January 21, 1994, is the day that Robert Kraft – Jewish-American businessman, sports executive and philanthropist – won a bidding war for ownership of the New England Patriots football team. In the years that followed, Kraft’s team, which had had a five-year losing streak, turned itself around and became a major football power: The following season (1994), the Patriots achieved a 10-6 record and made the National Football League playoffs for the first time since 1986. And in the nearly two decades since Kraft became the Patriots’ owner, the team has made it to the NFL playoffs in 12 out of 17 years, including six appearances in the Super Bowl championship game. (This year won’t include one of the latter.) It has also sold out every one of its home games.
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In addition to ownership of the Patriots, Robert Kraft’s Kraft Group of companies includes paper and container manufacturing firms, numerous private-equity holdings, a professional soccer team, and real estate projects built around the sports teams. Born in 1941 and raised in an observant Jewish family in the Boston suburb of Brookline, Kraft began his business career with Rand-Whitney, the packaging company owned by his father-in-law, Jacob Hiatt. To that he added International Forest Products, a paper manufacturer.
Long a football fan, Kraft’s financial involvement with the Patriots began in 1985, when he bought an option on a piece of land next to the team’s stadium, in Foxborough, Mass. That was followed by outright purchase of the stadium three years later. In 1992, the team was sold to St. Louis businessman James Orthwein. Orthwein was interested in moving to Patriots to his hometown, and offered to buy out the remainder of the lease on the stadium from Kraft, so as to free the team up for the move. Kraft responded with a counter-bid, offering to buy the team from Orthwein for a record $175 million, a startling sum, considering the Patriots’ dismal record at the time. Orthwein accepted.
In 2002, the team moved to a new home, named Gillette Stadium, though it was privately financed by Kraft. In 2007, adjacent to the new stadium, he began development of Patriot Place, a $375-million shopping and leisure mall. He has also played a leadership role among team owners, helping to end an 18-week lockout by the owners in 2011 by encouraging the negotiation of a new long-term contract between players and management. This happened while Kraft was still in mourning for his wife of 48 years, Myra Hiatt Kraft, who died on July 20, 2011.
Talk about teamwork: Myra served as president of the Patriots Charitable Foundation and trustee of the Robert K. and Myra H. Kraft Foundation. In addition to providing assistance to numerous programs in the U.S., many of them related to education and to interfaith work, the Krafts also have been involved in promoting American-style football in Israel, setting up an amateur tackle football league and building a football facility, Kraft Stadium, in Jerusalem.