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Finn Wentworth '80

As a season-ticket holder back in 1998, Finn Wentworth '80 had a courtside view as the New Jersey Nets did one of their seemingly annual NBA first-round playoff crash-and-burns. After yet another disappointment, most diehard fans would be calling a sports talk-radio show host to vent or looking to cancel their season tickets. But not Wentworth, who had built his fortune in real estate and obviously knew a fixer-upper when he saw one.

Soon after witnessing that first-round NBA playoff flameout, Wentworth joined forces with Ray Chambers and a third New Jersey entrepreneur and fellow Lehigh alum, Frank Walsh '63, to buy the Nets for $150 million. However, unlike every other fan in the stands in today's fantasy sports league-infested world who thinks he can do better than the current guys in charge, Wentworth actually did it.

During his five years at the helm, Wentworth helped transform the Nets into the best team in the NBA's Eastern Conference, became the president of YankeesNets (a post in which he negotiated the YES Network deal, the richest local cable TV deal in the history of sports) and then sold the Nets for $300 million--double what his investment group had originally paid for them.

Since graduating from Lehigh University 26 years ago with a bachelor's degree in marketing, Wentworth has made a habit of coming out on the plus side in his deals. Today, Wentworth is founder and managing principal of Normandy Real Estate Partners, a rapidly growing real estate investment organization based in Morristown, N.J.

He also serves on Lehigh's Board of Trustees, which brings him back to the place where it all started. You see, Wentworth embarked on his "only-in-America" success story during his senior year at Lehigh.

He was wearing a waiter's uniform at the time.

Quick on the draw

Wentworth, left, with David Welsh, his partner at Normandy Real Estate Partners.

As a senior, Wentworth took a part-time job as a waiter at Saucon Valley Country Club. One night, he was waiting on Lehigh alumnus Matt Stacom and his family. At the time, Stacom was in the midst of a highly successful career in commercial real estate with Cushman & Wakefield, Inc. as vice chairman, and had sent his four children (Stacey, Tara, Darcy, and Matt) to Lehigh. He suggested that Wentworth should look into the commercial real estate industry.

Wentworth met with Stacom and others in the field and quickly realized that it was worth pursuing. Now came the hard part: selling his 6-foot-6 inch, 280-pound mountain of a father on the concept.

"I had to sit down and tell my dad that I was turning down an entry-level job with AT&T that paid $17,500, which was really good money back in 1980, to work at Cushman & Wakefield for $12,000, which was a draw," Wentworth recalls.

His dad's response: "What's a draw?"

Wentworth explained that a draw meant that he would be advanced the $12,000 and then would have to pay the money back to Cushman & Wakefield once he made commissions. This didn't make any sense to his father, a hard-working man who ran the entire production facility for The Daily Record, the local newspaper in Morris County, N.J.

"My father, with that really big frame of his, simply threw up his hands and said, 'Finn, I thought you were really smart,'" recalls Wentworth with a chuckle, as he sits behind the desk in his eighth-floor office in Morristown, N.J.

Wentworth clearly made the right decision. He worked for Cushman & Wakefield for three years, during which time his earnings rapidly rose. He then became a young partner handling marketing for land acquisitions along the Northeast Corridor for Lincoln Property Co. out of Dallas, Texas. He worked for Lincoln for three more years before taking a job in 1986 doing the same thing for a California-based company looking to establish its operations in the Northeast.

Then, in the late 1980s, came the major real estate recession in New Jersey and New York City following the national savings-and-loan debacle.

A glass-is-half-full guy, Wentworth saw the recession, with its falling real estate prices, as an opportunity. He partnered with Stanley Gale to acquire the New Jersey regional interests of the Sammis Company, and the duo formed their own company, Gale & Wentworth, in Florham Park, N.J., in 1988.

Over the next 11 years, Wentworth worked diligently alongside company president Mark Yeager '81 to help transform Gale & Wentworth into one of the largest, privately held diversified real estate investment organizations in the country. Wentworth and Yeager made an outstanding team, as demonstrated by the company's impressive growth record.

Expanding his business career

Wentworth, right, became friends with former Saturday Night Live star Joe Piscopo when he was president of YankeesNets, and brought the comedian to perform at last year's ReunionFest.

In September 1998, Wentworth made his move from the stands to the front office of the New Jersey Nets. There was just one small problem: By the end of October, there was an NBA lockout.

"Talk about a humbling experience. We had a piece of paper saying that we had paid $150 million and that we owned a franchise in a league that wasn't operating," Wentworth says.

Things didn't improve once the NBA resumed operations in January 1999. Picked to win the NBA's Atlantic Division, the Nets started the season with a 1-13 record. After a 31-point loss to the Miami Heat, Wentworth fired then-Nets coach John Calipari. But the Nets needed more than a new coach; they needed a complete makeover.

"We had to completely reorganize the Nets," Wentworth says. "The thing that I learned is that like in any other successful business, you have to start with great people. We hired Rod Thorn out of the NBA office to be the president of the Nets. And we got lucky too, winning the No. 1 pick in the NBA lottery despite having only a 4.4 percent chance of winning it."

The ping-pong balls came up in the Nets' favor and the franchise was able to draft inside force Kenyon Martin with that No.1 overall pick in the 2000 NBA draft. By 2002 and 2003, the Nets were playing in the NBA Finals, losing first to the Los Angeles Lakers and then to the San Antonio Spurs.

Off the court, there was plenty of success, too. In addition to building the Nets into a winner, Wentworth had merged the Nets with the New York Yankees to form a company called YankeesNets.

"The purpose of creating that entity was to create our own regional sports network. We'd own the teams and create the network to carry our own games in the best TV market in the United States, if not the world," Wentworth says.

As president and chief operating officer of YankeesNets, Wentworth was on the New York Yankees board of directors and worked closely with George Steinbrenner. The real-life Steinbrenner, Wentworth found, was nothing like the character portrayed on the hit TV sitcom Seinfeld.

"He's brighter than most people give him credit for. He's a visionary in professional sports and winning is his epithet," Wentworth says. "He reinvests constantly in the Yankees. And he doesn't want you to always agree with him. He wants to hear your best ideas and is always open to new ideas."

The best idea that the 12-man board of YankeesNets came up with was the creation and implementation of the YES (Yankees Entertainment Sports) Network, a cable network that is in 8.2 million homes in the New York metropolitan area. Wentworth's job was putting together the framework for the network and getting it up and running.

To do that, Wentworth had to wage the well-chronicled, long battle with Cablevision. One of the round-the-clock YES Network negotiations took place on Sept. 10, 2001. Because the meeting with Goldman Sachs in Manhattan didn't adjourn until 1:30 a.m., the next day's meetings were pushed back from 9 a.m. until lunchtime--a decision that kept Wentworth and the others out of downtown Manhattan the morning of the World Trade Center attack.

"We were actually fortunate that the meetings ran into the wee hours and we elected to start late on Sept. 11," says Wentworth, with a sigh of relief.

The YES Network deal was closed on Sept. 22, 2001, and by opening day of the 2002 baseball season, the network was on the air. "The network is now worth more than the Yankees and Nets combined," says Wentworth, whose group sold the Nets to developer Bruce Ratner for $300 million--double what they paid for the franchise--in August 2004.

After selling the Nets, Wentworth joined a new team as one of two founding principals, along with David Welsh, of Normandy Real Estate Partners (NREP) in Morristown.

These days, Wentworth's day planner remains jam-packed between his business pursuits and his personal life (he's been married more than 22 years to his wife, Kim, and has two college-aged sons: Mark, a junior in the fall at St. Andrew's in Scotland, and Grant, a sophomore-to-be at Princeton University).

The real estate investment company, like most enterprises that Wentworth has been associated with, is a rousing success. Since its formation in January 2002, NREP, which includes Raymond Trevisan (like Wentworth, a 1980 Lehigh graduate) as its principal and general counsel, has acquired $1.1 billion of real estate in the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C.

"The business successes Finn has had thus far in his career, including how quickly he's built up Normandy, are simply amazing, unless you really know him," Trevisan says. "Finn has a magnetic personality to go along with an incredible business mind. You can travel anywhere in the state of New Jersey and mention his name and no one will have a bad word to say about him.

"That fact, combined with the level of people he rubbed elbows with at the Nets and Yankees, allows him to pick up the phone and literally call anyone in this region. If the person on the other end of the phone doesn't know Finn personally, he knows of him. And in our business, that's powerful."

--Bill Doherty

Posted on Monday, July 03, 2006

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