How Junior Bridgeman Parlayed A Moderate NBA Career Into A $600 Million Fast Food Empire

By on January 10, 2023 in ArticlesEntertainment

Pop quiz #1: In 1975, which newly drafted player did the Lakers trade away to acquire superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? If you guessed Junior Bridgeman, you are correct. Pop quiz #2: Who was the second largest owner of Wendy's franchises in America today? Once again, the correct answer is… Junior Bridgeman.

As an NBA player, Junior Bridgeman had a moderately successful 12-year career playing for the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers. To be completely honest, his NBA career was kind of unremarkable. So why are we writing about him on Celebrity Net Worth? Well, as you may know, retirement can be a very painful experience for many NBA players. According to a study conducted by Sports Illustrated, a staggering 60% of NBA players are completely broke within five years of retiring. Junior Bridgeman did not go down this route. Instead, he is a shining light of inspiration. A man who every athlete and aspiring entrepreneur should study.

Early Life

Ulysses Lee "Junior" Bridgeman was born on September 17, 1953 in East Chicago, Indiana. His father was a blue collar steel mill worker – a very common job in East Chicago during the era in which Junior grew up. He was a member of the undefeated (29-0) 1971 East Chicago Washington High School Senators basketball team that won the Indiana state high school basketball championship. His teammates included his brother Sam, Pete Trgovich, who went on to play at UCLA; and Tim Stoddard who would become a Major League Baseball pitcher.

At 6'5″ Bridgeman played guard and forward during college at the University of Louisville, where he was also a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

Junior Bridgeman, John Salley, Michael Strahan

Junior with John Salley and Michael Strahan via Getty Images

NBA Career

After obtaining his bachelor's degree, he was drafted as the 8th overall pick in the first round of the 1975 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers, and, as mentioned, was then immediately traded to the Milwaukee Bucks for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

In his 12-year NBA career (10 with Milwaukee, two with the Clippers), Bridgeman was mostly a sixth man. For nine consecutive seasons he averaged double figures in scoring. He holds the Milwaukee franchise record for number of games played at 711, though he only started in 105 of those games.

Bridgeman was a good basketball player, solid and steady. His professional career lasted from 1975 to 1987, in the era just before players were paid crazy amounts of money. Players like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson made the bulk of their money from endorsement deals, but still made a lot of money in the NBA – close to $100 million for Jordan. Bridgeman never saw anywhere close to that kind of money during his NBA days. His peak salary was $350,000 from the Clippers in 1985.

A Fast Food Empire Is Born

Unlike most athletes, Junior was quick to realize that his window of time in the NBA would be relatively short. At some point the paychecks would stop coming in and he would need to find a new source of steady income. So, on a whim, Junior decided to purchase a franchise of his favorite fast food restaurant: Wendy's. While other NBA players hung out during the off season doing God knows what, Bridgeman was working in local Wendy's—learning his burgeoning business from every angle and building a foundation for the rest of his and his family's lives. By the time his playing days were over, Junior owned three Wendy's.

(Photo by Johnny Nunez/Getty Images for EBONY MEDIA)

Bridgeman Foods INC

Over the next few years, Junior slowly expanded Bridgeman Foods INC. Three locations grew to six. Six grew to ten. Ten grew to twenty and so on. Business boomed thanks largely to Junior's highly dedicated work ethic. Instead of sitting back and collecting checks from a beach in the Bahamas, Junior was frequently seen behind the counters working at his own restaurants.

Here's an amazing anecdote: One day, a customer recognized Junior in his Wendy's uniform making french fries. The customer was shocked and immediately called into a local sports talk radio show to say how sad it was to see a formerly great NBA player down on his luck, forced to work in fast food asking people "do you want fries with that?" Oh, the irony!

After 25 years in business, today Bridgeman Foods INC operates more than 160 Wendy's and more than 120 Chili's franchises. Bridgeman employs over 11,000 people and has annual revenues in excess of $530 million dollars. Junior is the second largest Wendy's franchise owner in the world and frequently listed as one of the most admired business leaders in America.

In 2017, Bridgeman became a bottler for The Coca-Cola Company, and in 2018, he signed a letter of intent to buy bottling operations in Canada. Junior is now the president and CEO of Coca-Cola Heartland. He runs the company, its production plant in Lenexa, Kansas, and its 18 regional distribution centers with his son, Justin. Heartland's operations span most of Kansas, a significant portion of Missouri, a little over half of Illinois, and a small part of Nebraska.

Today we estimate that Junior Bridgeman has a net worth of $600 million.

When not running his fast food empire, Junior Bridgeman likes to play golf and, in fact, is on the board of directors of the PGA. He has been married to his wife Doris for more than 35 years. The couple has three adult children who all have MBAs and work in the family business. Junior Bridgeman is a private man who has built a heck of a fortune, family, and life. He recognized a problem and turned it into an opportunity. Thanks to a lot of hard work, that opportunity made him an extremely wealthy and admired man.

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