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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Is Alan Kestenbaum an NFL turncoat or simply a fan with a cool business brain?

New York Jets turned Giants season ticket holder, he’s now a leading contender to buy the Carolina Panthers

Alan Kestenbaum, chief executive officer of Stelco Holdings Inc., stands for a photograph at the company's plant in Nanticoke, Ontario, Canada, on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. The 107-year-old company just completed the first initial public offering of a North American steelmaker in seven years. Photographer: Cole Burston/Bloomberg
Alan Kestenbaum, chief executive officer of Stelco Holdings Inc., stands for a photograph at the company's plant in Nanticoke, Ontario, Canada, on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. The 107-year-old company just completed the first initial public offering of a North American steelmaker in seven years. Photographer: Cole Burston/Bloomberg

Alan Kestenbaum isn’t afraid to switch allegiances.

A former fan of American National Football League (NFL) team New York Jets turned Giants season ticket holder, he’s now a leading contender to buy the Carolina Panthers.

Mr Kestenbaum, who made his fortune turning around metals and mining companies, has long kept a low-profile. That all changed in March when the Brooklyn-born billionaire was identified as one of the possible bidders for the National Football League franchise.

The 56-year-old made a bid that values the Charlotte, North Carolina, team at more than $2.5 billion and is said to be tussling with Ben Navarro, founder of Sherman Financial Group, and hedge fund titan David Tepper for control, Bloomberg reported in March.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) dives over a tackle-attempt by New York Jets outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins (48) on a two-point conversion during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) dives over a tackle-attempt by New York Jets outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins (48). Bill Kostroun/AP

Mr Kestenbaum - who declined to confirm whether he’d put in an offer - would embody the new breed of NFL team owner: businessman first, fan second.

“I don’t want to own a trophy asset,” he said in New York last week. “It needs to be run in a profitable way. An investment of this size has to continue to grow in value.”

Mr Kestenbaum sees plenty of opportunities to boost the franchise’s value through branding and improving the fan experience. His background dealing with labour unions and local communities will help him embrace the civic challenge of running an operation that embodies an entire city, he said.

“Alan goes out of his way to see what the workers think,” said Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers union.

Mr Kestenbaum said he hadn’t considered investing in sports teams until his youngest son, Jacob, 23, mentioned the Panthers after they were put for sale in late 2017. Due diligence and modelling - done in part by his son-in-law, a former Goldman Sachs employee - has since opened his eyes to the opportunity. He’s being advised by boutique investment bank Inner Circle Sports.

He and his partners - with expertise in finance, real estate and entertainment - have identified plenty of growth prospects for the franchise, Mr Kestenbaum said.

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Finding opportunities where others fear to tread has characterised his career. After getting fired from Philipp Brothers in 1985 for his aggressive business style, he promised himself he’d never work for anyone else again. He set up his own firm and started trading aluminium, at one point becoming the largest supplier of the metal into China.

When the Asian financial crisis hit he used lines of credit to purchase businesses on the cheap, before buying a firm that became Global Specialty Metals. After numerous acquisitions, a 2009 initial public offering and a merger with Grupo FerroAtlantica, London-based Ferroglobe is now worth about $2bn.

He founded private equity firm Bedrock Industries Group, which bought Ontario-based Stelco after it emerged from bankruptcy. Bedrock’s stake is now worth $1.3bn.

“He’s making all the right noises and doing the right things,” said Peter Warrian, a senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. “But it’s a tough industry.”

Mr Kestenbaum says he’d continue running these businesses even if he took a hands-on-role with any sport investment.

“You have to meddle,” he said. “I’m responsible for my investors and whether its running my public companies or limited partners in a team, people are betting on me.”

Mr Kestenbaum’s opportunism extends to his sporting loyalties. He switched support from the Jets to their cross-town rivals after Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino’s infamous fake spike play, which resulted in a frustrating 1994 loss for the Jets.

“When I saw that, I went out and bought my son a Giants uniform, switched allegiance and that was the end of that,” Mr Kestenbaum said.

Those sometimes painful seasons as a Jets and Giants fan hasn’t lessened his conviction that the NFL is a more compelling investment - and a better spectacle - than the other major US leagues.

“I think the NFL is the only sport where each team is profitable and viable,” he said. “Other sports have mixed situations.”

Still, the league is facing plenty of challenges. Jerry Richardson, the Panthers’ current owner, is selling the franchise amid allegations of sexual and racial harassment, while the NFL is battling declining television ratings, lingering controversy over players like Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem and growing awareness of football’s health dangers.

"Many people think the NFL, like steel, is a declining industry," said Mr Warrian.

Mr Kestenbaum isn’t fazed. He says the league is making progress on these issues and said it should use its position to advance appropriate social agendas. While he declined to identify prospective limited partners, he said he has a diverse slate of investors. Any decision to employ Mr Kaepernick would rest solely on his football abilities, he said.

Scoring a football franchise would rank right alongside achievements such as taking Globe Specialty Metals public, Mr Kestenbaum said.

Still, he remains all business.

“When you get to those milestones you take a few minutes, you enjoy it and then you get back to work.”

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