Stan Kroenke finishes what he starts; will finish line be in L.A.?

Those who know St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke say his L.A. stadium plan is no bluff; he sees things through

In the mountains high above the Sonoran Desert in Tucson, Ariz., Al Michaels and Stan Kroenke were hiking a tough trail near a health and fitness resort.

Michaels, a longtime sportscaster for NFL games, joked that the steep incline they faced amid the pine trees may as well have been Tucson's Mt. Everest. He was exhausted and hoped that Kroenke wanted to turn back.

But Kroenke, the billionaire owner of the St. Louis Rams, would not relent.

"I think I reached the point where I didn't care whether I was alive or died," Michaels said about that hike. "When Stan sets out to do something, he wants to complete it."

Five years later, Kroenke is focusing that mind-set on an ambitious plan to build a stadium in Inglewood, which could return the NFL to the Los Angeles area after a two-decade absence. Some see the project as a ploy to get a better stadium deal in St. Louis, that L.A. is being used as leverage once again. Friends and business associates say, however, that once Kroenke decides on a course of action, he is hellbent on finishing.

"He just doesn't do things on a whim," Michaels said.

Kroenke, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is a real estate developer whose penchant for privacy draws as much attention as the business dealings that amassed a fortune Forbes estimated at $5.8 billion.

Interviews with numerous current and former business associates describe a man who shuns headlines in favor of working behind the scenes with a restrained, methodical approach that is focused on long-term success.

Most of them believe that the stadium project is typical of the patience Kroenke, 67, used to build his professional sports empire, gain control of millions of square feet in retail space and become the ninth-largest landowner in the U.S., according to The Land Report magazine's annual rankings.

The properties include the 540,000-acre Q Creek Ranch in Wyoming's Shirley Mountains and Screaming Eagle, the cult winemaker in Oakville, Calif., whose vintages routinely fetch more than $1,000 per bottle.

"He plays his cards real close to the vest," Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "He's information gathering. He's listening. He's observing. He's evaluating. But then make no mistake about it, there's nothing quiet about him when he goes."

The extensive holdings contrast with Kroenke's modest upbringing. As a youngster, he kept the books and swept floors at the Mora Lumber Company, a lumber yard and hardware store owned by his father in tiny Mora, Mo.

Don't expect Kroenke to say much about those days or, really, about anything at all. Magazine and newspaper stories over the years repeatedly cast him as "Silent Stan" and "reclusive" and "secretive."

Those who have worked for Kroenke see a demanding boss with no interest in self-aggrandizement.

"He doesn't like people putting themselves above the team," said David Ehrlich, former Kroenke Sports Enterprises executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Kroenke's distaste for attention isn't new. In a Bloomberg Businessweek story six years ago, he recalled shooting a key free throw during a ninth-grade basketball game in front of a large crowd.

"My knees were knocking," Kroenke said. "I missed the free throw and was useless the whole tournament."

He earned a bachelor's degree and a master's in business administration at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He met Ann Walton,the daughter of Wal-Mart co-founder Bud Walton, in 1971 while skiing in Aspen, Colo. They married three years later. Forbes calculates Ann Walton Kroenke's net worth — separate from her husband's — at $5.6 billion.

Stan Kroenke started building his fortune through real estate in the mid-1970s, developing shopping malls and Wal-Marts. A longtime partnership with Missouri developer Raul Walters ended in 1985 with protracted litigation. Michael Staenberg was Kroenke's partner for two decades in a company they co-founded in 1991 — To Have Fun Realty — that controlled millions of square feet in retail space. That, too, ended in multiple lawsuits.

Staenberg declined to comment because of the ongoing litigation. Walters died in 2009.

Kroenke's sports ventures haven't always gone smoothly. In 1993, he emerged from the corporate shadows as a last-minute investor for St. Louis' bid to land an NFL expansion team. After his presentation to NFL owners and an uneasy news conference, newspaper accounts compared him to the "Droopy Dog" cartoon character, saying that dealing with the media "obviously terrifies him."

"He came out of nowhere," longtime friend Bob Stull said. "People were trying to figure out who in the heck he was."

Kroenke faced another chilly reception in 2007 after he bought a minority stake in the English Premier League's Arsenal soccer club.

"Call me old-fashioned, but we don't need Kroenke's money and we don't want his sort," Peter Hill-Wood, then Arsenal's chairman, said at the time.

Kroenke didn't respond — he's not known for losing his temper. Four years later, he became the club's controlling shareholder. He kept the club's governing board in place and remained in the background. Last year, Forbes valued Arsenal at $1.3 billion.

Kroenke acquired 40% of the Rams in 1995, the year the team moved to St. Louis from Anaheim. When he became the majority owner in 2010, some in St. Louis feared he would return the franchise to L.A.

"I'm born and raised in Missouri," Kroenke told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the time. His full name — Enos Stanley Kroenke — was inspired by St. Louis Cardinals legends Enos Slaughter and Stan Musial.

"I've been a Missourian for 60 years," Kroenke continued. "People in our state know me. People know I can be trusted. People know I am an honorable guy."

Kroenke is often described as "regular" and "normal." Associates say the man with a mustache and tousled hair who wears cowboy boots with his suit doesn't act like a billionaire.

Ehrlich would discuss business with his boss over bison burgers at My Brother's Bar in Denver more often than they met in conference rooms.

Kroenke's competitiveness is legendary among those who know him. When fly-fishing with Paul Andrews, one of his former executives, he tracks who catches what. That attitude extended to games of H-O-R-S-E and pickup basketball on the practice court of the NBA's Denver Nuggets, one of Kroenke's teams. The owner sank three-pointers from NBA range with little difficulty.

"He was not joking around," Ehrlich said. "He was a little bit intense about it . . . and in life."

When the NHL's Colorado Avalanche, another of Kroenke's teams, won the Stanley Cup in 2001, the same intensity seemed to radiate off the owner during games. He didn't yell. But Ehrlich, sitting nearby, could feel the stress.

Kroenke, a fitness zealot who is particular about his diet, drank from the Stanley Cup after the series win — and took ill for several weeks.

"I think that's the only time in his life that Stan has been sick," Michaels said.

The Avalanche and Nuggets are just part of Kroenke's sports kingdom. He owns Pepsi Center, the Denver arena that the teams share with his professional lacrosse franchise, the Colorado Mammoth. He controls the regional sports network that broadcasts their games, along with those of the Colorado Rapids, his Major League Soccer team that plays at his Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, northeast of Denver.

He owns a company that sells tickets for the teams. He owns Altitude Authentics to hawk club apparel.

Kroenke also has a 12,000-square-foot penthouse at Pepsi Center, reachable by private elevator, that includes a theater, gym and unobstructed mountain views.

One reason the L.A. stadium initiative doesn't surprise many who know him: it's more than a sports deal, it's also a real estate play.

About 18 months ago, Kroenke met with Terry Fancher, executive managing director of Stockbridge Capital, to discuss adding a football stadium to Fancher's Hollywood Park development in Inglewood. For one session, Kroenke brought a sandwich in a brown bag for lunch.

Though Kroenke has not committed to moving the Rams to Southern California, this deal has opened a door out of St. Louis. A clause in the team's 30-year lease for the Edward Jones Dome required that the stadium rank among the top eight in the NFL in several categories after 20 years. St. Louis and the Rams couldn't agree on improvements and a neutral arbitration panel ruled in favor of the Rams' $700-million plan in January 2013. St. Louis rejected the plan six months later, which allowed the Rams to convert the lease to year-to-year.

Kroenke's portfolio in L.A. includes a 9,000-square-foot home off Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu and, in 2012, he was among three finalists to buy the Dodgers.

The first hints of the L.A. plan became public in January 2014, after  Kroenke bought 60 acres of vacant land at Hollywood Park from Wal-Mart for an estimated $101 million. At the time, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell dismissed the purchase as a routine transaction.

"There are no plans, to my knowledge, of a stadium development," Goodell said.

Fancher and Kroenke continued to work on a deal to transform the proposed mixed-use project in Inglewood into a hub of sports, retail, offices and entertainment. In late spring, Kroenke engaged HKS Inc., the firm that drew up plans for the billion-dollar AT&T Stadium that houses the Cowboys, to design the stadium.

"This is something that's going to be in place and in his family long after he's gone," said Fancher, who declined to detail terms of the partnership.

Kroenke's daughter, Whitney, 37, lives in L.A.; his son, Josh, 34, is president of the Nuggets and Avalanche.

That hints at another issue Stan Kroenke faces. NFL rules bar owners from owning professional teams outside their market. He had until last December to transfer ownership of the Avalanche and Nuggets, but the league granted a one-year extension.

Last March, eight months after the initial meeting, Fancher and Kroenke had a handshake agreement to be partners for a privately-financed stadium.

"If he's going to realize this opportunity, he's not going to realize it based on emotion and short-term stuff. He looks at this as a long-term investment," Ehrlich said.

Don Elliman, past president of Kroenke Sports Enterprises, said: "I absolutely guarantee there isn't a half-cocked bone about it."

Days after the stadium plans became public earlier this month, St. Louis proposed a new stadium that could cost up to $985 million.

As questions swirl about the next move in L.A., Kroenke's quiet belies the scope of what's at stake.

"Other people will have the ultimate say with who goes in the stadium," Fancher said. "There are lot of things that have to happen that aren't in Stan's control or our control. . . . But he's determined and he's got the resources to do it."

nathan.fenno@latimes.com

Twitter: @nathanfenno

Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.

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