FEATURE — Summer 2010
   

 
Lewis Wolff, MBA ’61, a longtime real estate developer, is chairman and CEO of Los Angeles-based Wolff Urban Development. He also is an ardent sports fan and current owner, along with partner, John Fisher, of professional baseball’s Oakland A’s and the San Jose Earthquakes, a Major League Soccer team.

A Sporting Life

With keen intuition and decisiveness, alumnus Lewis Wolff built a highly successful career in real estate and urban development, and now has “some fun” owning professional sports teams, such as the Oakland A’s and the San Jose Earthquakes.

By Gretchen Lee

Though owning a sports franchise can have an upside, Lewis Wolff, MBA ’61, admits that financial gain is not the best reason to buy into a team.

Wolff and his partner, John Fisher, purchased the Oakland A’s in 2005 and now also own a Major League Soccer team, the San Jose Earthquakes. Previously, Wolff was part owner of the St. Louis Blues professional hockey team and was a partner in the National Basketball Association’s Golden State Warriors.

All this isn’t bad for a boy who grew up in University City, Mo., and rode the streetcar to Sportsman’s Park on Saturdays to watch the St. Louis Cardinals play.

A lifelong baseball fan, Wolff is friends with Bud Selig, commissioner of Major League Baseball. (Wolff and Selig are fraternity brothers from their days at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.) Selig, in fact, facilitated Wolff’s A’s purchase. As the two sat next to one another at a 2002 World Series game, Selig leaned over and suggested that Wolff talk with the A’s owners about buying into the franchise.

“These business decisions are not necessarily the kind where you are looking for a maximum rate of return,” Wolff says. “I think you have to be at a point in your life where you want to have some fun.”

And have fun he does — often bringing his older grandsons Drew, 14, and Arthur, 10, with him to the ballpark, letting them shag fly balls during batting practice and be in the locker room while Wolff returns to his A’s office. “I always say that I have the most expensive baby sitters in the world,” he jokes.

The capacity to own sports franchises did not happen overnight. Wolff, a developer and investor, first made his mark on real estate in the late 1960s with the creation of Park Center Plaza in San Jose, Calif. That challenging project has been credited with revitalizing the city’s deteriorating downtown.

As chairman and CEO of Los Angeles-based Wolff Urban Development, Wolff seems to rely on intuition to help keep business decisions moving in the right direction. “My philosophy is that the cost of indecision is greater than the cost of making a decision,” he says. “With the sophistication of analysis tools, you could study something forever. I push my people to punt rather than contemplate.”

He also likes to create partnerships, even letting others take the lead when appropriate. For example, Wolff’s personal experience with soccer was minimal at the outset of his relationship with the Earthquakes. His interest was piqued after attending the World Cup in Germany with several key people from the A’s, including General Manager Billy Beane — all of them rabid soccer fans. “Walking into the A’s office, you don’t just see baseball on the screens, you see soccer, too,” Wolff explains.

In 2006, upon learning that the Earthquakes franchise was available even though its players and coaching staff were moving to Houston, Wolff and Fisher purchased the option to revive the brand. By 2008, the team was back in the game, and staying in San Jose.

Alumnus Lewis Wolff teamed up with Philip Maritz in the early 1990s to form Maritz, Wolff & Co., a real estate investment firm focused on top-tier luxury hotel and resort properties. The firm’s properties include the Ritz-Carlton in St. Louis (above), the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas and the Fairmont in San Francisco, among others. (Photo Courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton; Photographer: Mark Wieland)

Worldwide growth
Back in the early 1990s, Wolff teamed up with fellow St. Louis native Philip Maritz to form Maritz, Wolff & Co., a real estate investment firm focused on top-tier luxury hotel and resort properties. The company now owns an interest in 18 hotels and resorts worldwide, including such well-known properties as the Fairmont in San Francisco, the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas and the Ritz-Carlton in St. Louis — the place where, in 1992, Wolff and Maritz first met over breakfast to discuss going into business together.

“We started buying when rates were down and occupancies were low,” Wolff explains. “Our goal was to buy the best hotel in the particular geographic area we were in.”

Wolff and Maritz’s entrée into hotel ownership began during a recessionary period. “A lot of people who had never stayed in top-tier hotels were being exposed to them because the prices were reasonable,” Wolff says. “We thought that when the economy came back, some of the people who had tasted that extra bit of service and luxury would not be weaned away.”

Their strategy paid off. “We bought one hotel, I will not say which one, for $45 million, and within a few years, we sold it for $150 million,” Wolff says. Maritz, Wolff & Co.’s holdings grew to $1.5 billion in asset value.

A modest beginning
Wolff has come a long way from his early years. After marrying his college sweetheart, Jean, he moved back to St. Louis and began working as a real estate appraiser while attending the Washington University business school in the evening. He worked slowly but steadily toward an MBA until his last semester, when he took leave of his job so that he could manage an extra-heavy course load and graduate early. The couple had to scrimp and save in order to make do on her salary as a schoolteacher. Wolff also credits classmate Jim Briggson, BSIE ’59, MBA ’61, for “making me study,” Wolff says.

“We worked hard, but it was fun,” Wolff recalls of the years he spent at Washington University. “We were required to do an unbelievable amount of writing, creating case studies.”

He fully appreciates such vigorous Washington U. training and credits the emphasis on case writing with helping him to succeed in business. “I have a theory that he who writes the first draft, wins,” he says.

No slowing down
For the past 45 years or so, the Wolffs have made their home in Los Angeles. Jean is a sculptor. Wolff, now in his 70s, says he has no plans to retire. “Especially being in sports, I’m around a lot of young people and they keep you young,” he says.

The couple has three children, now grown. Son Kevin lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Keith works with his father and is president at Wolff Urban Development. Their eldest, Kari, lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and manages the family’s charitable giving.

If anything, Wolff’s life has intensified in recent years as he’s found himself at the center of a controversial move involving the Oakland A’s. After plans fell through twice to build a new stadium — first in Oakland and then in nearby Freemont, Calif., Wolff is now in talks to build a state-of-the-art, 32,000-seat stadium 37 miles away and on the other side of the San Francisco Bay, in San Jose.

Ultimately, it’s up to Commissioner Selig to decide whether to approve plans to move the team. But Wolff’s proposal created a stir. While the city of San Jose welcomes the move, fans in Oakland grumble about feeling abandoned. Meanwhile, supporters of the San Francisco Giants worry whether having two teams on the same side of the Bay might threaten attendance at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

The issue also triggered a flurry of newspaper articles, but Wolff learned early on to take the increased public attention in stride. “Throughout I’ve noticed something fascinating: When I run into someone who has seen an article about me that could be negative, that person will say, ‘I saw your name in the paper — way to go!’” Wolff says, laughing. “Many people do not read beyond the headlines, apparently.”

Gretchen Lee, AB ’86, is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.