Risk, hoops memories entice new Dream owner Loeffler

When the WNBA Atlanta Dream opens its season Sunday at Philips Arena, the city’s pro hockey franchise will have just left the building. Entering this risky trading floor is multimillionaire Kelly Loeffler, 40, who bought an ownership stake in the Dream to honor her sport, adopted hometown and the girls in the stands. In her day job, her Atlanta-based company had bid to take over the New York Stock Exchange.

Risk, Loeffler’s resume shows, operates the same on any surface. She learned to take stock, and leverage it, while growing up on a central Illinois farm and going for an MBA. She learned how to “manage the downside,” as she puts it, when she joined an energy start-up in Atlanta — and ended up married to her boss.

At their first Dream game last summer, the couple expected to leave at halftime, but Loeffler didn’t get this far through tunnel vision. She’s open to what comes her way, even from far, far away.

By age 10 at Loeffler Farms, she already was punching a time card for hours of weeding soybean fields. “Bean walking” was so onerous a local boy avoided it by intentionally gashing himself so deep he required stitches.

“On a farm, nothing — health insurance, vacation or payroll — is guaranteed,” Loeffler said. “Everything you have to go out and acquire. ... Only when you get pushed to the brink do you know what you are capable of doing.”

She glimpsed the world beyond when Prince Charles and Lady Diana wed.

“Wow, it is really possible to do in life what you’ve dreamed of, “ Loeffler recalled thinking.

Basketball tested and formed tenacity that she would need in that wider world. A skinny 5-foot-11, her nickname on the court was NBC — “Newborn Calf.”

“I’d fall and pop back up,” she said.

She saw beyond her pigeon toes and braces to wear Michael Jordan’s 23 for the Olympia High School Spartans. Teamwork was bred into girls from the eight farming towns in Olympia’s district.

Loeffler (the “o” is silent) left for college and an international business career, but not her roots. When she needed $90,000 for an MBA at DePaul, she mortgaged land inherited from grandparents.

“That was a shocker,” said her brother Brian Loeffler, 14 months her junior. “But it was her steppingstone.”

As she successfully traded on her assets to achieve her goals, Loeffler’s tolerance for risk grew. When CitiBank rejected her, she considered the form letter her foot in their door. Persistence helped her become a top associate in equity research.

“Wherever she went, she blew people’s socks off,” said banker Pete Keseric, her mentor and DePaul trustee.

“Kelly’s very good at putting together a plan. That’s a tough role [at the Dream]. When she told me she was going to buy the team, I told her if I had a gun to my head I wouldn’t know the name of the women’s basketball team here [in Chicago]. But a couple of weeks ago she had just gotten off the phone with David Stern and she knows that he wants to see the league expand because the more women viewing basketball will help the NBA, too.”

After stints in five cities, Loeffler moved to Atlanta in 2002 to head investor relations and corporate communications for a startup modeled as an eBay for energy trading. Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) today employs 1,000 people across virtual marketplaces, and trades more than half of the world’s crude oil futures.

Early on, ICE’s much smaller outfit burned kilowatt-hours as she and CEO Jeff Sprecher sorted the messy aftermath of Enron’s collapse, much like a farm couple would cope with a natural disaster.

“Where we grew up, just leaving your hometown and going out into the great unknown is not the norm,” said Sprecher, also a Midwesterner. “Kelly has always wanted to see what she could do.”

Both self-described workaholics who relax by reading business books, Loeffler and Sprecher fell in love. He may have been her biggest risk, “because if it didn’t work out, she’d be on the short end of the stick because I was founder and 100 percent owner of the company,” he said. “I was a consummate bachelor who was never going to get married, but she really knocked me off my feet.”

Last July, while attending the Manchester City soccer exhibition at Arthur Blank’s suite at the Georgia Dome, Loeffler met up with Kathy Betty, then the sole owner of the Dream. Talk of the WNBA rekindled Loeffler’s memories of the Spartans. The financial risk intrigued her.

“I am no different than any start up. There are no guarantees,” said Betty, who has helped many entrepreneurs incubate. “But if I can get you to a game, you might own it the next day!”

That’s what happened.

In the Dream, Loeffler could see how far women had come and could go. While she had been happy to compete in high school, the Dream was empowered to nearly win the WNBA title. Loeffler’s money could fuel that drive and tap into a market of 50 million women who follow professional sports.

Also in the past year, Loeffler bought an 80-acre farm adjacent to her family’s. Like the Dream, the farm reflects her personal values and business savvy.

“The world’s population is getting larger and as the food supply demand is going up, the tillable land is going down,” she said. “Like any investment, you go with your gut and you have to look at the numbers.”

Loeffler’s addition to the Dream Too LLC ownership group was announced in January along that of philanthropist Mary Brock. Behind the Dream is an all-female financial team.

“I circled back to the roots that combined my passions in life,” Loeffler said. “I’m glad I took the risk I did for that full circle.”