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How bringing baseball to Akron launched a career of dealmaking

Smart Business Dealmakers Cleveland features Anthony S. Manna

As principal and chairman at Signet LLC, Anthony Manna owns 27 companies and has a wealth of experience making deals to buy, sell and build successful businesses. But to this day, the most significant transaction of his career remains his effort to bring minor league baseball to the city of Akron.

Anthony  S. Manna, principal and chairman, Signet, LLC

“That deal put me on the map in Northeast Ohio,” Manna says. “When I completed that deal, I remember a guy told me, ‘Your whole life is going to change because of this deal and the notoriety that comes with it.’ He was absolutely right about that.”

On April 10, 1997, the Canton-Akron Indians became the Akron Aeros and played their first game at Canal Park. Manna played a lead role in relocating the Indians’ Double-A affiliate and getting the new ballpark constructed in downtown Akron. Now known as the Akron RubberDucks, the team has become a must-see summer entertainment option for baseball fans across Northeast Ohio.

The biggest challenge in making Akron baseball a reality was that Manna had to chart his own course to get a deal done.

“It was having the initiative to go out and do it when no one else that I dealt with had any experience developing a stadium,” Manna says. “You learn quickly that it’s a team approach. No one person is more important than the other. I learned valuable lessons about the teamwork that was needed to get that transaction done.”

As Manna was bringing baseball to Akron, he was also building Signet, which he founded in 1995. The company has done about $4.5 billion in total real estate development and currently has more than $400 million in assets under management. Dealmaking has played a key role in all his business endeavors.

“I love the competition,” Manna says of dealmaking. “I love the fact that you get in and meet unbelievably great people, people who want to achieve the same things. You’re constantly trying and it’s the challenge, the competition of it. Sometimes it’s a turnaround situation or sometimes you’re just trying to grow the organization. It’s a lot of fun.”

We spoke with Manna about his approach to dealmaking, the team he’s built to vet and often take the lead on potential opportunities and the key role that pillow talk can play in the success or failure of a business transaction.

Dealmaking 101

Be upfront about your interest level in a potential deal. My standard line is if I get the information that I’m looking for, I will give you a yes or no answer of our interest within seven to 10 business days. That way, the other side doesn’t have to waste time if we don’t have an interest. If we do have an interest, we can get further information and go through the due diligence process. We’re always in a state of readiness and trying to filter out the opportunities we’re not interested in as quickly as possible so we can focus on the ones we want to take a deeper look at.

There is the old saying that culture eats strategy for lunch. But you can’t have a culture unless you’re communicating. Jack Welch would always say that in his 20 years at GE, he only had six initiatives. He spent the rest of his time communicating those initiatives. We’re constantly working at an organizational level on culture, but primarily through communication.

At the individual level, you’re constantly looking for competence and character that can support long-term investments. I’ve always said competence is relatively easy to find, but character can be very difficult to find. If you can find it, your long-term investment is probably in pretty good hands. My day-to-day activity is really focused on those types of things as we’re going through the process. The last piece is continuously talking to people in our network as deals come in. We’re not only looking for M&A deals, but we also look for real estate deals from the development side. We’re constantly looking at what’s out there and whether there is a fit.

Know what you want in a deal

In the deal where we brought minor league baseball to Akron, I always tell the story that the owner wanted to move the team to Worcester, Massachusetts. At the time, I was 33. I flew down to his home on my own and said I wanted to bring the team from Canton to Akron. We sat there for several hours where he told me what he wanted. Then he said, ‘OK, Tony. What do you want?’ I said there were three things I wanted. First, I wanted to develop the stadium. We talked about all that included and we worked it out. He asked, ‘What’s the second thing?’ I said, ‘You were going to have 24 suites. I’m going to add a 25th suite that I’m going to build myself to have for life.’ He said, ‘OK, what’s the third thing?’ I said, ‘I’m also a father. If any of my kids want to work at the stadium during the summer, you have to give them a job.’ So that was actually written in our contract.

Build a strong team

My partners Ken Krismanth, Mark Corr and John Helline are very good at doing deals. Several of the deals, once they get going, I’ll turn it over to them and frankly, I don’t have to have much involvement at all. What I’m going to be focusing in on are deals that we’re just getting started on, maybe some difficult situations where we have to start deciding are we going to go after this or aren’t we?

Turnover is the most expensive thing you can have in business. Many of the guys in our company have been with me 20 or more years. I believe that driven, smart people do not want to be managed. You have to give them the highway and make sure they follow the highway, but you have to find people who are driven. I like people who are respectfully candid. You want to have people who can express their opinions about the direction we’re going on a particular deal and can make sure that everybody can think through it.

The best way to make sure you have a long-term commitment is to have employees eventually become partners in the deals. As an example, we’ve had several businesses we’ve owned for 15 or 20 years. The management team, we have them invested in the deal. If they don’t have the money, we loan them the money to get in. People move up and become shareholders. I think that’s an incredible way to have long-term value add.

The Last Word

We own 27 companies and 12 of them have been startups. We were doing this one particular startup where we were searching for a CEO to run it. I was in China and I got a call from Ken Krismanth, who is now our CEO. He thought he had found a guy to run the business. I said, ‘That’s great. When I come back to Akron, give me a couple days and then have him fly in from Washington, D.C. Make sure he brings his wife.’ He says, ‘His wife?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ We sat down and I didn’t even bother talking to him. I just talked to his wife. I said, ‘You’re probably wondering why you’re here. It’s because you’re the key to getting this deal done.

‘I believe the most powerful talk in all of business, and the most dangerous, is pillow talk. If every night, you’re chirping in your husband’s ear that you shouldn’t have done that deal with Tony Manna, when the going gets tough with this startup, and believe me, the going will get tough, he’s going to quit. Now is your chance to sit through the entire day. If at the end of the day, you think I’m a jerk and you don’t think your husband should do this deal, I’ll be the first one to tell your husband we’re not doing the deal.’ The company has been very successful. In the early going, when it was really tough, she was the one who kept him together. I learned very quickly that business is a family affair.

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