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Feeling like a billion

A forceful attitude worked for Samueli in business and spilled over to the Ducks

June 10, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Whomp!

Two hours before the Ducks took the ice against the Ottawa Senators in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals, the team's owner was, by his own account, "a total wreck."

Waiting in an office at the Honda Center, Henry Samueli wriggled his feet and laughed in edgy bursts. His hand kept slapping the sofa on which he sat.

Whomp!

"I couldn't go in to work," he said. "I read some e-mails in the morning, but I was too nervous to really do anything useful today."

Two years ago, when the Orange County billionaire and his wife, Susan, bought the Ducks, it was no secret that basketball was his favorite sport. Some wondered if he was merely keeping the arena warm until he could secure an NBA franchise.

But something unexpected happened. As Samueli put it: "I got hooked."

Last Wednesday evening, he showed up for the game in team colors -- black jacket and an orange-striped tie -- looking younger than 52 with slim features and razor-short beard.

His newfound love for hockey is more than an affinity for skating and stickhandling, the thrill of a winger rushing on goal. As observers of the game have noted, the Ducks share a few of Samueli's chief characteristics.

Competitive to the point of combative. Relentless.

"That's probably accurate," he said. "And it's something I'm very proud of."

Within a few hours, he would have something else to boast about -- bringing West Coast fans their first Stanley Cup. The championship put a stamp on an unlikely pairing between the computer-chip magnate and his team.

*

The son of Polish immigrants, Samueli grew up in West Hollywood stocking the shelves at his parents' liquor store and rooting for the Dodgers and Lakers.

Any deeper involvement in sports seemed unlikely as he earned a PhD at UCLA and taught electrical engineering in Westwood and at UC Irvine. In 1991, he went into business making semiconductors with Henry T. Nicholas III.

As Broadcom Corp. grew to $3.6 billion in annual revenue over the next decade or so, Samueli earned a reputation as a top engineering mind and -- despite his friendly nature -- a forceful businessman.

"Both of our attitudes toward the competition, I think, was to scorch the earth," Nicholas said in an interview last year. "We see our competition and want to annihilate anything that surrounds them."

Samueli prefers a sports analogy, saying: "The high-tech business, the semiconductor business, it's very competitive. You're out there every day slugging it out, no different from players slugging it out on the ice."

Not only did Broadcom thrive in the marketplace, it occasionally landed in the news for battling competitors and regulators in court. In 2002, Samueli and Nicholas resigned from the Orange County Performing Arts Center board of directors because fellow members were suing Broadcom in an unrelated dispute.

That same year, Fortune magazine listed Broadcom executives at No. 2 among the nation's "greediest" for selling billions in company stock before the market dipped. (Qwest Communications and Kings owner Phil Anschutz topped the list).

Yet, with a personal wealth that Forbes magazine put at $2.1 billion, the Samuelis also became known as major philanthropists. The Samueli Foundation, headed by Susan, donated $180 million to Southern California causes that ranged from education to opera. The engineering schools at UCLA and UC Irvine were rechristened in Henry's name.

As for team ownership, Samueli said, that just sort of happened.

Midway through 2003, he and his wife were introduced to hockey by watching the Ducks streak through the playoffs before losing to the New Jersey Devils in the finals. That fall, the Samuelis purchased the management contract for the Honda Center.

Soon after, Disney began to shop the team.

In one regard, 2005 wasn't the best time to buy, not with the NHL reeling from a lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season. But the price was bargain-basement cheap at $75 million. By comparison, Forbes had valued NHL franchises at an average of $163 million only a few years earlier.

"This is not the greatest investment in the world," Samueli said. "But we were fortunate enough to get a very favorable price."

*

Despite making the finals only two seasons earlier, Samueli's new team needed help. Hockey people say he did two things right.

First, he launched a search for a general manager, consulting other owners and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Almost everyone, he says, suggested Brian Burke.

Though Burke was a controversial figure in the game, Samueli loved his candor and fiery nature. The feeling was mutual.

"Once I met them in the interview process," Burke recalled of the Samuelis, "I desperately wanted this job."

After putting a general manager in place, Samueli made his second astute move -- he got out of the way.

"The owner's job is to hire the general manager," he said. "The general manager's job is to run the hockey team."

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