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VOL. 37 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 13, 2013

The remarkable Nashville multimillionaire behind Athlon

By Joe Morris

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Marlene and Spencer Hays, who wears the medal of the Officer of the Legion of Honor, pose next to their favorite painting of French Edouard Vuillar, 1868-1940, Les Premiers Pas, 1894, during the inauguration of the Marlene and Spencer Hays collection at the Orsay museum in Paris earlier this year.

-- Ap Photo/Michel Euler

As Athlon Sports moves more extensively into magazine production, both in print and online, there’s at least one set of eyes that will likely be giving every issue’s cover art fairly close scrutiny.

When it comes to fine art, Athlon President and CEO Spencer Hays of Nashville has few peers.

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He and his wife Marlene have spent decades amassing a collection that centers on Paris and the French painting of the late 19th and early 20th century. Portions of their collection have been exhibited overseas, most notably in France, where Hays received the insignia of the Officer of the Order of the Legion of Honor following an exhibit at the Musee d’Orsay earlier this year.

From a Texas childhood, Hays found his way to Nashville, where he sold books door to door for Southwestern.

His wife asked him to buy a Dutch painting for their home, and while surprised, he agreed.

Then the couple began buying American art, and in the 1980s began to amass their French collection, in particular Les Nabis, a group of artists formed in 1888, whose paintings of everyday life appealed to the couple.

“We like to know who these people were, what were their relationships,” Marlene Hays said in an interview earlier this year.

The Hays collection grew along with his business successes, most of which revolve around a direct-to-consumers sales model.

In addition to publishing ventures Athlon Sports Communications and Southwestern/Great American Co., those include the Tom James Co., which sells suits to men in their homes or offices, as well as Oxxford Clothes Inc., a maker of handmade, off-the-rack suits that retail for $2,000 and up.

All told, his businesses bring in around $600 million, and his personal wealth has been estimated at $400 by Forbes magazine.