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Potential Panthers owner Navarro is a low-profile billionaire

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ben Navarro lives in Charleston, South Carolina, on Broad Street, which personifies the aristocracy of the old South with its historic architecture and history amid a canopy of moss-filled oak trees. Yet there's little to nothing that appears privileged or noble about this 54-year-old man who grew up in the middle-class Northeast United States and is described by many friends as blue collar.

He often rides his bicycle to Sherman Financial Group, the global diversified investment services company he brought to this famous port city 15 years ago when he moved his family south seeking a better quality of life. He sometimes bikes 120 miles or more at a time for recreation.

He shows up at board meetings wearing a polo shirt and sports jacket. He wears khaki shorts and flip-flops sometimes to one of his Meeting Street Schools, a public-private project he launched in 2008 to improve the quality of education in South Carolina and help give under-privileged kids a chance to go to college no matter their zip code.

He's the son of Frank Navarro, a college football coach who once posed for a Norman Rockwell painting called "The Recruit." He's one of eight siblings who put themselves through college.

He has an estimated worth of about $3 billion.

And if all goes as he hopes, Navarro will be the next owner of the Carolina Panthers. He's one of three known bidders with an unknown fourth also in the running.

There have been questions about whether Navarro can get the required 24 of the NFL's 32 owners to approve him because a small portion of his business deals with debt collection. But more than 90 percent of Sherman Financial’s revenue comes from Credit One Bank, one of the nation’s largest credit card issuers.

"Ben runs a regulated bank, regulated by the U.S. government," prominent South Carolina businessman George Dean Johnson said. "If he can get through all those regulations and pass it, you’re going to be fine."

As a source close to the situation told ESPN.com, Navarro wouldn't have gotten this far in the process, which is nearing its end, if there was doubt he would be accepted.

Many signs point to Navarro being the front-runner in a group that also includes hedge fund billionaire David Tepper, a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Alan Kestenbaum, a billionaire in the steel industry.

One of Navarro's close friends and business associates is Johnson, also a close friend of Panthers founder and owner Jerry Richardson, who put the team on the market in January amid allegations of sexual and racial workplace misconduct.

His ties to the Carolinas fit the model that Richardson had when he was awarded the franchise in 1993, and that was to be a team of North and South Carolina.

His appreciation for open-air venues such as Bank of America Stadium, the Panthers' home since 1996, again aligns with what Richardson wants from the man he will select to carry on his legacy.

"He lines up in a lot of areas," said one source who knows both Richardson and Navarro.

That doesn’t mean Navarro would rule like Richardson, known as "Mister" to most of his employees. It's believed he would create a culture in which he'd be much more accessible than Richardson -- who was hardly accessible at all over the past 10 to 15 years -- to the public, media and even those who work for him.

"He’s one of the finest human beings I ever met," Johnson said. "I know Jerry Richardson well, too. I’m just telling you Ben Navarro is a special human being."

If you haven't heard of Navarro before he began pursuing the Panthers, don't feel bad. Neither had a lot of people who grew up in the Carolinas and generally are in the know.

The low-profile image for a high-profile man didn't happen by accident. Navarro wanted it that way even before he put his name in the hat for NFL ownership because that’s the way he was raised.

"[The Navarros] have a very strict family code of privacy," a source close to the family said. "It began with his father. When he was with the family, it was family time. When he was at work, it was work. Ben has adopted the same thing."

Sam Dommer, the executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Credit One Bank, a subsidiary of Sherman Financial, isn't surprised.

"He really is a very understated guy," Dommer said. "I don't know how he'll respond to the limelight [of the NFL]. I just know that he's a good, decent guy and only good things come from guys like that. If he ends up going into the football business, I know it's going to be brilliant."

’Management skills superior’

Navarro isn’t one to dominate a business meeting with his thoughts and ideas, like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones does. It’s a style Dommer believes will translate well to NFL ownership.

"I know one thing, Ben really relies on experts," he said. "He's a very active listener. But when it comes time to make a decision he's very decisive. And he certainly expects results. I don't know much about football management, but I know his business management skills are superior."

Navarro hires capable people and trusts them to do the job. Richardson is the same way when it comes to running the football team, for the most part allowing the general manager and head coach to handle football decisions while he focused on business and league matters.

Navarro takes a similar approach in running Sherman Financial and the Meeting Street Schools.

"He doesn't micro-manage," said Sarah Campbell, the principal of Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood, located in North Charleston, South Carolina.

Campbell was so confident she would be allowed to do her job without interference that she left an administrative position with KIPP Public Charter Schools to return to being a principal.

"What he does is asks a ton of great questions and tries to figure out strengths and areas of growth," she said. "And then he pushes to me, ‘What are we going to do about it?'"

Joe Riley, who served 10 terms as mayor of Charleston from 1975-2016, saw the same characteristic in Navarro when they first met to discuss ways to improve public education.

"He would be a natural owner of an NFL franchise," Riley said. "It would always be about the team and not him. He would be a real star ... a quiet star, but the NFL would be proud to have him as one of their owners."

Philanthropist

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston County NAACP, initially was skeptical when her organization decided to give Navarro the Septima Clark Award in 2017 for his work with Meeting Street Schools. She questioned whether the school truly addressed the needs of underprivileged.

But after sitting in the classrooms and observing, talking to the students and their parents, she developed a respect for Navarro and his project that erased all concerns.

"It didn't take me long to see what Ben was doing could be one of the best things to happen to these children," Scott said. "It proved to be one of the most successful models in terms of educating these kids. That endeared me to him."

"I just know that he's a good, decent guy and only good things come from guys like that. If he ends up going into the football business, I know it's going to be brilliant."

Sam Dommer on Ben Navarro

John Hale, a professor at the College of Charleston, remains skeptical. He calls his relationship with Navarro a "hostile" one.

"The controversy is he's helping privatize public education," Hale said. "The model that they have works for that particular school, but it's not enriching the public system as a whole. So it's sort of a life raft for a few hundred kids while thousands of other children are sinking."

That doesn't mean Hale lacks respect for Navarro.

"He created a good model," he said. "He's a fair, level-headed person. He's not known as an eccentric person. He's not a bad guy. He's approachable. We don't know a lot about him, but he doesn't have the air of southern aristocracy.

"As a football owner, he would probably be seen as a more progressive owner."

Campbell acknowledged Meeting Street Schools has dealt with some criticism. During the 2015-16 school year, she said, one-quarter of the students at the Brentwood location were suspended at least once. That included one-third of its black students.

That appeared alarming to some for a school that served students in kindergarten through second grade.

"We're finding they're contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline," Hale said.

Campbell said the high suspension rate was a combination of having really high expectations for kids and making sure "our school was a place that was joyful and safe and calm."

She also said upon reflection, of which Navarro was a part, there was an effort to get the same result without high suspension rates. Part of that was realizing some children had higher needs.

The 2016-17 suspension rate was cut to 12 percent. This year’s rate is 7 percent.

Navarro is more hands-on with the schools than maybe his business, Campbell said. He sometimes sits with students in the classroom, looks over their shoulders and asks how they're doing.

Few things make him more proud than hearing the scholastic test scores are among the highest in the country.

Dommer hasn't been a part of many meetings in which Navarro didn't go off topic and bring up the work at Meeting Street.

"His business expertise is one thing," Dommer said. "But his passion is for those kids."

Family man

Navarro was the sixth of eight children in his family, seven boys and a girl. His father was Italian, raised by a single mother in a house outside of New York City with dirt floors and one light bulb.

It was no coincidence that Navarro's father, after winning a national title as an offensive lineman at Maryland and completing a two-year stint in the Air Force, made his name as a football coach at the academic institutions Williams College, Columbia University, Wabash College and Princeton.

"Growing up, he was really big on the discipline aspect and the value of a buck and education was really, really important," a source close to the family said.

All eight kids grew up shoveling snow, cutting lawns and other odd jobs to make money. Ben waited a lot of tables. Although you can't tell it today by his 5-foot-8 frame that is more muscle than fat, he also was an offensive lineman in football and wrestled.

But most of all he was smart.

"Ben was one of those kids who'd cram an hour for a test the night before, fall asleep with the book on his chest and get an A-plus," a source close to the family said.

Ben went to the University of Rhode Island, where he created the VIP card to make money. Basically, restaurants and businesses paid Navarro to have their name on a discount card that he gave to students to shop with.

Some of those same practices are in play today. Credit One is the official credit card of NASCAR and a sponsor for Kyle Larson's No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing team car.

Navarro's father also taught his children to be respectful and personable in public. He made them practice a handshake on meeting people, telling them to "judge a man by his handshake and look him in the eye."

Dommer said he noticed a similar trait when he had a chance to interact with Navarro's sons interviewing for an internship at Credit One.

"When I talked to the boys I'm not sure they quite understand how successful their father is and what a big deal he is," Dommer said. "He's done a good job of keeping them grounded."

Navarro and his wife, Kelly, have four children. Their oldest daughter, Emma, may be better known in the Carolinas than her dad. Last year, at 15, she was the South's No. 1 junior girls tennis player. She already has committed to Duke.

"It's just a remarkable family and remarkable story," Johnson said. "I don't know of any nicer people."

Front-runner?

Many things point to Navarro being the front-runner, but the vetting process that already is underway has to be completed and the owners have to approve.

"He's probably the wealthiest guy in South Carolina, but you don't see his name splashed around. There's nothing pretentious about him, or you'd know about him."

George Dean Johnson on Ben Navarro

Before that Richardson has to announce which candidate he has selected.

A decision could come as early as next week. If the winner gets approval from the NFL finance committee, then the owners will vote at the May 21-23 owners meetings in Atlanta.

It is unknown how many minority partners Navarro would want if chosen, but those close to him believe it will be a small number.

Even if Navarro isn't chosen, he's certainly better known now than he was four months ago.

"He's probably the wealthiest guy in South Carolina, but you don't see his name splashed around," Johnson said. "There's nothing pretentious about him, or you'd know about him.

"He'll be a great owner if that's what he decides."