Sun's new majority owner: Business phenom


Dec 8, 2002
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ordinance 2257
Suns' new majority owner: Business phenom
Sarver made his mark early, in his 20s

Craig Harris
The Arizona Republic
May. 2, 2004 12:00 AM

RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. - All his life, it seems, Robert Sarver has been a young sensation.

At 16, he was counting money at his dad's savings and loan. Seven years later, he had his own bank. By the time he was 30, he was on the road to being a land baron.

Robert Sarver

1961: Born in Tucson. Youngest of three children.
1977: Begins working at American Savings and Loan in Tucson at age 16.
1979: Graduates from Sabino High School in Tucson.
1982: Graduates rom the University of Arizona in 3-½years.
1983: Becomes a certified public accountant.
1984: Founds his first bank, National Bank of Tucson, which becomes National Bank of Arizona.
1990: Moves to Paradise Valley to expand National Bank of Arizona and co-founds real estate company, Southwest Value Partners, with Millard Seldin.
1991: Meets Penny Sanders.
1994: Sells National Bank of Arizona to Zions Bancorporation.
1995: Buys Grossmont Bank in San Diego and acquires Emerald Plaza, a downtown hotel high-rise.
1996: Moves to San Diego area, marries Penny Sanders.
1998: Leads Zions acquisition of Sumitomo Bank of California.
2003: Becomes chairman, president and CEO of Western Alliance Bancorporation.
2004: Agrees to buy Phoenix Suns for $401 million.

Now, the plain-spoken, competitive Tucson native has come out of obscurity with another startling move: He purchased the Phoenix Suns for $401 million.

"I think every man's ambition is to own a piece of a sports team," said Art Marshall, a longtime family friend and chairman of one of Sarver's banks. "It's where the big boys play."

As incoming majority owner of the Suns, the 42-year-old Sarver is acquiring a team that last season had one of the worst records in the National Basketball Association. Attendance was flat. And some longtime season-ticket holders had given up their seats.

Yet if anyone can inject new life into a struggling franchise, friends say, it's Sarver.

"He wouldn't have made this move unless he was convinced it would work," said University of Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson, a good friend of Sarver's. "He is very, very strong on the business end of things . . . . Everything he has touched has turned to gold. I don't see how this would be the exception."

Sarver, who is paying an NBA-record amount for the Suns, has parlayed his smarts, friendly style and lessons from his hard-charging father to become incredibly rich. He bears all the trappings of a charmed life: a lovely family, with wife Penny and three energetic boys, luxury cars, motorcycles and a spacious home in upscale Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.

Yet Sarver doesn't flaunt his fortune.

"It's kind of obnoxious and other people don't like it. And it's not good for your kids to see," Sarver said. "I like to enjoy nice things, but I don't like bragging about it."

But clearly success and ambition have defined the career of this banking and real estate magnate. In the past 14 years, he says, his real estate company has never lost money on a deal. And he said he doesn't intend to lose with the Suns, on or off the court.

Helping out at the S&L

Behind his office desk and out of sight from the conversation pieces - a 1958 Harley-Davidson and pictures of Penny and the boys - is one of Sarver's most prized possessions: his father's coffee cup.

The 30-year-old mug from Tucson's American Savings and Loan is a daily reminder of where his successful business odyssey began.

"I got home one day from (high) school at 1:30 p.m., and my dad called. He wanted to know what I was doing home, and I said I was done for the day. He said, 'No, you are not. Put on a coat and a tie and get down here,' " Sarver said. "My mom tried to intervene, but it didn't work."

After attending Sabino High School in the morning, Sarver, at 16, would count cash and traveler's checks in the afternoon as an internal auditor at American, which his father founded in 1964.

Within a year, Robert had become a loan officer. But he spent only two years working with his dad, Jack, who died of heart disease during Robert's freshman year at the University of Arizona.

Credits his father

"My dad was interested in teaching me everything he knew," said Sarver, now chief executive officer of Western Alliance Bancorporation, the holding company for three banks in Arizona, California and Nevada. "We had a great relationship, but it didn't last long enough."

Those close to Sarver say he has much of his dad's business acumen.

"The apple did not fall far from the tree," said Stanley Feldman, a former Arizona Supreme Court Justice who was friends with the family. "He (Robert) was very involved in his dad's business from an early age. He was very bright and very intense and wanted to succeed."

Donald Diamond, a Tucson businessman and one of the original Suns owners, said that as a child Sarver would tag along with him and Jack Sarver when the two men would do business and charity work.

"He was inquisitive, and he would always ask questions," Diamond said. "Then he got into the business world, and he used his personality and he turned out to be real smart . . . . The student passed the masters."

In 1982, to get a jump on his career, Sarver graduated from the University of Arizona in 3½ years with a bachelor's degree in business administration. The following year, after taking special study courses in Los Angeles, he became a certified public accountant.

Yet his foray into banking had a hiccup, when federal regulators thought Sarver needed to correct the application for his first bank charter. With all of his experience, "they said, 'You must have inverted the numbers on his age,' " said Dennis Lehr, a Washington, D.C., bank attorney who worked for Sarver.

After regulators were assured the age was correct, Sarver, at just 23 and with $4.5 million in capital, founded the National Bank of Tucson in 1984.

A decade later, Sarver sold the bank, now called the National Bank of Arizona, to Salt Lake City-based Zions Bancorporation for $64 million. Zions also would buy another of Sarver's ventures, Grossmont Bank in San Diego, in 1997 for $200 million - four times what Sarver paid in 1995. Zions then bought Sumitomo Bank of California and merged it with Grossmont Bank, creating California Bank and Trust with $8 billion in assets and 99 offices statewide.

In 1998 Sarver would became the chairman, CEO and a 5 percent stakeholder in California Bank and Trust. But by 2001, he had sold his interest back for about $36 million. He then went on an 18-month sabbatical with his wife, who had just had their third son, Zach.

In December 2002, Marshall, the family friend, coaxed Sarver back into the banking business to run Las Vegas-based Western Alliance Bancorporation, which now has $1.8 billion in assets and operations in Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas and Southern California.

Last year, the company doubled the number of its banking affiliates to 10, and the company posted a record $8.7 million in profits.

People like his style

"Anyone who has been in a deal with Robert or goes into a transaction with him likes him and his style," said Marshall, chairman of Bank West of Nevada, part of Western Alliance. "He believes the better you treat your people, the better it is for you."

Marshall, who worked with Jack Sarver on Henry "Scoop" Jackson's 1976 Democratic presidential campaign, said Sarver will be very involved with the financial dealings of the Suns. "He will be digesting all the numbers on any transaction he is involved with," Marshall said.

Real estate ventures

Along with running banks, Sarver followed his father, who was also a hotel owner, by becoming a real estate developer.

In 1990, Sarver came to Phoenix and helped form Southwest Value Partners, which specialized in buying distressed real estate and selling it when land values soared.

From 1990 to 1993, the company bought about 3,400 apartment units in Tucson and Phoenix for $80 million. The next year, they were sold to a real estate investment trust for $120 million, Sarver said.

Some of the biggest coups came in buying property and apartments for a fraction of the original price from the Resolution Trust Corp., which took over real estate from failed savings and loans.

One of the more prominent deals was buying real estate at the Esplanade, a high-end office, shopping and housing project in Phoenix, and then selling it to developers.

Southwest Value Partners also invested heavily in offices in downtown San Diego, a relatively short commute from Sarver's home in Rancho Santa Fe. The community also is home to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, tennis star Andre Agassi and diet guru Jenny Craig.

The real estate company now controls 1.1 million square feet of Class A office space in downtown San Diego.

Of the 55 major real estate deals Southwest Value Partners has done, Sarver said, the company has never lost money. In order to break even on one lemon, Sarver said he held on to an office building in Los Angeles for four years until he could finally fill it up with tenants.

"When we started buying in Arizona, it was at a time when no one wanted anything to do with apartments or any real estate. But it made all the sense in the world," said Mark Schlossberg, Sarver's partner in Southwest Value Partners. "Robert didn't care what the conventional wisdom was. He went forward with it, and he was willing to put his money on the line."

That may be what he's doing with the Suns.

Goal: A championship

In purchasing the city's oldest professional sports franchise, Sarver is assuming about $200 million in debt, and the team has not been profitable the past few years.

Once a lock for the postseason - and a lucrative operation - the Suns have missed the playoffs twice in the past three years, following 13 straight seasons in the postseason. The team also had just six sellouts last season in America West Arena.

Sarver, who will own one-third of the team, is undaunted. He has promised to bring in additional like-minded investors to spend what it will take to build a championship team.

"It's not about making money. It's about challenging yourself to make something into a winner," said Steven Hilton, a fellow investor in the Suns and CEO of Valley home builder Meritage Corp.

But Sarver isn't promising a quick fix.

He said he wants to make the playoffs next season but has no intention of mortgaging the future just to be competitive for one year. Instead, any major acquisition would have to fit into a long-term vision of building a winner, he said.

"Ultimately, the goal is to win a championship," he said.

He also said fans quickly forget how successful the Suns have been, and he's quick to defend the current ownership. Under CEO Jerry Colangelo last season, the Suns dealt away proven veterans with big contracts to save money and rebuild for the future.

"It's not fair to evaluate any owner based on a year or two, good or bad," said Sarver, who is keeping Colangelo on board as chairman and CEO for three more years as a mentor. "Success of anything is based on the long term."


Maximum Effort
Oct 18, 2002
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Millersburg, OR
azdad1978 said:
1979: Graduates from Sabino High School in Tucson.
1982: Graduates rom the University of Arizona in 3-½years.
1983: Becomes a certified public accountant.
1984: Founds his first bank, National Bank of Tucson, which becomes National Bank of Arizona.

Wish I had a rich Dad to "help" me with my own business right out of college. :rolleyes:


ASFN Lifer
Apr 25, 2003
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BendCardfan said:
Wish I had a rich Dad to "help" me with my own business right out of college. :rolleyes:

He spent a lot to found his own bank right? That after one year of being a public accountant... Doesn't seem like he got all the dough himself...


Long time Phoenician!
Sep 16, 2002
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NE Phoenix
azdad1978 said:
"He said he wants to make the playoffs next season but has no intention of mortgaging the future just to be competitive for one year. Instead, any major acquisition would have to fit into a long-term vision of building a winner, he said."
For many years, the Suns were a team good -- but not good enough.

In our recent history, it's been a short stay of hired guns -- until they wear out their welcome -- Barkley, Kidd, Marbury.

We're long overdue for the next step -- build a well balanced contender for NBA Championships.

Robert Sarver might have said "Our goal is to win Championships", rather than "Ultimately, the goal is to win a championship."

But the hell with semantics. He has the right idea. Now let's make it happen. :thumbup: