Gene Hallman was truly a stranger in town when he arrived in Birmingham in November of 1991 to take over as director of a Senior PGA golf tournament being sponsored by Bruno’s Supermarkets. In fact, the South Carolina native was so unfamiliar with his new city and state that, despite his impending work connection, he had never even stepped inside a Bruno’s grocery store before.
So, one of the first things Hallman did upon his arrival that Saturday afternoon was visit a nearby Bruno’s. He walked into this impressive-looking supermarket, glanced around, and was stunned to find hardly anybody strolling the aisles — on a Saturday.
“It was deserted,” Hallman recalls. “Nicest grocery store I’d ever been in, but there was nobody there.”
Hallman soon discovered why. He had ventured out during the Iron Bowl, the annual Alabama vs. Auburn football game that brings commerce to a halt throughout most of the state for several hours each year.
“I had no clue,” Hallman says. “That shows you how out of touch I was.”
More than 30 years later, Hallman is well familiar with the sports happenings in Alabama. That’s because he has spent much of the past three decades as the CEO (and as of Jan. 1, the sole owner) of the Bruno Event Team, a Birmingham-based sports event management company that has operated dozens of tournaments and events in Alabama and beyond.
Since co-founding the company in 1995 with former Bruno’s Supermarkets CEO Ronald Bruno, Hallman has helped oversee a wide variety of sporting events involving football, baseball, soccer (including during the 1996 Summer Olympics), auto racing, gymnastics, tennis, boxing and, of course, golf tournaments galore.
Because of Hallman’s lengthy contribution to the state’s sports scene, the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame will present him with the 2022 Distinguished American Sportsman Award during the 54th annual ASHoF induction ceremony on May 7.
“This is so special because of the rich history of sports in this state, and the fact that I’m not a native (of Alabama),” Hallman says. “It’s far and away the most significant award I’ve received. It’s incredibly humbling.”
Hallman certainly did not end up on his original career path, or even his second choice. After receiving his MBA from the University of South Carolina in 1985, Hallman went to work for a computer manufacturer. Then in 1989 he read a magazine article about Mark McCormick, founder of International Management Group, which basically was the nation’s first sports marketing company. “I had an epiphany right then,” Hallman says. “That’s what I wanted to do.”
So, at age 30, Hallman moved back in with his parents (“They made me pay rent,” he says) and became a sports agent. He represented one recognizable name on the PGA Tour, Corey Pavin, and several fringe Tour players. After about 18 months, Hallman says, “I realized I was David among Goliaths, and I wasn’t going to slay the giant.”
Hallman began putting out feelers for a new job, and his golf experience helped him land the role as tournament director for what would become known as the Bruno’s Memorial Classic. Hallman packed up all his belongings in a U-Haul, hopped behind the wheel of his Honda Accord, and headed to Birmingham.
It turns out, he never left. With Hallman in charge, the Bruno’s Memorial Classic quickly gained a reputation among both golfers and spectators as a well-run tournament that took care of even the smallest details.
This led to a series of events that changed everything for Hallman. First, Bruno’s Supermarkets was acquired by an investment firm, leaving Ronald Bruno looking for new opportunities. So, he and Hallman founded the Bruno Event Team.
Around that same time, some of the spillover soccer matches from the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta were scheduled to be held at Birmingham’s Legion Field. Larry Lemak, who had worked to bring the matches to Birmingham as founder of the Alabama Sports Foundation, turned to the Bruno Event Team for assistance in managing the event.
Finally, George Bryan of Bryan Foods lured the 1999 U.S. Women’s Open golf tournament to his home state of Mississippi. Bryan had a long-time business relationship with Bruno, and he hired the Bruno Event Team to manage the tournament.
And just like that, Hallman and his company roared into the 21st century and never slowed down. “The businessperson in me would say, ‘Sure, we had a strategic plan for all this.’ But actually, a lot of it just unfolded on its own in different chapters over the last 30 years,” he says.
Two moments in particular stand out to Hallman. The first was the success of Olympic soccer in Birmingham. Skeptics scoffed at the thought of Alabama being sophisticated enough to host Olympic events, especially when compared to the three other cities that were hosting early-round matches (Washington D.C., Miami and Orlando). The Atlanta Journal-Constitution even published a column ridiculing the idea.
Yet when it was over, nearly 250,000 tickets were sold for Birmingham’s six game days, more than the other three cities combined. “That was a real defining moment for me,” Hallman says. “It was satisfaction beyond description.”
A similar situation emerged nearly 15 years later, when it was announced that the Bruno Event Team would oversee a new IndyCar Series race in Birmingham to be held at Barber Motorsports Park. Again, doubters laughed at the thought of these open-wheel racers with their international appeal competing in the heart of NASCAR country. And once again, the crowds turned out in unexpected numbers, and the race is now a fixture on the IndyCar circuit.
“It was the same sort of mantra that we heard with Olympic soccer, that IndyCar would never work in the Deep South,” Hallman says. “Now here we are 12 years later, still racing. Proving skeptics wrong is something I enjoy.”
At age 62, Hallman says he has a “new sense of energy” after taking over total ownership of the company from Bruno, who has retired. He believes Birmingham’s new Protective Stadium and renovated Legacy Arena will usher in even more event opportunities for the city. In addition, two of Hallman’s teenage children already have expressed interest in joining him in the sports marketing business.
“To think that I could be building a bridge forward for them is something that has become a passion and great motivator for me,” Hallman says. “It’s amazing to think that when I came here, I didn’t know a single person. But this state has embraced me as if I were one of their own. So many people welcomed me in and gave me guidance. They made me feel right at home. And now, this is now my home.”
Cary Estes and Cary Norton are Birmingham-based freelance contributors to Business Alabama.