Little is known about team's owner, Kokusai

Published Jan. 4, 1998|Updated Sept. 12, 2005

Want to know more about who owns the Tampa Bay Lightning?

So do a lot of other people, including local government leaders, National Hockey League officials and the bankers who fund the team.

Contrary to popular belief, general manager Phil Esposito does not have an ownership stake in the team, although he once owned a minor interest. Lightning coach Jacques Demers didn't get a piece of it when he was hired. George Steinbrenner owned a stake, briefly, but parted ways about five years ago. Vince Naimoli once offered to buy an interest in the team, but only if its primary owners made him CEO and paid him $1-million or so a year.

The sole owner of the team today is Kokusai Green Co. Ltd. of Tokyo, a quiet, mysterious company with interests in golf courses and pharmaceuticals.

Kokusai's chairman, 53-year-old Takashi Okubo, has never been to a Lightning game. He knows little about hockey, and he has never been to Florida, although his son Keijiro has attended classes at the University of South Florida, the University of Tampa and Eckerd College and has watched the Lightning play.

Few people locally have ever met the elder Okubo. Like his company, he is quiet and unassuming, a man the world knows little about.

Okubo sees the hockey team as just another business, Lightning officials say. Unlike most sports team owners, he has no emotional connection with the team or the game of hockey and sees it simply as an investment _ one that so far has been a sour one.

The Lightning's official media guide reports that Okubo is chairman of 20 companies and has interests in preventive medicine, advertising, media and other businesses, but no information about Okubo or the companies and organizations listed in media guides could be found by the Times. According to the guide, Okubo was a high school baseball player who today is an avid golfer. His hobbies include collecting paintings and curios, bonsai (the art of dwarfing and shaping plants and trees) and gardening.

Information about Kokusai also is scarce, and the Lightning have declined to give much background on the company to the media, local government officials or even to the NHL.

Documents provided to bankers shed a little light on the company, but not much. According to information submitted to SunBank of Tampa Bay in May 1992, Kokusai back then owned two golf courses, a hotel, a business called Sakura Academies and a museum, all in various parts of Japan. It also listed as assets an organization called Adlarhenders, in Frankfurt, Germany, and the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Kokusai's Tokyo headquarters are in a five-story building in the city's Ginza district, generally regarded as the Japan's most prestigious and expensive shopping and entertainment area. Property in Ginza is some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

Down the street from Kokusai is Wako, the uncontested mecca for tasteful gifts in Japan. Nearby is the pricey Matsuya department store, glitzy boutiques and expensive restaurants.

Kokusai also has owned real estate in Hawaii and is considering starting a pharmaceutical subsidiary in California, although exactly what it will produce and when is unclear.

Overseas, one of Kokusai's pharmaceutical products is Shingen, a ginseng-based drink that it plans to sell in China. Shingen comes in small brown bottles and is billed as a sexual performance enhancer.

Lightning president Steve Oto is one of the few people in the Tampa Bay area who knows anything about Kokusai and can say he actually knows Takashi Okubo.

A former accountant with Deloitte Touche, Oto said he met Okubo about five years ago when he was doing accounting work for Kokusai. Oto was named president and chief executive officer of the Lightning in 1994 and was given the task of solving the team's financial problems.

Oto describes Okubo as a brilliant, entrepreneurial man who became a millionaire at age 21 after inventing a temperature control device.

Though he has never seen his hockey team play, Okubo is not reclusive. "He's not like Howard Hughes or something," Oto said. Okubo relies on subordinates to keep track of his businesses and takes little involvement in some of them.

"For Americans, they can never understand, because (they see) having a major sports franchise as a great way to be exposed . . . and a great way to express the success of that individual," Oto said. "But to him, this is just a business portfolio."