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Alex Meruelo, New Atlanta Hawks Owner, Knows How To Buy Low And Sell High

The Atlanta Hawks enter a new era on Monday with the likely announcement that Cuban-American Alex Meruelo is purchasing a majority stake in the team, casting aside the dysfunctional Atlanta Spirit. But what kind of changes will Meruelo bring to a Hawks team on the cusp of greatness?

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Alex Meruelo bought a casino in Reno that was once worth $151 million for less than $45 million. He grew a chain of Latino-focused pizzerias into an empire and he just closed a deal to buy a Spanish language television station in Los Angeles.

Now he has his sights on purchasing the Atlanta Hawks and the operating rights to Philips Arena from the dysfunctional Atlanta Spirit and become the first American of Hispanic decent to have a majority ownership stake in an NBA franchise.

But not much else is known of 48-year-old Cal State Long Beach grad, who will likely become the Hawks next principal owner.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that Meruelo is a first-generation Cuban-American who was born in New York before moving to California. His parents fled Fidel Castro's Cuba after the communist revolution in the one-time island paradise and headed to Florida and New York before settling in Los Angeles.

Like most first-generation immigrants the Meruelo family owned a business - a tuxedo and bridal shop in downtown Los Angeles. He got his first business break when his father leased him the tuxedo part of the business - a business which is now a vast empire that holds everything from restaurants to construction companies to real estate.

Meruelo opened up his first La Pizza Loco, a pizzeria that catered mainly to the burgeoning Southern California Latino market in 1985. That company, which offers toppings like jalapenos and a substitute refried beans sauce, expanded to a chain of over 50 restaurants.

He's since added three other food chain-type restaurants in the Greater Los Angeles market. He diversified into real estate, operating over 310,000 square feet in 25 retail and mixed-use centers sprinkled throughout Los Angeles along with 15 apartment buildings comprising of almost 900 units.

Meruelo also owns a number of construction companies, a bank and a venture capital fund. He also sits on a pair of corporate boards.

But the future potential Hawks owner's biggest splashes came this year when the Meruelo Group, the corporate umbrella name for most of Meruelo's holdings, closed on a $42.45 million purchase of the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino in Reno, Nev. The deal paled in comparison to the $151 million sales price of the resort to its previous owner, which had the property foreclosed upon by JP Morgan Chase.

The Meruelo Group also made his first foray into media, buying Spanish language station KWHY 22 from NBC Universal in July.

Meruelo is unabashedly a Republican who has contributed to the Republican National Senatorial Committee, the Republican Party of California, Senator John McCain, John Ensign, California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina and former President George W. Bush.

One of his few contributions to a Democrat, Colorado congress hopeful Jared Polis, was met with controversy after it was revealed that Meruelo made a $10,000 donation to the Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth, a group that looked to torpedo the Presidential campaign of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry in 2004.

Meruelo's experiences in business also did not come without controversy. His $80 million offer to buy the Rubio's Restaurant chain - a chain of fish taco food joints in California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and Colorado - resulted in a class action lawsuit. The business was eventually sold to a Connecticut-based restauranteur instead.

But when Meruelo has successfully acquired companies, he has helped give those businesses access to the capital they need in order to grow. Meruelo sensed a business opportunity when he acquired Herman Weissker, Inc., then a fiber optics company, in 1999 when the bottom fell out of the fiber market.

Once put under Meruelo's control, the company got larger access to the capital markets and diversified, transforming into a full-service utility company.

"When Mr. Meruelo bought the company, it took us to a new level," Herman Weissker Senior Vice President Pete Van Emon told Construction Today in 2005. "Our bonding has increased eight times, and it's been a great help in stabilizing our operations."

Herman Weissker has also succeeded by following Meruello's mantra that the company's employees and equipment form the foundation for delivering quality service.

Hawks fans hope that Meruelo will follow a similar blueprint with their beloved basketball team, a team that the Atlanta Spirit could not get over the proverbial hump in their seven-year stewardship of the franchise.

Of course, the success of the franchise could easily be determined by the settlement the owners and the players come to when the NBA lockout invariably ends. Having an owner with deep pockets could go a long way to righting the lack of salary maneuverability that may plague the Hawks if the league gets its way and installs a hard cap near the luxury cap threshold.

If a hard cap is implemented, it is expected that teams may be permitted to buy out the contracts of players to maneuver themselves within the NBA's new rules. Atlanta, which brushed but never exceeded the cap during the Spirit's run, could conceivably shed a bad money contract or two to give the team a chance to retool.

New ownership can also go a long way toward investing in areas where the Spirit proved woefully inadequate, like the front office and coaching staffs.

Meruelo could also potentially pour money in addition to the $7.7 million set aside to renovate Philips Arena. That money was set aside when the Spirit renegotiated the terms of the bonds with the Atlanta and Fulton County Recreation Authority and refinanced the arena.

Whether the ownership change will reap Atlanta's first NBA championship obviously remains something that only time can tell, but any change is a good change, especially when Hawks fans are ridding themselves of the Atlanta Spirit - the least honest ownership group in North American professional sports.

Change in this instance can only be good.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.