Philanthropist Makes Fortune on ‘Rollup’ Concept

The principles of economics were too much for Jonathan J. Ledecky ’79 to handle his first year at Harvard: he had to withdraw from Ec10 after failing a first-semester midterm.

Twenty years later, “the king of the rollup” was laying down economic principles of his own.

The multimillionaire philanthropist first struck gold with the 1994 launch of U.S. Office Products—a company he financed on home credit card applications.

Based on the innovative philosophy of consolidating related small businesses to capitalize on economies of scale, the “rollup” company was netting $4 billion within three years and became the fastest company ever to hit the Fortune 500.

Ledecky has made headlines in national newspapers and magazines and spawned a spate of business school case studies, some documenting his successes, others his failures.

These successes have afforded Ledecky the opportunity to indulge his life-long love of sports. He has owned a minority share in the professional hockey and basketball franchises of Washington, D.C. and made plays for a few other professional sports teams, attempting to lure a baseball team to the nation’s capital.

But now Ledecky—worth $200 million in 1998, according to the Washington Post—has turned his attention to philanthropy. He heads an eponymous foundation and spends one day a week at a private boys’ middle school in New York City that he has helped finance.

The Class Secretary of the Class of 1979 says he is enjoying giving back. The unmarried entrepreneur says that through his involvement, his communities—Washington, D.C. and New York City—have become a kind of family to him.

“I try to take my capital and do well by doing good,” he says.

And for Ledecky, the path to his current success has been paved with vicissitudes—and Harvard graduates.

‘MERGER MASTER’

Since his undergraduate years, Ledecky has gone from Wall Street to Harvard Business School to a number of investment jobs. And at almost every turn, he has had Harvard support.

“Harvard has played this incredible role” in my life, Ledecky says. He says that as he used his Harvard ties to pull together U.S. Office Products, “I’m going, ‘I can’t believe this—here comes Harvard again.’”

After college, Ledecky first worked for Albert H. Gordon ’23, who is also a Crimson editor, at investment bank Kidder, Peabody & Co. on Wall Street. He later returned to Cambridge to attend the Business School, staying in Eliot House as the Master’s butler and a residential tutor. After graduating the Business School in 1983, Ledecky says he had offers from many investment banks but was interested in entrepreneurship instead.

“I had caught over the summer of 1982 the venture capital leverage buyout bug,” he says. “I was just smitten with this notion of buying companies versus being an investment banker.”

He then held a series of venture capital-type jobs, including a disastrous venture of his own called the Legacy Fund, which he started with Timothy R. Furey ’80 and on which he lost $250,000. He says Legacy has since become a well-known case study about how venture capitalists can be misled by company executives.