Romone Penny, a small-business owner, was a good basketball player out of south Minneapolis and DeLaSalle High School 15 years ago.

He also proves ­— pay attention, you kids with “hoop dreams” ­— that education and connections give you better odds of success than dreams of the NFL or NBA. Penny began his college career at Florida State University, a big-time basketball school.

“Some of my teammates were going pro, and others were athletes first, before students,” recalled Penny, 32. “I was even thinking maybe I could be a pro and I was on the bench … but I knew I needed to go to a school where I could play ball and focus on getting an education.”

Penny, raised on a tough corner by a single mother with other siblings, benefited from a caring business mentor and educators. He transferred to American University in Washington, D.C. Always sharp with numbers, Penny earned a degree in accounting, played on the basketball team, and joined the national tax practice of Big Four accounting firm Ernst & Young, starting as an intern in 2007.

Penny still plays ball, partly as a youth mentor. His adult pickup games sometimes include a so-so player named Barack Obama.

Glenn Youngkin, president of Carlyle Group, the huge Washington-based private-equity group, and a college basketball player himself, asked Penny several years ago to work with his basketball-loving son on guard play.

“I liked Romone right way,” Youngkin recalled last week. “He is a whiz-bang smart guy with a magnetic personality, and we became friends.

“One day, he told me about his ambition to start his own company. I coached him a little bit on how to set it up. He didn’t interrupt, but he already knew that. And now he has created a company that not only serves professional athletes the way nobody else does, but also serves the community. Romone is very good at what he does and he loves it.”

Starting his business

Penny, with the support of his colleagues, left Ernst in 2012 to start the Washington-based Pursuit Sports Group. It’s a consulting firm for professional athletes focusing on financial education, wealth accumulation, reputation management, endorsements and other business development.

Anecdotes and research indicate that up to half the pro basketball and football players are bankrupt or in financial trouble within a few years of their six- and seven-figure playing days. There have been stories of big-time jocks making bad investments, fleeced by agents and advisers, or squandering fortunes on their entourages.

“We don’t always learn financial education at home or school,” Penny said. “Families don’t often discuss how much parents make or finances, because that’s uncomfortable. And if you don’t get financial education at home or in high school, you can be in trouble.

“Sports can be a way to make money. Financial education, knowledge and humility are the way to keep it and responsibly manage it.”

Penny still pays himself less than the $100,000 compensation package he earned in his last year at Ernst. “I’m grinding,” he said. “I cover my expenses, and everything else goes back in the business.”

Several-employee Pursuit struggled initially. It’s now growing and will post revenue of up to $1 million this year. And Penny, joined by former athletes, coaches and businesspeople, is staging the 2016 Pursuit Finance & Sports Summit on June 18 at the Colin Powell Youth Leadership Center in south Minneapolis. It includes financial education activities and three-on-three basketball tournaments. More information is atpursuitsummit.com.

Former athletes will participate, including Dan Coleman, a Minnesota Gophers player a decade ago who earned a degree and played basketball professionally for several years in Europe. Coleman works for Edina Realty.

Grateful for mentors

Penny, confident from his education and business experience but humble about his good fortune, credits mentors and hard work for his success.

Rex Holland, a businessman, was his youth basketball coach. Holland and other private donors fund and run the MinneapolisNext scholarship fund that has helped hundreds of disadvantaged local kids attend private high schools over the past couple of decades.

“Rex, initially, was just my basketball coach,” Penny said. “Our relationship grew stronger over the years and he became like a father. We did not always see eye to eye … there were some bumps in the road. Regardless, it makes me feel good to make Rex feel proud.

“He told me to get that degree in accounting and understand finances and then you can get a good job. And now I run my own business.”

Holland, who chuckles now over any differences, is proud of how hard Penny worked to achieve.

Penny also knows what can happen to young guys who don’t have a caring father or mentor. His older brother Frank Penny was shot and killed last November in an unsolved case. Penny, his sister and their mother care for Frank Penny’s young sons.

In April, Penny, who considers President Obama a friend, brought the boys to a White House event. Obama met privately with them for a few moments. He mourned the loss of their father and lauded their uncle Romone as a hardworking business guy, good ballplayer and great mentor.

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.