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Jeff Sherrin: Developer chases deals, but runs from the spotlight

By SCOTT BARANCIK, Times Staff Writer
Published August 12, 2007


Florida real estate developer Jeff Sherrin, whose phone call to a New York sports broker two months ago kicked off a whirlwind bid to buy the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team, would rather you didn't read this article.

The son of a New York City cop doesn't want people to hear about his waterfront vacation homes in Fort Lauderdale and Prince Edward Island and peg him as a silver-spooned loafer. He stammers like Barney Fife after learning that his political affiliation (independent) is a matter of public record. He politely but abruptly shrugs off a question about his involvement with two low-budget movies (Lenny the Wonder Dog and Kids in America), too worried about the safety of his 21-year-old daughter, Stephanie, to mention that she co-starred in both.

"Oh boy, oh wow," Sherrin says during an interview. "How did you hear about that?"

Not that he's hiding any dark secrets. Sherrin, 51, lives in Broward County's Coral Springs, is happily married to his college sweetheart, Susie, devoted to their daughter and 19-year-old twins Kevin and Steven, and thrilled at the prospect of running the Lightning organization with his close friend of 13 years, former Florida Panthers coach Doug MacLean.

Still, the ex-CPA -- whose only prior media coverage was a 1998 mention in Value Retail News -- nearly had to be dragged onto the stage at this week's news conference. And he may be only half-joking when he vows not to appear at another unless it's to celebrate a Stanley Cup victory.

"This is a whole new experience, and I can't say it's one that he's enjoying," says MacLean, the public face of the new ownership group, who seems to delight in his friend's uncharacteristic panic.

How a shrewd businessman like Sherrin could expect to avoid scrutiny while buying an estimated $200-million professional sports franchise isn't clear. It's just one of several seeming contradictions that define the longtime Floridian (he was 4 when his family moved from New York to Miami), and another reason why Absolute Hockey Enterprises, which includes MacLean and Hollywood horror-film producer Oren Koules, may be the quirkiest and most entertaining franchise owners the bay area has ever seen.

Unpredictable

Only one of the three identified partners in a group vying for the Lightning has bid on a hockey franchise before.

Logic would suggest it is MacLean, 53, who has been an NHL coach, general manager or president for much of the past two decades. Or maybe Koules, who played minor-league hockey for his hometown Chicago Blackhawks and owns a junior league team in Montana called the Helena Bighorns. Surely it couldn't be Sherrin, who came to hockey relatively late in life through friend and neighbor MacLean and may still prefer other sports.

Wrong. Sherrin was the one who contacted sports-team broker Sal Galatioto roughly five years ago to inquire about buying a franchise. When the Disney Co. hired Galatioto a couple of years later to sell the Anaheim Ducks, he contacted Sherrin, who quickly assembled a group and made an offer but never consummated the deal.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it was while watching the Ducks' Stanley Cup win this June that Sherrin and MacLean decided it would be fun to run a hockey franchise together. Sherrin called Galatioto the next day to ask if the Lightning was for sale.

Sherrin calls himself the "boring guy in the group," and there's some evidence to back that up.

An accountant by training, he has no hobbies except jogging. He says he likes investing in real estate tax certificates partly because they help local governments deliver vital services even in the face of revenue shortfalls.

"It's not the most glamorous investment, but it's steady," Sherrin says. At last week's news conference, Koules looked debonair, jet-lagged and distracted with his open-collar shirt and moussed hair; MacLean looked ESPN-ready, his salt and pepper hair, black-framed glasses and avuncular style evoking a taller Joe Maddon, the Tampa Bay Devils Rays manager. Sherrin, who says he was miserable, looked it.

Risk-taker in pinstripes

Despite appearances, Sherrin takes risks. At age 22, he saw potential in a field of vacant farmland near Walt Disney World that others did not. Along with a couple of partners, he began borrowing money to quietly buy small parcels. With no cash flow except when he temporarily resold a parcel, Sherrin's family struggled.

Fifteen years later, after the arduous process of rezoning the land and bringing in roads and utilities, his patience began paying off. Today, Sherrin's partners control a 60-acre tract that abuts one of the busiest tourist corridors in North America. It includes a popular outlet mall, the Lake Buena Vista Factory Outlets, and a condo-hotel resort that is growing like weeds and may top out at 1,875 units.

"We call him the 'big picture' man," says Sam Sutton, who helped develop the factory-outlet and condo-hotel projects. "He's always had a knack for doing big things and getting a sense of what the future may be like."

Even Sherrin's personality can be deceptive. Unfailingly polite, he calls new acquaintances "buddy," and old friends say he is as loyal as they come. Just pray, they joke, that you don't have to negotiate with him.

"Is he pit-bullish?" says MacLean, whose son has been best friends with Sherrin's boys since age 6. "I've negotiated with a ton of agents on player contracts. I've negotiated concession contracts. I've never seen anyone work like this guy. ... When he wants a deal done, he just won't let it go."

Indeed, broker Galatioto initially told Sherrin that the Lightning wasn't for sale, but Sherrin gently insisted that Galatioto contact owner Bill Davidson anyway.

"What he does in negotiations is similar to his tennis game," adds business partner Sutton. (Sherrin attended Ohio University on a tennis scholarship and installed a court behind his Coral Springs home, though he rarely plays.) "He can grind you down. He can decimate you. ... Not in a mean way, but he finds a way to make things happen. In business, that's a laudable thing."

Sherrin denies being adversarial. "I try to put myself in the other person's position and imagine what will make them happy," he says.

Will Sherrin and his family be able to tolerate the fishbowl of franchise ownership? MacLean is optimistic. But Sherrin can't say he wasn't warned.

"I told him right off the bat: If you don't want to be in the public eye, don't buy the team," Galatioto says.

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

FAST FACTS: Jeff Sherrin
Age: 51.
Family: Wife, Susie, daughter, Stephanie, sons Kevin and Steven.
Education: Ohio University, business degree.
Home: Coral Springs in Broward County.
Occupation: Real estate developer/investor.
Hobby: Jogging.