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Investor with an Eye on the Ball
Albert Chen
November 06, 2000
The basketball tutorial John Rogers took at Princeton pays dividends every day
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November 06, 2000

Investor With An Eye On The Ball

The basketball tutorial John Rogers took at Princeton pays dividends every day

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In the offices of Chicago's Ariel Capital Management, overlooking North Michigan Avenue, John Rogers Jr. moves about with the awkwardness of an intern on his first day of work. Rogers is mild, almost diffident, yet he rules over one of the hottest mutual-fund companies in the country. He has powerful connections in politics and business but has never used a cell phone or pager. He is a health freak who goes to the gym religiously yet starts every morning with a large Diet Coke and a greasy biscuit.

His office, a small windowless room cluttered with trophies and framed photos, is a shrine to basketball, and once Rogers starts talking hoops, he comes alive. "I think about basketball a lot" he says with a rare chuckle. Rogers also thinks a lot about Ariel, which he founded 17 years ago as the country's first African-American-owned money-management firm. The company, whose mantra is "Slow and steady wins the race," is the country's fourth-largest small-and mid-capital value fund, with $4.5 billion in assets. In 1999, according to Institutional Investor magazine, Ariel was tied for eighth among all money managers in recruiting new clients.

"I don't know how John does it," Roger Schmitt, Ariel's vice president, says of the firm's CEO and primary shareholder. "It's apparent that his mind often is on basketball, but then he'll take a glance at a spreadsheet you've finished and say, 'How is this possibly right?' Of course, it isn't."

On the basketball court Rogers, 42, sets hard picks, goes horizontal for loose balls and often wears thick black-rimmed goggles. Rogers is the captain, coach and general manager of Slow and Steady, a company three-on-three team that has played on the NBA-sponsored Hoop-It-Up circuit for four years. The team lives by the three, runs screens and backdoor cuts and plays relentless defense.

Sound familiar? Slow and Steady, which follows the Princeton model, includes Princetons second and fourth alltime scorers (Kit Mueller, '91, and Craig Robinson, '83, respectively); the Tigers' second-leading three-point shooter (Sean Jackson, '92), and Rogers, the '79 team captain. Over four years Slow and Steady has won 12 of the 17 tournaments it has played in, and this year it has qualified again for the world championships.

Rogers became interested in both basketball and the stock market as a boy in Chicago. His mother, Jewel Lafontant, was a prominent lawyer who nominated Richard Nixon for president at the 1960 Republican convention. John's father was a Cook County judge and a former pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen. The couple divorced when their son was three, and John moved back and forth between his mother's upscale Hyde Park residence and his father's one-room efficiency across town. When John was 12, his father began buying him shares of stock for Christmas and birthdays. Meanwhile, the boy began playing basketball at neighborhood parks and came to take it seriously. "With parents with such strong backgrounds," he says, "it was important for me to have something of my own."

At Princeton, where he majored in economics, Rogers perused business journals on the team bus and called his broker from stadium pay phones. But basketball, he says, was his passion. "Johnny's playing days are reflected by the company motto," says Sacramento Kings assistant Pete Carril, who was Rogers's college coach. "He was very steady and always a hard worker." Rogers says that Princeton basketball shaped his life, and in college there wasn't a larger influence on him than Carril. "Precision and teamwork," Rogers says, "are two things that Coach Carril always stressed." He practices what Carril preached, too: He doesn't tolerate sloppy work. Carril advised his players to play within themselves, and Rogers approaches investments the same way. While many funds were seduced by flashy tech stocks they didn't fully understand, Rogers stood by holdings in time-tested companies such as American Greetings, Smucker's and McCormick.

Like Carril, Rogers is also extremely demanding. "John's very intense," Schmitt says. "He avoids confrontation, but he wants to be the best. That fire can make him tough on people." But Rogers has also made sure that each of his 41 employees, right down to the receptionist, has stock in the company.

Rogers, who is separated and has a 10-year-old daughter, is in his element when running the weekly 7:30 a.m. research meeting. Often, while an analyst is speaking, Rogers will raise his right arm and flick his hand, as if he's shooting a free throw. Then, out of nowhere, he'll pose a question that will leave the table stumped. At that moment, the essence of John Rogers becomes clear: It's basketball and business, a natural fit.