Browns owner Al Lerner dead at 69

CLEVELAND -- Billionaire Al Lerner, who used his wealth from banking, real estate and credit-card giant MBNA Corp. to buy the Cleveland Browns, died Wednesday night. He was 69.

Lerner's death was confirmed by a team spokesman, who asked that his name not be used.

Lerner (pictured, above) underwent surgery in May 2001, reportedly to remove a brain tumor. In June, he said he had been in and out of the hospital during the past year.

A regular visitor to the Browns' suburban training facility to see the team he brought back to Cleveland in 1998, Lerner was rarely around the past few months.

The Shaker Heights resident, a former furniture salesman, ranked 36th on Forbes magazine's 2002 list of the richest Americans with a net worth of $4.3 billion.

Although chairman and chief executive officer of MBNA, the world's largest independent credit-card issuer, Lerner usually shunned the limelight.

That changed when he was awarded the Browns expansion franchise in 1998 for $530 million, at the time the highest price paid for a sports team.

The purchase came three years after his longtime friend, Art Modell, moved the franchise to Baltimore.

"Al Lerner magnificently fulfilled the American Dream, with extraordinary achievement in business and philanthropy," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "Tough and considerate at the same time, his judgment and advice was always special. His NFL legacy is as much about his being an influential league leader as it is being the generous Browns owner. Al's death leaves a terrible void for all of us in the NFL. We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife Norma and to his family."

After bringing the Browns back to Cleveland, Lerner served as chairman of the NFL's finance committee and was regarded as one of the league's most influential owners.

Lerner was a minority owner of the former Browns, and it was in one of his jets where Modell struck a deal with Maryland authorities to move the team.

While Lerner admitted he had a "front row" seat, he said the move was Modell's decision.

"None of that matters. What matters is that in 1999 there's going to be a team called the Cleveland Browns," he said while bidding for the team.

Unlike the flamboyant Jerry Jones of Dallas or the opinionated Modell, Lerner was a hands-off owner.

He followed a similar approach in most of his business dealings.

The son of an immigrant candy shop owner, Lerner was a tough-minded kid, whose first job selling furniture paid him $75 a week.

He saved enough to enter a deal to purchase a Cleveland apartment building. His real estate empire grew, and he went on to acquire banking interests in Baltimore.

In 1991, he spun off the MBNA Credit Corp. from debt-ridden MNC Financial in Maryland with a stock offering that raised $995 million. He ended up with a 10 percent stake in MBNA and became its chief executive.

Lerner also was chairman of Town & Country Trust, a Baltimore-based real estate investment trust that owns and manages residential properties.

His friend and business partner, Peter B. Lewis, chairman of Progressive Insurance Corp., once described Lerner as "the Michael Jordan" of the investment business.

David Daberko, chief executive of National City Corp., said Lerner had the ability to size up a deal and make it happen.

"I would say he is one of the two or three sharpest business people I have ever come in contact with," Daberko said in 1995. "He is logical, very clear-thinking -- a bottom-line oriented guy."

Lerner was born May 8, 1933, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He started from modest beginnings and earned a degree from Columbia College in 1955.

He later became a trustee of Columbia University and received the Hamilton Medal, the school's highest honor, in 1997.

As a philanthropist, Lerner gave generously to hospitals and universities.

In June 2002, he and his family gave $100 million to the Cleveland Clinic, the largest gift ever given to a northeast Ohio institution.

At a luncheon to announce the donation, the plain-spoken Lerner downplayed his generosity.

"We are honored," said Lerner, speaking to a group of donors. "You don't have to say thank you to us. We're saying thank you to you all for being so supportive of what we're trying to do."

Lerner's $25 million gift helped pay for Columbia's Lerner Hall, a student activities center.

He gave $10 million, on behalf of his wife, Norma, to University Hospitals of Cleveland to help provide a new hospital wing.

He was president of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, which oversees a medical complex with an international reputation. His gift of $16 million to the Clinic led to the 1999 opening of the Lerner Research Institute.

In describing what type of NFL owner he would be, Lerner compared it to his role at the Clinic.

"I happen to be the president of the Cleveland Clinic," he said in 1998. "I do no heart surgery. I do no medical things. If I did, that would dramatically raise the price of malpractice insurance. So, I'm extremely familiar, intimately familiar, with my limitations."

In October 2001, President Bush named Lerner to the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which provides independent advice to the president on the quality of the nation's intelligence system.

A former Marine, Lerner hired former FBI and Secret Service agents to work at MBNA. He also hired former Secret Service director Lew Merletti as the Browns' security director.

He was one of the 1998 recipients of the Horatio Alger Award, presented to promoters of "the American dream" by creating opportunities for people regardless of age, race, gender or economic status.

He is survived by his wife, the former Norma Wolkoff, two children and seven grandchildren.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)