Ledecky pursues 'lifelong dream'

Saturday, August 8, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jon Ledecky
Jaromir Ledecky came to America to learn English. He left Czechoslovakia just in time.

It was 1947, a winter of profound discontent. The Communists were toppling the old order in Eastern Europe. The Iron Curtain was descending. The Cold War was on.

One day, a telegram arrived from the Old Country. An example was being made of the merchant class. Jaromir Ledecky's brother had been placed in a work camp. His father said he should not come home.

The young man took a job washing dishes at the Howard Johnson's at Exit 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike. At night, he went to school. He bettered himself so that his sons might live softer lives.

It was a typical immigrant tale Jon Ledecky was telling Friday afternoon, recounting his father's difficulties and his dreams. The Cincinnati Reds' prospective new partner is a first-generation American, and thinks his humble origins and heady climb may have helped him make a favorable first impression on Reds General Partner Marge Schott.

"She was interested in the up-from-the-bootstap story," Ledecky said. "She told me about how she had to take over the business after her husband died. I saw a very good side of her. And I got to meet Schottzie the dog."

This was July 19. Family Day at Cinergy Field. Ledecky was dickering with Frisch's Restaurants for its 1/15th share of the Reds, and Schott invited him for a visit. The Reds partnership agreement stipulates that no shares can be sold to outside parties without the approval of the existing partners.

Jon Ledecky had enough money to buy his way in -- he concedes the accuracy of estimates that place his net worth at $200 million -- but Schott can be notoriously cantankerous. If he couldn't sell her on his sincerity, he would just be another spurned suitor. Ledecky watched the ballplayers play baseball with their children. He walked Schott's St. Bernard. He turned on the charm. He left with Schott's stamp of approval.

Cost $7 million

Barring a late-breaking bid from one of the limited partners, it will cost Jon Ledecky $7 million to secure Frisch's stake in the ballclub. He trusts in time the return will justify the risk. But nearly no one who buys into a professional sports franchise does so strictly as an investment.

Sometimes it's ego. Sometimes it's power. Sometimes it's symbolism.

"One of reasons I'm so interested in baseball is that Peter O'Malley said he didn't think there was a role for the family business (when he sold the Dodgers)," Ledecky said. "I think that baseball can be balanced between these massive corporations and some individual owners."

It was upon this principle that Jon Ledecky made his fortune. He was out of work four years ago when he struck upon the notion that the little guys could fight the big corporations if they understood how to pool their resources. He formed U.S. Office Products on the premise that mom-and-pop supply stores could compete with the likes of Staples and OfficeMax.

He started from scratch. Four years later, U.S. Office Products cracked the Fortune 500 at No. 491. Only in America.

Has right contacts

Jaromir Ledecky was adamant about education, and he raised a boy who was smart, bold and incredibly lucky. Some of the people Jon Ledecky met at Harvard were running large mutual funds when he began to seek financing for U.S. Office Products.

The fellow at Fidelity remembered Ledecky as a nice guy who had dated his older sister. The man at Putnam had been a Harvard football star Ledecky had profiled for his hometown paper. Another classmate was the son of George Strike, one of the Reds limited partners.

With the right contacts, a good idea can go a long way in this country. Buying part of a baseball team, Ledecky said, "is a lifelong dream."

"When you're a little kid, you have dreams and stuff," he said. "As time went on, it was clear that I wouldn't be able to hit a fastball in the major leagues."

Like his dad, he has learned to adapt.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.