Tom Mueller’s journey through life came to a screeching halt in late 1992.
Paralyzed from a nerve disorder called Guillain-Barr Syndrome, the ultra-distance runner underwent rehabilitation to relearn how to walk and even to swallow.
“That’s something that has redetermined my course,” says Mueller, president of Sport Management Inc. in Westerville. “There are major things that happen through your life that make some of the business issues seem not so relevant. It affected the way I think about things.”
In January 1993, he told doctors he wanted to participate in Wisconsin’s 50-mile Ice Age Trail race that he’d run each May several years prior.
“They said, ‘Well, you’ll probably be in a walker by then,'” he remembers. “But I worked hard enough and I finished that race that day.”
“He’s a man who has faced adversity and has really been able to experience a pressing through to the other side,” says Bill Christensen, executive pastor and men’s ministry pastor at Mueller’s church, Vineyard Church of Columbus. “The fact that somebody like him who had that disease can run like he does right now is phenomenal.”
Mueller rolls with the punches the same way in his career.
Fresh out of college at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, he wanted his journalism career to serve him well in music or motorcycling — two things he enjoyed the most.
“I sent out three resumes — to Ted Nugent, Van Halen and Cycle News,” he says, noting that he wanted to be a roadie, taking pictures and writing about rock bands.
He was hired by the weekly magazine Cycle News, where he wrote about and photographed events to learn the race business. Other jobs hooked him up in promotions for the Wrangler brand, R.J. Reynolds, Dale Earnhardt, Willie Nelson, Mercury Marine and the American Motorcyclist Association until he started Sport Management in 1996.
Now, he and the two full-time and two part-time employees at his $1 million company service business clients including Morton Salt, DeWalt Tools, Best Buy and Progressive Insurance.
Currently, he’s tying the “Driven” movie soundtrack to the Indy 500, marketing singer Jo Dee Messina in races and working on promotions for the Billiard Congress of America. He remains, however, cautious about growing his firm.
“I’ve never had any business loans,” he says. “We’ve built as we went.”
That includes changing the company to meet the marketplace.
“This whole sports sponsorship business is turning completely 180 right now,” he says. “Everybody thinks there’s still this sponsorship model out there where you call a company and go pick up a check.”
“Everybody in the world wants a sponsor, but it’s not always the best model for us,” he explains. “We are a corporate consulting company, and we help companies who choose to sell products or services through athletes, events or teams. The model for us is to work on the corporate side.”
This year, his business took yet another turn when corporate clients started calling him to say they had purchased too many or not enough tickets to sporting events as part of their sponsorships. He responded and moved into ticket brokering and hospitality on the corporate side.
Mueller firmly believes in building on experiences in life to help his company and to grow personally. His passion for sports, for example, is a vital part of his business success.
“I know sports because I do it,” he says. “People want to be in the sports business, but do they understand the quarterback who’s been hit eight times and gets back up, or the sports car driver who sits in that 140-degree car?
“It’s the passion you have to relay to the consumer.”
He started running in 1983 and has developed his skills so adeptly that he regularly participates in trail runs as well as ultra-distance runs — 100-mile races, in fact.
“There are so many complexities and complications, and you rely on so much to get through this world. That there is just you and the road,” he says of running, “it’s just a great journey.”
Mueller’s life journey also includes civic work for other businesses, his church and the community.
He’s active in the Greater Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau and has worked with the Dublin Convention and Visitors Bureau to teach public relations agencies aspects of his sports business. He’s also set up a business forum at his church to share with fellow executives ways to manage their businesses in a Christian way.
In addition, he is part of his church’s hospital visitation team and volunteers to counsel patients or help visitors in emergency rooms at The Ohio State University Medical Center.
What his Guillain-Barr experience did, he says, is keep him from feeling intimidated when talking to patients who suffer paralysis, because he’s been there himself.
“Otherwise, what do you say?” he points out.
He believes his greatest accomplishment is his ability to encourage others — a trait not lost on those around him.
“You know how in life how meaningful it is to have a friend or a relationship that you know when the chips are really down and everything falls around your head, there’s someone you can rely upon? That’s the kind of guy Tom is,” says Christensen.
“I return every phone call. It may not be about business. It may be somebody who just needs encouragement,” Mueller says, explaining how he often gets calls from students seeking his advice.
“If I ever get too busy for that, something’s broken.” How to reach: Tom Mueller, Sport Management Inc., (614) 899-9476 or [email protected]