PhillyDeals: Wharton School alum's star-studded lectures draw crowds

K. Robert "Bobby" Turner (right) says stars like tennis pro Andre Agassi (left) attract over 1,000 students to lectures.
K. Robert "Bobby" Turner (right) says stars like tennis pro Andre Agassi (left) attract over 1,000 students to lectures.
Posted: October 10, 2012

The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, like other fancy business colleges, is staffed by professors with comfortable salaries, global contacts and lucrative consulting arrangements, punctuated by the occasional wealthy alumnus visiting to brag how he (or she) got rich.

At Wharton, there's also the occasional whiff of superstar glamour - from NBA star Earvin "Magic" Johnson, tennis great Andre Agassi, rapper Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, and, later this week, the actress Eva Longoria. The invitations to visit Wharton's West Philly campus have come from Wharton alumni K. Robert "Bobby" Turner ('84) and his wife, Lauren Golub Turner ('85) for the lectures that the Turners sponsor to promote "social impact" investing in projects designed to turn a profit while improving poor neighborhoods.

Bobby Turner worked summers at the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, for trader Vince Casella and the brainy partnership of Rich Cooper and Roy Neff. Turner went to work for Michael Milken, the junk-bond king. From the wreck of Milken's firm, Drexel Burnham Lambert, Turner moved west in the early '90s with a group of Drexel refugees to build Canyon Capital Realty Advisors, which now owns properties worth $10 billion.

"I thought it would lead to happiness. But I'm here to tell you: Wealth should not be confused with happiness," Turner told me.

Restless, Turner grilled older people who had succeeded in business. "The consensus was, happiness doesn't come from materialism. It doesn't even come from love, when you spend 80 percent of your waking hours in an office," Turner said. "It's achievement that is incredibly fulfilling and rewarding. These people's happiness came from power - the power to make a positive impact in people's lives."

Turner researched "sustainable" solutions to urban poverty in Los Angeles. He partnered with Lakers star Johnson to open the Canyon-Johnson real estate investment funds that built housing, stores and warehouses in city neighborhoods. Then he worked with Agassi to develop taxpayer-funded charter schools, including the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) K-4 school in North Philadelphia.

Turner built on early influences such as Wharton finance instructor (and future Wall Street executive) Richard Papetti, "who always warned us, 'Don't lose focus on the end game,' " Turner said.

From Cooper and Neff, Turner learned, "Good fortune needs to be paid forward."

Wharton Dean Tom Robertson - "Who believes Wharton has an obligation to do good in the world," Turner said - approved the speaker series.

The Turners thought about bringing in charter-school founders or someone in sustainable energy. But that might draw "maybe 50 or 100 kids," Bobby Turner said.

"But if you really want to make change, you bring Magic Johnson, you bring Agassi, you bring Ludacris," Turner said. And fill more than 1,000 seats.

Longoria, the former Desperate Housewives actress and now a producer-director, business investor and advocate for farmworkers' rights, is a "spectacular" speaker, Turner says. "She doesn't want to be tabloid fodder," Turner said. Longoria wants to talk about her business and activism and its human impact. That furthers what Turner says is his goal: "You make an impression on just one kid, you change the world."

Keeping up

Five Below Inc., the Philadelphia-based store chain that pitches $1-to-$5 items to middle-schoolers for their allowance money, has more than doubled in value, to about $37 a share - and a $2 billion market cap - since its initial public stock offering in July. The company says sales should top $400 million this year. The share price implies rapid growth.

The chain has lately signed a lease for a 600,000-square-foot warehouse near Memphis, far from the chain's mostly East Coast stores but near FedEx's giant shipping center. It's also expanding closer to home, for example, with an agreement to lease the long-vacant Zany Brainy store space on U.S. Route 202 in Talleyville, Del. Zany Brainy was the previous retail chain run by Five Below founders Thomas Vellios and David Schlessinger, who sold to FAO Schwarz in 2001. Schwarz later filed for bankruptcy and shut the chain.

If Five Below can keep the price up long enough, it will earn a fortune for backers Advent International Group, of Boston, which owns just under half the stock. Other investors: Ira Lubert-backed LLR Partners, of Philadelphia, which owns about 7 percent; the founders, who together own about 9 percent, and other early backers, such as the David and Stephen Cohn family's West Conshohocken-based Sage Financial.


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

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