Penguins investor steps out of shadows

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Until recently, if you asked someone who follows the Penguins to identify Ron Burkle, they might have guessed he once was one of Mario Lemieux's linemates or, perhaps, a third-string goaltender.

Not quite.

A scan of the team's media guide and Web site won't turn up any reference to Burkle, but you'll need a few cups of coffee to sift through the results of an Internet search.

After remaining far in the Penguins' background for more than seven years, the member of the Lemieux Group -- likely the largest investor in the team ownership -- suddenly has emerged as a part of negotiations that will determine the future of the club.

According to statements issued by the Penguins, Burkle, a California multibillionaire best known for supermarkets, last week joined Lemieux in talks with Kansas City and state and local officials as the club tries to work out a deal for a new home, either in a new Pittsburgh arena or out of town.

Although he rarely grants interviews and has been described as reclusive, Burkle, 54, is well-connected. His friends range from the famous -- former President Bill Clinton, pop star Michael Jackson, actor Leonardo DiCaprio -- to many average Joes.

"If you saw him walking down the street, you would never know he's a billionaire," said Rick Icaza, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers local in California who, in a rare friendly partnering of union and management, amicably worked out contracts with Burkle when Burkle owned the Ralphs and Food4Less grocery store chains on the West Coast.

Burkle is part of a group, which also includes Philip Anschutz, that is trying to get a stadium built and bring the NFL back to Los Angeles.

Anschutz Entertainment Company (AEG) -- whose president, Tim Leiweke, owns the Los Angeles Kings and sits on the NHL board of governors -- has the contract to operate the Sprint Center in Kansas City, where officials would like to lure an NHL team, perhaps the Penguins.

Burkle is a longtime friend of Lemieux's.

Icaza, the union boss, doesn't follow the plight of the Penguins closely, but he said it's in the team's favor that Burkle has become more hands-on in negotiations.

"If he has control, I guarantee he's going to be reasonable," Icaza said.

"It's almost impossible to ask a labor representative about a billionaire owner and get something favorable, but that's what you get with me. He actually negotiated contracts with us himself, which is almost unheard of for a CEO, and those were our best agreements."

Icaza said that while Burkle is most comfortable in jeans and other casual attire and that seeing him in a tie "makes you think something is up," he did get to see the opulent lifestyle Burkle enjoys.

"We actually went to his house in Beverly Hills during negotiations," Icaza said. "The table we sat at was probably more expensive than the house I live in, but like I said, you would never know it from him."

Burkle isn't just friends with Clinton; the famous politician stayed at Burkle's home on most of his visits to California dating to his days as president.

Burkle owns a private jet, a custom Boeing 757 that Clinton reportedly calls "Ron Air."

Burkle is a college dropout who parlayed some early stock-market success into a grocery-store empire and has branched out from there.

For someone who deflects attention, Burkle gets plenty, whether it's for his contentious divorce, his supermodel friends, reports of parties at his 50,000-square foot mansion called Greenacres, or his legal battle with New York Post gossip columnist Jared Paul Stern, who allegedly tried to extort $220,000 from Burkle for more favorable coverage.

Forbes lists Burkle among the 400 richest Americans with a net worth of $2.5 billion.

As a teenager, Burkle started working at grocery store his father managed, Stater Bros. He worked his way up to vice president of parent company Petrolane, then, at 28, got the backing of one of Warren Buffet's associates to try to make a leveraged buyout of Stater Bros.

He was rebuffed and fired later that day.

"I thought [that morning], 'I started here as a box boy. I just bought the company. America's a great place,'" Burkle told Forbes Magazine for a recent cover story. "And in the afternoon, I'm unemployed. It was a rather dramatic change of events, and it turned out to be the best thing ever because if I had stayed there I never would have thought about being entrepreneurial."

Burkle founded Yucaipa Companies, an investment firm, in 1986 and began acquiring companies, mostly grocers, and grew them by placing stores in ethnic areas other owners ignored and by being worker-friendly. He still owns Pathway, based on the east coast, but sold the Dominick's chain to Safeway in 1998 for more than $200 million in profits, and sold four other lines to Kroger for $13.5 billion.

Burkle isn't just interested in supermarkets and sports franchises.

He has donated millions to politicians, mostly Democrats.

He has tried to buy the Tribune Company, which owns the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune newspapers.

He is an investor with the apparel company of hip-hop producer Sean "Diddy" Combs.

He's an art collector.

He's a philanthropist, giving millions to Ronald McDonald House, DARE and other charities, and co-chairing the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA.

After the Rodney King riots of 1992, Burkle joined the board of Rebuild L.A., but didn't want credit.

"He said, 'I'll do anything I can to help, but I don't want any publicity,' " former Los Angeles deputy mayor Linda Greigo, who ran the organization, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Publicity finds Burkle anyway. Yet he has remained behind the scenes with the Penguins, until now.

Associated Press
Ron Burkle

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Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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