Thursday, April 24, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Glamour at Wharton

Meet the guy who imports rapper, NBA star, actress to West Philly campus

Glamour at Wharton

Who brought Magic Johnson, Ludacris, Andre Agassi and now Eva Longoria to West Philly to talk about money and other satisfactions?

K. Robert "Bobby" Turner graduated Wharton in 1984, after interning with Philadelphia Stock Exchange trader Vince Casella and the brainy options partnership of Rich Cooper and Roy Neff (in competition with Jeff Yass's Susquehanna), then took his newly-earned "black belt in the art of creating wealth" to work for the junk-bond king, Michael Milken.

Surviving the wreck of Milken's firm, Drexel Burnham Lambert, in the early 90s, Turner moved west with his wife Lauren Golub Turner (Wharton '85) and a group of Drexel veterans to start Canyon Capital Realty Advisors, which now owns properties worth more than $10 billion (corrected).

"I thought it would lead to happiness. But I'm here to tell you, wealth should not be confused with happiness," Turner told me. Restless in his 30s, he grilled older people who'd succeeded in business. "The consensus was, happiness doesn't come from materialism. It doesn't even come from love, when you spend 80 pecent of your waking hours in an office. It's achievement, that is incredibly fulfilling and rewarding. These people's happiness came from power -- the power to make a positive impact in people's lives."

Turner began charity work, then started seeking "sustainable" solutions to problems of urban poverty (in post-riot L.A.). He recruited Lakers star Johnson to open the Canyon-Johnson urban real estate funds. Then tennis star Agassi joined to help finance charter schools, inlcuding the KIPP K-4 school in Allegheny West near Temple University. Turner met both through his friends in L.A.'s talent manager business, including Brian Lourd and Steve Heumann at Creative Artists, which repped Agassi.

It all made Turner think back to Wharton -- to his old professor, Rick Papetti, "who always warned us, 'Don't lose focus on the end game,'" and to his PhilEx bosses, Cooper and Neff, "who were incredibly philanthropic and always said, 'Good fortune needs to be paid forward.'" Finally Turner contacted Wharton dean Tom Robertson, "who believes Wharton has an obligation to do good in the world," about starting a speaker series. At first he and Lauren considered bringing in charter-school founders or "someone in sustainable energy." But they figured that could draw "maybe 50 or 100 kids. But if you really want to make change, you bring Magic Johnson, you bring Agassi, you bring (rap star) Ludacris." So the Turners endowed a speaker series and brought NBA and Wimbledon glamour to Penn's West Philly campus.

Last year, rapper-businessman Ludacris "wanted to speak at Wharton, he rached out to me" thorugh Johnson's son Andre, Turner says. They filled Wharton's two-story auditorium with a crowd well over 1,000.

This year he's going for 2,000 students with actress (and, lately, producer, director, business investor) Eva Longoria. (The event is limited to UPenn people.) "She's spectacular," Turner told me. "She doesn't want to be tabloid fodder. She wants to talk for an hour about her work" with the Eva Longoria Foundation, Eva’s Heros, Padres Contra el Cancer, "and then to go to dinner with some of the kids who are taking the social-impact curriculum courses that Lauren and I endowed. You make an impression on just one kid, you change the world." 

Joseph N. DiStefano
About this blog

PhillyDeals posts raw drafts and updates of Joseph N. DiStefano's columns and stories about Philly-area finance, investment, commercial real estate, tech, hiring and public spending, which he's been writing since 1989, mostly for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

DiStefano studied economics, history and a little engineering at Penn, taught writing at St. Joe's, and has written the book Comcasted, more than a thousand columns, and thousands of articles, and raised six children with his wife, who is a saint.

Reach Joseph N. at JoeD@phillynews.com or 215 854 5194.

Joseph N. DiStefano
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