When the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers take the ice for their 2013-14 season opener on Thursday night, they will do so just days after the team’s $250 million sale to a group led by New York Law School graduate and former New York Mercantile Exchange chairman Vincent Viola.
Viola, who also graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, currently serves as chairman and CEO of New York–based Virtu Financial, a high-speed electronic trading firm he founded in 2008.
When he launched Virtu, which has grown into one of the country’s largest electronic traders, Viola recruited corporate lawyer Douglas Cifu from the partnership ranks at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. With the acquisition of the 20-year-old Panthers franchise now complete, Viola is once again relying on Cifu, this time to serve as vice chairman, partner, and alternate governor of the team.
Reached by The Am Law Daily in his New York office on Tuesday, Cifu, Virtu’s president and COO, says that while he is a member of the Panthers ownership group, Viola still plays the role of “Batman to my very small Robin.”
The two men, both of whom are Long Island natives, met in 2004 when Cifu and Paul Weiss were advising Greenwich, Connecticut–based private equity firm General Atlantic as it prepared to invest $135 million in New York Mercantile Exchange owner NYMEX Holdings. (NYMEX, which went public in 2006, was sold for nearly $9 billion in 2008 to Chicago-based exchange operator CME Group.)
“It’s a good lesson for lawyers to always be nice to those across the table from them,” Cifu says, laughing. “Vince and I became good friends, and the next time he needed a lawyer, he called me.”
Cifu did what many of his colleagues considered unthinkable when he left Paul Weiss to join Viola as he was forming Virtu five years ago. Having started his career at Paul Weiss upon graduating from Columbia Law School in 1990, he made partner eight years later on January 1, 1999, and eventually rose to become deputy chair of the firm’s corporate group.
Cifu worked on many major M&A deals during his tenure at Paul Weiss, including Polo Ralph Lauren’s $230 million acquisition of RL Childrenswear in 2004, General Atlantic’s $1.2 billion buy of medical data services company Emdeon in 2006, and transportation equipment and container company Interpool on its $2.4 billion sale to Fortress Investment Group in 2007. (Cifu advised Interpool’s board of directors on the latter transaction.)
He stepped down from the Paul Weiss partnership on January 1, 2008—almost 18 years after joining the Am Law 100 firm. Asked about the circumstances surrounding the move, Cifu says he was “too stupid” to worry about joining a new company just as the global economy collapsed.
Five years later, Cifu has no regrets about the decision he made. Earlier this year, Independent Bank Group, a Texas-based bank holding company founded by Viola, raised $83 million in an initial public offering. Cifu serves as a lead independent director for the company, which controls Independent Bank and its roughly $2 billion in assets.
“I have the utmost confidence in Vince, he’s an incredibly smart guy,” Cifu says. “And we were both really excited when we had the opportunity to do the Panthers deal.”
Paul Ginsberg, cohead of the global M&A practice at Paul Weiss, and Jeffrey Marell, cohead of the firm’s North American M&A practice, took the lead representing Viola and Cifu’s group on the acquisition, along with M&A counsel Ross Fieldston. (Paul Weiss handles all of Virtu’s legal work, having advised on its 2011 merger with rival electronic trading shop Madison Tyler Holdings, a possible prelude to a future IPO.)
The Panthers deal, which also includes the operating rights for the 20,000-seat BB&T Center in suburban Sunrise, Florida, reportedly came together quickly after Viola and Cifu met NHL commissioner—and former Proskauer Rose associate—Gary Bettman for lunch last month.
Bettman’s former shop also landed a role in the matter, with Proskauer chairman Joseph Leccese—who does double duty as cohead of the firm’s sports practice—is advising Clifford Viner on his sale of the team. Viner serves as chairman, CEO, and general partner for Sunrise Sports & Entertainment, the entity that owned the Panthers and operated the arena where it plays its home games. (Viner, a longtime Panthers fan and former season ticket-holder who took sole control of the team in 2010, divorced last year.)
Other Proskauer lawyers working on the transaction include M&A cohead Ronald Papa, corporate partner Wayne Katz, finance partner Andrew Bettwy, technology, media, and communications partner Daryn Grossman, tax partner Amanda Nussbaum, labor and employment partner Howard Robbins, employee benefits partner Steven Weinstein, senior IP counsel Jenifer deWolf Paine, and associates Van Ann Bui, Yoon Suk Choo, Steven Einhorn, Mina Farbood, Malcolm Hochenberg, Katrina McCann, Yelena Simonyuk, Theodore “Ted” Tywang, and Jessica Weitzman.
Edward Ristaino, chair of Akerman Senterfitt’s sports practice, took the lead for the sellers in obtaining NHL consent documentation for the ownership transfer. Blockbuster founder H. Wayne Huizenga, who bought the expansion Panthers for just $50 million in 1999, remained part of a group of minority owners that have also sold their stakes to Viola and Cifu. (Ristaino also advised Huizenga on his $1 billion sale of the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins in 2009.)
Panthers general counsel Edward Wildermuth also worked on the sale of the team to Viola and Cifu, who have pledged to keep the franchise in South Florida.
Cifu grew up in Syosset, the backyard of the NHL’s New York Islanders, and was in high school when the team reeled off four consecutive Stanley Cup victories. It was a bittersweet run for Cifu, a steadfast fan of the rival New York Rangers, something he has joked about with Bill Torrey, an Islander stalwart now affiliated with the Panthers.
Viola is planning to move his family to Florida to be closer to the Panthers, and Cifu says his family owns a home in nearby Palm Beach Gardens. Cifu says that his youngest son and Viola’s children are rabid hockey fans, making ownership of an NHL team a “dream come true” all around.
As their first orders of business, the new owners promoted Panthers president Michael Yormark to CEO, and signed former Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas to serve as the team’s new goaltender. (Yormark is the twin brother of Brett Yormark, CEO of the National Basketball Association’s Brooklyn Nets, a franchise in which Viola once held a small stake.)
Cifu will remain based in New York, where he works closely with Virtu executive vice president and partner Chris Concannon, a former associate at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, to run the electronic trading firm’s day-to-day operations.
Cifu’s success has inspired at least one other lawyer to leave Paul Weiss.
When former associate David Tayar left Paul Weiss last year for a company he cofounded, Above the Law obtained and published a copy of the departure memo he sent praising Cifu’s influence. In the farewell note, Tayar said Cifu once left three bottles of Grey Goose vodka on his doorstep after they closed three consecutive General Atlantic deals together.
If Cifu has his way, it will be champagne, not Grey Goose, that will be flowing if the Panthers can accomplish their ultimate goal and capture the Stanley Cup. The team’s last trip to the finals came in 1996 and ended with a loss to the Colorado Avalanche, though the Panthers made the playoffs last year for the first time since 2000 before succumbing to the New Jersey Devils.
The Panthers are the third NHL team to change hands in recent months. Boies, Schiller & Flexner and Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz grabbed lead legal roles in August on the $320 million sale of the Devils. August also saw the NHL and its lawyers from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom unload the Phoenix Coyotes in a $170 million deal to an ownership group advised by Shearman & Sterling and Snell & Wilmer.
But Cifu says that he and Viola have no plans to cash out of their new investment anytime soon.
“We didn’t buy this team to flip it,” Cifu says. “We’re going to run this like a serious business, but it’s going to be transparent because we serve the fans and want to put the best team out there.”