Lee, Bertram M. Sr. 1939–2003
Bertram M. Lee, Sr. 1939–2003
Bertram M. Lee, Sr. made history in 1989 when he became the first African American to hold a majority stake in a major-league U.S. sports franchise. Lee and his partners, who included the late U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, acquired the National Basketball Association’s Denver Nuggets team for $65 million. At the time, Lee stressed that affirmative action had played no part in the historic ownership deal. “As African Americans, in these kind[s] of transactions, one of the things we fight is the tendency for people to think we need all sorts of subsidies or crutches,” Black Enterprise writer Patricia Raybon quoted him as saying. “There are no subsidies here. But then I’ve always said that if we’re given a level playing field, and access to capital, we can do as much as anyone.”
Lee was born on January 21, 1939, in Lynchburg, Virginia, and was raised in a public-housing project. His father, William, was a teacher, and Lee told the New York Times’ William C. Rhoden that while his family was not an affluent one, neither were they poor, just “an average American family.” After finishing high school Lee moved to Naperville, Illinois, to study at North Central College, and after earning his degree in 1961 he took a civil-service job with the city of Chicago. A stint in the U.S. Army between 1963 and 1965 interrupted that career, but he returned to City Hall to hold various posts in the administration of longtime Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.
In 1967, Lee was hired as the executive director of the Opportunities Industrialization Centers of Greater Boston, which provided local African-American communities with empowerment aid. He and his wife Edith, whom he had met in college, soon moved to Boston with their infant daughter; a second daughter was born there. For a time, Lee’s fortunes thrived: he had a management consulting firm, and bought what was then the largest black-owned printing company in the United States, Geneva Printing and Publishing. With two investment partners, he acquired the business for $250,000, and though it won lucrative new contracts, it proved a steady money-loser, and Lee was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1975. He had neglected his management-consulting firm, and a magazine venture in Chicago in which he had a stake also tanked when paper costs skyrocketed. “Those
At a Glance…
Born on January 21, 1939, in Lynchburg, VA; died of a brain aneurysm, October 7, 2003, in Washington, DC; son of William T. (a teacher) and Helen (Harris) Lee; married Edith Spurlock (died 1983); married Laura Murphy, 1989 (divorced); children: Paula, Elaine (from first marriage), and Bertram Jr. (from second marriage). Education: North Central College, BA, 1961; Roosevelt University, graduate work, 1963-65. Military service: U.S. Army, 1963-65. Religion: Baptist. Politics: Democrat.
Career: City of Chicago, IL, city bureaucrat, 1961-67; Opportunities Industrialization Centers of Greater Boston, MA, executive director, 1967-68; EG & G of Roxbury, Inc., MA, general manager and vice president, 1968-69; Geneva Printing and Publishing, MA, owner, c. 1969-75; Dudley Station Corporation, Boston, president, 1969-81; BML Associates, Inc., Boston, chair, after 1969; New England TV Corporation, Boston, senior vice president, then president, 1978-86; Albimar Management, Inc., chair after 1983; Mountaintop Ventures Inc., treasurer, 1984-2003; Kellee Communications Group Inc., president after 1986; Denver Nuggets Corporation, Denver, CO, chair, 1989-92. Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign, finance co-chair, 1984, 1988. Served on the boards of the of Pacifica Radio Network, Boston Bank of Commerce, Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Reebok International Ltd., and Howard University. Director of the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
Awards: NAACP Image Award, 1982; American Heritage & Freedom Award, 1983.
were just some of the most frightening days in my life. I felt like a personal failure,” he told Black Enterprise writer Sharon R. King. Though for a time he had to rely on his wife’s salary, he remained undaunted. “I never bowed my head or stopped wearing a shirt and tie,” he said in the Black Enterprise interview. “I never allowed bankruptcy to bankrupt me.”
Despite the setbacks, Lee had already planted the seeds for what would become one of the most profitable business ventures in his career. In 1969, he formed a Boston-area media group to challenge ownership of one of the city’s television stations, the ABC affiliate WNAC-TV. He and a group of fellow investors, calling themselves the Dudley Station Corporation, petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which grants operating licenses to radio and television stations, to review the track record of the current owner, RKO, which they claimed had failed to meet its obligations to the community, according to the terms of its FCC license.
The Dudley Station group, for which Lee served as president, was actually one of two groups that was challenging the WNAC license. In 1978, Lee’s group merged with the other grass-roots organization to form the New England Television Corporation (NETV). A year later, the FCC revoked the RKO license for Boston’s Channel 7, and NETV was able to buy the affiliate in 1982. In the interim, the station had switched alliances and become a CBS affiliate. Lee and the other investors had spent 13 years in the courts, and were saddled with $5 million in legal fees in the end. They paid $22 million to buy the station, which was valued at $60 to $150 million. Lee, a senior vice president of the media group, had made an initial investment of $10,000.
The station’s changeover to new ownership in May of 1982—heralded with new call letters, WNEV-TV—was chronicled on the pages of the New York Times as an historic first. The article noted that Lee’s first experience with television came from watching programs through a store window in Norfolk, since his family did not own a set. The transaction represented “the largest ownership and management interest of blacks and other minority groups of any major American television station,” according the Times’s Dudley Clendinen, who also termed it “a calendar landmark in the history of American television, and some measure of ethnic progress in this racially divided city.”
Lee sold his stake in the station in 1986, cashing out with what was estimated to be a $5 million to $13 million profit. By then he was running BML Associates, Inc., which bore his initials. This Boston holding company had stakes in six enterprises; by 1988 it had posted $30 million in sales and earned a spot on Black Enterprise magazine’s list of leading African American-owned businesses. It owned radio stations in Utah and Nebraska under the Albimar Management name, operated pay telephones as Kellee Communications Group, and acquired a stake in an Atlanta hair-care company in early 1989. Lee was also involved in the Shawmut National Bank as a director, and chaired the Boston Bank of Commerce. The president of the latter, Ronald Homer, told USA Today writer Shelley Liles that Lee was a “very persuasive” person and formidable negotiator. “He convinced me to leave the largest and most profitable black-owned bank in the country to take over the smallest and least profitable one,” Homer joked. “He said we could make a statement, and we did.”
Lee had built up a network of political connections over the years that brought him to the attention of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who tapped him to serve as finance co-chair for his campaign to win the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination; he also worked for Jackson’s 1988 bid. Lee was friendly with a rising star in Democrat National Committee circles, Ron Brown, and brought the future U.S. Secretary of Commerce on board when he began a bid for another historic first: to purchase a major-league sports team. In 1986, Lee tentatively explored the possibility of acquiring the New England Patriots football team, and then moved from football to baseball when the Baltimore Orioles seemed ready to change hands. The football and baseball leagues, however, were long-entrenched operations, and such local franchises were prohibitively expensive to own and operate. Lee then looked into the National Basketball Association (NBA), which dated back to the 1950s and was thus considered a relative upstart in professional sports.
In 1988, Lee and his group lost out on a bid for the San Antonio Spurs when their $50 million tender offer proved too low. “We learned a lot in that process,” Lee told Sports Illustrated columnist Michael Jaffe. “You learn to come back from unsuccessful challenges. We just kept our eyes on the prize.” Finally, with some help from an encouraging new NBA commissioner, David Stern, Lee and his partners—which included tennis great Arthur Ashe as well as Brown—bought the Denver Nuggets for $65 million.
The announcement was made in a two-hour press conference at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in July of 1989. The Nuggets were the first among the 27 NBA teams to be owned by a black majority interest ownership group, though about 70 percent of the NBA’s player roster was African American. Lee stressed that he and his main partner on the deal, Peter Bynoe, “view this as a business venture; it had to make economic sense before it could make a social statement,” New York Times writer William C. Rhoden quoted him as saying. “If it didn’t make economic sense, believe me, we would not be sitting out there having a need to be first. To the extent that we are, and that we can be used as role models, that we can give hope and inspiration then, fine.”
Though he was pleased with comparisons to Jackie Robinson, the baseball player who became the first African American to play in Major League Baseball in 1947, Lee dismissed the idea that the Nuggets deal was truly revolutionary. The real marker of progress, he noted, “would be that a year from today, there were at least two more major sports franchises that had been bought by African Americans and/or minorities,” he said at the press conference, according to Rhoden.
Lee was long active in the TransAfrica Forum, an anti-apartheid group, and in 1990 helped organize Nelson Mandela’s visit to Boston in 1990 as part of the recently freed South African leader’s historic North American fundraising tour. He still had ties in Chicago, however, and in the late 1980s had moved back there after his wife died. His younger daughter wanted to attend high school in same city as her late mother, and Lee told Wall Street Journal writer Leon E. Wynter that family took precedence over business for him. “This was my one shot at spending time with my daughter in her teen years,” he told the newspaper. “I think they’re critical.”
Lee’s ownership stake in the Nuggets ended in 1991, when he failed to meet a $5 million capital call. After moving to Washington, D.C., around 1994, he continued his involvement with media ownership, and served as an interim board member for the progressive Pacifica Radio network. But his financial troubles returned in the late 1990s, compounded by lingering health problems from a parasite he picked up while traveling in South Africa.
Lee’s name was touted as a potential investor in a 1999 effort to bring a Major League Baseball franchise to Washington, but MLB executives had notoriously tough standards for potential owners, and the deal disintegrated. Lee died in October of 2003 in Washington from a brain aneurysm, though the announcement of his passing on the Pacifica Radio Web site noted that his death followed what had been a lengthy illness. Lee was imperturbable when it came to the high-risk, historic deals he had put together over the course of a 30-plus-year career. Referring to the Wall Street suicides of the Great Depression, he vowed after his first major setback that he would never again let a business reversal bring him down. “If you hear that Bert Lee jumped out of a window,” he joked with Black Enterprise, “then you know that somebody pushed me.”
Black Enterprise, March 1988, pp. 40-46; September 1989, pp. 17-18; December 2003, p. 28.
Chicago Sun-Times, July 30, 1989, p. 19; March 1, 1991, p. 32.
New York Times, May 22, 1982, p. 11; July 12, 1989, p. A17.
Sports Illustrated, July 24, 1989, p. 12; October 30, 1989, p. 17; February 12, 1990, p. 220.
USA Today, July 13, 1989, p. 7B.
Wall Street Journal, July 12, 1989, p. 1; September 13, 1990, p. B12.
Washington Post, April 2, 1999, p. B1.
“Bertram M. Lee, Sr. A Life Well Lived,” Pacifica Radio, www.pacifica.org/news/031007_BertLee.html (May 12, 2004).
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