PROVIDENCE — For 27 years, Paul J. Salem played a key role in helping Providence Equity Partners grow from managing $171 million to more than $50 billion in investments in media, communications, and software companies throughout the world.
He did it quietly, looking out from offices on Kennedy Plaza, far removed from the money management epicenter in Manhattan.
But since retiring as Providence Equity’s senior managing director in 2018, Salem has begun to emerge as a source of funding and expertise for a growing number of Rhode Island businesses, including Seven Stars Bakery, the Feast & Fettle gourmet meal delivery service, bag and pack company Knack, the Guild brewery, and the National Marker sign company.
Six months ago, the 57-year-old Barrington resident created a family-owned investment firm, Salem Capital Management. He hired Chris Satti, a Harvard Business School graduate and private equity professional at Audax Group, as president.
The firm just opened an office at CIC Providence in the Wexford Innovation Center, on former Interstate 195 land, in Providence. And in an interview, Salem told the Globe he intends to invest $100 million a year, with a significant portion of that money going to local companies.
“We are investing in Rhode Island. I love this place,” Salem said. “I just think Providence is such a great city. We have such great people here. But we are kind of the forgotten stepchild. Somehow, the boom of Boston doesn’t make it to Rhode Island. And I think it should.”
Though he is chairman of the board of MGM Resorts International, investing in Rhode Island offers him the opportunity to do one of the things he misses most about working in private equity: working with entrepreneurs.
“I love doing deals,” he said. “And I like backing people.”
In Rhode Island, his goal isn’t to rescue struggling businesses — it’s to help promising businesses expand and prosper, he explained. (”I like to make money, too,” he said.)
His $1.2 million investment in Feast & Fettle comes as the gourmet food delivery service is beginning to expand into the Boston market. With his backing, Seven Stars Bakery owners Bill and Tracy Daugherty have been able to expand their cafes beyond Providence, opening a fourth location in Cranston last year, with a fifth planned for the former Olga’s Cup & Saucer site in Providence. Salem said he’d love to see 10 or 15 more Seven Stars around the Ocean State.
And staying local offers an added bonus. “We invest in companies I can drive to,” Salem said, only half kidding. “If you can drive to it, you can touch it, feel it, and get to know the people.”
A graduate of Brown University and Harvard Business School, Salem worked for Prudential Investment Corp. and Morgan Stanley before joining Providence Equity Partners in 1992. He established the London office for Providence Equity in 1999. In 2008, he helped create Providence Equity’s credit affiliate, Benefit Street Partners, which grew to more than $22 billion under his management. He retired in June 2018.
He had his eye on the local landscape long before launching Salem Capital earlier this year. Salem founded the Rhode Island chapter of Year Up, a nonprofit that provides intensive professional education to young adults in urban, underserved areas, and is now the group’s national chairman. Some 2,000 young Rhode Islanders have been helped by the program.
Not all investments work out, however. He invested in the Pawtucket Red Sox in 2017, hoping to keep the Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox in Rhode Island.
“Obviously, we failed at that,” he said. “It was awful.”
Salem said he had hoped to see a new stadium built on the site of the Apex building in downtown Pawtucket, in full view of traffic on Interstate 95. “That’s the entry point from Boston — a perfect location,” he said. “My part of it was to do an economic real estate deal to build stuff around the stadium to create a tax base.”
For a while, the plans looked promising, winning support from Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien, Governor Gina M. Raimondo, and state Senate leaders, he said. The Senate approved a deal that would have required the team to pay $45 million, the state $32 million, and the city $15 million.
Salem said House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello had promised to support the plan if everyone else was on board, but once that support materialized, he did not back the deal. Instead, the House passed a pricier package — Mattiello said he wanted to shift financial risk for building the stadium away from the city and state — and discouraged PawSox owners moved the team to Worcester.
“The truth is it’s a home run for us in Worcester,” Salem said. “Pun intended.”
Salem, who grew up near Worcester, in Shrewsbury, said he recently visited the WooSox’s newly constructed Polar Park, and three people stopped to thank him after noticing his car has Rhode Island plates. “It’s great to have [the team] in Worcester, where it’s actually wanted,” he said.
Salem’s new firm is managing a portfolio of about a dozen companies — he had not been seeking out investment deals, Salem said, they had been finding him — but with Satti running Salem Capital Management the process will become more active and formalized.
Satti, who grew up in Warwick and now lives in Providence, said Rhode Island has been overlooked by the big pools of capital in New York and Boston.
“It’s hard for companies to get access to capital and strategic support,” he said. “And that is what we want to provide here.”
When Salem hired him, he made clear that the goal wasn’t just to make smart investments and to help local businesses grow but also to have some fun, Satti said.
“That is part of our culture,” he said. “And so far it’s been a blast.”