Executive Profile: Martin Nesbitt, the first friend
Drive to succeed evident in business, with family, on basketball court
Martin Nesbitt, founder and CEO of the Parking Spot, is launching a new venture, The Vistria Group private equity firm. He is a close friend of President Barack Obama. (E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune / January 14, 2013)
The two men — successful African-American leaders who share a record of high achievement and a bond forged on the basketball court — will celebrate as Barack Obama marks the start of a second term and Nesbitt begins a transition of his own.
After more than a decade as chief executive of The Parking Spot, an airport parking company he co-founded in 1998 with Penny Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt hotels fortune, Nesbitt has decided to move on. The breakup of the Pritzker fortune brought the sale of the firm he built, and on Dec. 31 he stepped down after a year under new ownership.
Later this year, Nesbitt will launch a private equity firm, The Vistria Group, with his friend Kip Kirkpatrick, a former Democratic candidate for Illinois treasurer and industry veteran. Vistria is a combination of the Latin words for "power" and "three," which the co-founders said represents their financial, operational and regulatory experience. Nesbitt said Vistria will invest in companies in fields at "the nexus of the public and private sectors," such as education, health care and financial services.
Nesbitt has lived at that nexus since at least 2003, when then-Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed him to the board of the Chicago Housing Authority. Two weeks ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed him to an advisory committee weighing the privatization of Midway Airport. And he has spent months on the campaign trail over the years, helping Obama rise from a big loss to Democratic U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush in 2000 to the White House in eight years.
Around the White House, Nesbitt, his wife and their five children are known affectionately as "The Nesbitt Nation."
The Nesbitt and Obama families began to interweave around 1980 when Nesbitt was being recruited to play basketball for Princeton University, and Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama's brother, played on the Princeton team. After moving to Chicago for business school, Nesbitt became friends with Obama through pickup basketball games, unaware of his friend's potential or even his Harvard Law School pedigree.
Washington insiders often chide Obama as a loner — "President Standoffish," one columnist wrote recently. During the 2008 campaign at least, the Obamas had a "no more new friends" rule. They chose instead to surround themselves with trusted, longtime pals, Nesbitt chief among them, who were positive and calming.
"Marty's not trying to be the president's senior adviser," said Pritzker, who led the 2008 campaign's fundraising effort. "He may weigh in on something, but he's thoughtful about where he chooses to assert himself. The other thing one should never underestimate is that Marty provides some fun for the president. They golf. He organizes basketball games. He's a good friend, a fundamental friend, and that's a hard thing to have as president."
2 of a kind
Nesbitt, 50, and Obama, 51, have similar backgrounds. Both were one of the few African-Americans at their elite prep schools. Each grew up with absent fathers. Nesbitt's late father, who worked at a steel mill, didn't start coming around until his son's athletic achievements began appearing in the newspaper.
Obama's mother was a free spirit; Nesbitt's directed the church choir. But both deeply believed in their children's' education. Nesbitt said his alma mater, Columbus Academy, was his way out of "drugs, alcohol, jail, death. I lived, you know, in the 'hood." His mother worked as a nurse for three different employers to pay the small amount the school required of her.
Nesbitt and Obama had children around the same age who attended the same private school, the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. And both were determined to be present for ballet recitals and soccer matches, unlike their fathers.
"I was angry with his father ... because of the distance he kept from Marty," said Nesbitt's high school basketball coach, Jack MacMullan. "When Marty was a sophomore ... he wasn't big enough, strong enough, fast enough to be a dominating varsity athlete at all. The interesting thing about him, though, was that he wanted to be. He wanted to be very successful athletically and academically his whole life. He's one of those kids who had that special drive ...
"All of the sudden, he comes back as a junior after working out like crazy, and he's 6 feet tall and has gained 25 pounds. He's strong, fast, coordinated. He rushes for 1,000 yards in football and becomes our starting point guard in basketball. All of the sudden, I start to see dad."
Obama also excelled at basketball, and their trash-talking on the court has been widely reported. (Nesbitt is so competitive he can't help but clarify that he rushed for 1,400 yards, not 1,000, in nine games during his junior year of high school.)
"I remember one time we went on a vacation with another couple," Nesbitt's wife, Dr. Anita Blanchard, said. "And there was a competition about everything. The two husbands competed on who could park the car in the least amount of moves, who could jump highest to touch a sign. It was just crazy. ... I think some people just have drive. And when you do have drive, you just can't turn it on and off for work. It extends to every part of your life."
At some point, Obama and Nesbitt recognized they had accomplished everything that had eluded their fathers.
"There was a certain image of my father that wasn't what I wanted to be, which I think was similar for him," Nesbitt said.