As recently as January, whenever Jim Pallotta traveled to Rome, he was met with camera crews, news reporters, and exuberant shouts of “Presidente Pallotta!” from moped riders whizzing by in the street.
Pallotta, who once ran one of Boston’s biggest and most successful hedge funds, enjoyed a warm reception from Italians after he and his partners bought the beloved soccer team AS Roma in 2011. He charmed sports talk-show hosts and made headlines with stunts like plunging into an icy pool in his business suit after a meeting with the team. He promised to make AS Roma a contender in the elite Champions League, and the fans loved it.
But the honeymoon was short-lived. After a string of recent losses, the owners fired the coach, marking the third departure in less than two years, and disgruntled fans are in revolt. They’ve lately been chanting and waving signs that say, “Yankee go home!” and “Free AS Roma.’’ A small band protested at the training facility, hurling insults at the team’s directors and kicking and spitting at a player’s car as he drove by, according to Italian press reports.
Pallotta, who built his Raptor hedge fund into a $12 billion juggernaut before winding it down in the wake of the financial crisis, is finding that second acts don’t always proceed smoothly. The criticism, the pressure, the second-guessing are not unfamiliar to him after two decades of managing other people’s money, but it may be that Italian soccer fans take losses even harder than hedge fund investors.
Roma’s swoon, and the uproar from fans, was enough to spur Pallotta to issue a statement last week, saying fans should come after him, not the team. “While we are all not happy with our recent results I have complete confidence in our players and entire staff,” he wrote.
He dreams of greatness for Roma, but the Giallorossi, as the team is known, are in ninth place. Rebuilding takes time, Pallotta told the Globe. He wants to find a great coach who can work with the players and stand the test of time, and he’s not going to rush it. “That would be the dumbest thing that could happen.”
Before the Italian football experiment, Pallotta was already in the thick of a major career transition. After two decades of delivering annualized gains of more than 20 percent, he was having to explain losses as the financial crisis intensified.
The first glimpse of trouble was a loss on some trades in 2007, just as the credit bubble was starting to implode. Raptor made money that year, but Pallotta was jarred. In 2008, he started moving heavily into cash, but still lost about 20 percent as the global meltdown took its toll.
One longtime client faxed in a redemption notice without so much as a phone call, Pallotta recalled recently. Never mind that Raptor had made $1 million into a small fortune for that investor, he said. That stung.
Pallotta, then turning 50, started looking at the exit door. He felt that stockpicking, where he’d made his name, was being overtaken by technical wizardry. The kid from the North End had already made more money than he’d ever need. He had several houses, including a $21 million mansion in Weston, and a stake in the Boston Celtics.
Indeed, he wasn’t exactly hiding his ambivalence. In 2008, he complained in an interview with a Globe reporter that if Barack Obama raised taxes, why should he bother to work any more? Over a cup of coffee with his dad, he decided he’d had enough.
“I’m not a trader. I’m an investor,’’ Pallotta said. “It just got to be too much of that short-term, how-did-you-do-today type of investing. And it’s just not what I do.”
So Pallotta set his sights on other things. He started winding down the Raptor hedge fund, even as he let rumors float that he might start a new one. He spent time with his father before he died in 2010. He moved the office from Rowes Wharf to Congress Street, at the edge of the up-and-coming Seaport District. And he refocused his firm on longer-term, private equity investments in consumer, sports, and hospitality deals.
In 2011, along came AS Roma. Thomas DiBenedetto, president of the investment management firm Boston International Group and an owner of the Boston Red Sox, led a team of four investors to buy a 67 percent stake in AS Roma for a bargain $89 million. They took over ownership from the Sensi family that had long controlled it, touting their Italian heritage and affection for the country and the sport. In addition to DiBenedetto and Pallotta, the other investors are venture capitalist Richard D’Amore and real estate investor Michael Ruane.
The Sensis were struggling with AS Roma’s significant debts and some costly player contracts. And though it had a storied past, the team hadn’t won its own league since 2001 and hadn’t made the finals of the coveted European Champions League since the 1980s.
This was familiar territory for DiBenedetto, who as a partner in Fenway Sports Group became an investor in Britain’s Liverpool soccer club in 2010. He was president of Roma until last summer, when the group raised a new round of money and Pallotta, the largest investor, raised his hand to take over.
The owners aim to build Roma into a global brand, along the lines of the legendary British team Manchester United. They’re applying American sports business strategy, signing new players, and expanding media and marketing efforts in deals with Disney, Volkswagen, and others.
“At the end of the day, you’re branding Rome, right?” Pallotta said. “And how many cities in the world are as aspirational as Rome?”
Pallotta wants to turn the team — valued by Forbes last year at $354 million, the 17th most valuable soccer club in the world — into a $1 billion franchise. Central to the plan is building a new 60,000-seat arena by 2016 to replace the old Stadio Olimpico, a stadium dating back to dictator Benito Mussolini. Pallotta envisions a river walk along the Tiber, a hall of fame museum for AS Roma, and other attractions.
“They won’t let us use the Colosseum, so we have to build something,’’ Pallotta jokes.
In the meantime, he has a lot of angry Italian soccer fans on his hands. The owners fired coach Zdenek Zeman early this month after a humiliating fifth straight loss. And while the firing looked like a panic move, Antonio Labbate, online editor for the journal Football Italia, says few Italian coaches could survive such a losing streak.
“The problem in Italian football is that there is little patience,’’ Labbate said in an e-mail. “The Giallorossi support gave the new project under the American owners a chance, but they’ve not really seen any on-field progression since their arrival.”
With the recent floundering on top of a seventh-place finish last year, Labbate said, “It was only a matter of time before the American owners came under the spotlight.”
Meanwhile, Rosella Sensi, the team’s president before Pallotta and company arrived, gave reporters a blunt assessment about the new owners living across the Atlantic. “You need passion to lead Roma. I hope President James Pallotta will have that when he comes here, but right now he is too far away.”
Pallotta doesn’t speak much Italian, but he’s bound to get an earful when he heads to Rome for his team’s match with in-city rival SS Lazio in early April. His partner, DiBenedetto, said he has confidence Pallotta is making the right moves.
“You have to have the right personnel. It takes time,” DiBenedetto said. “Hopefully Rome will have the patience to allow the football people to make that happen.’’
With soccer’s growing appeal, the owners are trying to woo new audiences, playing games in Asia and here in the United States. Last July, Roma played Liverpool at Fenway to a sold-out crowd. Roma won.
“We’d love to try and stage a rematch,’’ said Sam Kennedy, chief operating officer at Fenway Sports Group. He offered empathy for Pallotta’s current challenges; Liverpool last won its league in England in 1990.
Seven months into the job, Pallotta doesn’t sound worried. “One of the priorities has been getting the team in great financial shape — I think we’re about to accomplish that,’’ he said. “And for sure it’s stabilizing the team and the players.’’
Title: Chairman and managing director, Raptor Group
Business: Hedge funds and private equity
Sports: Co-owner AS Roma soccer team; investor in Boston Celtics
Born: North End
Lives in Biggest house in Weston