Chicago businessman Martin Nesbitt will sit on the dais in front of the U.S. Capitol on Monday as his best friend is inaugurated president of the United States.
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
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
appointed him to the board of the
. Two weeks ago, Mayor
appointed him to an advisory committee weighing the privatization of
. And he has spent months on the campaign trail over the years, helping Obama rise from a big loss to Democratic U.S. Rep.
in 2000 to the
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
, and Craig Robinson,
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
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
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.
Prep school dreams
Nesbitt is thin, 6 feet 1 inch tall and always dressed impeccably — gold watch, gold cuff links, smooth shoes, and trimmed salt and pepper hair. He credits much of his success to the nurturing environment at his high school.
He was admitted to Columbus Academy thanks to "A Better Chance," a program founded at the height of the civil rights movement by prep school headmasters seeking to diversify their student bodies.
At the time Nesbitt enrolled, Columbus Academy had no African-American teachers. On at least one occasion, the academy's former headmaster, Bo Dixon, said Nesbitt declared he was leaving, distraught that he was not tallying the straight A's he had in public school and worried about the sacrifices his mother was making.
"I just told him, 'Marty, I totally respect what you're feeling,'" Dixon said. "'But just put it out of your mind. You're not leaving. I'm handing you a diploma in three years. And four years after that, I'm going to watch you graduate from college. And if you find a girl who will put up with you, I'm going to eat cake at your wedding. And I'll be at your 40th birthday party too." (Dixon attended all of those events.)
When Princeton University, Dixon's alma mater, rejected Nesbitt for admission a few years later, the headmaster flew to New Jersey to confront the admissions officer in person and threatened to never send another Columbus Academy graduate Princeton's way if the school didn't reconsider. Princeton reopened Nesbitt's application but again denied him.
Nesbitt's second choice was Albion College, about 45 minutes west of Ann Arbor, Mich. There he became captain of the basketball team, treasurer of his fraternity and a teaching assistant. He double-majored in economics and accounting.
After graduation, he went to work for GMAC,
, because he knew the company would cover his business school tuition if he won one of its fellowships.
"I didn't know that GM only gave a couple (of fellowships) a year out of 800,000-some employees," he said. "But I set my sights on getting a fellowship, and I got it."
He met Blanchard at a cocktail party thrown for minority students in the University of Chicago's professional schools. She still had another year of medical school.
So rather than return to GM, he took a job in Chicago with LaSalle Partners, now
, and paid back the car company. At LaSalle, he
managed a portfolio of real estate investments and eventually became responsible for the company's entire parking portfolio. In 1995, he visited Pritzker's office to pitch her on a parking investment opportunity.
"Marty came to our office with someone more senior from LaSalle Partners. ... And I picked up the phone the next day, and I called Marty," Pritzker said. "I was very impressed with him. And I said, 'I'd like to talk to you.' And he said to me, 'Well should I get ...' whoever the senior guy was, whose name I don't remember ... I said, 'No, I'd just like to meet with you.' So Marty came over, and I said, 'I'd like to talk to you about potentially considering coming to work for us.'"
He later told Pritzker that he would accept the job offer if she would consider his plan for an airport parking company.
"We didn't hire him with a commitment to his business plan," Pritzker said. "He had to then put it together and then pitch it to us internally, which he did, obviously successfully."
Pritzker made an initial commitment of $50 million to the then-34-year-old's idea. They later named the company, in which her family was the sole investor, The Parking Spot and grew it to 39 parking facilities. The company owns 17 of the lots outright and manages and has an ownership stake in 21 with a group of investors, including Aurora Capital Group in Los Angeles. It manages the 39th one on behalf of a Los Angeles developer.
The Pritzkers sold The Parking Spot to Lake Forest-based Green Courte Partners as part of a long-term agreement among family members to sell their jointly held assets and split the proceeds.
The sale didn't go smoothly. Aurora Capital was considering selling its stake at the same time as the Pritzkers, complicating the transaction to the point that Nesbitt said he considered using "some trickery." He turned to MacMullan, his former basketball coach, for advice.
"I bored him with the complexities of the situation, walked him through the financial structure and legal dynamics," Nesbitt said during a 2009 commencement speech at his high school. "I told him how frustrated with the circumstance I had become and how I thought I might use some trickery to get things to break my way. He responded by saying ... 'Nesbitt. I'm not sure I understand any of that business and legal crap, but let me tell you this: Forget the trickery.'"
Aurora didn't sell after all. When Nesbitt's one-year employment contract with The Parking Spot's new owners expired, he decided to pursue Vistria, which he said he had been planning for some time. When asked whether she would invest in Vistria, Pritzker said she couldn't yet; the company had not yet registered with the
"So what I can say is I'm extremely supportive of what Marty is doing," Pritzker said. "And if given the opportunity, I'm quite interested in investing."
Pritzker and Obama
For at least seven years,
Nesbitt worked down the hall from Pritzker at 200 W. Madison St. And Nesbitt, she said, was always talking about Obama.
"The way we met the Obamas ... was I went to Marty and said, 'My kids are 5 and 7. They're interested in playing basketball. I don't know anything about basketball,'" Pritzker said. "Marty said, 'Oh, we're all doing this program at the Lincoln-Belmont 'Y.' There's this great guy named Craig Robinson who's the coach.' So our kids join the program. Craig is their coach. And aunt and uncle Barack and Michelle come to watch their nephew and niece (Craig's kids) play basketball."
Pritzker and her husband, Bryan Traubert, decided to support Obama's
campaign after the then-state senator and his wife spent the weekend with them at their home in Michigan. Obama asked for the support himself.
But when it came time to ask Pritzker to lead the presidential campaign's fundraising operation, Obama dispatched Nesbitt, the campaign's treasurer, and
, Obama's friend and adviser. They dined with Pritzker in the sleek executive dining room at the Hyatt Center, Jarrett recalled.
"Marty had worked with Penny over the years and knew her really well and knew if she took it on she would give it 110 percent, 120 percent," Jarrett said. "His experience with her certainly convinced me."
Nesbitt knows the moment he first believed his friend could become president. He was standing inside a barn at an Iowa fairground.
"I was wearing a pair of slacks, a sport coat, an open-collared shirt, looking like the Chicagoan, and next to me was a guy about 6-3, maybe 65, 70 years old, overalls on, flannel shirt, cap on his head, straw in his mouth," Nesbitt said. "These photographers were taking all these pictures. And the guy from the
came up after Barack's speech and asked us for our names and what we did. ... The guy next to me said, 'I'm the Obama organizer in these parts.'
"We got on the bus, and I said to Barack, 'You're going to win Iowa.' Because that was the last guy I would think of who was leading the organization in that community."
Nesbitt has crisscrossed the nation with the president. During one brutal stretch of travel in 2012, Nesbitt fell asleep during his friend's "fiery" stump speech in Las Vegas.
"He finishes up, and he walks off the stage and he hits me on the shoulder and says, 'Man, I see you over here sleeping,'" Nesbitt recalled. "I told him I didn't have the benefit of adrenaline ... and that I had heard that speech three times that day. It's good, but I'm tired."
Other than the Iowa and Las Vegas stories, Nesbitt declined to share his conversations with the president.
Former White House senior adviser
recalled only one time where he heard Nesbitt speak to the president on a policy matter — about how difficult it was for even credit-worthy businesses to obtain loans during the financial crisis. (It took The Parking Spot more than six months to refinance its debt during this period.)
Jarrett recalled the difficult weeks leading up to Obama's 2008 "race speech," which the candidate delivered in Philadelphia in response to inflammatory remarks made by Obama's former pastor, the Rev.
"I called Marty on a Friday, and I said the president had decided to give the speech the following Tuesday," Jarrett said. "And I began the (next) sentence with, 'Is there any way you can possibly ...' I was going to say, 'Be there.'"
Jarrett didn't have to finish the sentence. Nesbitt interrupted, "Wherever it is, I'll be there."
An Associated Press photograph shows Nesbitt watching Obama give that speech. In it, a trail of tears rolls down Nesbitt's cheek.
Co-CEO, The Vistria Group
with his wife, Dr. Anita Blanchard, an associate professor of obstetrics/gynecology at the University of Chicago; and five children, ranging in age from 4 to 20. The eldest plays basketball at Harvard University. The second-eldest has been admitted to Stanford University.
Vacations in 2012:
Hawaii at Christmastime with the president; the south of France for his 50th birthday party, which about 80 friends attended; and a couple of weekends at Camp David.
Favorite sports moment:
When Nesbitt and the president, along with friends and staffers, played a pickup basketball game in Hawaii against the president's old high school teammates. "We just smashed 'em," Nesbitt said.
Craig Robinson also introduced Nesbitt to Kip Kirkpatrick, his new business partner, who played college basketball at