Jerome (Jerry) Johnson Richardson

March 1, 2023

Jerome Johnson Richardson, who was undersized as a high school football player – “Stick” to his teammates -- yet came to have an outsized influence pioneering NFL football and Hardee’s hamburgers in the Carolinas, mentoring and befriending thousands and changing lives and living in the region with his quiet philanthropy, passed away yesterday at his Charlotte home. He was 86.

While his achievements in building companies and placing what many thought was a risky bet on winning a coveted NFL franchise have been well documented, his influence on thousands of people and his largely anonymous philanthropy over years have taken place out of the public eye. And that was fine with him.  Avoiding the limelight, Richardson favored building relationships one at a time, investing time in getting to know people, listening to their concerns and asking for their advice. A friend said of him that he “listened with purpose".

Of his own personal habits, which he shared consistently with friends and “teammates” (never “employees”) over the years – teamwork, harmony, listening, respect -- the one most often cited by others was “work hard”. It started at an early age, “handing” tobacco at age 8. 

“I’ve seen him come off the field and say, ‘did we win?’,” said Tildon Downing a lifelong friend from first grade days in Fayetteville. “They had beat him to death, but they couldn’t stop him. He was just so damned determined; he would just keep playing.” 

Others would see the same drive and determination in the years that followed as Richardson strove to win a football scholarship at Wofford College, earn a roster spot on a legendary Baltimore Colts team, build a successful business in a highly competitive industry, lead a national company through the turbulent 80s and 90s, and finally realize his dream of bringing a home-grown NFL franchise to the Carolinas. Through his entire working life, he had to listen to the skeptics who pegged him for failure.  He was undersized, lacked experience, was unsophisticated, or was undercapitalized. Some thought he was crazy.

Richardson realized early on, though, that having a strong will wasn’t enough. It had to be tempered by humility to accomplish anything worthwhile. Humble enough to say to people “I need your help” or “I need your advice,” he would then place enormous trust in those around him, a gesture that was returned in a level of loyalty and friendship rarely seen in business. On his team, no one used the “I” word, except to admit a personal mistake.

When mistakes were made, or when adversity struck, Richardson’s first instinct was to look to his own shortcomings. He would begin the postmortem discussion with numbered bullet points on things he could have done differently.

Out of respect for others, he was notoriously time conscious. If one wasn’t 15 minutes early for a meeting with Richardson, he was considered late. Late arrivals at the hanger saw that the plane had left without them.

His emphasis on timeliness was linked to another trait – getting to the point quickly. With an important project underway, he would say, “We don’t have a lot of time for chit chat.” This would usually mean that he had already put in the work and zeroed in on the most critical issues. Knowing this, his teammates would be motivated to do their homework and come prepared.

For Richardson, doing your best required taking pride in your work – keeping the parking lot clean and the grass mowed, never cutting corners, taking care of things entrusted to you. Religiously polished, the half mile-long wrought iron fence around Bank of America Stadium was a silent witness to his influence.

He felt a deep bond with the people around him. Equipped with a “willing servant heart” in the words of a co-worker, he always carried cash in his pocket to immediately reward a job well done. He helped numerous people through life emergencies. Following him to the podium at a meeting, a Hardee’s region leader found that the CEO had forgotten to take with him a yellow note to himself. It read: “Love our people with a passion.”

Ask any of his friends what they saw as Richardson’s greatest shortcoming, they would likely point out that he didn’t have a hobby, or that he didn’t know how to relax. His own take was, “I don’t play golf and I don’t have a yacht. I work and I go home.”

While he had an uncommon eye for talent, Richardson was first drawn to people by their character. He could see potential in them, motivate them to up their game and then give them opportunities to stretch for higher goals. Countless individuals say today that meeting him was the turning point in their lives. Many of them have gone on to become successful entrepreneurs or leaders in their professions.   When he invested in a restaurant franchise started by his administrative assistant and her husband, one of the provisions of the written agreement stated: “Be fair, be loyal, make progress (profit) and have fun. Make the most of your life. We only live one time.”

Two ongoing testaments to Richardson’s way with people are the Spartan Food Systems reunions and the Facebook group that continue attract hundreds of former co-workers to celebrate the spirit of the company he founded in 1961, a company that has not been in existence for decades.

One could say he got an entire region to believe in itself, as well, when the NFL’s 29th franchise was awarded in 1993. “He put together a coalition of people the League believed had the money to pay for it and made it happen,” said Hugh McColl, former chairman and CEO of Bank of America. “He was the orchestrator and did a great job. He did his homework and worked at it, worked at it, and worked at it. “

Perhaps no one was in a better position to appraise the value of Richardson’s involvement in bringing pro football to the Carolinas than Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner: “Without Jerry Richardson, I don’t believe the Carolina Panthers would be there. He had sheer determination and passion. He believed in it. He believed in the community, and he had an approach of just calmly thinking through the issues and addressing them…He was single-minded about what he wanted to accomplish and went about it aggressively and continuously. The main thing was focus. He had total focus on what he was doing.”

Well beyond sports and business, Richardson’s influence extended to institutions such as his alma mater Wofford College and the nearby Spartanburg community. Leaders in both places will readily admit that Richardson’s practical advice and personal commitment raised them to new levels of academic excellence and community pride. Around the Carolinas, in ways large and small, he quietly helped people raise their sights in life. He never understood people not wanting to do their best – whatever that was.

From his youth shooting pool or playing cards with his friends, his fondest pleasure was spending time with his friends and loved ones, telling stories, and enjoying their company. The setting for these get togethers could be 21 Club in New York, the more rustic Belle Acres Club in Charlotte, or the landmark Beacon Drive-In in Spartanburg. When he wasn’t “visiting” with them in person, he was writing them handwritten notes to keep in touch. And every letter was answered, friends, strangers and fans alike. Framed notes from Richardson adorn many walls around the Carolinas and beyond.

Always able to take the long view and see what is important, Richardson made decisions that involved short term sacrifice in favor of longer term and broader benefits. Instead of building a new home office for his company in a low-rise suburban office park, he built a 17-story tower in downtown Spartanburg to spur investment in a dying downtown. Locating his new stadium in Uptown Charlotte – and thus being able to showcase the city’s sparkling skyline on game days -- meant giving up team-operated parking facilities, a lucrative business for most NFL teams. When allegations were made against him, he chose to put the long-term interests of his family and the team ahead of defending himself in public.

Frequently asked about the reason he was able to overcome adversity and achieve his goals, his answer was pretty consistent: “We were lucky. People wanted to help us.”

The only child of George Bertram Richardson and Mary Williams Richardson, Jerome Johnson Richardson was born in a farmhouse in Spring Hope NC on July 18, 1936, and was graduated from Fayetteville (NC) High School. He later gradated from Wofford College, located in Spartanburg, SC, where he was an Associated Press Little All-America selection in 1957 and 1958 and still holds several school records in football. Drafted in the 13th round by the defending World Champion Baltimore Colts, Richardson played two seasons in the NFL, earning Colt Rookie of the Year honors in 1959. He caught a touchdown pass in the 1959 NFL World Championship Game from quarterback Johnny Unitas.

Following his NFL career, Richardson used his 1959 NFL Championship bonus to join Charles Bradshaw in opening very first Hardees franchise in Spartanburg SC. In 1976, now known as Spartan Food Systems, the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange, becoming only the third company in the state’s history to be so recognized.

In 1979, Spartan was acquired by Trans World Corporation, the parent company of TWA, Hilton International Hotels, Century 21 Real Estate Corporation and Canteen Corporation. Richardson joined the company’s board and became head of Denny’s Restaurants, when that California-based chain was acquired by TW in 1987. Two years later, after being targeted by corporate raiders, the company was acquired by Coniston Partners and Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette in the last big LBO of the turbulent 1980s. At the behest of bond holders, Richardson was named chairman and chief executive officer of the company, now re-named TW Services. In 1992, after struggling with significant, high yield debt incurred in the transaction, the company was acquired by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. , its balance sheet recapitalized, and its name changed soon afterwards to Flagstar Companies, Inc.

As the first Spartanburg restaurant operator to end segregation in his restaurants back in the 1960s, he was distressed in 1992 when his company’s Dennys division was faced with a series of racial discrimination lawsuits related to customer service. The U.S. Department of Justice joined in the lawsuits and drew intense media attention. Hitting the issue head-on, Richardson met one-on-one with 40 prominent civil rights leaders coast to coast to express his personal commitment to treating people fairly and to seek their advice. When the case was finally settled, the African American federal judge commended Richardson and his company for their response to the issues raised.

Apart from the legal resolution, the company took numerous steps to enhance diversity in all areas, including signing a Fair Share Agreement with the NAACP, pledging to engage in more than $1 billion in economic activity with African American suppliers, franchisees, and employees. Still active today, the initiative has now surpassed $2 billion. Dr. Benjamin Chavis, former executive director of the NAACP, wrote in the September 2, 2018, Charlotte Observer: “If there were more business leaders like Jerry Richardson, our state and nation would be better places with more opportunities to understand and to ensure the value of inclusion and diversity.”

At the same time he was facing all these high-pressure business issues, Richardson was also leading his family’s six-year effort to bring an NFL franchise to the Carolinas. On October 26, 1993, he became the first former NFL player since George Halas to be an owner when Richardson Sports and its partners, were unanimously awarded the NFL’s 29th franchise, the Carolina Panthers. In 1995, the first season of the new team, Richardson retired from Flagstar to devote all his time to the Panthers.

Given his history in building businesses and in addressing difficult public issues, Richardson took on a leadership role in the League’s most sensitive matters, serving as Chairman of the Stadium Committee, Co-Chair of the Commissioner Search Committee, and Chair of the CEC Committee, which negotiated a record 10-year CBA agreement in 2011.

When it came to the day-to-day operations of his own franchise, he trusted his coaches and administrative staff to make decisions within a framework of his own long-standing values. He got involved publicly only on the changing of head coaches and significant disciplinary matters involving players.

During his tenure as owner, the team made two trips to the Super Bowl and three trips to the NFC Championship Game, winning two NFC titles. Over the years, the team’s success, and its impact on Charlotte and the whole region, has proven early critics wrong who questioned the viability of the market for the NFL.

With a history of heart trouble Richardson underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 2002. In early December 2008, he was hospitalized in Charlotte at Carolinas Medical Center, one month after receiving a pacemaker and was placed on a donor waiting list for a new heart. He received a new heart on February 1, 2009.

In May 2018 Richardson sold the team to then Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner David Tepper for an NFL record sale price of $2.2 billion. The deal was approved owners on May 22, 2018 and closed in July.

Throughout his career, Richardson engaged in many economic development projects in the region.  One of the best-known examples is, together with Roger Milliken, persuading BMW in 1992 to locate its first manufacturing plant outside Germany in the Upstate of South Carolina. Since then, numerous BMW suppliers have moved into the area, the plant itself has expanded, as have transit hubs such as Greenville Spartanburg Airport and the Port of Charleston. Closer to home, as CEO of TW Services he relocated TW Services, Denny’s Restaurants and Canteen Corporation to Spartanburg, a significant economic boost to the city and the Upstate. In 1995, he brought the Carolina Panthers’ training camp to Wofford College along with a major upgrade in the school’s athletic facilities.

Widely recognized for his accomplishments, Richardson is the only person inducted into both the North and South Carolina Business and Sports Halls of Fame. He was also a recipient of both the Order of the Palmetto and The Order of the Longleaf Pine.

His philanthropic contributions total more than half a billion dollars, much of it given anonymously. His more public activities included Wofford College, the International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston SC, The University of North Carolina Charlotte, and Spartanburg County’s philanthropy center, which occupies the site of his first Hardee’s restaurant. Always looking out for those who could use a helping hand, he endowed bus trips to the new IAAM for schoolchildren from less affluent districts and funded a significant increase in the minimum wage for Wofford’s maintenance staff.

Richardson is survived by his Wife, Rosalind Sallenger Richardson, son Mark Sallenger Richardson (Kathryn), daughter Ashley Richardson Allen (Steve) and daughter-in-law, Kathleen Crouch Richardson. His late son Jerome Johnson (“Jon”) Richardson Jr. passed away in 2013 after a lengthy battle with cancer.

His grandchildren are Caroline Allen Campbell (Chris), Steven Matthew Allen (Martha), Lukas Richardson Allen (Ivey), Hannah Allen Myers (Evan), Jerome Johnson Richardson, III (Rachel), Rose Richardson Skibek (Jason), Claire Crouch Richardson, Asbury (Ace) Sallenger Richardson (Abigail), Raven Rosalind Richardson, and 9 great-grandchildren.

The family wishes to extend our sincere appreciation to Dr. Geoff Rose, Dr. Robert Heyer, Dr. Nancy Gritter, Dr. Wayne Sotile, Dr. Sanjay Iyer, Andrea Atwell RN, Julie Beals RN, Dana Harris RN, and the team of doctors and nurses who provided outstanding medical expertise. We would also like to recognize Jamie Bulman, Marie Louise Schubert and Gina Klock for their many years of devoted care.

A Celebration of Life will be held at 11:00am on Saturday, March 18, 2023, at Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium at Wofford College. There will be a visitation with the family afterwards.  

The service will be livestreamed for those who are unable to attend. Please use the following link:

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be sent to the following organizations or the charity of your choice:

Wofford College

429 North Church Street

Spartanburg, SC 29303

American Heart Association of NC

5001 South Miami Blvd., Suite 300

Durham, NC 27703

American Cancer Society of NC

PO Box 11796

Charlotte, NC 28220

Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research

PO Box 5014

Hagerstown, MD 21741


Share your memories & condolences


  • Roger Cloninger

    Mrs. Richardson and family, we want you to know that you all are in our prayers and thoughts. What a wonderful and caring man and both Joyce and i thought the world of him. I styled his hair for over 50 years and he felt like a brother that I never had. We will certainly miss him! Mrs. Richarson if you ever need us for anything please feel free to call upon us.
    With our love.
    Roger and Joyce

  • James Chapman

    Prayers for the family . JJR gave me many opportunities during my 32 years and made many trips with him and close friendship with him . Got to know Mrs Richardson through him . Always thought of Her as a very Classy Lady and she was always very kind to Libby and myself . Have fo d memories of my association with the Richardson family .
    The tall man helped me with my career and was supportive on my personal life , and they both attended our wedding . Libby still has the Butterfly necklace that they gave Libby .
    Will always have the memories .

  • Marilyn McGraw Bedsworth

    I am so thankful for being able to work with Jerry Richardson at Spartan Foods and the other companies. What a wonderful man. We will see him in Heaven one day.

  • Clarence Littlefield

    Worked with Mr Richardson for 34 years
    He and Rosalind were our mentors when we were in our 20’s
    He gave me my first job on Kennedy street at age 14 and became my stepfather for the rest of my career
    Many great memories are cherished by Georgia and me
    Many life lessons were learned by us
    Fly high, Mr Richardson, we will always hold you close to our hearts
    Condolences to the family
    Clarence/Georgia Littlefield

  • Robert Marcolese

    Mr. Richardson embodied Passion, Drive, and the will to Pursue One's Dreams. Besides the influence he had on my life, I cherish the opportunity to tell him...just that. Prayers to the Richardson Family, and to those of us that held him in high esteem.

  • Tal West

    I met Mr Richardson on a few occasions and called him once. He was incredibly gracious, kind and sincere. I along with many others appreciate what he and his family did for Charlotte and the Carolinas. What an incredible life you lived sir and the contributions you made. I also enjoyed meeting both Jon and Mark in the 1990’s. They were just humble down to earth people. RIP Big Cat, and thank you for bringing the NFL to Charlotte and the Carolina’s and for all you did.

  • Steve Luquire

    JJR…my Hero…my Friend!
    Love you,
    Steve Luquire

  • Kent Matlock

    Mr. Richardson has been a powerful influence on my life and my learning. He welcomed me into his extended family and supported me when I was in need.
    I'm grateful for the opportunity Mr Richardson provided me in both business and life .. He has been my Champion an embodiment of leadership, compassion, strength along with tenderness .. Celebrating the life of Jerry Richardson is an honor and privilege. Rest In Peace my dear mentor and friend may God greet you with Love & Grace .. km

  • Nathaniel Bonaparte

    I started working for Spartan Foods in 1964,Orangeburg S.C. l was 14 years old and worked a total of 49 years.l retired December 31st 2012.Thank you Mr.Jerry Richardson for a rewarding career.

  • Renea Clark Powell

    I started working for SFS/Hardee’s in the 70’s and spent 20 years there as it evolved into other companies. This was my first job right out of high school. JJR’s leadership helped me to be successful in life. Things were never the same when he left the position of CEO. I will forever be thankful for the things I learned under his leadership. I was lucky to be able to spend time with him through various trips and Store of the Year celebrations. He was always so kind and listened to our ideas.
    Condolences to the family. I know he will be sorely missed!

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