Local businessman Jerry Colangelo talks basketball, Arizona Commerce Authority, the recession and more.
Title: Principal Partner
Company: JDM Partners
Did you always aspire to be in business or was it circumstances that put you on this path?
I transferred universities for basketball reasons, originally. I went to (University of) Kansas for a semester to play with Wilt Chamberlain. When he transferred — when he quit school — I transferred to (University of) Illinois. I had taken business courses in Kansas and when I transferred I brought those credits with me. But then I went into education. I thought I would teach and coach. But I had some business background and I was always a little bit of an entrepreneur, in terms of trying to make a dollar as a young kid, little businesses, etc. So it all kind of came together and I ended up being in the sports business, which means that I was being prepared all along.
How would describe the Valley’s business environment for entrepreneurs?
I think it is a good place, but it has evolved. I came to the Valley 40-plus years ago, when things were kind of wide open and there were many more opportunities, at least from my perspective. You had the ability to get things done because it was still a small town, to some degree. I’ve seen it quintuple in size, if you will, and we’ve had our ups and our downs in the Valley, but we’re trying to re-identify who we are and what our future holds. But there will always be room for entrepreneurs. There’s no question about that. I still believe in the Valley and the business climate, and it’s going to get better as our economy gets better, so there’s room.
How will the new Arizona Commerce Authority help the state’s economy?
I think the Commerce Authority is coming at exactly the right time. We have the opportunity to re-do how we do business in this state. It’s very important to retain the businesses that we have and it’s very competitive out there. The states are competing for big business and small business. We need to create a climate that is truly conducive for small and big business to come to Arizona. I think that with the people, the manpower that we will have on this authority, we have a chance to make that happen.
I’ve been a little outspoken about the fact that we need the Legislature to help with the funding — there’s no question about that — but at that point they need the business community to conduct the business of commerce. That’s what they know best. And if we can kind of separate that, we have a great opportunity to go out and be competitive. We’re going to need some things from the Legislature. Incentives — that seems to be a dirty word to some people, but it’s reality. That’s what’s happening in other states. That’s why they’ve had so much success. We have the models to look at.
For me, coming from the world of sports and every day you’re competing, it’s another game, it’s going for another win. This is a classic example of taking something that needed to be restructured, a little like my USA Basketball experience of late, when I took over the program and it was back on its heels. Today, we’re the defending gold medalists in every category, men’s and women’s, every age bracket. We have a chance with the Commerce Authority to basically do the same thing. We need to win a gold medal. We need to go out and compete with all the other states, because we have a lot to offer in this state. We just need some incentives. We need to look people eyeball-to-eyeball and sell them on why it’s important to come here, why they will enjoy not just the quality of life. We need to improve our education, we need to make it a better community in which it is conducive to do business here. If you get people jumping on the bandwagon, we have a chance.
How did the recession affect the sports industry in general and in the Valley in particular?
The recession has hit everyone and every segment of the marketplace. It’s interesting; when things are really bad economically, people still want to be entertained. … Vicariously, people follow sports teams because they once played, they have some affiliation, they love the association when their teams are winning. When teams are losing, that’s when they jump off the bandwagon. … We took a hit here in the Valley big time. Because we have so much emphasis on the construction industry, we were hit harder than other parts of the country — in the Southwest. No. 2, we are saturated right now with sports teams — no question about that. Everyone was affected. If we had continued with our growth, because we were on an incredible growth curve, we would have grown into maturity with all of our sports teams. What we have gone through have been some real challenges. But the good news is that the sports franchises have adjusted. They’ve had to adjust their policies, their attitudes toward discounts, etc. And that’s one of the things I’ve noticed in sports in the last two years is that they’ve made adjustments to deal with what’s taken place with the recession.
You are still involved in sports, but you’ve also moved on to real estate development. Some would say that’s a risky move. How do you respond to that?
People say when you make money in real estate is when you buy appropriately. There are a lot of deals out there to buy in — they say cash is king. Well, there are a lot of financial institutions sitting on a lot of cash, but they’re not really willing to let the consumer have that cash. So everyone is very hesitant right now. There is great opportunity in real estate. You have to be more specific about residential, commercial. My partners and I are involved in some iconic properties: the (Arizona Biltmore Golf & Country Club), the (Wigwam Golf Resort & Spa). In taking that step with distressed properties, we were able to take these properties out of bankruptcy. We believe we made a good buy at the time. We are making an investment in those properties, because we believe in the future. We believe things will get better over a period of time and that the real estate marketplace will continue to get better over a period of time. We’re sitting on 37,000 acres of property on the west side of Phoenix that have the ability and the approval to build a city of over 300,000 people. But this isn’t the time to start that project — that’s in Buckeye, Ariz. Do I think someday that will happen? Maybe in some way, shape or form; maybe not the way it was visualized five years ago, but are people going to continue to come here? I believe so. But back to the Commerce Authority; we have to bring jobs to Arizona. So by being creative and being aggressive going out to bring companies here — with high-paying jobs, not just service jobs — then we will continue with the growth pattern, because we have so many wonderful things to offer in terms of quality of life out here in the Southwest.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are ready to take their companies to the next level?
Don’t be afraid to fail. … You have to take calculated risks. You have to be willing to step out on that board knowing you might get pushed, fall off. The worst thing that could happen is you do — you get up and you start over again. One of the things that has probably marked my career is that I started with nothing and I was never afraid to go back to nothing, but I was going to enjoy the ride. And so as it relates to my mix of experiences. Being competitive as an athlete prepared me for the business world, which was another competition. No one has batted 1,000 percent. Hall of Famers hit .300 — that’s only three out of 10. So why is it any different in business? You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to learn from your mistakes. You can’t be afraid to fail, you have to be willing to take that kind of calculated risk. I’ve seen so many people, again in my lifetime, who have complained and whined about never getting an opportunity. And I would say to them, “Opportunity walked by you three or four times, but you never recognized it, because you’re so busy whining.” Get out there, don’t be afraid to compete and believe in yourself.
- Became general manager of the new NBA franchise Phoenix Suns in 1968
- Coached the Suns in the 1969-1970 and 1972-1973 seasons
- Purchased the Suns for $44.5 million in 1987
- Founder and owner of the Arena Football League’s Arizona Rattlers from 1992-2005
- Played a key part in moving the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets to Arizona in 1996
- Launched the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury in 1997
- Launched the MLB Arizona Diamondbacks in 1998
- Served as chairman and CEO of the 2001 World Champion Diamondbacks
- Chairman of the NBA’s Board of Governors from 2001-2005
- Sold the Suns, Mercury and Rattlers to an investment group headed by Robert Sarver in 2004
- Sold his controlling interest in the Diamondbacks to a group of investors in 2004
- Elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004
- March 26, 2004 proclaimed Jerry Colangelo Day in Phoenix
- Named director of USA Basketball in 2005
- Received the Spirit of Caring award in 2005 from the Valley of the Sun United Way
- Inducted into the Suns’ Ring of Honor in 2007