Last Wednesday, Jeffrey D. Zients's first order of business after arriving at the City Museum was finding AOL co-founder James V. Kimsey. "I want to say hi," Zients told a buddy. Inside, a throng of camera crews, D.C. officials, and onlookers had already gathered for the official announcement that baseball was returning to Washington.
Not seeing Kimsey, Zients fought his way to the podium and took a position at the far end of the stage. While Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and D.C. Council members exchanged handshakes and high-fives, Zients finally spotted Kimsey sitting in the front row.
David Bradley, who hired Jeffrey Zients at the Advisory Board, says he rose to the top by helping others.
(Tyler Mallory For The Washington Post)
He smiled. And Kimsey waved back.
Until two years ago, Kimsey had never heard of Zients. But since joining the Washington Baseball Club, the A-list group of local investors looking to buy the Montreal Expos, Zients has become, "by unanimous consent," the president and de facto chief executive of the group, Kimsey said.
"Remember, I picked Steve Case," said Kimsey, referring to the former AOL chairman and chief executive. "[Zients] is the Steve Case of baseball."
The Washington Baseball Club is led by Frederic V. Malek, chairman of Thayer Capital, a Washington merchant banking firm, and Franklin D. Raines, Fannie Mae chairman and chief executive. The other partners include real estate developer Joseph E. Robert Jr., Lazard senior managing director Vernon E. Jordan Jr., Williams & Connelly senior partner Paul M. Wolff, and Arnold & Porter senior partner Stephen W. Porter.
Zients, 37, a Kensington native, is the outgoing chairman of the Advisory Board, a subscription-based research firm that studies and disseminates best practices to its health care industry clients. During a recent interview in his Watergate office, Zients attributed his growing role in the baseball club to timing and luck. "Given my transition out of the Advisory Board, I've had the time to dedicate to the effort," he said.
To those who know Zients, however, his rise from obscurity to the top of the Washington Baseball Club organization mimics his earlier career.
Zients joined the Advisory Board, which then served a broad spectrum of corporate clients, 12 years ago as a lieutenant to founder David G. Bradley. Bradley had started the firm 10 years earlier, hiring Ivy League graduates as researchers. Like much of Bradley's staff, Zients did not have a long résumé. He had a couple of stints at management consulting firms and at least one entrepreneurial effort that ran aground. He never attended professional school. But Bradley said that Zients's knack for numbers and managing people complemented Bradley's more free-flowing style.
Within three years, Zients was Bradley's partner. Bradley continued to be the source of ideas for new products, while Zients, as the company's day-to-day chief executive, vetted them and implemented the most promising ones.
The peak of their collaboration was the public sale of the Advisory Board, which netted Zients and Bradley tens of millions of dollars each.
Bradley said for years that he had wanted to sell his company, but not before he had figured out what he would do next. Over coffee at a Roy Rogers restaurant one day seven years ago, he told Zients he wanted to sell half the company for twice what it was worth. "Jeff said, 'I think I know how to do that,' " Bradley recalled.
Zients suggested taking the fastest-growing segment of the Advisory Board's business -- corporate consulting -- and spinning it off into a separate company called the Corporate Executive Board. The Advisory Board would hold on to the company's bread-and-butter business -- health care industry clients -- and stay private.
Taking the Corporate Executive Board public was a risky proposition. No one had heard of it, Zients said, and it was not like any other public company.