New York: Over the 4 July weekend at the billionaire Ronald O. Perelman’s 57-acre East Hampton estate, Vivi Nevo was in his element.
Nevo, with his fiancee, the megawatt Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi (the star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), sitting on his lap, watched Jon Bon Jovi give an impromptu performance before taking a turn on the dance floor to Dave Mason’s Feelin Alright.
A wind-up doll of kinetic energy, who bounds about like a shortstop, Nevo, who is 43, is said to be the largest individual shareholder of Time Warner Inc., was once the largest private investor in Goldman Sachs Group Inc., is engaged to China’s most famous actress, vacations on Rupert Murdoch’s sailboat, is the godfather of Lachlan Murdoch’s son, counts Lenny Kravitz as a good friend and attended Madonna’s wedding in 2000.
Mystery man: A file photo of Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi (left) with fiance Aviv ‘Vivi’ Nevo. For a man who has become a ubiquitous figure in a very public industry, Nevo is, and has remained, a private, unknown quantity. (Photo: Mathew Staver / Bloomberg)
And many people, including even some of his close friends, a few of whom joined him at Perelman’s estate over the 4 July weekend—and spoke about the party anonymously because it was a private event—have no idea what his background is, or how exactly he made his fortune.
Twenty years or so ago, Nevo, his first name a nickname for Aviv, was living in a studio apartment in the Concorde building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Today he is the media industry’s Zelig, often referred to among his media friends as “the international man of mystery”.
“He is everywhere, all the time, like no one I have ever seen,” said Graydon Carter, the editor in chief of Vanity Fair, which frequently hosts Nevo at its high society parties.
Who is Nevo? An Israeli who took a modest inheritance from his family and parlayed it into a sizable fortune through savvy investing, much of it in media and Internet companies—and into connections in the media world.
Behind the scenes, his influence on the media industry is subtle. For upstart Internet companies, he has been an important broker of relationships with traditional firms; and for Time Warner, in particular, he was an advocate, when the Yahoo Inc. takeover battle erupted, of trying to assemble a three-way partnership among Yahoo, Microsoft Corp.’s MSN and Time Warner’s AOL.
Of all the characters the media business attracts—and creates, for that matter—perhaps no one is more remarked upon, wondered about or marvelled at than Nevo.
Among his many overlapping circles of friends, nearly all say that Nevo is a force in their lives: a loyal friend, a trusted conveyor and keeper of information and someone who never forgets a birthday or a bar mitzvah.
“He’s someone I’ve really liked,” said John J. Mack, the chief executive of Morgan Stanley, who met Nevo several years ago while he was at the helm of Credit Suisse. “I trust him. He’s got great instincts for the business.”
Gordon Crawford, senior vice-president and a director of Capital Research and Management and one of the best-known media investors, met Nevo around 10 years ago and the two became close. This month they flew together to Sun Valley, Idaho, for the investment bank Allen and Co.’s annual media conference. “I don’t know anyone who’s worked harder at developing contacts,” Crawford said. “It’s definitely more than social. I think he’s a pretty astute observer of what’s going on in the media.”
Nevo has an uncanny ability to network and a knack for putting himself in the right place at the right time.
In the spring of 1999, John Thornton, who was then president of Goldman Sachs, was in Los Angeles for the bank’s road show before it went public, and after giving a presentation, he sat down. “The guy sitting next to me was Vivi Nevo, and we just started talking and developed a nice rapport right then.” Later, Thornton became an adviser to Time Warner. “So I dealt with him a lot there,” Thornton recalled. “He was very active in talking with management. I can’t think of anyone, who is principally a private investor, who is that focused on one industry.”
Nevo’s discretion, combined with a lack of a paper trail, equates to a constant chirping of questions in the media industry about his back story.
“He’s a great character, so that draws attention to him,” said Lachlan Murdoch, explaining the growing fascination that people in the media business have about Nevo. “He’s also a very private individual.
“When I moved back to Australia”—after leaving News Corp., where his father is chairman, in 2005—“we spoke a lot. He’s been a friend through thick and thin.”
Those who knew Nevo in the 1980s, after he moved to New York from Israel, have watched his rise with curiosity.
“You’re asking questions I’ve asked myself many times,” said Nicolas Rachline, who met Nevo in the late 1980s when both were part of a fashionable New York expatriate crowd that hung out at Le Bilboquet, a French restaurant on the Upper East Side. “What the hell does Vivi do? He seems to be a powerful player in the entertainment industry. How, I don’t know.”
Perelman met Nevo years ago on the Los Angeles social scene—either at Barry Diller’s, or at the house of a Creative Artists Agency partner, Bryan Lourd, he said—and the pair’s relationship is purely social. “There’s no business element,” Perelman said. “It’s purely social, but it’s a deep social. He’s around my family, I’m around his fiancee. We take a lot of trips together.”
The glittery social world that Nevo inhabits is secondary— and the by-product of—what is the core of his professional existence: a sizable stake in Time Warner he has maintained for years, apparently with impeccable, buy-and-sell timing. Nevo, through his firm NV Investments, has never owned 5% or more of the company, which would require public disclosure, but it is widely believed in the industry that he is the largest private shareholder; Nevo himself often says so.
A Time Warner spokesman said that Nevo is a shareholder, but could not verify the size of his holding. But Nevo does have, and has had for years, the ear of management.
Nevo, whose workaday uniform is snug, black Christian Dior suits, has a particularly close relationship with Richard D. Parsons, Time Warner’s chairman, who stepped down in January as chief executive. Like many of his media mogul friendships, his relationship with Parsons started years ago in Sun Valley. “I first met Vivi at the duck pond in Sun Valley,” Parsons recalled in a phone interview. “In typical Vivi Nevo fashion, we shortly became best buds.”
The personal connections are part of how Nevo makes investment decisions. “He informs his instincts by being in the space,” Parsons said. “This is how he absorbs what’s going on, and decides where to place his bets.”
For a man who has become a ubiquitous figure in a very public industry, Nevo is, and has remained, largely a private, unknown quantity. “He’s not so much mysterious, as he just doesn’t want to be public,” said Parsons, who is an executor of a trust Nevo established for his daughter, Lilly, age 6, from a previous relationship. “The mysterious part is, you can’t Google this guy and get his whole story.”
Nevo has always refused requests for interviews, and he declined to comment for this article. In private conversations with some friends and associates, however, Nevo has provided glimpses into his background.
The silhouette of Nevo’s story goes like this: He was an only child who was born in Bucharest, Romania, and moved with his parents to Tel Aviv when he was a baby. His father was a chemical engineer and his mother was an anaesthesiologist. As a boy, Nevo would vacation with his parents in Los Angeles, where he became enchanted with the glamour of Hollywood.
There was family money— his father ran a chemical company, according to several people, including Nevo’s friend and tennis partner Frank Biondi, the former head of Universal Studios and chief executive of Viacom Inc. But the driving force of his life is the memory of his mother, who died of cancer in the late 1980s, leaving him an inheritance that allowed him to start investing.
“It’s all about the respect he had for his mother,” said Elizabeth Saltzman, international social editor of Vanity Fair, who met Nevo on the New York social scene in the 1980s (the second time she met him she shared a helicopter with him to the Hamptons). “His mother was everything. I think there’s a huge mama complex, of trying to make her proud.”
With the inheritance— which one business associate of Nevo’s, who spoke anonymously because his conversations with him were meant to be confidential, pegged at around $10 million (Rs42.3 crore)—Nevo set about investing and networking. He opened trading accounts at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, as well as Allen and Co., which eventually won him an invitation to Sun Valley, the place that became the locus for so many of his relationships, including those with Parsons and Lachlan Murdoch. Through diligence and hard work, the right contacts and a lot of the right trades during the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s, he turned his inheritance into a sizable fortune.
Mack said: “He took the money his family left him and he really created this media, trading empire. At Credit Suisse we did a lot of trading business with him, either outright, or with derivatives.”
How much money he made is really anyone’s guess. When Nevo began appearing a few years ago on certain lists, such as Vanity Fair’s New Establishment list, Forbes tried to gauge Nevo’s wealth to see if he belonged on the magazine’s list of billionaires, but ultimately gave up trying. Nevo owns homes in Malibu, California; the Los Angeles-area neighbourhood of Brentwood; the TriBeCa neighbourhood of New York; London; and two homes in Tel Aviv, including his modest childhood home outside the city, which sits empty. In addition, he and Zhang recently bought a home in Beijing.
“Vivi is a very hard worker, and we’d begin chatting about the markets in the early morning, and then we’d talk late in the afternoon,” said Bob Packer, who ran Goldman Sachs’ institutional equities unit in San Francisco and handled many of Nevo’s trades. “He loved working with the markets. He’s just a really affable, wonderful, loyal guy.”
In the case of Time Warner, his relationship with the company and its executives began in the early- to mid-1990s, when he established a relationship with Gerald M. Levin, then chief executive.
“It was in a social context,” Levin said, trying to recall how he met Nevo. “I would go to every major fight that HBO had in Las Vegas. It was either at the fights in Las Vegas, or at some movie premiere. No, I think it was in Vegas.”
“I spoke to him about Time Warner and what we were doing. Increasingly, he got interested. Unlike some other financial players, he has an interest not just in the financial aspect itself, but also the personalities. The social nexus is part of his understanding and analysis.”
Joseph Ravitch, a prominent media investment banker at Goldman Sachs, said Nevo was “extraordinarily Zelig-like in the sense that he endears himself to a totally diverse group of people from CEOs to artists and rock stars”.
“But it’s not really Zelig,” he continued, “because he is always the same, open and straightforward Vivi.”
Several years ago, Joseph R. Perella, who led investment banking for Morgan Stanley and was the senior banker on the Time Warner account, received a phone call from Parsons. “Parsons said, I know a guy you’d like to meet,” Perella recalled. “Interesting guy. Knows a lot about the business.”
Perella said they hit it off almost immediately over lunch at San Pietro, a Manhattan restaurant favoured by investment bankers. “He’s one of the least boring types I have ever met,” Perella said. “My sense is he’s a self-made guy, who made it himself. He’s just a smart investor. As for the building blocks of his fortune, I have no idea.”
Of late, Nevo has been sprinkling money around in private companies, many of which are new media ventures. He has around 25 private investments, according to a business associate, including stakes in Demand Media Inc., a social networking company; CityVoter, a social site that allows city dwellers to post about things such as where to eat and where to shop; an online music site, Buzznet; Spot Runner Inc., an online advertising company; and the Internet video company Joost NV.
He also has an investment in the Weinstein Co., a film company, and had a small investment in Bette, a now-shuttered New York restaurant. Many of the investments are modest in size—about $1 million in Weinstein; six figures in Demand Media—but Nevo’s association with a company brings value beyond the size of the check he writes.
©2008/The New York Times