Sports: NFL superstar Ndamukong Suh talks his impressive business acumen, his friendship with Warren Buffett, advice for rookies, and what happens to 8-figure contracts

Sports: NFL superstar Ndamukong Suh talks his impressive business acumen, his friendship with Warren Buffett, advice for rookies, and what happens to 8-figure contracts
Sports: NFL superstar Ndamukong Suh talks his impressive business acumen, his friendship with Warren Buffett, advice for rookies, and what happens to 8-figure contracts

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Ndamukong Suh is one of the most savvy businessmen on and off the football field, and he has a wide range of interests.

  • Ndamukong Suh spoke to Business Insider in a wide-ranging interview about his budding business acumen, including his interest in tech, engineering, and real estate.
  • Suh answered who was impactful on him as a rookie and what advice he would give to incoming rookies.
  • Suh also broke down what really happens to large NFL salaries, saying that they get cut in half.

Ndamukong Suh is a three-time Pro Bowler and one of the most dominant defensive players in the NFL, but it’s his off-field interests that seem to him excite him most.

Suh is an avid investor with an interest in tech, a degree in engineering from Nebraska, and keen curiosity about the world around him, particularly with how people find success in other fields.

Suh recently signed a one-year, $14 million contract with Los Angeles Rams after being released by the Miami Dolphins. While he doesn’t have any plans to leave the football field soon, he’s already thinking about the life that awaits him when football is done.

While promoting his investment in emoji app Genies, Suh spoke to Business Insider about his budding business acumen, his friendship with Warren Buffett, his advice for NFL rookies, and what really happens to those massive NFL salaries.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Davis: How did you get involved with Genies?

Ndamukong Suh: “It kinda just came about through one of my close friends, a guy that I know out of New York, was just telling me about the [Genies] founder Akash. Super cool young guy. Actually, I believe if I’m not mistaken, we met before one of my games actually this past September when I was going to play the Jets. I think it was the third game of the season. And so, he introduced us, and we had dinner, and he told me all about Genies and just kinda hit it off from there. I got a demo after I had landed before we actually got to dinner and whatnot, so that’s really kinda how it started.”

Davis: You seem like a big tech guy — when did you become interested in it?

Suh: “I wouldn’t call myself a big tech guy, but I definitely have a fond interest for it. I think a lot of that interest comes because of my engineering background. I graduated from the University of Nebraska in construction management engineering so, just overall things that are kinda tied into that realm with mechanics and technology has always been of interest to me. Learning how things work mechanically but then also in this day and age how we’ve been able to use technology to advance those pieces.”

Davis: Someone told me you have an interesting relationship with your father from an engineering standpoint.

Suh: “Yeah, me and my dad work together all the time on different projects, whether it be a building development, stuff that we do for our families, our own portfolio of real estate. My dad is a mechanical engineer. He has been around that business and understanding how projects work. And that’s obviously what I studied, but he has a little bit more of a specialized degree. But he has massive knowledge of the construction world, and I love just being around my dad and learning things from him even at this age.”

Davis: So with your engineering degree you’re actually interested in building things?

Suh: “Oh yeah, no question. I’ve been very fortunate enough to not only have my dad to do some small-scale projects but some bigger-scale projects with other mentors, primarily in Detroit as well other areas, done some stuff in Denver. I think my ultimate goal over time is to build like a big thriving development company that my portfolio companies that I’ve either invested in or other pieces that make sense, to have them go into these particular spaces.

“But I think, all in all, I think there’s a lot of synergies and cross-pollination between being in the tech world, from investing and advising and that space, to also having engineering and development and that background via mentors and my father and going to school for it.”

Davis: Are there any other fields you’d like to get into? You seem like a very curious individual.

Suh: “I’m a very curious individual. I like to learn. I like to understand how people have found success and grown their ways. I don’t really have a definitive piece; I wanna get involved in all these pieces. Primarily, real estate has always been number one, and I really like being able to be a venture partner in particular companies as well, it’s very similar to being an advisor.

“I think as I get older and as I transition at some point in time out of sports, I try to see myself, as a, for lack of better words, being a serial entrepreneur, but also as being kind of a mainstay in the real estate world. Because even in that own division, there’s multiple types of real estate from residential to commercial to industrial and so forth.”

Davis: Does the NFL have any programs that help players find post-playing careers? I know the NBA has a program where players job-shadow at some pretty big companies like Google and Facebook.

Suh: “The NFL has some opportunities through the NFLPA that I’m most versed in. The direct NFL shield, I’m not aware of anything.

“But I was very fortunate enough to have built a great relationship with a guy by the name of Kaleb Thornhill, who’s been a great person to me, who’s actually the former [Director of Player Development] at the Dolphins. And he actually just created something very unique called the ATU, which is called Athletes Transition U.

“And that has been, I just took part in it all last week … In short, it was a week-long business combine. We got to meet tons of interesting founders from Joe and the Juice to Compass Real Estate, to General Atlantic, a big venture firm in itself. And really got to hear cool stories from gentlemen by the name of Jay Brown, who works for Roc Nation, is the founder of Roc Nation, and a guy named Jesse Itzler, who owns part of the Hawks basketball team but also was one of the founders of Marquis Jet. So, just being able to hear those guys’ stories and understand how they created success and be able to be in the room of 32 guys around the league that have had interests and see how they look at things and have open-dialogue conversations about really how they look at their transition after sports is really cool and interesting. So, I was really excited that I had the opportunity to participate in that as well as meet all those guys.

Davis: When you first came into the league was there anyone who gave you some best advice, whether it was financial or just life advice?

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Suh: “Yeah, my parents obviously were very in-tune with me about what I was coming into. They always had their thumb on me and still to this day, being 31, still do.

“But all in all, I would say one of the good people I was fortunate enough to meet when I was a rookie was this guy out of Detroit, he’s the CEO of Sun Communities. Being able to go to his office and be around him and understand how he runs his business and really being an ultimate mentor to me, to the ethos of that word, was really great. I owe a lot of thanks to him.

“But I would say when I left college as well, just being able to touch base with Warren Buffet and be able to have a good relationship with him, via Tom Osborne, has given me great feats of understanding how the world works and really how I can manage my own funds that I’ve come into and create success and not be one of those stories of a first-round draft pick and then obviously leaving the league and being broke and having issues.”

Davis: When you signed your six-year, $114 million deal with the Miami Dolphins a few years ago, it made a lot of headlines. I was curious for your perspective on how much that deal really pays and what fans don’t realize about big contracts.

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Suh: “I’m so happy you asked that question, to be honest with you, because I think people in this world see the large numbers that we get as athletes … We don’t have fully guaranteed deals. With that being said, guys have to understand that guaranteed money is very important to us as men in the league.

“And when you even look at that guaranteed money, you should just cut that in half. So off of my rookie deal, which I’m not hiding anything, you can go and look at my deal, I had $40 million guaranteed, it was $68 [million] for 40 [guaranteed]. And you take that $40 million that was guaranteed, and you swipe that in half because of taxes. Uncle Sam, the new tax reform, 37% goes to him. And then you have to factor in, I was in Detroit, so you got state taxes there, so that would be Michigan state taxes and then you have the city of Detroit taxes which is going to be 1 or 2%. So after you look at the particular piece, I’m probably, if I’m not mistaken, Michigan is at like 4 or 5%, so that’s 42 [% of the deal], city of Detroit’s 1 or 2, so you’ve got 43 [% of the deal]. Then you throw your agent fees, that’s 45, and then you throw in the concept of inflation, which is another 3, that’s 48, and then living expenses, let’s just say it’s 2% of that, you’re at 50%.

“I think that people have allusions of we’re, there’s no reason guys should ever go broke. And then that’s just one particular person’s deal who was fortunate enough to be drafted in the old CBA that we had, which were higher numbers. That’s just maybe the top 1 or 2%. And then you have guys that are just undrafted or late round picks or whatever it may be, and they’re not making those numbers, but they’re still getting taxed at 40, 45, 50%, especially if you’re in the state of California. Every state is different. So there’s a lot of factors that go into that. That’s a topic that’s always interesting to me, especially to see where guys land in free agency.

“But then also, just overall, I don’t think people see those things and understand what goes into that. And the simple fact that we get taxed out of every state that we play in. So when I play in New York, when I play in New England, which is Boston, Massachusetts. I play in Buffalo, New York. I’m getting taxed twice in New York. And I have to allocate taxes for that because they don’t take taxes out of your paycheck, you have to pay into New York, whereas some other states, they do. And then even when I go and play New York teams, I’m getting taxed out of New York, but also, I’m getting taxed out of New Jersey because I’m technically playing in the state of New Jersey. So there’s a lot of interesting things and pieces that people don’t know and understand. Athletes have large W2s; we’re hit very heavily.”

 

Davis: The draft is coming up — what’s your best piece of advice you’d give to rookies?

“My best advice is enjoy the moment. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience. Enjoy it no matter where you are drafted. Understand there’s gonna be a lot of work ahead of you. And save your money, be smart. At the end of the day, I think guys think they made it just because they’re drafted.

“And I would say for the guys that aren’t drafted, don’t think that’s the end of the road. There’s still a lot of opportunities for you to get into the league because I’ve seen guys that are not drafted and had very successful careers.”

Davis: Do you still have a relationship with Warren Buffett?

Suh: “I still do have a relationship with him. I actually spoke to him about a month or two ago … But I still keep in contact with him. He’s a great mentor of mine. I’m very thankful for that relationship and always find time to go and see him, and he usually finds time to come and see me. I think this is actually, this past season I think was the first year in, I’d probably say, since 2012 that he hasn’t come to a game. I knew he wasn’t going be able to because he was just massively busy with some things. But we usually meet up in person about two or three times a year and obviously keep up on the phone as well.

Davis: Have you ever asked him about his diet? One of my Business Insider colleagues tried it, and it didn’t seem fun.

Suh: “[Laughing] I have not asked him about his diet. I do know a little bit about his morning diet, though, to McDonald’s. But I don’t know the intricacies of every single meal.”

Davis: This is a bit personal, but does it bother you at all that you have this reputation based on some plays on the field? You’re clearly a well-read, curious person with many interests off of it. Do you ever want to respond to fan backlash and show them you’re more than a football player?

Suh: “No, honestly it doesn’t bother me. And I use this word lightly — and I also don’t sometimes — but I think that the people that sometimes have, you see a lot of their comments, whether it’s on my social page or whatever it is, those people seem to be ignorant. And haven’t had the opportunity or taken the time to really get to know me as a human being or read on me, as you’ve chosen to, and really see that I have more than one dimension as a human being — as all of us do. I would say that you as a reporter have other things that you find as hobbies and talents yourself, and I would say the same for myself and anybody else in the world. I think it’s whether people take the time to find that out or not.”

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