Next in sale of Carolina Panthers? What we know, and where process stands today

Next in sale of Carolina Panthers? What we know, and where process stands today

CHARLOTTE, NC (Katherine Peralta and Rick Rothacker)- Potential buyers of the Carolina Panthers have put in their bids and made visits to Bank of America Stadium.

At least one bidder could be out, and a potential minority investor has said he is no longer interested. Another bidder said Monday that he's still in, despite reports to the contrary. There might be a fourth, unnamed bidder in the mix, too.

So what comes next in the highly visible sale of one of the NFL's 32 teams?

First, owner Jerry Richardson is expected to select a winning bid in the coming weeks.

After that, the buyer and seller sign a purchase agreement, and NFL staff begins its own investigation and due diligence of the buyer's finances and background. That information is forwarded to the league's finance committee for review and recommendation. Finally, three-fourths of the league's owners must approve the choice.

"I think they're hoping by our May meeting that they'll have a finalist to present," New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said at the Orlando owners meetings at the end of March.

The NFL's spring meeting is May 21-23 in Atlanta.

Since the winning bidder will have been thoroughly vetted by the NFL, it would be unusual for them to be rejected by the other owners. League sources call the process exhaustive, and rightfully so: Owners remain each others' business partners for decades.

But aside from being able to write a very big check, it's not clear what exactly the NFL's bar to gain admittance to one of the world's most exclusive clubs would be.

Here's a look at where things stand with the Panthers:

The bidders

Richardson, who founded a Panthers franchise that started NFL play in 1995, announced plans to sell the team in December, on the same day Sports Illustrated reported allegations of workplace misconduct against Richardson. The 81-year-old owner's original plan had been for the team to be sold within two years of his death.

New York investment bank Allen & Co is handling the sale for the team. Participants are bound by confidentiality agreements, but some details have surfaced in recent weeks.

The Observer has identified four bidders — steel company CEO Alan Kestenbaum, financial services company CEO Ben Navarro, e-commerce entrepreneur Michael Rubin and hedge fund manager David Tepper.

Last month, Bloomberg reported that Rubin had dropped out after bids reached $2.5 billion, but a source told the Observer he remained interested at the right price.

Tepper also told the Observer on Monday that he is still in the bidding process, despite a report by the New York Times saying he had withdrawn.

The Times, citing several people familiar with the process, reported that Navarro has bid $2.6 billion for the team.

Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates has been working for months to put together a local ownership group, but he said Monday that he is no longer part of the process. In recent weeks, sources have said he was more likely to partner with another bidder.

A source familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named since the sale is ongoing, also told the Observer that there is another unidentified bidder.

And Bloomberg has reported that Cary billionaire Jim Goodnight has expressed interest, but he has not commented.

Owner approval

Before adding a new member to their club, NFL owners will want to know more about the business background of the winning bidder.

? One bidder, Tepper, already has league approval since he is a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Well-known on Wall Street and a frequent guest on Bloomberg TV and CNBC, Tepper heads Appaloosa Management, a Miami hedge fund known for risky but successful investments such as its purchase of deeply discounted blue-chip and financial stocks during the financial crisis. In one setback, the company ran into trouble over a 2008 trade in Wells Fargo trade and paid a $1.3 million penalty.

Tepper's business dealings also earned him an unusual gift from a colleague acknowledging a successful bet on distressed debt: A pair of brass testicles that remain in Tepper's office despite the controversy they stirred in a 2010 New York Magazine profile.

? Kestenbaum is the CEO of Miami-based Bedrock Industries LP, a private firm that buys and operates mining and natural resources-companies. In June, the company bought a 107-year-old Canadian steel company now called Stelco Holdings.

At a Thomson Reuters forum in 2010, he said he had been in the metals business for about 25 years, initially started with a company called Marc Rich & Co., which is now the commodity trading and mining giant known as Glencore.

Marc Rich, who died in 2013, was a international commodities trader whose trading of oil with the revolutionary government of Iran during the U.S. hostage crisis led to charges of tax evasion and trading with the enemy, according to his obituary in the Wall Street Journal. After fleeing to Switzerland, Rich continued to face charges until a controversial pardon by President Bill Clinton in 2001.

"Alan worked at what is today known as Glencore (formerly known as Marc Rich and Co), a publicly traded $50 billion mining giant as a trainee in 1984, for 18 months," Kestenbaum's company said in a statement. "Mr. Rich was the founder. As there were more than 3,000 employees at the time, Mr. Rich had no interaction with trainees and never met Alan."

Navarro is the CEO of Charleston, S.C..-based Sherman Financial Group, which includes the 9th-biggest VISA/Mastercard credit card issuer that caters largely to subprime borrowers and a unit that purchases and manages consumer debt. It also has a stake in a Mexican lender.

Sherman has had an alliance with a Mexican financial company called Consupago since 2005, according to Consupago's website. The Mexican company is an offshoot of Grupo Comercial Chedraui, a chain of grocery stores in Mexico that has been expanding in the U.S. Consupago's main product is a personal loan that is paid back through payroll deductions.

In a statement, Sherman said Consupago is a Mexican government-regulated bank, and the partnership represents less than 2 percent of revenue for Sherman Financial Group.

The nature of Sherman's business has sparked speculation that owners might have an issue with the debt collection piece of it. But Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, chairman of the NFL's eight-man finance committee, told reporters last month that he had no concerns about the company.

"His business is a legitimate business," McNair said. "For me, that wouldn't be a problem. I appreciate the fact that he is so generous in the community."

? Rubin, who may no longer be in the running for the team, also already has a business relationship with the NFL. His Fanatics e-commerce business is the outfit behind the NFL's merchandise store, and the league has made an investment in the company. A review of court records did not turn up any red flags about his company.