The Nationals' New Owner

Behind a Wall of Silence, Lerner Has Built an Empire

Mark Lerner, Theodore Lerner's son, is expected to take charge of the Nats.
Mark Lerner, Theodore Lerner's son, is expected to take charge of the Nats. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Adam Bernstein and Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

At the age of 80, Theodore N. Lerner -- native Washingtonian, shopping mall magnate and new principal owner of the Washington Nationals -- should not be a man in need of a public unveiling.

But since his days as "Silent Ted" at Roosevelt High School in Northwest, Lerner has studiously avoided the limelight, even as he built one of the largest privately held real estate companies in the region.

He was once on Forbes magazine's list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. His company, Lerner Enterprises of Bethesda, has built more than 22,000 homes and 6,000 apartments in the Washington area, and owns and manages more than 20 million square feet of commercial and retail space, including shopping meccas at Tysons Corner and White Flint. Yet Lerner remains a mystery, a conspicuous stranger to the public and to the politicians accustomed to the attention of big developers. D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) joked to a crowd of business leaders early last month that "operators are standing by" in case Lerner cared to introduce himself.

By all accounts, this anonymity suits Lerner, who has a reputation for being less than forgiving to anyone who talks about him publicly, even in superlatives. But in buying the Nationals for $450 million, Lerner will join Abe Pollin, Daniel Snyder and Ted Leonsis in the small fraternity of Washington team owners, whose every move is debated and criticized. Some friends and associates say Lerner is likely to take somewhat of a back seat and let his son, Mark -- a 52-year-old sports aficionado and part owner of the Washington Capitals, the Washington Mystics and Verizon Center -- run the Nationals' daily operations along with Stan Kasten, a former Atlanta sports executive brought in as a minority partner.

But there is little doubt the Nationals will be run the way Ted Lerner wants them run. "Nobody tells Ted Lerner what to do," said Bill Regardie, the former editor and publisher of the eponymous business magazine. "Ted Lerner is not used to being told what to do. In the last 30 years, no one has told this man to do anything."

Lerner once fired a business partner who happened to be his brother, leading his brother to sue him, and he once took on the District government to keep a taxation error in his favor. He follows contracts "to the letter," say brokers who have negotiated with them, but he also is known to compromise.

To Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Lerner is a "quiet, unassuming gentleman." Connolly said that in 2003 Lerner agreed to wait on rezoning his Tysons Corner land for greater density until the federal government kicked in its share of funding for the proposed Dulles rail project. This deal, Connolly said, was the first time he could recall a developer in the county voluntarily giving up, even temporarily, increased density, and it helped offset residents' concerns about congestion.

"I think the concerns expressed by Tony Williams [and other D.C. politicians] will evaporate when they get to know Ted," Connolly said.

During his yearlong courtship of Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig, it was not hard for Lerner to follow Selig's expressed desire for potential owners to keep silent and not talk to reporters or make their case in public. But on at least one issue, Lerner's determination to do things his way appeared to backfire. Baseball officials made it known several weeks ago that they were not pleased with the pace at which he was lining up the African American partners thought to be critical to effectively operating a Washington team. While competing groups were highlighting such prominent partners as former secretary of state Colin L. Powell and former deputy attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., Lerner waited until the eleventh hour to announce his partners, who joined his group when it absorbed Kasten's competing bid.

Mark Lerner, Theodore Lerner's son, is expected to take charge of the Nats.
Mark Lerner, Theodore Lerner's son, is expected to take charge of the Nats.
Owning the Nationals fulfills a lifelong dream for Lerner, who once said that as a young man he worked as an usher because he couldn't afford to purchase tickets for Washington Senators games at the old Griffith Stadium. Over the years, Lerner has expressed interest in owning football, basketball and baseball franchises but until now never came close to succeeding.

In 1969, he went as far as proposing to build a $20 million sports arena and convention center in Oxon Hill to lure a basketball team to the region. The arena effort collapsed over long-term financing. Lerner said at the time that it was easier to find $60 million to create suburban shopping centers.

In the mid-1970s, when a bid for the Baltimore Orioles was unsuccessful, Lerner said one reason it failed was because he talked to the media. Associates outside Lerner's inner circle predict he will approach the Nationals the way he has his real estate business: namely by using his bank accounts to hire the best talent money can buy. They also say he is unlikely to flip the team anytime soon.

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