REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio -- How’s this for a contrast?
At the exact moment LeBron James was ducking bridges atop a double-decker bus, winding through Miami in the Heat’s victory march Monday, Brian Hartline was hundreds of miles north, unceremoniously unloading a truck.
Dressed in a T-shirt and mesh shorts, Hartline had little time to eat lunch, let alone party. Not when he has an empire to build — one convenience store at a time.
Whereas most of his teammates are spending the summer break kicking back in exotic hot spots, Hartline is back in Columbus — where he played in college at Ohio State — trying to kick some entrepreneurial butt.
“It’s just another way to compete,” Hartline said. “Owning a small business was always a dream.”
Now he, along with childhood friend Ramy Malka, owns two.
Nearly six months after Hartline and Malka, both 26, opened the Smart Stop Drive-Thru snack shop, they’re tackling their most ambitious project yet. The business partners and lifelong friends are renovating a ramshackle gas station and car wash they bought in the area.
Hartline is no absentee owner, parachuting in to write a check and take the credit. His equity is equal parts financial and sweat. When Hartline is not working the register and talking up customers at Smart Stop, he’s hauling gear and meeting with contractors at the gas station.
“It’s amazing,” said Tyler Maag, another longtime friend who works as the store manager. “The first question people ask me is about how Brian is. I’m like, ‘He’s so cool. He’s down to earth.’
“Not too many people you come across that are at his level and are still able to keep everything in a straight line.”
That makes him the exception. Pro athletes are by and large awful businessmen.
A familiar story: a deep-pocketed football player gets talked into investing in business ventures — such as car washes or restaurants — he knows nothing about with people he shouldn’t. When it goes under, he ends up on the hook.
The results aren’t pretty. Sports Illustrated reported in 2009 that roughly four out of five NFL players go bankrupt or face serious financial stress within two years of their retirement.
These are mistakes that Hartline hopes to avoid. Instead of taking out huge loans to buy into the business, Hartline spent what he had. He strategically invested part of his new five-year, $31 million contract, signed in March, into the gas station project.
“Numbers are numbers,” Hartline said. “If you have more coming in than you have going out, then you’re not going to go broke.”
Throughout the process, he has leaned on former Dolphins John Offerdahl and Jason Taylor for advice on how to transition from player to businessman.
And, most importantly, Hartline found the right partner. He didn’t need to look very far.
Whereas Hartline is the star and the face of the project, Malka is the behind-the-scenes details man with a lifetime of experience.
Growing up, Malka spent most nights working at his father’s convenience store in the Canton area. By his 17th birthday, he essentially ran the place.
Hartline was the consummate jock. He was an accomplished sprinter, and Ohio State was so smitten that it offered him a football scholarship before his senior season at GlenOak High had even begun — which was fortunate, since that senior season lasted all of one game.
In the home opener, played at Canton’s Fawcett Stadium, Hartline sustained a gruesome, year-ending compound fracture while fielding a punt.
“I remember literally hearing your leg snap,” Maag reminded Hartline last week in the way only a close friend can.
In an ironic twist, Hartline will return to Fawcett nearly nine years to the day of his catastrophic injury. The Dolphins have been chosen to play the Cowboys in the Hall of Fame Game, held at his old high school stadium on Aug. 4.
“I remind [Dolphins coach Joe] Philbin of that all the time,” Hartline said with a chuckle.
Hartline needed surgery, and a metal rod remained in his leg for months. And yet, he was able to run track in the spring, winning the state title in hurdles. He went on to play four years at Ohio State before getting drafted by the Dolphins.
Time and distance separated the friends, but even as a pro, Hartline often would return home. During one of those visits, he found Malka ready to spread his wings.
“When you get older, you start butting heads,” Hartline said. “His dad is kind of old school. He wanted to do something. I wanted to do something.”
Ultimately, they decided to jointly buy an underperforming drive-through convenience store in Canal Winchester, an eastern suburb of Columbus. With Malka’s know-how, they stocked the place with popular items of all prices — from 79-cent cigars to $66 bottles of champagne.
The shop, under the new ownership, reopened two weeks after the Dolphins’ 2012 season ended. But it wasn’t until springtime that they were able to bring Maag aboard, so Hartline found himself working 12-hour days during Central Ohio’s frigid winter months.
It was during one of those marathon shifts that word of the start-up went national. In March, Hartline was asked to go on Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard’s radio program to talk about his new contract. But the conversation veered suddenly when Hartline told the hosts why he sounded out of breath: He was busy running back and forth to cars, delivering cases of beer, snacks and smokes.
From there, the story became a viral phenomenon. Inside Edition stopped by to do a piece on the store. ESPN The Magazine sent a photographer for a two-page photo shoot; the picture proudly hangs in Smart Stop’s office.
Suddenly, people started patronizing the place simply for the chance to meet Hartline. When he’s not in town, some try to leave memorabilia for him to autograph. One even had Hartline sign his truck’s tailgate. Former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett is a regular.
“It keeps us from going stir crazy in here,” Hartline said. “Really, it’s amazing. When people come in, time flies. Cars start building up. You get, like, eight deep.”
That success allowed them to expand faster than Hartline ever imagined. Fifteen minutes away from the Smart Stop, Malka discovered another intriguing opportunity: a Valero gas station was up for sale. The price was good, but that was because it needed serious work.
And so, that’s where they spent much of last Monday, hauling massive foam panels off a truck for a 300-square foot, walk-in beer cave that will be the centerpiece of the new store. They hope to have the gas station open in early August, but as of last week, it looked a long way from being ready.
The inside was essentially an empty shell. The permitting process had hit a bureaucratic snag. And to top it off, several of those foam panels had been damaged in transit and needed to be replaced.
“This is definitely a bigger project,” Malka said. “The [drive-thru] was easier to get started. It just was not properly managed.”
Added Hartline: “It’s like [ Extreme Makeover: Home Edition].”
He knows he’s operating on a running clock. His day job — pro football — remains his top priority.
After minicamps ended, Hartline took a couple of weeks off from working out, but said Monday he planned to resume his training shortly.
He doesn’t have a personal strength coach with him, but instead works out in the gym at his downtown Columbus condo. “I’ve been doing it a long time,” he said. “I think I can figure it out.”
Plus, during long days at the Smart Stop, Hartline and Malka have stayed fit with intense push-up and sit-up competitions, Hartline said with a grin.
His regimen will soon become far more structured. Training camp begins the weekend of July 20; Hartline will be back in South Florida the week before to start working again with quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
That’s when the venture capitalist will try to tackle an entirely different kind of rehab job: restoring the once-proud image of the Dolphins in a suddenly basketball-mad town.
“Of course you want the parade,” Hartline said. “But there’s a lot more steps before you get the parade though, in my mind. A lot more. Let’s get to the playoffs first.”
Hartline then snapped back into the matter at hand. No time to worry about the Heat and its confetti-spewing celebration. He was more concerned with his store’s dwindling soft drink inventory.
There’s always a truck that needs unloading.