Meb’s Right-Hand Man: 5 Questions With Hawi Keflezighi

Merhawi (left) and Meb Keflezighi. Photo: Merhawi Keflezighi

Meb Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic Marathon silver medalist and 2009 New York City Marathon champion who most recently finished fourth at the Olympic Marathon in London, is one of the most successful and recognizable long-distance runners in the United States, if not the world. Athletic accomplishments aside, however, it’s Meb’s visibility on behalf of his sponsors, which include Skechers, Powerbar, Sony, Generation UCAN, Oakley, Garmin and CEP, amongst others, that have increased his exposure outside the realm of elite running, especially in the past year and a half. After being dropped by longtime footwear and apparel sponsor Nike in 2011, Keflezighi went months without a shoe contract, before Skechers came on board and supported him on his way to winning the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials this past January.

The man who responsible for Meb’s many endorsement deals? His younger brother, Merhawi (Hawi for short), who can often be seen by his older brother’s side when he’s at a race or on the road making appearances on behalf of his sponsors. Hawi, who is often confused for his older brother in public, is also a UCLA alum, and is the founder of Hawi Sports Management. He negotiated Meb’s “non-exclusive” sponsorship deal with Skechers, a unique arrangement which allows Meb to give exposure to multiple sponsors on his racing kit and warmup clothes, and also doesn’t include financial penalties for injuries or poor performance — a clause that has cost many athletes, including Meb in the past, a significant amount of income, or their endorsement deal altogether.

We recently caught up with Hawi and got some insight into his career as an agent, learned what athletes can do to make themselves more marketable, as well as what he likes to do when he’s not on the road or negotiating contracts.

You graduated from UCLA and UCLA law school. Why and when did you decide you wanted to become a sports manager/agent?

As a result of being Meb’s younger brother, I have always been around athletes, usually Meb’s teammates and friends. This led to an early admiration and respect for athletes. I myself grew up playing basketball from the 5th grade to high school. I ran cross country as a sophomore in high school and realized this sport, which Meb (and others) make look so easy is actually very hard. It took my short-lived running career to appreciate and respect running and runners the way I do today. At UCLA, I was a student-manager on the basketball team and one of the players on the team suggested that I could be a good agent. When I went to law school, I was really going the route of becoming an agent in the sport of basketball. But in 2004 Meb won a silver medal in the Olympics and he decided to switch from an agent based in Europe to one based in the USA. That is when I realized that all of the stars were aligning for me to represent Meb and get involved in the running industry as businessman, not just a spectator and huge fan. I am very grateful to Meb for giving me the opportunity and taking the calculated risk to have me represent him in the peak of his career. Believe me it was not an easy decision at that time. I wrote a proposal and we had several discussions before I was hired. Within six months of hiring me, Meb was featured in a MasterCard commercial that was first shown in the SuperBowl pre-game show and throughout national television in 2006. This helped Meb and I feel more confident in our decision.

HAWI Management’s motto is “Handling Adversity With Integrity.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

I am a firm believer that we all face obstacles and challenges in life. Once you recognize this and are confronted with a challenge, you are better prepared to deal with that challenge. So, in the sports context, I know that there will be adversity in my clients’ careers, whether it is injuries, contracts, etc. It’s how you handle these challenges that determines your character. If you can handle the biggest challenges with integrity then you should have no problem having integrity on a day to day basis. In my seven years in the business, I have learned this is easier said than done. It’s one thing to have a motto that sounds good, but it is a very high standard that I hold myself, my clients and our partners to. Having integrity does not mean you don’t make mistakes, but its about righting your wrongs once recognized.

You’ve represented your brother Meb for most (if not all) of his entire professional career. What’s been the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced as a team during all these years and how did you overcome this challenge?

First of all, I can’t take credit for representing Meb his whole professional career. I started working with Meb in 2005, while I was finishing up my second year in law school. I am thankful to people like Coach Bob Larsen, who has really helped Meb be the man and athlete he is today. Also, Meb’s wife Yordanos is there every minute to help Meb achieve all of his goals. I sometimes think it is unfair that I am the face of Team Meb because there are a lot of people that work behind the scenes to help Meb achieve his goals. Luckily, they all know who they are and do it for the right reasons. I’d like to also acknowledge some other clients I have worked with, in addition to Meb: Jon Rankin, Peter Gilmore, Paige Higgins and a growing number of Eritrean runners.  I am very fortunate to work with great people that happen to be extraordinary runners.

One of my biggest professional challenges occurred when Meb had a bad string of marathons and injuries from the end of 2006 to 2008. It was such a contrast from 2004-2006, where Meb finished in the top three in five consecutive major marathons. So when I came into the business, Meb was on a hot streak. Yet in 2006, Meb ran his worst marathon (because of food poisoning) and in 2007 he had his first marathon DNF, and in the Olympic Trials Meb did not make the team and suffered a career-threatening injury. Sure these created challenges for me, but how about the athlete that spent over 10 years mastering his craft? I had only been in the business about a year or two, so my “investment” was relatively low. A bad race was easy to overcome, but a streak of bad luck in races was harder to deal with, especially since Meb was my only “established superstar” client. After running through my savings, I decided I needed to be proactive in order to protect myself. In the beginning of 2009, I got another full-time job in San Diego, and kept representing Meb and other athletes. This gave me some financial stability, but also helped me appreciate just how much I enjoyed working with athletes. After 6 months, with the encouragement and support of my good friend Rob Hill, I quit the job and went all in again with athlete management. A few months later, Meb won the New York City Marathon, and we’ve been riding a mostly good wave since. During these challenging times, I learned a lot of lessons that influence how I run my business today.

There’s been a lot of talk in the last year or so about sponsorship rules for athletes, logo restrictions, lack of opportunities to make a living, etc. From your point of view, what can athletes do, especially those who aren’t at the top tier of the sport, to make themselves more marketable?

At this time, every professional runner, prospective runner and supporter of these runners should join the Track and Field Athletes Association. In this type of organization, it is the “big time” athletes that have the least to gain from being a member. But, luckily, the TFAA has done a great job in recruiting Olympians, medalists, and world-record holders, including Usain Bolt. In my opinion, Usain Bolt and other superstar athletes have nothing to gain from joining this association, but their willingness to join in order to benefit other athletes is something that should be commended. I think that the TFAA membership should be an investment by every single athlete, just like they invest in a workout, coach, agent and equipment. Individual athletes may be able to overcome some of the challenges in the sport, but for there to be sustainable progress, it will take a powerful association of athletes that will work closely with the governing bodies and other entities to create mutually beneficial arrangements, consistent with today’s reality of Olympic sports. Additionally, the financial challenges of Olympians and Olympic hopefuls need to be shared so that the assumptions about how most Olympians make a living can be broken. I think that if fans of the Olympics achieve a true understanding of the challenges of Olympians and Olympic hopefuls, there would no doubt be a demand for change — from the fans, not only the athletes.

Lastly, you spend a lot of time on the road, often accompanying Meb to races and other engagements. What do you like to do when you’re not playing the role of manager/agent?

When I am traveling around the nation, I do try to reconnect with friends and family in those cities. Since I travel so much, I do enjoy just relaxing at home when I get a chance. With such a big family, there is always something going on, whether it is a baptism, graduation, or wedding to attend. I truly feel that when you are around people you enjoy being with, it doesn’t matter what you are doing. So sometimes we’ll play Monopoly, Taboo or a game called “mafia” or we’ll watch football and basketball games together. I am a UCLA guy, especially when it comes to basketball, and will forever be a Lakers fan.

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