Jeremy Jacobs works for peanuts. Literally. Granted, Jacobs has turned peanuts into a privately held, family-owned, multilayered business that owns the National Hockey League’s Boston Bruins and exceeds $2 billion in annual revenue. But, at its core, Delaware North Companies sells peanuts.
Jacobs’ father and two uncles started a small concessions business in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1915 as a way of pursuing the American dream. During the summer months, the brothers turned their attention from local theaters to ballparks, effectively creating the sporting concessions business. In 1930, Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers first contracted Delaware North to run its concessions. Soon, Delaware North purchased and began operating horse race tracks, and in the ’40s, it expanded into the hospitality and travel industries. By 1960, Delaware North was a global provider of concessions, hospitality, gaming and travel services.
In 1968, Jeremy’s father, Louis Jacobs, died unexpectedly, turning the family business over to his son, who was just 28. “My dad died at work,” Jacobs says. “That’s where he liked to be; he died doing what he liked to do.” Though young, Jacobs had been paying attention to how his father operated.
Today, Delaware North operates in sporting venues, airports and entertainment complexes around the globe. It owns and manages resorts in places as far off as Australia and New Zealand.
Jacobs’ first loves are sports and horses, so he expanded the company’s gaming and sporting ventures. “When we got into gaming, we had an understanding of gaming and race tracks,” Jacobs says. “It was just evolutionary for us. In a lot of cases, they’re very similar.” In a few short years, he purchased Boston Garden and the Boston Bruins.
But, despite his expansions, Jacobs believes in staying close to the core business his father established. “The most recent jump was taking that hotel and vacation experience into Australia. It’s not too big a leap. If we get too far away from where our core business is, we take on a high risk of failure. We don’t like to take those risks if we can avoid it.”
He has slowly expanded the scope and breadth of the company, trying new projects as he sees fit. The results haven’t always been successful. A foray into the steel and smelting industries ended in failure. But Jacobs learned from his miscalculations.
“Making mistakes is natural, but you have to keep challenging yourself,” Jacobs says of running a business. “You can’t stray from your strengths.” For Jacobs, strength begins with passion. “Start with something you really like and believe in,” Jacobs advises fledgling entrepreneurs.
“You’ve got to enjoy it and be ready to really pursue it. I’ve seen so many people get into the restaurant business for financial reasons, and that’s absolutely upside down. You go into business because it’s something you enjoy doing and enjoy being around—you’re smitten by the oddities or the individual things that happen every day. If you have those characteristics, it’s time to move forward.”
His wife’s passion for the outdoors led him to partner with the U.S. National Parks system, providing hospitality and concessions at many of the nation’s most treasured locales. The common bond he shares with visitors, Jacobs says, is what makes it successful. “When you come with the passion for the experience, you become a much better business partner,” he says.
But passion alone doesn’t drive Jacobs’ business strategy. He leads with a consistent, predictable approach punctuated with a commitment to speaking his mind, whether his opinions are met with applause or questions. “You need to be predictable—predictable to those people who work for you,” he advises. “It helps them, gives them direction on where you’re going. If you’re not predictable, people have the tendency to operate with fear and not confidence.”
Now in his 70s, Jacobs relies on his three sons, all heavily involved with the company, and a young crop of company leaders to write the next chapter in the family business. He doesn’t see it as slowing down, just good business. “As much as I’d like to think I still have something to contribute, I have less to contribute than the next generation does. But, more important, the design of this company going forward is driven by the people that live and work here. I think you have to allow those people that you believe understand the business to carry it and to be collectively energized. They should be able to design where this company is going in the future. In that respect, I have to respect what they have to say and what they do. This is not a one-man design anymore; it’s a collection of very gifted people.”
One area Jacobs still gives his full attention to is philanthropy. He has given millions to Buffalo-area hospitals and the University of Buffalo, helping to establish the Jacobs Institute, a collaborative partnership between the university, Kaleida Health, and a new downtown medical and teaching district he hopes will revitalize the area as much as it leads the way in research and teaching. Jacobs believes education is the United States’ most valuable commodity.
“If it weren’t for academics, I think this country would be in even more difficulty than we are today,” he says. “We have excellent universities and educational opportunities here, and they really are spurring the intelligence that will lead this country. We’re a high-priced provider of mundane materials and redundant things. That will always be the case. It’s education that will keep the economy flourishing.”
That, and plenty of peanuts and popcorn.