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.
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 resume. 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.
Then there was the added wrinkle that the founder was cashing out. "Jeff had to convince investors the company could be successful without Bradley," said John Fox Sullivan, president and group publisher of Atlantic Media, which Bradley formed after he bought the Atlantic Monthly in 1999.
Having never handled an IPO before, Zients said he and his small team of executives applied the Advisory Board business model of collecting best practices to themselves. "We studied IPOs and developed our own best practices," said Zients.
In February 1999, the Corporate Executive Board went public, raising a whopping $155 million.
Only afterward, Bradley said, did he and his management team discover that the remaining health care consulting business, still operating under the Advisory Board name, was in trouble. "Revenue was flattening; profits were shrinking," Bradley said. Bradley and Zients sat down to brainstorm again. Instead of cutting costs, they overhauled the business's operations and product offerings, reversing the company's decline. In 2001, Advisory Board's public offering generated $90 million.
In the immediate aftermath of the two IPOs, Zients found himself on Fortune's list of the richest Americans younger than 40. Fortune magazine estimated that his net worth was $132 million.
His new wealth allowed him and his wife to set up a foundation, which gives money to several nonprofit groups in the District and humanitarian projects abroad. They were also able to trade in their pleasant two-story colonial in Spring Valley for a castle-like manse off Foxhall Road.
Zients said he disliked the attention that came with making the Fortune list.
He is still adjusting to being a spokesman for the baseball club. He's already in demand. At the Wednesday announcement, after veteran sportscaster George Michael spotted several men huddled around Malek, he demanded to know, "Which one is Jeff Zients?"
Afterward, Zients was besieged by supporters of various team names and one man hawking an idea for a team logo.
The understated Zients is more in his element around the office.
Current and former colleagues at the Advisory Board describe Zients as "rarely" disparaging.
Former underlings said Zients is a boss who can be direct when he is not happy with you, but never disparaging.
Several of Zients's colleagues said underneath his approachable exterior is a shrewd strategic thinker and tough negotiator who is both driven and disciplined.
Bradley said Zients is "tough enough for the job" but has never really had to develop sharp elbows at the Advisory Board. "My companies aren't investment banking firms. You don't have to be tough and mean-spirited," Bradley said.
To make his point, Bradley cited a example of Bradley-Zients think: "Jeff divides the world into two kinds of people -- hard and soft, soft being is good." Zients, Bradley added, is soft.
Since the sale of the Advisory Board, the two men remain close, but their interests have diverged. Bradley has turned his attention to publishing.
In 1997, he bought the National Journal Group, and two years later, the Atlantic. Zients doesn't share Bradley's enthusiasm for magazines and hasn't played a major role in Atlantic Media.
While Bradley is also a partner in the Washington Baseball Club, the club is the first venture in years that Zients has helped manage without his mentor.
"He's ready to be his own person. It's hard to do that with me," Bradley said. "It's time for him to have his own enterprise. I don't know if baseball will be it."
Zients shares the burden of doing the club's leg work with Malek, Raines, and executive director Winston Bao Lord. Their collective business savvy will be tested in the coming months. Major League Baseball officials have told aides to the mayor that they want to choose an ownership group by the end of the year. Opening day at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium is scheduled for April.
In a few weeks, Washington Baseball Club partners said they anticipate that Major League Baseball will identify the serious candidates and inform them how the bidding process will work.
In addition to the Washington Baseball Club, potential bidders include the Baseball Club of America, led by New York real estate investor Mark Broxmeyer, and DSG Baseball Group, led by Memphis investment banker Brian Saulsberry.
Zients said what sets the Washington club's bid apart from the rest are the partners' ties to the community, which he said go beyond the memorandum of understanding the club has with the District government designating it as the city's preferred ownership group. "To start up a sports team, it's important to have people from the community who know city officials and business leaders, who have done other projects in the community," Zients said.
Zients has done his part to maintain a close working relationship with District officials.
While city leaders were in negotiations with Major League Baseball officials over bringing the Expos to Washington, Zients became a frequent board for them. Stephen M. Green, special assistant to Williams for economic development, said in the past few months, he talked to Zients on the phone every couple of days.
"I kept saying [to Green], 'You guys are swamped. Is there any research we can do? Any calls we can make?" Zients said.
Being helpful exemplifies another bit of Bradley-Zients think -- "coming in under."
"By coming in under, [Jeff] rises to the top," Bradley said.