PhillyDeals: Phila. investor Ira Lubert working with five others to replace Joe Paterno

Posted: November 30, 2011

Philadelphia investor Ira Lubert has joined five veteran Penn State administrators and faculty on a committee to select a replacement for 46-year football coach Joe Paterno, and to get it done by Christmas.

The architect of the Nittany Lions teams that helped raise Penn State's national profile, Paterno was fired and school president Graham Spanier resigned Nov. 9 after a state invesigation of child-abuse reports against a former assistant football coach and a years-long weak response by university officials to those reports.

In his day job, Lubert and his handpicked partners manage $12 billion at Lubert-Adler real estate funds and a group of related private-investment portfolios that count Pennsylvania state and teacher pensions as clients.

But the onetime Nittany Lions wrestler, a 1973 graduate who is in his second term as a Penn State trustee, told me he was "dropping everything to help get this done right for the university. It's important to get this back on track," given Penn State's half-million graduates, nearly 100,000 students at University Park and statewide campuses, and tens of thousands of dependent jobs, Lubert said.

Penn State "got me started, and I really feel an obligation to give back," Lubert said. "I'm working nonstop for the next three weeks trying to hire the right guy."

Won't his business suffer? "I'm very replaceable," Lubert said, crediting his partners and managers at each fund. Lubert's penchant for hiring veteran specialists for his property, buyout, health-care, and distressed-asset funds contrasts with his mentor and friend, Safeguard Scientifics founder Warren "Pete" Musser, a generalist who favored old-school "gut" investing.

Lubert "will do anything for the school," says retired South Jersey-based investor John Fries, who first invested with Lubert in the 1970s. Lubert is a frequent donor to the school and its athletic programs - a 50,000-square-foot office and lab building at the school's "Innovation Park" is called Lubert Hall.

Lubert is friends with fellow search committee member David Joyner, Penn State's acting athletic director and, like Lubert, an ex-Nittany Lions wrestler. Fries said that relationship was key to the search committee's prospects. "He's a good negotiator and a smart businessman," Fries said of Lubert. "I think he will be an asset."

People who have done business with Lubert recall times when he was loud and demanding, as meetings became heated. Fries says Lubert stands out from other investors in two ways:

"Ira is a very detailed guy. He does a lot of upfront due diligence. And he covers the downside risk, what happens if things don't work out, better than most people."

Fries described how Lubert would handle the Penn State coaching search: "[He] goes out, he researches the best guy. He'll want an impeccable background. [The successful candidate] will have to be loyal . . . has to be a winner. He will have to recover Penn State."

Lubert was, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, among Pennsylvania's busiest political donors. His giving fell sharply a few years ago when he became the lead investor in the state-regulated Valley Forge hotel-and-casino project.

Besides his funds, Lubert makes personal investments in emerging companies such as the Camden-based smartphone app developer Smarter Agent L.L.C., which Lubert says are too risky for institutional clients like the Pennsylvania pension funds.

Besides his fund-management partners, including real estate specialist Dean Adler, midmarket companies expert Seth Lehr, banker James Lynch, troubled-companies investor Gregory Segall, and dozens more, Lubert counts Fries and Michael Forman, a fellow real estate investor and a founder of the fast-growing Franklin Square Capital Partners, among his closest friends in the Philadelphia business community.

Others include Aramark boss Joseph Neubauer, marketing mogul and antiwar activist Richard Vague, beer-and-soda distributor Harold Honickman, Berwyn-based mutual-fund manager Robert Turner, and Nicholas Maiale, chairman of the Pennsylvania State Employees' Retirement System, which has hired Lubert to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in public money.

"He's a first-rate judge of talent," says Forman. "He's an aggressive negotiator, but when you make a deal with him, you can always count on him honoring it. He's tough, but fair.

"He loves Penn State, so this is a tough time for him."

Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

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