Risky Business

Two street-corner businessmen have an up-close and personal encounter with Afis Olajuwon

Father and son Bob and Clint Norris are not big businessmen. For the past two and a half years, they've arrived around nine in the morning, six days a week, at the corner of San Felipe and Bancroft, set up their small tent in a street easement, hung advertising banners, displayed their city-issued automotive repair facility mobile dealer license, unfolded a few footstools and lawn chairs, arranged several small plastic toolboxes, filled their spray bottles with glass cleaner, and gone to work repairing chips and small cracks in the windshields of passersby for 25 bucks a pop. The Norris men claim to have pulled down about $60,000 between them this past year, an income that keeps the elder Norris, a Vietnam veteran, from having to return to work in automotive factories, and supports Clint, his wife and their three kids. The business, inelegantly but straightforwardly named Chips and Cracks, may be small potatoes to most folks in the high rent, Galleria-area neighborhood, but the Norrises like to cast their entrepreneurial fortitude in the mythic terms of The American Dream.

So, about three months ago, when construction neared completion on the lot abutting the easement, and a tall sign was raised reading "Dream's & Bros. Hand Car Wash," it seemed like a good omen. The car wash's owner is Afis Olajuwon, 28-year-old younger brother of Houston Rockets center Hakeem, and a big businessman in every sense of the word. Afis, who played college ball as a guard at the University of Texas-San Antonio, stands about 6'4". In March of this year, he and brothers Akinola and T.J. -- as the heads of Olajuwon Holdings -- purchased 63 Denny's restaurants in 12 states for $28.7 million in cash, making Olajuwon Holdings the second largest Denny's franchisee.

Afis Olajuwon was also, by all early accounts, a gracious neighbor, asking his contractor and construction crews to avoid parking in the easement so as to leave room for the Norrises' two-parking-slot-sized enterprise. There were even preliminary talks about taking advantage of the obvious car care synergy and moving the Norrises onto Olajuwon's property to do business under the Dream banner. But those talks, both parties agree, broke down well shy of any agreement.

The Norrises say that Olajuwon decided he didn't have enough room on his lot for another business to set up shop, which was no skin off the Norris noses, since they'd already developed a substantial clientele on their corner, and besides, an earlier Norris attempt to work in conjunction with a car wash had not been terribly successful anyway. Olajuwon says he started hearing complaints from his San Felipe business neighbors about the low-rent look of the Norris operation, as well as some grumbling about whether they really had a right to be there or not. As the new guy on the block, Olajuwon decided he'd be better off keeping his distance, which he claims to have since done. But here, the Norrises disagree with Olajuwon. And the two businesses haven't agreed on a single thing since.

About a month before the car wash opened, the Norrises say, Olajuwon strolled over to the fence that separates the two businesses and told the father-son team that they needed "to be fair" with him. The Norrises asked what that meant. And what it meant, they claim, is that Olajuwon asked them for a 25 percent cut of their business. The Norrises -- a bit baffled, since they weren't doing business on Olajuwon's property and had struck no deal for business referrals or anything else -- let the request slide without an answer. Several days later, they claim, Olajuwon returned, wanting to know if they'd reached a decision, and when the Norrises declined, Olajuwon allegedly told them that he would make it so that they couldn't work on the corner anymore.

And suddenly, the Norrises say, they would arrive at work in the morning to find the easement packed to capacity with the cars and trucks of Olajuwon's construction crew blocking them out of their accustomed corner.

At this point, Bob Norris turned for guidance to his longtime friend Clint Bateman, a CPA who's known the Norrises for 20 years and has been in business in Houston for more than 30.

"He asked me to go talk to Afis for him, and I said, 'Not a problem; that's what I do for a living. I negotiate with people. I can handle this. Don't worry about a thing.' Well that was mistake number one."

"I did go have a meeting with him, and the essence of the meeting was I was trying to determine what it was that he wanted. He started out by saying well, he wanted 25 percent of what they did, and I told him that I personally felt that that was unreasonable, and I would recommend to them that they not do that, but whatever they decided was up to them. And I asked him, 'Really, what is it that you want,' and what it boiled down to was he didn't like their tent. He wanted them to have a tent that had his name on it, was the best I could tell. And he didn't like the way that they dressed. He wanted them I think to wear his T-shirts. And then he wanted them to give him some money. He said 25 percent. And I said, 'Well, perhaps they'd be willing to give three or four dollars a car,' and I said that I'd go talk to them about it, but I couldn't say what they'd agree to.

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