Michael Gearon Jr. won an “entrepreneur of the year” award in 1997 for building his cellular tower business into a fast-growing enterprise that he sold for $100 million.
But growing fast has not been his fate as part-owner of the Atlanta Spirit – that money-losing, litigious group of eight which owns the Hawks and Thrashers.
In business and sports, Gearon said, it’s important to build a strong foundation. But that has proven to be more elusive on the court and ice than in the cellular-tower fields.
I sat down with Gearon, 44, at his Vinings office last week to try to find out. With the start of the hockey and basketball seasons and a fresh court ruling on the prolonged ownership dispute, I thought the timing was right.
Gearon, an Atlanta native who attended Marist and then Georgia State, doesn’t see the dichotomy that I do when discussing his business and sports careers.
In business, his record has been impressive. He took a $3,000 real estate commission to start a cellular tower company that was hailed by the Ernst & Young accounting firm and Inc. magazine.
When he was 32, he sold his business, which went from zero to $22 million in revenue in six years. He then helped the purchaser expand substantially, not only in the U.S. but in Central and South America, too. Now, he has a new cell tower company that he’s developing in Asia.
In the process, Gearon said, he was able to build a well-oiled management team.
“Eleven of us have worked together for an average of 13 years,” he said.
But the sports teams have been anything but well-oiled, in my view. Post-season disappointments on the court and ice, and a much-publicized four-year legal battle over how to value one owner’s stake, are just two examples. Losing millions of dollars and rumors about the Thrashers moving from Atlanta are two more.
Gearon, however, sees things differently. And with all the public abuse the Spirit has taken over the past few years, he’s entitled to speak his mind.
First, he said, the ongoing ownership dispute has not affected the teams’ performance.
“It been painful for me personally, but it has had zero impact on the performance and stability of the teams,” he said. “We’ve invested over $100 million to make these teams better.”
He sees the Hawks and Thrashers as building on previous seasons with the help of a “youthful core.”
“I think both teams will be competitive and have a good chance of making the playoffs,” he said.
Financially, Gearon said, the owners are exploring the possibility of adding new investors. They’re also looking into saving money in this era of low interest rates by refinancing the bonds that paid for Philips Arena.
Gearon was quite clear on whether he thought Atlanta would lose an NHL team for the second time: “I didn’t get involved in this to move a team.”
But he was unclear on whether the ownership dispute will get resolved soon. The judge told the owners to try to reach a deal outside of court. Gearon and six of his colleagues have been trying to buy out Steve Belkin.
“We may or may not buy him out,” Gearon said.
It was the only time he was equivocal during the interview. The sports business can do that to you.
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