When the Detroit Pistons finished their remarkable championship run Tuesday night, a slightly stooped, jug-eared gentleman in a brown windbreaker slowly strode to center court to accept the NBA championship trophy. Eight days earlier, in the same windbreaker, billionaire Bill Davidson was at center ice in Tampa Bay's St. Pete Times Forum, accepting the championship for his other team: the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning.
Two teams. Two championships. One, rather obscure, owner.
The unassuming, 81-year-old Detroit windshield magnate wasn't surprised his Pistons whipped the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers in five games. He allows, however, that there may have been luck in Tampa Bay's Stanley Cup title just eight days earlier over the nettlesome Calgary Flames.
"We've been at it for some 30 years, and it doesn't happen all of a sudden," said Davidson, who is the first owner to win the NHL and NBA championships the same year. "I'm very, very excited and pleased we were able to win the Stanley Cup, but it wasn't in my game plan. The Pistons were in my game plan. From the beginning of this series, we really thought we could win."
What makes the success of the Pistons and the Lightning more remarkable is that they are both relatively low-payroll teams with young players and few superstars. But they have chemistry and locker room leaders. For the Pistons, the leader was center Ben Wallace. For the Lightning, it was 40-year-old team captain Dave Andreychuk.
"I try to have an organization that has integrity, that has some proper knowledge of the sport, whether it's hockey or basketball, and hopefully makes the right decisions in regard to the players, the players' contracts and getting value in those contracts," Davidson said in a telephone interview. "You need to know the concept of the team you need to have. . . . They may not be the best players at their position, but they fit with one another."
That kind of quiet optimism helped Davidson, a bankruptcy lawyer by profession, turn a small family windshield company into the second-largest maker of industrial glass in the world, with 19,000 employees and revenues estimated at around $5 billion. His success in sports and the business world has been built on simple business values. Hire smart people. Tell them you have faith in them. Then give them the freedom to do their job -- and to occasionally fail.
"He's the kind of guy that hires you and basically leaves you alone . . . which is all you can ask when you are in the professional sports business," said former Pistons coach Chuck Daly, who worked for Davidson for nine years and brought him two NBA championships. "You can succeed or fail. I didn't have any real meetings with him the whole time. He would come through at halftime, but he would never say much."
"He gives you a lot of leash to sink or swim," said Tom Wilson, president of the Pistons and Palace Sports & Entertainment.
George Steinbrenner he's not. During the NBA Finals, the lifelong Michigan resident sat in the front row at the Palace of Auburn Hills, intently following the action. During halftimes, he passes up visits to his luxury suite, where his guests are gathered, and instead usually makes his way into the locker room to talk with his general manager, Joe Dumars, about the progress of the game.
He kept just as low a profile during the NHL finals, sitting in a lower level luxury suite with other Lightning team management.
"He's a very down-to-earth, Midwestern guy," said Bob Kennedy, director of the Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan business school, which was named after Davidson. "I've never seen him in a tie. He loves sports and he loves business. He is a pretty fierce competitor, but as a person he is an easy guy to know. If you walked into a bar and talked to him, you'd probably call him your friend in 20 minutes."
Davidson got his start in the glass business shortly after graduating from Wayne State University law school with a specialty in bankruptcy. A relative who owned a windshield factory was killed and Davidson took it over after the company went into bankruptcy. Within three years, Davidson had paid off all the creditors and had the company, now known as Guardian Industries, well on the path to profitability.
"That gave him instant notoriety in Detroit, like 'Who's this guy paying other people's bills,' " said Russell Ebeid, Davidson's number two at the privately held Guardian Industries Corp. The company has thrown off enough cash to enable Davidson to buy the Pistons in 1974 for $7 million and the Lightning in the summer of 1999 for $100 million. Davidson expanded from windshields to the rest of auto glass, then branched out into fiberglass and other industrial glass. The company is now extremely profitable "by any benchmark," Ebeid said.
He uses the money for more than sports. Davidson is one of the biggest donors to the University of Michigan, where he earned his undergraduate business degree in 1947. He gave $30 million in 1992 to Michigan's school of business administration to found the William Davidson Institute, dedicated to the development of emerging markets throughout the world. He has given generously to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York and a parks preservation program in Detroit. He has two grown children and lives with his wife, Karen, in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills.
There have been rocky times along the way. Guardian has been named in patent infringement lawsuits and the company has had its fights with organized labor, replacing striking United Auto Workers with non-union employees at one plant, according to published reports. And there's a fight looming between owners and the NHL Players Association over player compensation, which is likely to bring more labor headaches. But friends and business associates say that Davidson will likely just brush it off. His ability to keep his emotions in check and make decisions based on purely business motives is one of his great strengths.
"He has great inner peace," said Jay Alix, founder of AlixPartners, a corporate turnaround firm. "There are times he has had failure where he accepts it and moves on. He's thoughtful and rational about what's the right thing to do."
The Pistons were profitable or broke even for 18 straight years but started to lose money the last couple of years, Wilson said. The team broke into a profit this year, thanks to its playoff run, and is estimated to be worth in the neighborhood of $300 million, which includes the arena. Davidson has sunk at least another $50 million into the Lightning since purchasing the team to cover losses, which persisted until the club won the Stanley Cup. The Lightning could be worth much more, depending on what happens in the labor negotiations with the players.
He also owns the WNBA champion Detroit Shock and the Detroit Fury arena football team, which he added four years ago.
Davidson likes management plans.
"When I took over as general manager in February 2002, I sat down and met with him and laid out a management plan for how we were going to run this franchise," said Lightning General Manager Jay Feaster. "I told him, 'I promise you we will run this like a business with my objective being to maximize shareholder value.' We stuck to that plan, and it's one of the ways we gained credibility with Mr. Davidson."
Davidson also likes profitability.
"Cash is king with him," Wilson said. According to Wilson, Davidson says: "Don't tell me about depreciation. Don't tell me about tax losses. I just want a realistic view of what this is going to do from a cash standpoint."
And he always has his eye out for the next big deal.
"He likes to take damaged properties and breathe life into them," Wilson said. When Davidson first proposed building Auburn Hills for $92 million in 1986, without public support, friends and colleagues called Wilson and asked him to talk his boss out of it. Davidson went ahead and built a revolutionary arena with luxury suites placed close to the floor so the Pistons could charge more for their rent. The arena has always been profitable and has been copied throughout the sports world.
All of which makes the owner happy.
"If his profession was a weatherman, he would never forecast rain," said Ebeid, who sits in the office next door to his boss. "Today would be sunny. Tomorrow would be sunny. Every day. Even in the wintertime."
Davidson surely sees a sunny future for his Pistons.
"We hope to repeat next year," said Davidson. "I think we have a pretty bright future."
Staff writer Tarik El-Bashir contributed to this report.