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The unassuming man in the owners' box

Published Aug. 13, 2003|Updated Sep. 1, 2005

When Tampa insurance executive Robert Rothman joined a group buying a stake in the Washington Redskins, his entry into the high-profile world of sports moguls came in his typical, low-key style.

The Washington Post, which broke news of the deal over the weekend, gave more ink and emphasis to two other investors in the football team: Federal Express founder and chairman Fred W. Smith and Northern Virginia real estate executive Dwight C. Schar.

Rothman, the third investor, was relegated to a few sentences deep in the story, and that's probably just how the Tampa financier would have played it.

"I don't think he'd be excited about getting too much publicity. He'd rather remain in the shadows," said Tampa developer and Republican Party fundraiser Al Austin, who has gotten to know Rothman recently as a major political contributor.

Rothman's decision to become part-owner of the Redskins, one of the country's most valuable and visible sports franchises, seems certain to elevate his profile. Smith, Schar and Rothman are combining to buy more than 20 percent of the team from principal owner Daniel Snyder for about $200-million. If the investment is divided equally, that's about $67-million apiece.

Rothman, 50, made his mark selling insurance to businesses. Two years ago, he expanded his financial scope into banking with the purchase of the relatively small Bank of St. Petersburg.

He has been a growing presence in GOP circles, giving $139,500 to the Republican Party of Florida last year along with $1,500 to the re-election campaign of Gov. Jeb Bush, according to state elections records. He has also given at least $12-million to the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, where he graduated in 1977.

In 1992, Rothman and his wife, Peggy, built a luxurious home in the Reserve in Tampa Palms, complete with six bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a tennis court, spa and pool. He's board vice chairman of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and has been recommended by Austin to join the University of Tampa board this fall.

Yet throughout his financial and civic ventures, Rothman relishes his privacy.

Several insurance and banking industry experts in Florida say they know little to nothing about him. And even though Rothman increasingly pulls out his checkbook for Republican causes, he rarely attends party functions.

Rothman was on vacation this week and unavailable for comment. Several employees at his company, Black Diamond, were reluctant to talk about their boss without his permission.

Tom Gibbs, a Jacksonville attorney who represents Rothman, said his client and friend of 20-plus years is undeniably "very, very, very private."

Austin continued, "He's such a low-key guy (and) so unassuming that unless you're aware of what he's done or accomplished, you would never pick him out of the crowd. He's just a nice, nice guy."

The sale of the minority stake in the Redskins received the unanimous approval of the National Football League's finance committee and is expected to be approved by the required two-thirds of the league's 32 owners within two weeks, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Tuesday.

Rothman was described by associates as an avid NFL fan, with a private box to watch the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play at Raymond James Stadium. But he wasn't seeking to enter the sports world: Bank of America approached him with the ownership option strictly as an investment.

"Bob was not out chasing it," Gibbs said.

Gibbs said he expects Rothman to maintain his low profile, though he concedes that may get tougher once the Redskins deal is approved.

"Obviously at the owners' box at (the Redskins') FedEx Stadium every Sunday, you're going to be around more famous people than at a private box in Tampa," he said. Over the years, an invitation to watch a Redskins game from the owners' box has been the hottest ticket in Washington for senators, TV anchors and other fixtures of the political establishment.

The Redskins won't be Rothman's first multimillion-dollar pledge. There's also the $12-million he gave to his alma mater.

Rothman has previously credited the MBA he received at the University of Chicago for setting him on the path to success. After getting his master's, he joined Ernst & Whinney and spent six years there as an accountant and manager before becoming treasurer of Charter Insurance Group in 1983. He moved on to the insurance holding company Beneficial Insurance Group where, in 1985, he led a management buyout that elevated him to the post of president, chief executive and chairman.

The company was renamed Consolidated International Insurance Group Inc. in 1987 and dropped "insurance" from its title seven years later.

In 1998, Rothman formed the Black Diamond Group as a new holding company and soon expanded his financial interests. One Black Diamond spinoff controls a condominium project in Deer Valley, Utah. Another bought a controlling stake in the privately held Bank of St. Petersburg from the local Cannova family. The bank deal became public in 2001, barely a week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

At the time, bank CEO Frank Lafalce told the St. Petersburg Times that the deal was appealing partly because Rothman would let the bank's core management remain and retain a degree of autonomy. That remains the case, Lafalce said, as the bank has grown from $60-million to $80-million in assets.

But Lafalce won't answer questions about what Rothman is like. "Bob's a pretty private guy," he said.

Associates describe Rothman as a family man who is analytical, intelligent and determined in reviewing potential investments.

Ironically, for someone making a major investment in professional sports, Rothman has previously been cool toward the national obsession with sports. In brief comments in a University of Chicago publication about the school's fundraising campaign, Rothman commended his alma mater for having its priorities straight when many other universities emphasize money-generating athletics over academics.

"I suspect many universities have lost sight of their true educational mission," he said at the time. "After all, accomplished athletes do seem to receive greater public recognition than Nobel Prize recipients."

_ Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at harringtonsptimes.com or (813) 226-3407.

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