Investor with an Eye on the Ball The basketball tutorial John Rogers took at Princeton pays dividends every day

Nov. 06, 2000
Nov. 06, 2000

Table of Contents
Nov. 6, 2000

Investor with an Eye on the Ball The basketball tutorial John Rogers took at Princeton pays dividends every day

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.

This is an article from the Nov. 6, 2000 issue Original Layout

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

Sound familiar? Slow and Steady, which follows the Princeton
model, includes Princeton's 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

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.

"Precision and teamwork are two things that Coach Carril always
stressed," says Rogers.