In the mid-1990s Ron Burkle—the billionaire currently being sued over a botched Major League Soccer deal—was approached by an upstart investor named Bill Browder, who was trying to raise money for a hedge fund based in Russia.
Browder, an American living in London, had struggled to find a deep-pocketed partner. Burkle seemed like the ticket. The 43-year-old was already living at Greenacres, a mammoth Beverly Hills estate spanning 45,000 square feet. It was “the most ostentatious mansion I had ever seen,” Browder later recounted in his book, Red Notice. Bill Clinton had his own designated bedroom.
The pair quickly hashed out a deal: $25 million for a 50 percent stake in the fund. “Burkle was surprisingly relaxed and basically accepted my terms,” Browder recalled. In celebration, they went out to dinner, then to a club, and Browder giddily flew back to the U.K.
Four days later, according to Browder, he received a faxed contract from Burkle’s team. Buried on page seven was a surprising detail—Burkle wouldn’t actually put up any money. Instead, he’d try to help find the funds elsewhere, offloading any possible risk of his own. “No wonder he was so relaxed,” Browder fumed. He nixed the agreement and landed a partnership with another billionaire instead.
“When I told Burkle I wasn’t doing the deal with him, he lost his temper, swore at me, and threatened to sue,” Browder wrote.
Burkle’s spokesperson denies that narrative, saying that the pair met once, disagreed over terms, and parted ways without any lawsuit threats. But it would fit a familiar storyline for Burkle: a scuttled deal, some yelling, legal peacocking, and unflattering press. Right now a similar arc is playing out in California.
There, Burkle, 68, is a defendant in two civil lawsuits related to a planned Major League Soccer team in Sacramento. In 2019 he was announced as the lead investor in the effort, which included a more than $300 million stadium proposal and a $200 million expansion fee payable to the MLS. To the other partners, Burkle—so rich that he was a reported owner of the ultra-exclusive Yellowstone Club in Montana—added significant credibility and cachet.
Then Burkle changed his mind. In February, the MLS announced that he had dropped out, owing to “issues with the project related to COVID-19.” The club, for its part, said it echoed its fans’ sentiment of “anger, disappointment and frustration.”
Burkle’s potential partners were just as miffed. In June, the firm overseeing development filed suit over alleged breach of contract and fraud, saying it was owed $2.4 million for more than a year of unpaid work.
A second lawsuit was filed this week, this time by the construction company that expected to build the stadium. The suit claims that Burkle created corporate entities that “were mere shells designed to insulate” him, his partner and his company from liability. The plaintiffs are asking for $1.4 million.
Burkle declined to comment. His position appears to be that, because a contract was not formally signed, he doesn’t have to pay. Projected expenses had also climbed above initial estimates. And as Burkle has previously indicated, lawsuits are just a normal cost of his trade. “The more money you make, the more you end up as a target,” he told a reporter in 2007.
The court will decide the outcome of these cases, but it’s ultimately small potatoes. Another abandoned deal, another unhappy camper. Business for Ron Burkle rolls on.
Before he was the kind of man who might be extorted for $220,000 (no charges filed), or on the receiving end of a billion-dollar divorce claim (unsuccessful), or an entry in Jeffrey Epstein’s little black book (with a misspelled name and no evidence of impropriety), Burkle enjoyed an uncomplicated life.
His dad managed a grocery store, and at 13, Burkle started working as a box boy. The plan was for him to become a dentist, but he dropped out of college and wound up at his dad’s store instead. Young Burkle knew how to climb a corporate ladder. He was promoted to store manager and eventually, still in his twenties, became an executive at the store’s parent company.
In 1982, when he learned of plans to sell the grocery business, Burkle covertly orchestrated a buyout. He thought his offer was a sure thing. As he told Forbes in 2006, Burkle submitted the bid and applauded his dealmaking chops. “I started here as a box boy, I just bought the company—America's a great place,” he remembered thinking.
The board was less impressed. They fired him, an elaborate way of saying “no deal.” And thus, as goes the well-worn Burkle mythology, he was forced to build an empire on his own.
The ensuing buying frenzy took Burkle from the candy business back to the grocery game, where he made his real money, turning investments in Falley’s, Jurgensen’s, Ralphs, and other chains into massive payouts.
Money engendered political clout. He hosted fundraisers and grew close with President Clinton. After Clinton left office, Burkle was known to zip around on a Boeing 757. By 2007, he was a well-established billionaire.
That year, Burkle teamed up with fellow-billionaire Eli Broad on what would become another lost deal. They made a joint bid for The Chicago Tribune, and for a while they looked like frontrunners. At the last minute, the real estate magnate Sam Zell swooped in with a more enticing offer.
Broad tried to partner with Zell, the Tribune reported at the time. Burkle, meanwhile, wrote a letter complaining that the process had been unfair.
Zell quickly put to rest any thoughts of a compromise. "If somebody calls me and says I want to be a partner, and the next day tries to stick a knife in my back, tell me again why I would want to do business with him?" he told the Tribune.
The Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy just a year later, a bullet dodged for Burkle, but he remained in the headlines. Around the same time, news broke that one of his former business partners, Raffaello Follieri—an Italian entrepreneur who had dated Anne Hathaway—was being charged for misappropriating funds from a business deal involving Burkle and Bill Clinton. (Follieri later pleaded guilty.)
Burkle had previously sued Follieri over the allegations; litigation had already become his calling card.
To date, Burkle’s history of legal entanglements includes claims that his old partner Michael Ovitz broke a verbal agreement to pool investments; that Barnes & Noble was boxing him out of taking a larger stake; that a Porsche dealer was responsible when his car got stolen; that a major accounting firm helped land his money in tax shelters; that he was defrauded during the bidding process for the Weinstein Company’s assets; and so on.
The skirmishes have ended with a variety of outcomes: some lost, some settled, many won. And no doubt Burkle has often found himself on the defensive, like a now-settled claim that he tried to “stage a coup” against his partner in a hotel project, allegedly threatening to “go thermonuclear.”
None of it has interrupted Burkle’s deal flow. Over his career, his company says, the total value of his transactions has eclipsed $40 billion, including Soho House, Al Gore’s Current TV, Uber, and the Pittsburgh Penguins. And of course, he’s got a SPAC.
Many of Burkle’s investments have gone well, and the ones that haven’t—well, who cares. He’s amassed a real estate portfolio worth over $100 million. If a gambit goes bad and he loses friends in Beverly Hills, Burkle can always hole up at Neverland Ranch—which he bought in 2020—or at his apartment in NoHo, his London hideaway, his La Jolla mansion, or on his private island on Flathead Lake in Montana.
Still, he has insisted that he doesn’t seek out the corporate combat. “My definition of winning is having a good life, not the other person losing,” Burkle once told Bloomberg. “I know how to make money, and when I fight, I’m not making money.”