Ready to keep Dragon ’em in
By Marc Katz, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
Greg Rosenbaum grew up in a Conservative synagogue in Toledo, graduated from Harvard undergrad and law school, became a merchant banker, and eventually purchased and ran then- distressed Empire Kosher Poultry, which he reestablished as the leader in its field.
During his years with Empire (2003-2012), when people learned that he belonged to a Reform temple in the Washington, D.C. area, they would ask him why someone of his non-Orthodox background would run a kosher food company.
You could now ask why someone of his background would own a minor league baseball team, the Dayton Dragons.
“It’s a change in philosophy,” Rosenbaum said recently after the Aug. 20 completion of the team’s purchase by Palisades Arcadia Baseball — operated by Rosenbaum and his partners Nick Sakellariadis and Michael Savit — from Mandalay Baseball Properties.
During his banking career, Rosenbaum mainly involved himself with companies on the brink, trying to nurse the salvageable ones back to health, as he did with Empire.
The Dragons, by all accounts, are a healthy company, estimated recently by Forbes to be worth $31 million and on the market for a reported $40 million.
While the deal is private and the new owners have declined to release details, Ballpark Digest estimates the purchase price for the Single-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds at $35.6 million.
That’s a pile of cash for a minor league team, but Rosenbaum said he considered the purchase price fair for a franchise that has sold out every game during its 15 years of operation.
It was the kind of team he wanted to buy.
“At a time I turned 60 years old two years ago,” Rosenbaum said, “I wondered, what do I want to do next? I really enjoy sports and politics. I’d really like to spend the rest of my life at the intersection of sports and politics, with a Jewish bent.”
As Rosenbaum looked for a team, his buddy Sakellariadis was doing the same thing. They asked Savit if he wanted in, and he did.
They were likely partners — all Harvard grads from the 1970s, Sakellariadis is a recent investment banking retiree living in New York who almost bought his own minor league team years ago, “until the day job got in the way,” he said.
Savit, who operates HWS Group — a sports management firm out of Boston — already owns part of three other minor league teams.
“This is clearly the premier team in minor league baseball,” Savit said. “Greg and Nick are the general partners. I feel very honored and happy they asked me to join.”
The partners thought they were ready to buy a different Midwestern team when a hurried call was placed by a broker earlier this summer. He told them Dayton was available and they had about 48 hours to decide if they wanted to make an offer. It didn’t take that long.
Rosenbaum might be the only partner once involved with kosher poultry, but he isn’t alone in his baseball enthusiasm.
Savit spent several years at Cleveland’s International Management Group; he started his own business buying and managing teams with his brother. He was friends at Harvard with Sakellariadis’ future wife, Julie.
While Savit also has ties to Jewish life and charities, it is Rosenbaum who has the most, initiated through his Empire association.
“It was one of the most fun things (being at Empire),” Rosenbaum said. “It got me involved more deeply in Jewish affairs.
“In 2011, Empire sponsored Jewish Community Day at a Washington Nationals game. There the bond of Jewish events, Jewish companies and Jewish affairs with baseball was sealed for me.”
Rosenbaum is co-chair of the Jewish American Heritage Month Foundation and was named Humanitarian of the Year by New York’s Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in 2011 for Empire’s annual 50,000-pound donation of kosher poultry to the Met Council’s food pantries and kitchens.
He is a director of the National Jewish Democratic Council and a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, the governing body of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which loosely connects him to Dayton.
Jordan Tannenbaum, the Holocaust Museum’s chief development officer, is the brother-in-law of Debbie Feldman, president and CEO of Dayton Children’s Hospital.
Rosenbaum said he initially became involved with Empire because that company was in severe financial distress, and he recognized the company from his youth, growing up in Toledo.
“The fact it was able to survive for about a decade of big financial losses told me something,” Rosenbaum said. “The brand had to have a lot of value.”
He bought the company and eventually became its CEO, making changes, not all of them welcome.
“We eliminated Empire schmaltz (chicken fat) just before Passover,” Rosenbaum said. “It cost too much to make. My aunt in Toledo was telling all her friends I was Empire’s CEO. She was being drummed out of the sisterhood.
“I told her if we kept making schmaltz, we would have to charge more. She didn’t care. We made the schmaltz and she was welcomed back into the sisterhood.”
Rosenbaum was let go from Empire in October 2012. In an interview with Jewish news service JTA at the time, he said it was because of a disagreement between him and the partners at Empire on strategy and direction that arose when the partners vetoed an acquisition he was negotiating with MVP Kosher Foods, the country’s second largest supplier of kosher poultry.
At a late-season Dragons game to celebrate his 62nd birthday, Rosenbaum’s aunt came down from Toledo to be with him and the rest of his family, including his wife and three children. He attended at least 10 Dragons games this season among the 100 to 110 baseball games he attends every year. Rosenbaum has season tickets to the Washington Nationals, Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox.
All three new owners say they’ll attend plenty of games and will hold regular business meetings at Fifth Third Field. They’ll offer suggestions but plan to leave the operation under the direction of Bob Murphy, the team’s president from the beginning.
“No one else does things the way they do things here,” Savit said. “I’ve already learned more in the past six months than I have in the last 17 years.”
“We have a philosophy that’s tried and true,” he said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We will not be interfering with day-to-day operations. “That said, we hope to play a role in long-term strategic development of the franchise.”
He also would like to connect with the Dayton Jewish community.
“I’m looking forward to getting to know the Jewish community in Dayton,” Rosenbaum said. “It is a small world — like (the connection with) Jordan Tannenbaum. There will be other Jewish connections like that.”
And maybe someday, even kosher nosh at Fifth Third Field.