South Carolina's Low Country is worlds away from the distinctly northern roots of Hudson's Bay Co. But on this night, Charleston financier Jerry Zucker, would-be owner of the iconic fur-trader-turned-department-store, seems almost Canadian. He's with his wife and high-school-age son, chowing down greasy arena food and watching 6-foot-1 hockey enforcer Robin Gomez of the South Carolina Stingrays drop the gloves against a player from the visiting Greenville Grrrowl.
The crowd of about 1,500 at the North Charleston Coliseum goes wild.
Mr. Zucker, 55, is more than an idle spectator. He's a part-owner of the Stingrays of the Eastern Coast Hockey League, a second-rung pro league for players who aspire to be NHL journeymen.
"He rarely misses a home game," says Taylor Lee, president of the Stingrays, a Washington Capitals farm team. "He's a very passionate hockey fan."
The hockey investment is vintage Zucker, whose eclectic portfolio of interests stretches from the Middle East to Asia, Europe and Latin America. He collects businesses like other people buy clothes or CDs, and with no less passion.
With the exception of Mr. Zucker's 18.8 per cent of HBC, worth nearly $200-million, few of the secretive billionaire's investments are household names or marquee properties. His Charleston-based holding company InterTech Group Inc. owns mainly obscure chemical and engineered product makers. Mr. Zucker also owns electronics companies, hockey rinks, laser tag centres, banking machine suppliers, two Charleston restaurants and commercial real estate. At various times, he's also owned banks and textile makers, including Montreal-based Dominion Textile Inc.
His ragtag collection of businesses generated an impressive $3-billion (U.S.) in revenue last year, making InterTech one of the largest private companies in the United States, according to Forbes Magazine. The magazine also ranked Mr. Zucker as the 346th wealthiest American in 2004, with an estimated fortune of more than $1-billion.
To most Canadians, Mr. Zucker is the mystery man who has sent a chill through the retail scene when he turned his passive investment in HBC, acquired over the past two years, into a $1.1-billion (Canadian) hostile takeover. But he hardly fits the mould of the ruthless U.S. corporate raider. In Charleston, where he's lived nearly all his life, people see a very different side. He's known as an entrepreneurial success, a generous philanthropist, a devout Jew, a collector of hockey memorabilia -- a businessman with a big heart.
And yet it's that side of his life that he's happy to expose to public scrutiny. His business dealings, on the other hand, remain cloaked in secrecy. His office won't even provide a partial list of his extensive holdings. And he's so protective of his privacy that he contacted some of the sources for this story, anxious to learn what questions The Globe and Mail was asking.
Mr. Zucker makes occasional speeches here, typically about how to spur the local economy. But he hasn't granted an interview in years. And he only agreed to answer The Globe's queries through spokesman Robert Johnston, a Montreal native and vice-president of strategic planning.
"Historically, he's been a very private person," Mr. Johnston explains of his boss, an Israeli-born child of Holocaust survivors.
By all accounts, including Mr. Johnston's, Mr. Zucker is a self-made businessman, without significant inherited wealth. He grew up in Florida and South Carolina, where his parents settled, and went to the University of Florida, where he earned undergraduate degrees in math and science, plus a masters in electrical engineering.
Mr. Zucker's first notable business deal was in 1982, when he was still in his early thirties. He and a colleague bought a division of the textile manufacturer where they worked, RM Engineered Products. He used the investment as a springboard for a series of increasingly larger manufacturing acquisitions in the 1980s, including several divisions of then-shrinking chemicals giant E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.
InterTech's world headquarters is as low key as its investment portfolio. It's located on a residential street in a hard-luck neighbourhood of North Charleston. Except for a small nameplate on the wall, the modest two-storey structure could be mistaken for a medical clinic.
But for all Mr. Zucker's corporate introversion, he's a bona fide hometown celebrity. There is hardly a cause to which he and his wife, Anita, haven't given their time, advice and cash, according to friends and community leaders. They give to local hospitals, colleges, all four synagogues in the city, numerous Jewish organizations, the United Way, the Boy Scouts and a myriad of others.
"They've received almost every charitable award, but it's not something they seek out," insists Madeleine McGee, president of the Coastal Community Foundation of South Carolina, a conduit for charitable gifts from local companies and family foundations.
Mr. Zucker is content to leave centre stage to his wife, according to Ms. McGee, who is also a family friend. "Jerry runs the business and Anita is the community giver," Ms. McGee remarks.
Their generosity extends beyond the public glare of the Zuckers' well-publicized charitable work. Mr. Zucker owns a row of commercial buildings around the corner from InterTech's headquarters, and when city work crews recently dug up the street, he gave his tenants hundreds of dollars apiece to cope with lost business. "He helped everybody," says Csokloikaew Lee, owner of the Olde Towne American-Chinese Restaurant.
Mr. Zucker also lavishes his money on political candidates, giving at least $5,000, mainly to Republicans, before the 2004 election. And yet he gave $1,000 to Democratic presidential hopeful Joseph Lieberman, and nothing to George W. Bush.
Mr. Zucker's associates bristle at the suggestion that he's just a ruthless corporate raider and an opportunist, who would break up venerable HBC -- a company that traces its corporate lineage to 1670 -- for a quick buck.
"We don't see that side of him," insists Charles Van Rysselberge, chief executive officer of Charleston's chamber of commerce. "He's very generous with his time and experience. Jerry Zucker doesn't have to do that. He doesn't have much to gain because he doesn't own much in Charleston."
Mr. Zucker is clearly anxious to assuage Canadian fears of a hidden agenda behind his bid for the 80 per cent of HBC he doesn't already own. Mr. Johnston, a former Domtex executive who joined InterTech when Mr. Zucker bought the company 7½ years ago, describes his boss as a skilled operator with a proven track record as a "buy-and-hold" investor.
"We'd do nothing to diminish this icon," Mr. Johnston insists. "Mr. Zucker wants people in Canada to know he's honourable," and that he'll do "everything possible" to restore HBC to its former glory.
Indeed, Mr. Johnston, who has secretly scouted out roughly 60 Zellers and Bay stores over the past two years, says Mr. Zucker is convinced HBC needs a "tweaking," rather than an extreme makeover. With better merchandising, quality service and less scrutiny from Bay Street analysts, a privatized HBC could become the Neiman-Marcus of Canada, he suggests. "He'll do what he says he'll do," Mr. Johnston adds, giving a voice to his silent boss.
Like the 1995 Stingrays purchase, which friends say was partly inspired by his youngest son Jonathan's zeal for playing hockey, Mr. Zucker rarely invests without motive or passion. Mr. Zucker isn't only a landlord to Mr. Lee, the restaurant owner. He's also a customer, eating lunch or breakfast at the unpretentious neighbourhood Chinese eatery almost every day, Mr. Lee reports, adding that the globe-trotting businessman regularly pops in just to escape the hubbub of work.
Another friend says Mr. Zucker recently paid tens of thousands of dollars to fly in specialists for his elder son's gravely ill father-in-law.
Grit is a trait people in Charleston say they've often seen in Mr. Zucker. Friends, colleagues and business associates say he's bright, determined, humble, occasionally blunt, but always good to his word.
"When he takes on a project, he gets it done," agrees Martin Perlmutter, president of the College of Charleston's Jewish studies program, for which Mr. Zucker is leading a $3.5-million fundraising campaign. "He's not a person who's easily dissuaded. If Jerry promises he can do it, he'll do it."
Like his unremarkable corporate holdings, Mr. Zucker dresses plainly, even dowdily. He combs his thick, jet-black hair to one side in a 1970s-style helmet.
The family lives a life of undeniable wealth, but not pretension. The Zuckers' principal residence is a far cry from the stately Civil War-era mansions overlooking Charleston's harbour. It's a nice, but modest, two-storey brick home in a quiet 1970s subdivision in middle-class North Charleston. The 5,100-square-foot city home is nestled in trees at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, overlooking a marsh on the Ashley River. It had an assessed value of $364,200 in 2000, but may be worth twice that on the market.
The couple also own a beachfront condo on the nearby Isle of Palms and a secluded private island on Charleston's Stono River, dubbed "Jazz Island," where he keeps a 40-foot cruiser. Mr. Zucker bought the 5,200-sq.-ft. island home for $1.1-million in 1991.
Beyond business, Mr. Zucker has a penchant for gambling, travel and fast boats. But he doesn't drink. Company officials would neither confirm nor deny a story relayed by one source that Mr. Zucker, a whiz with numbers, was once bounced from a casino for counting cards.
"I've seen him in casinos on company trips, and I think he's probably a good card player," Mr. Johnston acknowledges. "But I can't say if he's ever been kicked out of a casino."
Mr. Zucker has also lost a few high-profile business gambits, including specialty textiles maker Polymer Group, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002 and ousted him as CEO a year later. He's now in a dispute with U.S. tax authorities over an alleged sham transaction, which the Internal Revenue Service says was used to manufacture $52-million in losses. Mr. Zucker has paid the tax bill, but is fighting in court to recoup the money.
But he appears to have hit pay dirt on a series of savings-and-loans investments in the 1990s as well as last year's $1.2-billion sale of Charlotte, N.C.-based Polypore, a maker of filters used in laptop computer batteries, semiconductors, water purifiers and kidney dialysis machines. His exact take in both those deals has never been disclosed.
Back at the Coliseum, the Stingrays rough-and-tumble play isn't enough to tame the Grrrowl. The home team gives up a third-period lead and loses in a shootout.
But it's still a winning night for Mr. Zucker. It turns out he owns a piece of both teams -- investments he once proudly boasted were made to ensure "home-grown, not Canadian, ownership."
- Report on Business Company Snapshot is available for: