‘Let’s Do This’

Robert Pera takes over as chairman of Memphis Grizzlies

By Andy Meek

There was just something about FedExForum. Something about touring the more than 800,000-square-foot arena for the first time that made him think it’s “just awesome, being inside here.”

The Grizzlies introduce new chairman Robert Pera at a press conference. Pera, founder and CEO of Ubiquiti Networks, is controlling owner of the franchise.

Photo: Lance Murphey

As Robert Pera continued walking through the home arena for the Memphis Grizzlies on his introductory visit, he at one point turned to one of his best friends – Jason Levien, the Grizzlies’ new CEO – and excitedly whispered: “I’m sold. Let’s do this.”

Memphis likewise appears to be sold on the new chairman and controlling owner of the Grizzlies, a 34-year-old communications technology company CEO from California who’s been referred to in the business press as the “Wireless Wonder.” After waving hello and taking a seat at his first press conference a few days ago, a crowd of fans, civic leaders and team partners gave Pera and Levien a standing ovation.

There’s already a Robert Pera parody Twitter account, and even @FakeRobertPera couldn’t resist basking in the love, tweeting after the press conference: “So nice of everyone to embrace me like this today. It’s the dawn of a #newPera.”

Pera’s $377 million deal to buy the Grizzlies was signed in June and closed Oct. 29. Much of what Memphis already knows about Pera comes from what happened during the time span connecting those two points. During that time, for example, Pera and his lieutenants were busy – and, for a lot of that time, were canvassing Memphis. To calm fears about the team’s future, Pera and his associates went on a kind of listening tour around the city, breaking bread and meeting in private with potential partners and civic and business leaders.

They toured local assets like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. During the one-on-one’s and small group meetings, Pera’s associates often solicited general thoughts about the team and asked about other spots in the city to visit and other people who might be worth talking to. Those visits also showed them that word gets around fast here. As the “listening tour” unfolded, Pera’s crew at times would show up to their visits with the subject already knowing much of what they were going to be asked.

Meanwhile, Pera and his guys also hand-picked more than two dozen partners – including celebrities, moneymen and business leaders with strong local ties – to comprise the Grizzlies’ new ownership group. And while all that was going on, of course, Pera – the founder and CEO of Ubiquiti Networks Inc. – also had a company to run.

All of which is to say that Memphis and Grizzlies fans have been able to learn a little about the team’s new owner these past few months. Based on what Pera already has done as it relates to basketball as well as to the rarefied world of Silicon Valley from which he comes, here are some important qualities of the basketball- and technology-loving CEO that already can be established:

He’s both brilliant, and ambitious.

A bit of editorializing, perhaps. But let’s take a look at this first one of a few assumptions.

Pera got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from the University of California-San Diego, where he also studied the Japanese language. He also studied for a time in Tokyo at the Japanese Language Institute.

He later worked for two years at Apple Inc., where he was a hardware engineer.

Apple was known for its culture of excellence within the organization at the time Pera was there, when it was led by the late Steve Jobs. So, his hiring alone at Apple may offer one clue as to Pera’s abilities and intellect. Listen to Jobs explain his thoughts on hiring to Walter Isaacson in the authorized Jobs biography:

“For most things in life, the range between best and average is 30 percent or so. The best airplane flight, the best meal, they may be 30 percent better than your average one. What I saw with (Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak) was somebody who was fifty times better than the average engineer. He could have meetings in his head. The Mac team was an attempt to build a whole team like that, A players.”

Now let’s come back to Pera. Taking Pera at his word, how much talent and ambition does a person have to have to feel that, even at a place like Apple, they’re not being used to their full potential? Because that’s apparently how the new Grizzlies owner felt.

I was the last man on the bench. I knew I couldn’t do a lot and wouldn’t get the opportunity to, but I could do a lot more on my own.”

– Robert Pera, Chairman, Memphis Grizzlies

“I was the last man on the bench,” Pera said of his time at Apple. “I knew I couldn’t do a lot and wouldn’t get the opportunity to, but I could do a lot more on my own.”

Speaking of being on his own, what Pera has done with Ubiquiti is reflective of how he’s likely to lead the Grizzlies.

He runs a technology company, so no surprise Pera has been saying in recent days he’d like to bring more of a technological edge to FedExForum and a metrics-driven, Moneyball-esque approach to evaluating players.

Through Ubiquiti, Pera is attempting to disrupt a marketplace, break down barriers, empower engineers and connect millions of people around the world.

Here’s a revealing story about Pera and his company. At an industry conference earlier this year, Ubiquiti’s chief financial officer John Ritchie told a story about the company’s early days and about how the San Jose, Calif.-based company got its first dose of capital.

Pera had been at Apple for two years, and after he left he developed something called an embedded radio card. He went to a trade show after developing the product and began taking customer orders for it. At some point, Pera went back to his customers to tell them he appreciated their interest in his product, but he had to explain to them, basically, that he had no money.

“So if you want your product,” Pera told them, “you’re going to have to pay for it up front.”

That’s how Ubiquiti got started. Pera apparently was enough of a salesman to convince his first customers to pay up front. According to Ritchie, he later went to Taiwan and lined up contract manufacturers.

“And, literally, from that point through 2010, the company took no external capital,” Ritchie said. “It’s kind of a quintessential Valley startup story. Young engineer leaves a big company (to start a new one). Funds the whole thing himself. And he takes the company public in 2011.”

Pera said this week that when he looks at Memphis, and its pro basketball team, he gets a feeling like the one he got when he started Ubiquiti, where he said he’s been about “recruiting great engineers and empowering them.”

Ubiquiti, he said, also is about creating great things, such as technology that “has broken down barriers and connected millions of people in underserved areas across the world.”

“I want to inspire people,” Pera said this week. “Ubiquiti is about changing the world.”

Pera, in other words, doesn’t play small ball.

Finally, he won’t be a Mark Cuban type of owner with the Grizzlies – but he’ll be a “superfan” in his own way.

Pera said as much this week.

“I’ll be here as much as I can,” he said, about his future game attendance, adding that he’s passionate about branding and marketing. “I’ll be the No. 1 Grizzlies Superfan.”

NBA commissioner David Stern introduces new Memphis Grizzlies chairman Robert Pera, center, and new CEO Jason Levien to fans on opening night against the Utaz Jazz.

Photo: Lance Murphey

He’s chosen a CEO, Levien, who will run the day-to-day, and Pera will be involved at a high level. Pera described Levien as a cross between Jerry Maguire and Ari Emanuel, the turbo-charged, fast-talking Hollywood super-agent on which Jeremy Piven’s character from the TV series “Entourage” is based.

Recently, Levien was a co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team. Counting Pera and Levien as his new right-hand man, the new Grizzlies ownership includes two dozen partners.

“This ownership group will take the Grizzlies to the next level,” said Edward Dobbs, one of the new partners who’s also CEO of Memphis-based Dobbs Management Service. “Our team is going to thrive in Memphis for a long time.”

Levien described himself as “best buddies” with former Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr., who also is among the new minority partners in the Grizzlies. At Ford’s wedding, Levien also met local businessman Billy Orgel, another Grizzlies partner.

Steve Kaplan, a principal and portfolio manager at Oaktree Capital Management LLC, is the Grizzlies’ new vice-chairman. The full group of limited partners met at fellow Grizzlies partner and AutoZone founder J.R. “Pitt” Hyde’s home Sunday night.

Having said all that, with an eye toward what’s to come, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol perhaps best summed up the feelings of the team’s legion of fans when he tweeted earlier in the week: “Welcome Robert Pera to our family and the city of Memphis. Blue collar team in a blue collar city! #OneTeamOneGoal.”