SEATTLE -- A little boy, 2 years old, kicks a soccer ball around the backyard. He's barely big enough to handle his round obsession, but he keeps running and kicking, running and kicking, running and kicking. He asks his mother to stand and clap while he plays.
Nostalgic and embarrassed at once, Adrian Hanauer's face turns a pinkish color. Maybe he would turn completely red if he hadn't heard his mother, Lenore, tell that story for years. Now, though, he accepts the tale as part of his idyllic love for a game that still fascinates him.
Even the grown-up Hanauer -- the immaculately-clad, 45-year-old minority owner and general manager of Sounders FC -- resembles the boy kickin' it in the backyard. He faded as a player in his teens, but it didn't lessen his enthusiasm for soccer. The difference now is that he does his best work behind the scenes, not on the field. And he doesn't clamor for an audience anymore; in fact, he's rather shy when forced to discuss himself.
Beneath all of that, however, his passion is the same. It's a passion that led him to take a significant risk and become the managing partner of the old USL Sounders nine years ago. It's a passion that made him adamant about helping to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Seattle.
And it's a passion that now drives him to build the best MLS club, even though he works without a salary in his general manager duties.
"It allows me to do my job with more focus on what's right," says Hanauer, whose GM title can be removed by the fans' vote after the 2012 season. "I'm a minority owner, and for me, that's compensation enough. I don't have to worry about keeping my job or a contract extension or anything like that. I'm solely focused on what's right. If someone else could do the job better than me, I would gladly hand over the reins, and that would be fine with me. It's all about what's best for the franchise."
Get to know Hanauer, and you realize his approach is similar in everything he does. He's quite the anomaly: a shrewd, millionaire businessman with good intentions; an aggressive negotiator balanced by patience and deep thinking; a dangerously good poker player (he wins Las Vegas tournaments) who is also open and honest.
'He's a smart cookie'
Hanauer wouldn't be here, running the Sounders FC, if he weren't such a good businessman. He's not a personnel guru. He's a talented manager, of people and of money.
He learned about business and entrepreneurship at an early age. His family owns Pacific Coast Feather Co., a high-end manufacturer of bedding products. Hanauer began working with the company at age 13, but when he became an adult, he decided to do his own thing.
When he was 22, he founded Museum Quality Framing, a chain of custom frame stores in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. He also owns the chain of Mad Pizza restaurants. He was an early investor of an online advertising company called aQuantive, which made him a lot of money. Six years ago, he founded the Curious Office Partners, a business incubator and venture capital company.
There are more nuanced reasons to explain Hanauer's success, but here's the most interesting.
"He's a smart cookie," says Tom Riley, who is the financial overseer of Hanauer's businesses and investments. "It's scary when he's looking over your shoulder because he's so smart. His analytical and math abilities are ridiculous."
"He can look at a spreadsheet of numbers and do all the math in his head," Riley says. "If you're talking about a business problem and you're going through the math, most people would need a calculator. Not Adrian. He can quickly look at something and say, 'These numbers are off.' That's why he's so good at poker. He can figure everything out in his head."
Hanauer is a math whiz, but he's intelligent without being socially awkward. He often engages people with his curiosity. Conversations with Hanauer begin with a series of his questions, but he doesn't ask them in an interrogating manner. He comes across as genuinely interested. And when he speaks, his voice is a mellow, slow tenor -- a Northwest drawl -- and it makes for a comfortable discussion.
Hanauer learned from his parents, Lenore and his late father, Jerry, that good business starts with the integrity of the product. The Pacific Coast Feather Co. has survived since 1884 because it doesn't fudge when it comes to quality. Similarly, Hanauer wants the best frames, the best ingredients for his pizzas, and he wants to deal with his partners in the fairest manner possible. As a result, he has a favorable reputation despite being highly competitive.
"For sure, he helps bring out the best in me," says Sounders FC technical director Chris Henderson, Hanauer's right-hand man, whose roles range from scouting and player management to coaching to facilities to youth development. "Adrian has helped create a culture here that's collaborative and very special."
A pursuit of greatness
It's easy to forget the Sounders are a third-year expansion team. They're the two-time defending U.S. Open Cup champions. They made it to the MLS playoffs their first two seasons, and they're expected to do so again this season. Despite injury misfortune and the disappointing departure of Blaise Nkufo, their 8-4-7 record has them in second place in the Western Conference, four points behind Monday's opponent, the Los Angeles Galaxy.
It has been an incredible start, a good initial product that brings 36,000 fans to CenturyLink Field every home match. But the ultimate goal is to build a team that wins MLS championships regularly and makes its presence known on an international stage.
So, good won't be good enough for the Sounders much longer. Hanauer craves getting to that championship level as much as anyone. But his challenge is to do so while running a financially stable operation.
With the USL Sounders, Hanauer won two league titles. But he also inherited a club that had lost $1 million a season for five consecutive years. He reduced the losses to about $350,000 annually, but it was a struggle. He had to do this job, though, because he remembers watching the original Sounders in the North American Soccer League in the 1970s. Once again, his idyllic love for the game motivated him.
"I got a crash course in running a professional soccer team," recalls Hanauer, who became the USL Sounders managing partner in 2002. "We thought it was a good thing for the market. People were putting money in it to try and keep it alive. But when I took over, it was more a philanthropic thing than it was managing a team that could sustain itself. That had to change."
Hanauer did good work with the USL Sounders, but he made his biggest move in 2007 when he was introduced to Joe Roth, who would become the Sounders FC majority owner. Later, Paul Allen and Drew Carey joined them as investors.
Now, they need to finish off the team. They rolled it out perfectly, but as difficult as that was, sustained excellence is even harder. Hanauer is constantly pondering what little things turn a good team into a champion.
The Sounders are close, but the question is how they get over the top. Spend big money on a third designated player? Let the team grow some more? Make a big trade? Everything is a possibility. Hanauer must make the right choice.
Fortunately, this is what he's best at doing.
"I don't like to waste money," Hanauer says. "If it's money that's good money to be spent, I'm all over it. We're going to try to make sure we do this thing the right way."
To this point, the right way has never failed Hanauer. The game hasn't, either. He's still running and kicking, adding up numbers in his head, trying to make another dream materialize.
Title: Minority owner and general manager of Sounders FC
Other businesses he has been associated with: Amazon.com (early investor); aQuantive Inc.; Curious Office Partners; Mad Pizza; Museum Quality Framing; and Pacific Coast Feather Co.