PhillyDeals: The driving force behind the 76ers' sale

Posted: July 14, 2011

Joshua Harris, leader of the Wall Street group that has reached a deal with Comcast-Spectacor to buy the 76ers, is a billionaire bottom-feeder who buys damaged assets cheaply and sells them at a profit.

That's how Harris, 46, who grew up in suburban Washington and graduated from Penn and Harvard, has made his bread since the end of the 1980s, when he escaped the former junk-bond giant Drexel Burnham Lambert. That was after Harris' fellow Wharton graduate Michael Milken wrecked the firm with illegal deals and went to prison.

Harris cofounded Apollo Global Management, which bought bargain-priced bonds from the same kind of busted companies Drexel financed, slashed costs by cutting jobs, facilities, or vendor payments, hired new managers, and then sold at a profit when the companies had recovered.

Harris' primary financing partner in the Sixers bid, real estate dealmaker David Blitzer, performs similar duties for another buyout giant, Blackstone Group L.P.

So who is this guy Joshua Harris?

Harris has been living with his family in London, but he is moving back to New York this year.

Since word of his bid for the Sixers became public, he has been photographed at a Swiss bankers' party in the posh Hamptons and a Wharton School private-equity conference in San Francisco. Between flights, Harris negotiated a deal to invest in a new steel plant in India, among his other Apollo duties.

Will Harris use his buyout expertise to cut costs and jack up sales for another underperforming asset, the Sixers?

Don't count on it, says David Niles, a New York business strategist who counts pro sports teams among his past clients.

"There are a lot of buyout financiers who own teams," he said.

Mark Cuban, owner of the champion Dallas Mavericks, made his money in private equity. Cuban was initially an activist manager but in recent years has stood back while his pros ran the club, Niles said.

The Boston Bruins, Celtics, and Red Sox are owned, in part, by private-equity executives. Tom Gores, owner of Platinum Equity, led the purchase of the Detroit Pistons in June for $325 million, about $45 million more than what Harris' group reportedly bid for the Sixers.

"To a person, those guys leave their business heads at the door," Niles told me. "We don't see them professionalizing or corporatizing sports teams. For these guys, this is a hobby."

Maybe you can't prejudge Harris as owner of the Sixers, but here's how he has handled his day job:

Apollo, which claimed investments worth $67 billion at the end of 2010, has been a major owner of landfill giant Allied Waste Industries, casino-owner Caesars Entertainment Corp., Century 21 L.L.C.-parent Realogy, Converse sneakers, and many lesser-known outfits.

An Apollo buyout doesn't always mean squeezed vendors or frozen pensions. The $20 billion, Apollo-led refinancing of troubled Dutch chemical-maker LyondellBasell was named "Deal of the Year" by Investor's Digest. Apollo kept more than 15,000 workers from losing their jobs, and left Lyondell shareholders with a market value of $20 billion.

Harris and his colleagues made a killing from the biggest financial calamity of our time: the bursting of the subprime mortgage bubble that forced millions of Americans from their homes and froze the economy.

Apollo was an owner of WMC Mortgage Corp., a mortgage lender to subprime borrowers, which it bought in 1997 as the real estate bubble was gathering steam, and sold at a profit of nearly $500 million in 2004, as the market neared its peak.

Since the crisis, Apollo has acquired, at deep discounts, nonperforming loans, bad debt, and other "distressed and buyout investments." The acquisitions originally were worth more than $45 billion, and were purchased from "motivated sellers," Apollo told the Securities and Exchange Commission in a report.

As the U.S. bank bailout took hold and values recovered, Apollo estimated its profits from those investments, for 2009 alone, at more than 50 percent.

Apollo has left a trail of litigation. Investors in Linens 'n Things, the bankrupt retail chain, are suing Apollo, "alleging violations of the Federal Securities Laws and the making of negligent misrepresentations."

Apollo's affiliates have also been subpoenaed about the firms' use of "placement agents" in trying to win investments from pension funds. The California Public Employees Retirement System is reviewing fees paid in connection with Apollo's stewardship of taxpayer assets, for possible improprieties. Pennsylvania state pension funds are also among Apollo's investors.

Apollo denied wrongdoing. It says it is cooperating with the CalPERS.


Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194 or JoeD@phillynews.com.

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