lot until I had insurance. I went by all of the other insurance places, and I couldn’t afford them. I saw this little sign that said, ‘The General’ and I walked in looking for some affordable and quality insurance.
A lot of times, you’ll see the little, funny commercial and you hear the jingle. I think people thought we were a cheesy insurance company, so we wanted to let people know that we are the real deal. Our goal is to have affordable insurance, so people don’t have to break their necks every month to try and pay for car insurance. I know I’m Shaq and I can afford any insurance in the world, but when I was just Shaquille, I needed quality, affordable insurance and that’s why I went with The General.
Your first big investment was in Google before its IPO. Would you consider that your first lucrative investment and if so, what about that sparked that investment bug in you?
For me, it was a lucky investment. I was at the right place at the right time, and I was able to invest in it. I had forgot about it and the day the news broke; I received a nice amount. Every time I tried to invest in something for just monetary purposes only, I would lose and lose big. Every time I tried to do the get-rich-quick schemes; I would lose. When I started investing in companies that are going to change people’s lives, it all changed.
I heard Jeff Bezos say that’s how he invests. Guys like Warren Buffett invest in things that are going to make a positive impact on the world. Once I started doing that, it’s a win-win situation for me. Even when I do endorsement deals with companies, you want to bring people in, make them laugh and make them have fun.
What is the importance you place on investing in things you love?
That is definitely first and foremost. I have to love the product and believe in the product, especially if I’m going to try and get you to believe in the product. You can’t pay me to say *picks up paper towel* drink this because it’s water. You can’t say ‘I’m going to pay you a billion dollars. There’s this paper towel that turns to water when you place it in your mouth.’ I’m not even going to try that, but if I did try it and I liked it, I would say, ‘hey, I liked it and it’s really good.’ I always been an old school, respectable businessman. If I don’t know anything about your product, I can’t sell it to my people.
How critical do you feel the move to LA was for you in terms of the things that presented themselves to you from a business standpoint?
It was super critical. Even when I was living in Orlando, I still had a house in California. Whenever we lost in the playoffs, I was out there the next day and all summer just meeting and mingling. When I moved out there full time and people had 24-hour access to me, that was very critical. I got to see guys like Magic Johnson, Norm Nixon and how they do business. Guys would throw parties and there’s ideas being thrown around at these different events and I got to be a part of that crowd.
In terms of investing, what do you consider your strengths?
I go by that mantra and that one mantra only. If it’s something that’s going to make someone’s life better or make the world a better place, I’ll do that every time. I had to stop investing in things where I thought I would get over 20-30 percent return.
What other CEO’s do you call up for advice?
The first guy I would call, and may he rest in peace, was a guy by the name of Roger Enrico. He was the former CEO of Pepsi. I can call Irving Azoff, Jimmy Iovine — I can call a lot of guys. A lot of times, I don’t call these guys to ask for advice, but I watch what they do. I can call Jeff Bezos and I actually heard him speak in a speech and that’s when he said he was going to invest in things that change people’s lives. If you do that, it’s a no-brainer. A lot of people are bitcoin this and blah, blah, blah. All of that is fine but I want to invest in things that are going to change people’s lives.
You bring all the companies you work with together once a year for what you call the Shaq Summit. When did that start and how important is that for your brand?
It all started when I first got to LA. I was getting so many deals and I was all over the place with shooting commercials at the same time and the messaging was all different. I thought that I needed a summit where we could see where everyone is at, what they’re doing, and we want to see can everyone work together; can The General work with Pepsi or with Reebok? It’s also a networking platform where other companies can do business together.
In terms of the league now, guys are making a lot more than you played. What advice would you give to athletes who isn’t yet thinking about 20-30 years from now?
Let’s say I was making $200 million right now. I would go to ownership and say just pay me $100 million now and pay me the other half five years after I retire. That’s what I would do to help ensure that I had money coming to me the rest of my life. That way, after you’re done playing, you can teach yourself how to invest, what businesses to own, how to save rather than spend. A lot of guys get these contracts and that would be one of the first things I would do. $200 million is great, thank you. But I think I can live off of $100.
Hold that other hundred for when I retire and just spread it out, so you have time to educate yourself. Education isn’t always about going to school. You can ask a money manager; ask somebody you can truly trust or speak with a family lawyer. I was never shy about asking questions.
When you were playing, were there any locker room discussions about what companies to invest in or business in general?
We were pretty much just focused on basketball and winning championships. Every now and again, a guy would tell me what he’s doing. Brian Shaw and Rick Fox were really into business and things of that nature, but it wasn’t never really something that we sat down and talked about.
You have sons who athletically look like they’ll be playing on the big stage in the near future. With their upbringing being vastly different than yours, how do you manage them having all the things you never had growing up but also instilling smart financial values?
It’s called discipline. First, they know if they don’t follow the rules than they’ll be disciplined. Second of all, my two sons and my two daughters all play and I don’t put pressure on them. Third, I always stress education and I told them that I’m not giving them anything. Fourth, they have to earn it. Fifth, they get the picture, and they know we’re not doing nepotism over here but I’ll do respectable nepotism.
What would you consider your best investment overall?
I don’t want to talk about what I’ve invested in during a time where millions of people have lost their jobs and I don’t want it to seem like I’m bragging about what I got. I’ve been very smart about what I’ve invested in. I’ve also lost a lot too. I don’t want to sit here like I’m the black Warren Buffett and everything I touches turns to gold.
What’s next for the Shaq brand?
I just want to continue to make people smile and be the guy that when you see him and if you’re having a bad day, you’ll crack a smile. I want my legacy to be Shaquille O’Neal was a nice guy, period. Nothing else.