Why NBA veteran Junior Bridgeman had to work at Wendy’s to build his $600 million fortune

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 5, 2024 1:38 PM EDT
Junior Bridgeman. Photo credit: Heartland Coca-Cola

Long before his playing career was over, NBA veteran Ulysses Lee “Junior” Bridgeman was preparing for life after basketball. He realised early that the money he earned during his playing career wouldn’t support life after retirement. While his peers took time off during the offseason, Bridgeman was working at a local Wendy’s drive-through to learn the business model of fast food restaurants. He invested tremendously in the Wendy’s franchise, ultimately becoming the owner of more than 160 Wendy’s and 120 Chili’s restaurants.

This is how Bridgeman accumulated a fortune of over $600 million, becoming one of the wealthiest ex-athletes in the world.

Growing up in East Chicago, Bridgeman’s father was determined that his son would succeed academically and find life beyond the steel mills. Bridgeman consequently focused on being an exceptional student and couldn’t conceive getting a basketball scholarship. However, being a member of the undefeated Washington High School Senators basketball team and winning the 1971 Indiana state championship opened up impressive opportunities for Bridgeman. He earned a scholarship to the University of Louisville where he led the Cardinals to the 1975 Final Four in his senior year. Off the court, Bridgeman was simultaneously completing a degree in psychology and studying for the LSAT.

But when the Lakers selected him with the eighth pick in the draft, plans of attending law school immediately fell away.

Despite being a consistent player for years, Bridgeman didn’t earn any individual or team accolades in his twelve-year NBA career.  He was involved in a landmark trade to the Milwaukee Bucks less than a month after the draft. He spent ten years with the Bucks and another two with the Los Angeles Clippers. His highest annual earnings were a comparatively modest $350,000, with his on-court earnings totaling $4.2 million. Unlike NBA superstars Michael Jordan and LeBron James, Bridgeman didn’t have lucrative endorsement deals or sponsorships to generate extra income.

Bridgeman gained his first real taste of the business world as an officer and later president of the NBA Players Association. The years he spent haggling with the team owners and watching their thought processes proved invaluable. In addition to working at Wendy’s, Bridgeman sold insurance at a local firm and worked the front desk at a Howard Johnson during the off-season. He learned the ins and outs of the food business, owning three branches of Wendy’s by the time he retired.

After retirement, Bridgeman personally took over the management of his restaurants. He insisted on being involved in every facet of the business, from working behind the counter to manning the tills or the fryers and even mopping the floors. It was quite difficult for an outsider to tell who was the boss. Once a woman recognized Bridgeman working behind the counter she called into a local radio talk show the next day to discuss the predicament of the ex-athlete.

“What I tried to do was to get everybody to understand that we were a team. We worked together as a team, we win as a team, and we lose as a team. Once everybody bought in and believed that we could be successful, it was amazing how quickly things started to improve,” Bridgeman said about how he turned his restaurants into a highly profitable venture.

Initially, Bridgeman’s franchises generated modest returns. His highest-earning restaurant grossed $800,000, which was the average for Wendy’s franchises at the time. He focused on gaining the trust and respect of his employees as a strategy to raise income. This motivated them to work harder and sell more products. Soon, the franchises began to yield above-average returns, bringing in millions of dollars each year. Bridgeman used the newfound revenue to purchase more franchises.

Bridgeman Foods grew to eventually become the second-largest Wendy’s franchise owner in the United States. The company had more than 280 restaurants including more than 160 Wendy’s and 120 Chili’s restaurants across the US employing 11,000 people. Bridgeman sold the company in 2016 and pursued alternative ventures.

Having sold his fast-food empire, Bridgeman joined the Coke bottling system in 2017. He serves as the president and CEO of Heartland Coca-Cola, running a production plant in Lenexa, Kansas and 18 distribution centers covering territories in Kansas, Missouri and Southern Illinois. The company bottles and distributes approximately 600 beverage products and produces 30 million crates annually. It employs 2,000 people and boasts revenues of over $650 million.

In 2020, Bridgeman’s company Bridgeman Sports and Media bought Ebony and Jet for $14 million. The company had defaulted on more than $10 million in loans and declared bankruptcy earlier in the year. Founded by pioneering businessman John H. Johnson, the magazines have been in publication for more than 75 years and are part of African American history.