Billionaire’s row: A deep look at the potential bidders for the Carolina Panthers

Billionaire’s row: A deep look at the potential bidders for the Carolina Panthers
Three leading candidates have emerged to buy the Carolina Panthers: (from left) hedge fund manager David Tepper, internet entrepreneur Michael Rubin and financier Ben Navarro. Bloomberg; Kyenetic; Luquire George Andrews(Provided to the Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Joseph Person, Katherine Peralta and Rick Rothacker/Charlotte Observer) - As crunch time approaches for the sale of the Carolina Panthers, bidders ranging from a hedge fund manager to a financial services CEO to an internet entrepreneur have emerged as leading candidates.

The potential owners also have strong sports pedigrees, including stakes in other sports teams, and deep family roots.

So far, three names have surfaced as likely bidders – Charleston businessman Ben Navarro, Philadelphia e-commerce innovator Michael Rubin and Miami hedge fund manager David Tepper – but it's not clear if any other will surface. Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates has spearheaded a potential local ownership group, but a source said he might look at partnering with another bidder.

The potential owners themselves are bound by non-disclosure agreements, but sources around them, all of whom requested anonymity because of the confidential nature of the bidding process, have been working to polish their images. The winner first needs the approval of current owner Jerry Richardson, followed by three-fourths of NFL owners. Sources indicated that none of the three would look to move the team from Charlotte.

Here's a deeper look at the three leading bidders known so far:

Ben Navarro: Charleston financier

When he was an undergraduate at Rhode Island in the early '80s, Ben Navarro waited tables to help pay for school before coming up with another money-making idea.

Navarro began approaching local businesses about a VIP card that would offer discounts to students, who would pay Navarro a fee for use of the card.

The college venture served as something of a model for Navarro, who followed a Wall Street career with the 1997 launch of a consumer finance company that is now ninth-largest in active Visa/Mastercard credit card accounts, according to industry publication The Nilson Report. The privately held Sherman Financial Group includes other financial operations such as a business that purchases and manages consumer debt.

Navarro, who lives in Charleston, S.C., with his wife and four children, is a private person who has tried to avoid the spotlight while growing his fortune and establishing schools for underprivileged students.

He also has a football background that can be traced to his childhood in New England. His father, Frank, was a longtime college football coach who had stops at a pair of Ivy League schools and instilled in his eight children a strong work ethic, according to a source close to the Navarro family.

He moved to Charleston in 2004, and a year later Sherman Financial expanded by buying the company now known as Credit One Bank, which specializes in serving borrowers on the low-end of the credit spectrum.

For the first time last year, Credit One was big enough to be included in J.D. Power's customer satisfaction survey. It did not fare well, finishing in last place with a score of 735 out of 1,000.

The company's poor showing partially stemmed from its business model, which focuses on lower credit-quality customers while most of the industry battles for affluent customers, said Jim Miller, vice president of the banking and credit card practice at J.D. Power. "Higher spenders that can pay off their balance tend to have higher satisfaction because you reap all the rewards and benefits, and you don't pay late fees or anything like that," Miller said.

Navarro and his six brothers – he also has a sister – spent a lot of time filling water bottles and inflating footballs during their father's various coaching stints. When the family would rent a beach cottage every summer, Frank Navarro required his children to take jobs painting houses, cutting lawns – even fishing golf balls out of ponds on area courses and re-selling them.

But football remained a unifying force for the Navarro family.

Ben Navarro, 55, was born in Williamstown, Mass., where his father was the coach at Williams College, and graduated from Princeton (N.J.) High when his dad was compiling an 18-17-3 record in four seasons coaching the Tigers in the Ivy League.

In between were stops at Columbia and Wabash (Ind.) College.

Ben Navarro, who played football and wrestled in high school, is a fitness buff who's run more than a dozen marathons, including Boston. His daughter, Emma, is a high school sophomore who has committed to Duke for tennis and is the No. 1 ranked junior girls player in the South.

Navarro, who has a reported net worth of $3 billion, in 2008 started Meeting Street Schools, an education nonprofit consisting of three schools in Charleston and Spartanburg geared toward low-income, minority students who pay low tuition costs.

The elementary schools – two of which are public-private partnerships – feature a longer school day, dental and vision screenings and higher salaries for high-performing teachers, according to the Meeting Street web site.

George Dean Johnson, a prominent South Carolina businessman, provided the capital for Navarro to open the Spartanburg school in 2012. Johnson – who was with the Blockbuster video chain when its owner, Wayne Huizenga, bought the Miami Dolphins in 1994 – praised Navarro's vision in business and education.

"He is a gifted business person. But his greatest gift is his interest in children. He's changing lives," Johnson said.

Navarro did not know Richardson before deciding to bid on the Panthers. But sources say he likes how the Panthers have catered to both North and South Carolina since their inception, and is a proponent of keeping an open-air stadium in uptown.

Michael Rubin: Philadelphia entrepreneur

When Michael Rubin's friend, Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill, faced a possible lengthy sentence over a probation violation, Rubin wrote a heartfelt letter to the judge, urging a lenient sentence.

"He not only has a bright future but also a unique opportunity to inspire young men at a time when others are tearing them down," Rubin, the owner of the Fanatics sports merchandise retailer and a co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, wrote of the friend he met at an NBA All-Star Game.

The judge in November sentenced Mill to two to four years in prison, sparking outrage among his defenders, including major sports figures in Philadelphia. While acknowledging mistakes Meek Mill has made, Rubin, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, has continued to speak out for his friend.

"We come from different worlds, this stuff doesn't happen in my world," Rubin told Sports Illustrated. "It happens in his world, and that's unacceptable."

If the 45-year-old should prevail in acquiring the Panthers, the NFL would be adding someone who doesn't fit the mold of the stereotypical silver-haired billionaire.

"He brings a different perspective," an NFL ownership source told the Observer.

Rubin's entrepreneurial career began at a young age when he began selling stationery door-to-door, according to the bio on his company's web site. By age 13, he was running a ski shop at the local mall. He went to Villanova University for one year, but then left to focus on his business endeavors, founding a company called KPR Sports, a distributor of off-brand sporting goods and footwear that later became GSI Commerce.

"I've loved business since I've been a little boy," he said in an appearance on the CBS reality TV show "Undercover Boss." "It's always been in my DNA."

As for what motivates him, he added: "Business made me a winner. That's what drives me."

In 2011, Rubin, who has an 11-year-old daughter and still lives in the Philadelphia area, sold GSI to eBay for $2.4 billion, raising his business profile and his net worth, estimated now at about $3 billion. He now runs a private company called Kynetic, which holds three Internet-related businesses: Fanatics, Rue La La and ShopRunner.

Fanatics stands out because of its business model: The company manufactures its merchandise as well as selling it online, meaning the company can quickly ship out championship T-shirts after a big game.

Besides selling its merchandise at its own site, the business also partners with various sports leagues, including the NFL, to run their e-commerce stores. Last year, the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group led a $1 billion investment in Fanatics through its technology investment fund, giving the company a total valuation of $4.5 billion. The NFL was one of the investors in the deal.

A Fanatics investor who did not want his name used said Rubin would bring the same kind of creative spirit to an NFL team that he has shown in e-commerce. "I don't think anybody else can bring the same level of digital innovation to the table," he said, adding that Rubin "is a huge fan of the sport."

Sources have said that Rubin has lined up a key partner in his bid, Joseph Tsai, the minority owner of the Brooklyn Nets who co-founded Alibaba Group, China's version of Amazon. Sources said he could potentially add other partners, including NBA star Steph Curry and rapper Sean "Diddy" Combs, but one source said Tsai is the only partner confirmed so far.

Adding the latter partners would bring diversity to the bid, but could also draw criticism from some fans. Curry and Combs have been supportive of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who spurred a controversy that roiled the league last season over players kneeling during the national anthem to protest social injustice.

In his role as a 76ers minority owner, Rubin has shown that he has a strong rapport with the team's players, including star Joel Embiid.

"That's my guy so looks like I might have to switch sports," Embiid wrote in an Instagram post after Rubin's interest in the Panthers surfaced. "@CameronNewton you need a wide receiver?"

David Tepper: Florida hedge fund manager

David Tepper, perhaps the least camera shy of all the possible bidders so far, came from a humble upbringing in Pittsburgh.

The middle of three kids, Tepper was raised in a Jewish household in a lower middle class neighborhood. He helped pay his way through the University of Pittsburgh by stacking books at a fine arts library on campus.

Sources close to Tepper, now 60, say he has always been good with numbers, which is why he majored in economics at Pittsburgh. After college, Tepper worked as a credit and securities analyst at Equibank in Pittsburgh before going on to get his MBA at Carnegie Mellon. The private research university's business school now bears Tepper's name, thanks to a $55 million gift from the billionaire in 2004.

"David Tepper is a visionary, both as a businessman and a philanthropist, and we are grateful for his generous support," former CMU President Subra Suresh said after Tepper donated another $67 million to the school in 2013.

Tepper worked on Wall Street as a junk bonds analyst, then later was hired by Goldman Sachs, but left when he was passed up for partner. Tepper launched his hedge fund, Appaloosa Management, in 1993, and has grown the firm into a behemoth that now has $17 billion in assets under management.

Tepper moved Appaloosa from New Jersey to Miami in 2016 in order to be closer to his mother, sources close to the businessman have said. Others say it is because Florida has no personal income tax. Either way, the move triggered budget concerns by New Jersey lawmakers, according to Bloomberg.

Tepper has always been a sports fan. As a kid, he could recite the statistics of Major League Baseball players, according to a 2012 book called "The Alpha Masters," which profiles the world's top hedge fund managers.

In 2009, Tepper bought a 5 percent stake in the Steelers, his hometown team. That investment is now worth $122.5 million, based on Forbes' current valuation of the Steelers ($2.45 billion.) Per NFL rules, Tepper would have to sell his stake in the Steelers should he wind up the winning bidder of the Panthers.

When asked about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL's response to domestic violence during a 2014 interview with Bloomberg TV, Tepper expressed sympathy with assault victims and said the league's response has been "a little bit disappointing."

According to Forbes, Tepper has a net worth of $11 billion, making him the richest of all of the serious bidders. Unlike the other prospective owners, Tepper could likely afford to buy the team outright on his own. It is unclear whether he is working with any partners on a deal.

A source familiar with Tepper's businesses recently said he has "more money than God." In 2011, Tepper, a father of three, bought a $43.5 million oceanfront mansion in the Hamptons that used to belong to former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, only to tear it down to build a new one twice its size on the property, according to multiple reports.

Tepper has remained active in the charitable organizations he heads in the various places he's planted roots, including Pittsburgh, Miami and New Jersey. In Miami and other affected areas last year, for instance, Tepper partnered with Feeding America to donate $3 million in food and other goods after Hurricanes Maria, Irma and Harvey.

A source who knows Tepper said if he were to come to Charlotte, "you should assume that (philanthropy) would continue."

Tepper donated $250,000 toward a new sea lion exhibit at New Jersey's Turtle Back Zoo in 2012. A plaque commemorating the donation sits in the billionaire's Appaloosa office, which according to a 2009 New York Magazine profile, resembles a "high-end sports bar," full of Steelers paraphernalia. Next to the zoo plaque is a pair of brass testicles, reportedly a gift from a former employee who was impressed with a 148-percent climb in Appaloosa stock in 2003.

The brass genitalia has stirred controversy as Tepper's name was reported as a possible bidder for the Panthers, a team put up for sale by an owner accused of workplace sexual harassment. The metallic memento remains in its place, however.