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Value investing in arenas

As a hockey fan, this kind of hurts

Josh Harris said Newark’s Prudential Center was a more important financial piece in his purchase of the New Jersey Devils than the hockey team itself.

Harris and David Blitzer, a New Jersey native and senior managing director of Blackstone Group LP, purchased the National Hockey League franchise last month in an agreement that also gave the partnership control of the Prudential Center.

Located three blocks from Newark’s main transportation hub, the $385 million Prudential Center was opened in 2007. Harris called it “one of the most modern arenas in the country.”

“And we think that with the new capital structure and the new ownership group and the new management that we put in, that we’ll be able to make this arena really realize its potential financially,” Harris said in a Bloomberg Television interview.

Harris, who bought the National Basketball Association’s Philadelphia 76ers in 2011, acquired the NHL team in a deal valued at about $300 million.

Harris has already made changes to the Devils’ business personnel, hiring Scott O’Neil as chief executive officer. The former president of Madison Square Garden Sports, O’Neil is also the chief executive of the 76ers.

Harris said he viewed the Prudential Center as complementary to New York City’s two main arenas, Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The home of theNBA’s New York Knicks and NHL’s New York Rangers, the Garden is completing a $1 billion private renovation. The $1 billion Barclays Center, home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, opened last year.

“If you’re a big concert event and you stop in New York, you’re probably going to play one of MSG and Barclays, and this arena,” Harris said of the Devils’ home.

O’Neil said in another Bloomberg Television interview last week that the Prudential Center was the fourth-highest grossing arena in the nation, behind Barclays, the Garden and Staples Center in Los Angeles. He didn’t offer specific figures or the source of his information.

Located about 11 miles (18 kilometers) from New York City, the Prudential Center has been a one-tenant building since the Nets moved to Brooklyn prior to the 2012-13 season. Harris said the venue’s concerts and special events would be enough to sustain the building without a second professional team.

“Having a basketball team, an NBA team, in this arena is not in the business plan right now,” Harris said. “We don’t think it’s necessary.”

Interesting bit of arena drama right now in New York.  You have Madison Square Garden being evicted, the Nassau Coliseum being totally renovated and refurbished, the Baclay’s Centre opening, and now the New Jersey Devils being purchased not for the team, but because it gives them access to Newark’s Prudential Centre.

In case you think this is just a New York thing, check out what MSG is doing with the old Los Angeles Forum, a building many thought would be torn down.

The first thing to consider is that arenas are costing $300 million dollars at least with many heading towards the $500 to a $1 billion range (depending on land prices).  Older arenas like Nassau and The Forum now have tremendous value, if you can call a $100 million renovation a value, in part because modern arenas have become so expensive, they aren’t viable in non-premier markets.  Remember that the City of Edmonton is paying a subsidy to the Edmonton Oilers to operate their new arena and Glendale is paying a large subsidy to the Coyotes to manage their arena.

China’s latest debt filled adventure: Regional Transportation Hubs

50 cities in China are all racing to become regional transportation hubs.

More than 50 mainland cities have answered Beijing’s call for cleaner economic growth with plans for aviation hubs – airports clustered with industrial zones.

They hope the projects will attract investment in the logistics, high-technology and finance sectors, the sort of businesses Beijing is encouraging as it seeks to move the economy away from an over-reliance on smoke-stack industries.

But critics argue the projects will exacerbate the problem of debt-fuelled construction, which local authorities have used for years to boost their economies.

Such “plans often start high key, but end poorly”, government researcher Wang Jun said.

“It is not necessarily a good thing for the whole nation, as so much investment will often lead to overcapacity and increase local government debts,” said Wang, who works at the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges. “There are already signs of redundant investment, as some regions in China have too many airports, which are not in full operation.”

Wang Xiaohua, an aviation consultant at Kent Ridge Consulting in Fujian, said developing an aviation hub involved more than simply building an airport.

It first of all required minimum annual passenger flows of 10 million and cargo volume of 200,000 tonnes, she said. Only Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Shenzhen and Kunming met that criteria last year.

The mainland will need more airports as the economy grows, but profits are elusive. Of the mainland’s 183 airports, 143 lose money, data from the Civil Aviation Administration of China shows. That suggests that more than 60 of the 80 new airports envisioned in the latest five-year plan to 2015 will end up in the red.

More then one economist has said that the country whose debt we all should be working about is China and articles like this do little to convince people otherwise.

100 Ideas to Improve Saskatoon: 1. Cut Red Tape

Saskatoon loves to talk about how it is a business friendly city and touts our lower taxes. As other cities have learned, being business friendly means a lot more than lower taxes, it means less red tape.

In 2010 the City of Calgary created the Cut Red Tape program to reduce red tape at The City of Calgary. The focus of the program was to remove red tape and make changes that result in our citizens and businesses seeing visible improvements. Some of those changes were small, constant irritants and others may be larger, fundamental issues in regulations or business processes. The aim is to shift our culture from a regulator perspective to a facilitator. The program has been supported by Council and funded through approved applications to the Council’s Innovation Fund on a project-by-project basis.

There are some real cost savings both to taxpayers and to the city.  Take a look below.

Cut red tape total savings

Cities around the word are hearing from world class businesses that “business friendly” is a lot more than low taxes, it’s about creating a climate where business can be conducted easily.  It’s something that Saskatoon has a way to go on but as Calgary is showing, it is something that can be improved.

Dealing with The Bank of Montreal

A couple of years ago I had a prepaid phone with Virgin Mobile.  My account had constant technical problems.  Nothing nefarious but it just didn’t work.  I would call in and the tech support people would immediately realize this account was messed up and would escalate the problem to more senior people.  The more senior people would realize the problem was really messed up.  It would get escalated (while I would get emails about the problem about every 30 minutes letting me know that a) it was messed up and b) they hadn’t given up on it.  I would get credit or something for my time but eventually someone at Virgin decided the problem could not get fixed and they just set up a new account and moved over my number.

While Wendy and I moved to Bell, we think highly enough of Virgin to keep Mark’s cell phone with them and a large part of it has been exceptional customer service.

Bank of Montreal in Saskatoon

Lately my debit card hasn’t been working with the Bank of Montreal.  It locks me out if I enter the PIN number in wrong and some times it just locks me out.  I end up having to pay with credit and each time I call them up and I explain the problem.  This is where it goes bad for me.  They tell me that the system doesn’t work the way I describe it and it must be me.  I have even been called a liar by the customer service reps.  Instead of resetting my PIN, they make me go down to the branch so I can get it reset there.

The branch clerks are just as unhelpful.  They too tell me that what I am describing is impossible.  It’s nice to be called dishonest in person and over the phone.  

The last time it happened, Wendy forgot her wallet at home and used my bank card.  She used my old PIN number once and it locked her out.  Again, we tried to explain on the phone and then in person and we were both called a liar and at the branch, they just blamed my card again.

Wendy and I have a joint account.  Her card doesn’t work that way, just mine.  It’s obviously a problem with either the BMO database or a weird account setting but no one offers to even look into the problem and that is what drives me crazy.  I can handle a messed up account or software issues.  I can even handle a “I have no idea why this is happening but I am working on it” answer but each time over the last two years I have walked away and realized that they a) either didn’t give a rip what was going on or b) are so disempowered that they literally can’t do anything to fix it.  Either way it says a whole lot about the bank and how it treats its customers.

Right now I have given up on BMO.  Air Miles are great but not if it means we great treated like this.

Walmart’s Worst Nightmare

Meet the Low-Key, Low-Cost Grocery Chain Being Called ‘Walmart’s Worst Nightmare’

Retail analysts say that the world’s biggest retailer has reason to fear a small grocery chain that’s based in Idaho and boasts a business model that allows it to undercut Walmart on prices.

So about that eye-catching Walmart quote. Those are the words of Burt Flickinger III, a widely respected supermarket retailing industry expert who works for the Strategic Resource Group. Flickinger was quoted in a recent Idaho Statesman story about WinCo, a chain of roughly 100 supermarkets in the western U.S., based in Boise.

“WinCo arguably may be the best retailer in the Western U.S.,” Flickinger says while touring a WinCo store. “WinCo is really unstoppable at this point,” he goes on. “They’re Walmart’s worst nightmare.”

Flickinger isn’t the only industry insider discussing WinCo and Walmart in the same breath. “While many supermarkets strive to keep within a few percentage points of Walmart Stores’ prices, WinCo Foods often undersells the massive discount chain,” the industry publication Supermarket News explained last spring.

This is where it gets interesting.

While all of these factors help WinCo compete with Walmart on price, what really might scare the world’s largest retailer is how WinCo treats its employees. In sharp contrast to Walmart, which regularly comes under fire for practices like understaffing stores to keep costs down and hiring tons of temporary workers as a means to avoid paying full-time worker benefits, WinCo has a reputation for doing right by employees. It provides health benefits to all staffers who work at least 24 hours per week. The company also has a pension, with employees getting an amount equal to 20% of their annual salary put in a plan that’s paid for by WinCo; a company spokesperson told the Idaho Statesman that more than 400 nonexecutive workers (cashiers, produce clerks, and such) currently have pensions worth over $1 million apiece.

The Conservatives are Paying Two Bureaucrats $500k Each to Run an Office that Doesn’t Exist

Nice gig if you can get it

Even among Ottawa insiders, few would be aware that two officials running a tiny agency Flaherty set up to try to create a national securities regulator beat them all. Douglas Hyndman, chairman and chief executive officer of the Canadian Securities Transition Office (CSTO), makes $534,043, and Lawrence Ritchie, the CSTO’s executive vice-president and senior policy adviser, $537,469. Their salaries are public because Hyndman is on long-term loan to the feds from the British Columbia Securities Commission, while Ritchie is similarly seconded from the Ontario Securities Commission, and both B.C. and Ontario publish “sunshine lists” of salaries over $100,000. They are still technically on the provincial payrolls—even though they’ve been working for Flaherty since 2009—with Ottawa compensating their home provinces. (The Harper government’s refusal to support Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber’s private member’s bill to publicly disclose federal salaries over $188,000 led to Rathgeber quitting the Tory caucus last spring; the government wanted to reveal only a handful of salaries over $444,661.)

At a glance, their pay seems out of whack by federal standards. After all, Hyndman and Ritchie together oversee only about 20 employees. Poloz, by comparison, commands about 1,240 at the central bank. But Flaherty has staked more on his high-priced ringers than the size of their shop might indicate. In an email exchange with Maclean’s, Hyndman said his “relatively small staff” belies the complexity and importance of what the CSTO is trying to accomplish. “We are using the expertise of a core group drawn from provincial securities regulators, plus some additional staff, to develop critical improvements to Canada’s system of capital markets regulation,” he said. “We also need to maintain the flexibility to move forward on either federal legislation or a co-operative scheme with the provinces.”

That last part about being ready to pursue either of two very different policy options is key. Flaherty set up the CSTO back in 2009 to bring about his goal of establishing a common Canadian securities regulator, replacing a hodge-podge of provincial stock market commissions. But some provinces challenged his plan in court. In late 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Ottawa was overstepping its jurisdiction. Despite that severe setback, Flaherty kept trying to coax provinces to come onside voluntarily—that’s the “co-operative scheme” Hyndman mentions. But if those overtures to the provinces fail, the court ruling left the federal government room to regulate in limited areas on its own—that’s Hyndman’s “move forward with federal legislation” option.

In fact, indications from federal officials suggest they are not optimistic that enough provinces will sign on to salvage Flaherty’s original grand plan. For instance, Hyndman said the CSTO’s “primary focus right now is developing proposed legislation and implementation plans that will be needed if no agreement is reached with provinces on a common regulator.” But exactly what parts of the financial marketplace the federal government will set out to regulate on its own has not yet been announced. It’s the subject of considerable speculation among private-sector experts. Flaherty’s office says the aim would be “preventing and responding to systemic risks, such as those posed by over-the-counter derivatives.”

Figuring out ways to regulate trading by sophisticated investors in derivatives, which go by exotic names such as “currency forwards” and “credit default swaps,” is a hot topic in international policy circles, largely because failures on this murky side of the market are blamed for the 2008 global credit meltdown and the recession that followed. Hyndman even suggests that losing the Supreme Court case focused the federal government’s attention “precisely where Canada needs to do a better job to get regulation right.”

Whatever slice of the market Flaherty decides to tackle, settling on that approach shouldn’t take much longer. “Our planning horizon is in months, not years,” Hyndman said. On whether he and Ritchie will go back then to their provincial jobs, or stay on to run an agency set up to bring new regulations into force, he said only, “We have not sought, nor been offered, permanent federal positions.”

Before you get all that upset, that is probably a deal for two guys of that talent who would make much more in the private sector.  That being said, it probably won’t get enough provinces to sign on and in the end, will be a lot of money down the drain.

Mark Cuban on Starting Your Own Business

Downtown Detroit

Look at what Detroit Economic Growth Corporation has done for downtown Detroit and I again have to wonder why we are not telling this story about Saskatoon?

Live and make money in Edmonton

So Detroit isn’t the only place with a compelling story.  Take a look at this video about why you should move and dream in Edmonton.

Here is Mayor Stephen Mandel making the argument to invest in Edmonton

And now Paul Douglas, the CEO of PCL explains why they work and live in Edmonton.

Of course a video on how awesome the University of Alberta is and how it will make your business money.

We’re Moving to Detroit, and So Should You

Lowe Campbell Ewald is moving 600 people to Detroit to be a part of the rebirth of the city and I love the video they announce it with.  After you watch the video, I want to know why more cities don’t do stuff like this.  Where is the video making the pitch for Saskatoon and being part of the boom and still shaping the city while you can?

A beginners guide to launching a startup

How start a startup infographic

This will end up in the courts

Just after James Dolan spends almost a billion dollars in renovating MSG, New York City Council wants him to move out of it.

Madison Square Garden

By a vote of 47 to 1, the Council voted to extend the Garden’s special operating permit for merely a decade — not in perpetuity, as the owners of the Garden had requested, or 15 years, as the Bloomberg administration had intended.

Ten years should be enough time, officials said, for the Garden to find a new location and for the city to devise plans for an expanded Pennsylvania Station, which currently sits below the Garden, and the redevelopment of the surrounding neighborhood.

“This is the first step in finding a new home for Madison Square Garden and building a new Penn Station that is as great as New York and suitable for the 21st century,” said Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker. “This is an opportunity to reimagine and redevelop Penn Station as a world-class transportation destination.”

So let me get this straight, James Dolan spends almost a billion dollars of his own money and then the New York City Council says, “we want this back in 10 years because we seen an opportunity to redevelop Penn Station.”  Wouldn’t it have been wise to say that before the permits were issued?

To think that one can invest over $2 billion over a site over 50 years, make it into a global icon and then get told to move by New York City Council is pretty shocking.  Of course Dolan has the upper hand, I am not sure if the New York public would like the idea of the Knicks and Rangers moving out of Manhattan but even the New York market.  Those are loyal and affluent fan bases that reach far beyond the 20,000 people that watch each game in person.  I am not a fan of James Dolan but don’t count him out of this yet.

The last days of big law: What happens when the money dries up

This is an amazing read in the New Republic at what happens when a recession hits the legal profession. This is a fascinating glimpse inside the inner workings of global law firms.

There was frustration with other aspects of the new compensation system, too. Previously, partners were reluctant to ask colleagues to help on their pitches, because credit was a zero-sum game: If a partner landed the business, she would have to award some of the credit to the colleague, leaving less for herself. Under the new rules, the firm allowed the partner to claim up to 100 percent of the credit herself, then dole out up to 100 percent more among any partners who had helped.

This encouraged collaboration at times, according to several former partners. The downside was that many began to view the additional 100 percent worth of credit as a slush fund, ladling it out to friends with little role in their cases or transactions. “It led to sleazy deals,” recalls one former partner. “It took about thirty seconds for people to figure it out.” Says a former finance lawyer of two senior partners in his group: “I saw the billing going around. One was getting credit on stuff the second opened, and the second was getting credit for stuff the first one opened.” There seemed to be no way around it: The more Mayer Brown set out to fix its problems, the more deviously its partners behaved.

Then there is this.

As demeaning as life can be for a partner these days, it’s altogether soul-crushing for an associate. One of Mayer Brown’s young attorneys recalled scaling back her hours around the time her first child was born. The new schedule meant getting to the office by 6:30 a.m. so she could leave by 6 p.m., in time to put her daughter to bed. The problem arose when she had to work late, a not infrequent occurrence. “Then you’re in the office from 6:30 a.m. till 1 a.m. It sucks even more,” she says. Periodically, some of the women partners would lead seminars on striking a work-life balance, but she found them of limited use. “The primary talk we would get was: ‘Outsource your life. Your husband can stay at home. Or you can hire a cook, a cleaning staff, and you can [spend time with your kids] on vacations.’ Thanks.”

The legal profession has, of course, struggled with these challenges for decades. The problem is that the rewards today are less certain than ever before. There is, for one thing, the ever-lengthening partnership track. In 2004, the firm introduced something called an “income partnership,” a probationary period in which promising lawyers have to prove their worth before earning an equity stake. To the outside world, it looked like the income partner had arrived. Her business card said she was a partner, as did the press release the company issued. But, in reality, making income partner typically means three-to-five more years of hustling, after which the lawyer may come up for the true promotion. (It wasn’t lost on associates that, when a lawyer becomes an equity partner, she receives a budget to order plush new furniture, while income partners keep “the same stuff I had,” as one put it.) Becoming a bona fide partner at Mayer Brown, like many of its competitors, is now a ten-to-twelve-year proposition.

This epically drawn-out process has exacerbated other problems. While it never hurt to have a well-connected mentor within a law firm, today such a rabbi is essential for making partner. Unfortunately, it can be agonizingly difficult to figure out who will have influence years down the line, since partners constantly come and go or lose status within the firm. “You have to pick a horse in the race,” says a former associate. “Your horse may win. It might get taken out back and shot. But if you don’t pick a horse, you have no chance.” In the early to mid-2000s, Mayer Brown’s New York office was dominated by two prominent litigators who didn’t get along and who eyed each other’s associates warily. “Your first year, you figure, ‘I’ll be nice to everybody,’” says the associate. “Three years down the road, being nice to everybody is not doing anything for me.”

As for their own protégés, the partners seem less invested than ever before. One former income partner told me the way he learned he had no future at the firm was through a two-line e-mail from the head of his practice group: “The partners have determined that you will not be an equity partner. If you have any questions, please contact me.” He promptly called the senior partners he had been closest to during his decade at the firm, two of whom had attended his wedding. Neither ever responded.

Even lawyers with a dedicated mentor have trouble making equity partner unless they meet a second criterion: demonstrating a potential for attracting clients. There is an irony that flows from this. Lawyers at an elite firm like Mayer Brown have typically spent their lives amassing intellectual credentials. They are high-school valedictorians and graduates of elite universities, with mantles full of Latin honors. They have made law review at top law schools and clerked for federal judges. When, somewhere between the second and fifth year of their legal careers, they discover that brainpower is only incidental to their professional advancement—that the real key is an aptitude for schmoozing—it can be a rude awakening.

Jimmy Wales Is Not an Internet Billionaire

The long, strange trip of the Wikipedia founder.

Wales has a complicated time balancing his new life with his old one. That was evident one morning this winter as he bounded into the lobby of the West End building where he rented office space and hurriedly signed himself in at the front desk. Wales, his brown Tumi bag slung over his shoulder, was 45 minutes late, disheveled and a little frantic. He had left the keys to his and Garvey’s Marylebone apartment at his place outside Tampa; the nanny, here in London, was stranded with the couple’s 2-year-old daughter. “I forgot to drop off the key,” he said. Just when Wales thought he might have to run home, his assistant, who is based in Florida, texted that a building manager had let the nanny in. Global child-care crisis averted.

Wales wore a too-tight black turtleneck under a black overcoat with a well-shorn beard, a look that could either read Steve Jobs superhero or Tekserve flasher. Almost any time you see Wales, 46, he looks like a well-groomed version of a person who has been slumped over a computer drinking Yoo-hoo for hours. After he composed himself, he explained that his office was too embarrassingly unkempt for public consumption. (“It’s a room with a couch, it’s a huge mess.”) So he joined me on a cracked sofa in a common lounge area downstairs. With its ratty Oriental carpets and mismatched folding chairs, the space exuded a bohemian chic look that Wales, a savvy purveyor of his own image, seemed to delight in showing off. The building, a condemned former BBC space, had been slated for demolition. Wales would soon be moving. “I’m not the Google guys,” he said.

Sears is in a death spiral

According to a former CEO

Mark Cohen, an American who ran the department store operations north of the border between 2001 and 2004, lambasted the CEO and majority owner of the U.S. operation during a Tuesday interview with Bloomberg News.

“Sears is slowly and steadily failing at the hands of a ruthless, methodical asset-stripper,” Cohen said of Eddie Lampert, who has been widely lambasted for his management style, including restructuring moves likened to a losing game of Jenga.

“Lampert will come up with some cash every quarter or two to make sure the balance sheet is still viable,” added Cohen. “It’s a tragedy because Sears is a legacy brand that needed to be and could’ve been repositioned.”

The retail operations in Canada — a public company with 51 per cent of shares owned by Sears Holdings — were in a relatively unflattering spotlight last week as northern CEO Calvin McDonald confirmed that it would sell back its leases for anchor locations in Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto and Square One Shopping Centre in Mississauga and close them by next spring.

An option for a similar deal was signed with Toronto’s Scarborough Town Centre.

The arrangement promised a cash infusion for the company and has also boosted its stock. But the prevailing assumption was that Sears was no longer the kind of big-box tenant that these malls were looking for when other retailers are eager to take the space.

Nordstrom, the higher-end U.S. department store which will move into former Sears spaces at the Pacific Centre in Vancouver, Chinook Centre in Calgary and the Rideau Centre in Ottawa, was expected to make a bid to take over at least part of the vacated Yorkdale and Square One locations.

A couple of years ago we were in Sears 10 days before Christmas.  We were the only ones on the second floor and all of these staff were chatting with our kids.  I was looking for something and there was not another shopper in the store.  The sales looked like Boxing Day with big 75% off signs everywhere.  

I walked back to Wendy and said, “we need to leave before the creditors lock all of the doors”.  

I can’t see the chain lasting much longer.