From 1989: Timberwolves' Harv and Marv liked an informal approach

  • Article by: DENNIS BRACKIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 22, 2013 - 10:02 AM

Harvey Ratner and Marv Wolfenson were undaunted in their quest to bring NBA basketball to Minnesota.

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Marv Wolfenson (left) and Harvey Ratner

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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[Editor's note: This story was published in the Star Tribune on Oct. 29, 1989, as the Timberwolves began their inaugural season in the NBA. Marv Wolfenson died Saturday at age 87; Harvey Ratner died in 2006.]

A couple of years ago, the St. Louis Park Northwest Racquet and Swim Club underwent an extensive renovation. Included in the project was the executive office of the health club chain's co-owners, Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner.

The new office was moved a few feet toward the west end of the building and is a little larger than the old one. So much for change.

Wolfenson and Ratner still share the same room, with only open space separating their desks. There is no receptionist, and if one of the club owners is in, the door is open. Decor is sparse, consisting largely of family photos that dominate the walls behind each desk.

"Things are not much different than the way we operated in 1952," Ratner said. "There's no protocol around here."

That was the year Wolfenson, 63, and Ratner, 62, opened the door of Marvin Realty. Almost four decades later, at an age when most people are thinking of retiring, they bought an NBA expansion team for $32.5 million and began construction of a downtown Minneapolis arena and health club that will cost $65 million.

Wolfenson and Ratner were granted an NBA franchise on April 11, 1987, in New York City. The interim wait has produced perhaps the most difficult period of their careers. The partners financed the NBA franchise fee and the arena with their longtime personal banker, Hal Greenwood Jr. of Midwest Federal. When Midwest Federal became insolvent early this year, Wolfenson and Ratner scrambled to find a new mortgage for the arena. They also face the prospect of losing $15 million they had purchased in Midwest Federal subordinated debentures.

When Midwest Federal went under, Wolfenson and Ratner spent approximately $20 million of their own cash to keep arena construction going. It took almost four months before a refinanced mortgage could be completed with First Banks.

"It's as rough as we've had it in business," Wolfenson said. "We couldn't have gone much further. I don't know what would have happened. I suppose we could have lost $20 million and the arena. First Bank was a savior for us. Out of all the places in town, they were the only ones that came forward."

Wolfenson and Ratner have emerged undaunted, the franchise and their friendship secure. If anything, Ratner said, they are closer because of the mortgage scare. "During times of adversity, you kind of have to lock arms and move forward," he said. "I'd say, if anything, that we're more committed (to the franchise) because we've had to face (adversity)." Wolfenson and Ratner grew up within a block of each other in north Minneapolis and attended grade school, high school and college together. They were friends, but not best friends.

In 1952, Wolfenson embarked on a real estate career. He spent $1,000 for a sign, desks and an office at Lake St. and Lyndale Av. In search of a partner to split expenses, he contacted Leonard LaBelle, who would go on to start a chain of catalog and department stores bearing his name. 

LaBelle, newly married at the time, declined and recommended Ratner. Ratner was on the road selling construction materials and looking to make a change. Wolfenson bounced the real estate partnership off Ratner at a party, and Marvin Realty - the first letter and final two for Marvin, the second through fourth letters for Harvey - was born.

Ten months later, they began building single-family homes in Richfield, then expanding to Columbia Heights, Fridley and Brooklyn Park. Then, inspired by some small apartment houses they had noticed on University Av., they expanded the business to apartment complexes. First an 11-unit building, then 17 units, then 34, then 136 and 700 and 834. They still own and manage the larger apartment complexes.

Wolfenson and Ratner built their first tennis and health club in 1968. The club in the lower level of the arena complex will be their 14th. Through the years, a simple philosophy has guided their partnership.

"If we both say yes, it's yes," Wolfenson said. "If we both say no, it's no. If one says yes and one says no, it's no. We don't have time to sit down and write a bunch of bylaws about how to get along. ... But the guy who says yes has the opportunity to talk the guy who said no into it, and that's what's happened a few times. It's very easy, because his desk is right there and I'm right here. We don't have to call a meeting."

The partners are opposites in many ways. Wolfenson is aggressive and direct, Ratner is soft-spoken, slower to anger. Wolfenson was a star athlete in high school, Ratner a bench-warmer. Wolfenson disdains ties and seldom is seen in anything but an open-collared sport shirt. Ratner is an impeccable dresser.

Both agree that their contrasting styles have served them well through four decades.

"Even though we're different, I think we're compatible," Ratner said. "Sometimes, he charges so hard, I say, `Let's pause and reflect a little bit.' On the other side, I'm probably a little too conservative, so having an aggressive partner moves us into areas I wouldn't explore on my own."

One of those areas is the NBA. Wolfenson was the instigator five years ago when they first considered purchasing a sports franchise. Ratner, at first reluctant, has become a willing partner, echoing Wolfenson's desire that they be remembered for giving something back to the community.

Before the NBA, Wolfenson and Ratner preferred a low profile. They have been benefactors in numerous areas, ranging from the Children's Hospital to the University of Minnesota athletic programs. They once purchased a troubled theater for the purpose of saving it, then returned it to the theater company without any publicity.

Times have changed. Wolfenson and Ratner are in the public eye, although at least one of them would prefer to fade back into relative anonymity. "I like it better now than I did a year ago, because a year ago it was just Bob (team president Bob Stein), myself and Harvey," Wolfenson said. "Now we've got players and a coach and other people that can be written about. They don't have to cover us that much."

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