Magazine

The Spark Plug Behind The Pistons


William M. Davidson owns four sports franchises, three of them championship caliber. He owns and runs privately held Guardian Industries Corp., which was a small, bankrupt windshield maker when he took it over in 1957. Today, it is the world's second-largest plate glass maker, with annual sales of $5 billion. And he has given away millions of dollars to charity and has two graduate schools named after him.

Now Davidson, 81, really has something to crow about. On June 15, the Detroit Pistons, a team he has owned since 1974, routed the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers to win the National Basketball Assn. title. Davidson says he figured the Pistons would win, but by four games to one? "That was a surprise." It's his second sports triumph in less than a month: On June 7, his Tampa Bay Lightning won the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup, toppling the Calgary Flames. What's more, his Women's National Basketball Assn. team, Shock, won the finals last year.

NO SLAM DUNK

Davidson's sports playbook mirrors his approach as a businessman: He invests in troubled businesses or teams, hires the best people he can find to fix them, then waits. He gives his managers latitude to make big decisions and often endures years of red ink before getting a payoff. Says Lightning President Ronald Campbell: "He understands that you can't force a turnaround."

None of Davidson's recent sports victories have come easily -- or quickly. The Pistons, which Davidson bought for $7 million, last won an NBA championship in 1990. The club has made money most of the past 20 years but hit rock bottom on the court in 2000, with a 32-50 record. Then Davidson took a gamble on Joe Dumars, the Pistons' all-star point guard who retired from playing in 1999, hiring him as general manager. He let Dumars deal away big-name players like Grant Hill and Jerry Stackhouse for up-and-comers like Richard Hamilton and Ben Wallace, now the foundation of the team. "Bill won't stop you from doing the right things," says Tom S. Wilson, president of the Pistons. "That's unique among owners, who are fans first and want to dabble in operations."

Davidson took an even bigger risk in buying the Tampa Bay Lightning for $100 million in 1999, right after Sports Illustrated rated it the worst-run franchise in sports. Davidson figured he could make a go of the hockey team, but he reckoned the real payoff would come by developing its waterfront arena and surrounding property. Davidson hasn't developed the land yet, and getting a payoff from the Lightning alone will be anything but quick. He lost $60 million between 1999 and 2003 before eking out a $6 million profit this past year.

Patient he may be, but Davidson is also a tough operator who's not afraid to be aggressive. In 1958, shortly after taking over Guardian, he snatched business from PPG Industries Inc. (PPG) when workers at the Pittsburgh company were on strike. Over the years, rivals have sued Guardian for infringing on patents and stealing trade secrets. Davidson argued that some of the technologies were in the public domain but wound up paying millions in settlements. "As you move up the ladder," he says, "you're bound to have friction."

While not a regular on Detroit's social circuit, Davidson is well known in charity circles. He gave $36.5 million to the University of Michigan's Business School to open the William Davidson Institute. It studies emerging markets and economies in former communist countries. He has also given $20 million to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

Davidson, who has not publicly named a successor -- his two adult children have no role at his companies -- has no plans to retire, even after winning two championships at age 81. To him business is a sport, and there's always another game.

By David Welch in Detroit


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