New Hawks owner Antony 'Tony' Ressler (background) and partner Grant Hill in a recent interview at the AJC.
Photo: Brant Sanderlin
Photo: Brant Sanderlin

New Hawks owner a low-profile high achiever

Antony Ressler is at odds with himself.

The billionaire landed in the public eye after leading a group that bought the Atlanta Hawks last week for $730 million.

But the Californian prefers a low profile, like others in the under-the-radar world of private investment managers, those folks who buy and sell whole companies or bankroll their births and marriages.

“I am determined to be private,” said Ressler, 55.

Most people haven’t heard of the Los Angeles investment firm he heads, Ares Management. He’s slow to talk about his rise from a kid on Long Island to co-founder of the firm, which provides the bulk of his $1.4 billion fortune, according to Forbes.

Ares Management has business interests in 1,000-plus companies, including Atlanta-based Serta Simmons Bedding, the largest U.S. mattress maker. But few of those companies’ employees are ever likely to see Ressler, except perhaps at court side during Hawks games.

There’s another, less-anonymous side of Ressler. He’s been married 26 years to Hollywood actress Jami Gertz. He named a Los Angeles charter school, Alliance Gertz-Ressler High School, after the couple as a 40th birthday gift to her.

The celebrity couple have hung out with mega-movie stars like Bruce Willis and the late Paul Newman, who, along with other wealthy Hollywood and financial types, bankrolled their $30.5 million launch of The Painted Turtle, a free year-round camp for children with severe medical challenges.

Ressler’s friends and colleagues describe him as a passionate, intelligent financial whiz, an avid basketball fan, a regular guy, a mensch — Yiddish for an honorable man.

“Tony has been our financial wizard,” said music and movie producer Lou Adler, another co-founder of the Painted Turtle camp and a longtime friend. “I think he’s a real good catch for Atlanta.”

Ressler has cut a wide swath among southern California charitable and cultural institutions, as a leader, donor and fundraiser. He’s on the boards of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

He’s also co-founder of Alliance College-Ready Schools, a network of 26 charter schools in Los Angeles aimed at sending kids from the city’s poor neighborhoods to college. The schools get high marks for getting the vast majority of students accepted to college, but the system also faces a union drive by unhappy teachers.

Public education is “the biggest issue in America today,” Ressler said. “My only objective was, can we build a better school that sends a kid further in his education and spend less money doing it.” Achieving that goal “couldn’t be a more exciting thing to do, maybe even more so than a basketball team,” he said.

Low profile or not, there are a couple reasons metro Atlantans will be hanging on Ressler’s words. Last week, he said the Hawks’ home, the 16-year-old Philips Arena, needs to be renovated or replaced. Taxpayers are already spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new venues for the Braves and Falcons.

Ressler hasn’t said whether he expects public dollars help. But shortly after completing the Hawks deal, he met with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who recently said the arena needs work.

Picking performers

His leadership style could bear on whether the Hawks — which have had their share of recent management troubles — build on the past season’s success, which led to a playoff run.

Like most private equity managers, Ressler runs his domain from the board room, picking managers he believes will be top performers and giving them clear goals and incentives.

“I don’t want to be an owner of a sports franchise, (or) an owner of other businesses, where we micromanage, where we step on the toes of people who know more than we do,” he said. That’s “a recipe for disaster.”

Ressler picked up much of what he knows about work and business from two places: his father Ira and Drexel Burham Lambert, the Wall Street firm scuttled by notorious junk bond king Michael Milken.

Ira Ressler was a belly gunner in a bomber flying out of the Aleutian Islands in World War II, and he earned medals for his injuries in a crash and because he was believed to have shot down three enemy aircraft.

After the war he started a law practice on Long Island, and pushed his five children to work hard and go to college.

“He was old school,” Ressler said. “He always said, ‘No one ever died from hard work.’ “

After getting an MBA at Columbia University, Ressler followed a brother and a brother-in-law to Beverly Hills, Calif., where they worked at the fast-growing bond underwriting office of Drexel Burnham Lambert.

Ressler got hired too. Within five years, he had risen to senior vice president in Drexel’s junk bond department and met and married Gertz.

Ressler “was a class act from day one,” said Judy Resnick, who then headed a department that sold those high-risk bonds to small brokerage firms. “There were a lot of geniuses up there (on Ressler’s floor at Drexel),” said Resnick, but “he’s known for being very honest. He has a conscience. He’s a mensch. I don’t know what else to call him.”

When Milken pleaded guilty to securities fraud in 1990, Drexel imploded, sending thousands of employees hunting for jobs at other firms. Ressler left and later co-founded Ares Management with another Drexel alumnus.

His years at Drexel were “enormously valuable,” said Ressler. “I learned a great deal about companies and how to identify the good from the bad.”

Those lessons apparently have worked well for Ares Management. In the first quarter, assets managed by the 800-employee firm grew almost 13 percent over a year ago, to $87 billion. Investment and management fee income was up 7 percent in the quarter, to $83 million.

Virtually invisible

To some at the businesses and schools impacted by Ressler’s leadership, he’s virtually invisible and unreachable.

The schools co-founded by Ressler are praised for graduating more than 90 percent of their high school students and sending nearly as many on to college.

But parents and teachers at the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools — structured and run much like a business — complain that management and leaders are autocratic and inaccessible. The Alliance board meetings Ressler co-chairs aren’t open to the public, even though the bulk of the 26 schools’ revenues come from local, state and federal taxes.

Edith Quintanilla Martinez said when she and several other parents arrived at the Alliance headquarters last month to protest the planned closing of one of the schools, they weren’t allowed in the building and police were called, even though they waited peacefully outside. The police soon left again, and a top Alliance official eventually met with the group but the company’s position did not change, she said.

Ressler said he wasn’t aware of the incident. An Alliance spokeswoman said no one from the school network called the police.

Meanwhile, teachers say annual turnover is roughly 25 percent because of high work loads and poor morale, and many say they have joined a drive to unionize the staff. United Teachers Los Angeles is seeking to organize the 600-plus teachers at Alliance Schools, the largest charter school network in Los Angeles.

Michelle Buckowski, a union supporter who teaches at an Alliance high school, said rising class sizes — up to 40-plus students in her classes — and teacher frustration over mandated teaching methods are driving up teacher departures.

“People that I’ve never known, never seen, have complete control over how I do my lessons,” she said. “These corporate people have much more say on what I do.”

Alliance says its teaching methods help its schools consistently outperform Los Angeles’ traditional public schools. Parents and teachers can speak their minds at teacher advisory councils and school board meetings at each school, she said.

Ressler said the proof is in the Alliance schools’ high graduation and college acceptance rates. “I think there are things to be improved,” he said, but “I think it works very well.”

Simmons buyout

Ressler likewise stayed in the background when his firm and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan bought Simmons Bedding Co., an Atlanta company hobbled by $1 billion in debt and falling sales during the 2007-2009 recession.

Ressler said two of his senior partners took the lead on that investment, and that he was never on Simmons’ board.

Former Simmons executives at the Atlanta company said they never saw or dealt with Ressler. They said Ressler’s firm brought in new management after the 2009 acquisition but otherwise didn’t change much.

Ressler’s firm and the pension fund already owned the nation’s largest mattress maker, Serta. After picking up Simmons at a bargain price, Ares and the pension fund bought Simmons out of bankruptcy at a 30 percent discount from what its previous owner had paid. They brought in a new CEO and combined the two brands into Serta Simmons Bedding, then sold it to another private equity firm.

Today the business has 6,111 employees, including 363 in metro Atlanta.

“We hope and we think we made the combined businesses better,” said Ressler.

Tim Tucker contributed to this report.