The Private-Equity Diaries

Photo by Dave Dow

Private-equity maestro Josh Harris, W’86, leads a team of investors to buy the Philadelphia 76ers. For him, it’s another impending success in a long series of professional and personal victories.

By Matthew Brodsky

When Joshua Harris, W’86, was in Philadelphia in mid-October for the Wharton board meetings, he devoted the early Friday morning to a 20-mile run, west on Kelly Drive to Manayunk and back. He was running the course in preparation for the Philadelphia Marathon in November, his third 26.2-miler, which he finished in a personal best 3:48:10. For Harris, waking at 6 a.m. for a run is a regular part of life. Indeed, being an athlete brings balance to his life.

“I would rather sleep 90 minutes less,” he says of his morning routine, and he claims to feel less tired because he runs instead.

It’s one of two gems of advice he offers to current Wharton students—be sure to have work-life balance.

But you can imagine that for all the relaxation that came with a 20-mile jaunt on an Indian-summer morning along the Schuylkill River, the training also gave Harris time to think about the other pursuits that round out his life. He was in Philadelphia to discuss weighty topics about the present and future of his alma mater with men and women of equal substance and knowledge as himself. His “day job” as co-founder of private-equity firm Apollo Global Management must have crossed his mind. His family, of course: wife Marjorie, three sons and two daughters. And thoughts about his new “family,” the NBA team he recently acquired, the Philadelphia 76ers, probably looped through his brain.

His is a full plate worthy of 20 miles of contemplation, but one Harris appears to balance as skillfully as a basketball player spinning the ball on his index finger.

It wasn’t always so. When Harris first got into business, he says, he had to work to achieve this.

“I think that any time you go into a very intense career like private equity, I think one of the challenges is balance,” he says. He suspects that many current Wharton students are driven toward a goal like he was.

Josh Harris, W'86

At this point, Harris has his large family, his focus on fitness and philanthropic work. He’s involved at his children’s schools, at Mount Sinai Medical Center. He has advised the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the Council on Foreign Relations. And as mentioned, he serves as advisor for the Wharton School as a member of its Undergraduate Executive Board.

Now add his ownership of the 76ers. Where will he find the time for all this balance?

“I thought a lot about that when I decided to [buy the 76ers],” he says.

He chose to be all-in for his new business opportunity, to make it his “major extracurricular,” he says.

He will need to minimize some other activities in order to find the time, and he won’t necessarily manage the day to day of basketball operations. That is why he installed Adam Aron, whose son attends Wharton, as the team’s CEO. As managing owner, though, Harris plans to attend a lot of games.

Certainly he wants to get off on the right foot with the local sports faithful.

“It’s one thing to say you want to connect to the fans, but if you’re not there, it’s a lot harder,” he says.

He also wants to get his money’s worth, figuratively speaking, as majority-stake owner.

Harris has been a fan since he attended Penn when the Sixers won the world championship in 1983.

“That led to a lasting impression in me,” he said during a press conference when his ownership was officially announced. The event was hosted in the Palestra, a venue with its own history, decorated for this event with Sixers’ banners commemorating division and conference titles and the team’s world championships.

“I wouldn’t be investing in the team if I wasn’t going to a lot of the games,” he says. “As this is an investment by me personally, clearly it’s more than just a business investment.”

From all accounts in sports and business media, Harris is the leader in what is estimated to be a $280 million investment, a deal to buy the Sixers from former owner Comcast Spectacor. The 46-year-old billionaire is using his own assets along with funds from co-managing owner David Blitzer, W’91, a Blackstone partner by day, as well as a team of other minority owners including Art Wrubel, W’87, founder of Wesley Capital; Hollywood stars Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith; Michael Rubin, CEO at GSI Commerce; Martin Geller, CEO of Geller & Co.; and Jason Levien, a former basketball agent and executive.

Harris, Blitzer and Wrubel form the nucleus of the investment group. Harris recounts how he and Blitzer had looked independently at the Sixers as an investment opportunity, became aware of their mutual interest and decided to work together with Wrubel to acquire the team.

Still, Harris is at the helm.

“At the end of the day, Josh is the managing partner,” Blitzer was quoted as saying in an Associated Press article. “He’s actually a great listener. He’ll take in lots of great opinions. But at the end of the day, Josh gets to make the call. It’s not like there’s 15 people that all have rights to vote and say this and do that.”

With majority power, however, comes a majority of the risk. This is particularly true in the Philadelphia sports scene, which often lives up to its lore of fans throwing snowballs packed with batteries at opposing teams, or actual criminal courts set up in the football stadium for rowdy ticketholders.

At the press conference, some Philadelphia sports writers already questioned Harris about residing in New York (not Philly) and about the current quality of the team. Harris countered with his local roots. His father, Jacob Harris, C’55, D’58, GD’60, and mother, Sylvia, a Temple grad, met in Philadelphia. His grandfather was a Philadelphia postal worker.

But wait until the season starts and the Sixers lose a few games. Then this questioning will seem gentle. Harris’ roots won’t mean much when the sports media smells blood and fans begin their attacks on sports talk radio, Internet discussion boards and at the proverbial water cooler.

Harris understands that at the moment he’s getting the benefit of the doubt, but that fans want a winning team. He knows it’s important to “underpromise and overdeliver,” though he is not shy about saying that a championship is the ultimate goal. And he has weighed the risk of this new spotlight—and the occasional personal and crude attacks surely to come—even though he is used to being a financial celebrity who manages to avoid too much mainstream attention.

“I have gotten my head around playing a more public role to connect with the fans and to make sure that Philadelphia knows that I’m working very hard to put a great team together,” he says, adding: “I’m expecting press volatility. I’m not excited about it. But it’s part of what you take on realistically when you do this.”

One reason that Harris is willing to put himself out there is that this investment is a good one. After all, he’s not just in it to get the best seats to Sixers’ games and see himself on the Wells Fargo Center’s Jumbotron. The deal stood on its own, according to Harris. Despite the now-resolved labor dispute between owners and players, Harris is optimistic about the NBA’s long-term growth, particularly overseas. He also cites the fact that the Sixers reside in a top-five U.S. market and have the third-most wins in league history, yet are nearly at the bottom of the NBA in “nearly every category,” including ticket sales and revenues.

He won’t call the Sixers a distressed property—more that the team is not living up to potential. At Apollo, that is what Harris specializes in. You uncover opportunities in sectors where profitability looks like it will improve over time. You take that company, dislodge it from its parent, unlock its potential and then breathe new life into it. Harris is confident he can do the same here. He has been in business for 25 years.

“I’m not expecting a straight line up,” he says. “Generally speaking, though, I’ve been successful pretty much across the board.”

His most notable success has been Apollo, the firm he started in 1990 with Penn parent Leon Black and Marc Rowan, W’84, WG’85. In 2011, the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. As of June 30, 2011, according to the most recently available quarterly statement, the firm had $71.7 billion in assets under management. Apollo’s 500-plus employees are spread across the globe in New York, Los Angeles, London, Frankfurt, Luxembourg, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mumbai.

Senior Managing Director and Co-Managing Partner Harris focuses on investing, something he knows is one of his best strengths. Private equity is also something he loves. The people in the business are part of the reason; private equity attracts highly motivated, energetic and super smart people such as himself. He’s enjoyed the intensity of the environment too. And the power. As he explains, private equity can give a younger businessperson the opportunity to run an acquired company, rather than climb the ladder from within.

“At a very young age, you can make decisions that are important and fundamental to the strategies and strength of these companies,” he says.

Harris made these considerations when launching Apollo after graduating from Harvard Business School as a Baker and Loeb Scholar. Previous to his MBA, he had been in the Mergers and Acquisitions Group of Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. There, he joined the “special forces for finance,” the bank’s two-year analyst program that gave him a broad grounding during 90-hour workweeks on Wall Street.

This was after Wharton. As a Penn undergrad, he took Econ 1A and B and decided to transfer to the School. Here, he received the business and analytical framework and built the relationships that have carried him to his current success.

For Harris, each play he has made—from his educational choices to Apollo to the Sixers—has set up the next. This wouldn’t have been possible if he “slacked off” as a young adult, he says, instead of “orienting” early and putting a lot of effort, creativity and energy into his early years.

It is a life lesson, his second, that he offers to current Wharton students and young alumni. Work hard, be focused. Does this contradict his earlier advice about work-life balance?

“This is sort of an asterisk to the balance thing. Maybe shy away from that a little bit if you have to until you settle down,” he explains to students on the make.

“I played hard, and I also worked hard from the ages of 18 to 28,” he says.

Now that he’s returning to Philadelphia as the owner of the Sixers, Harris considers how his Penn and Wharton education will intertwine with his new endeavor. They are “world-class institutions,” he says, and he has carried those values to everything he’s done since, including basketball.

“Our motto at the Sixers is that we want to be world-class in everything we do on the court and off the court,” he says.

If they do become world-class, and world champions, then he’ll be able to run 20 miles in broad daylight in Philadelphia without worry about being chased along the way by rabid, snowball-wielding Sixers fans.

(Editor’s note: Be sure to also read our side story about Harris, “Starting a Trend?”)

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