The Peterman Principle
So much for the Seinfeld Curse -- that supposed hex that keeps the nineties sitcom's cast members from revisiting their former glory. John O'Hurley, the actor who played J. Peterman, Elaine's lovably pompous boss, has parlayed his Seinfeld fame into a thriving, multifaceted career. In the past few months, he appeared in ABC's (DIS ) summertime hit Dancing with the Stars, landed a classical CD that included his keyboard composition on the Billboard charts, and signed on to appear in January as Billy Flynn in the Broadway production of Chicago. People magazine in November named him one of the sexiest men alive.
And that's just the show-biz stuff. Unbeknownst to most of his fans, O'Hurley has enjoyed parallel success as an investor and financier -- also built on the Peterman character. The 51-year-old sits on the board of the real J. Peterman Co. and owns a sizable stake. He is a principal partner for Round One Investments in Los Angeles and Heritage Capital Advisors in Atlanta, two private-equity outfits. He also holds a big chunk of a restaurant chain and is an owner of Alaskan airline Era Aviation.
"I consider myself a corporation with several divisions," he says, sitting in the well-appointed living room of his 1920s-era Beverly Hills mansion, which he shares with his new wife Lisa and two dogs. He declined to give specifics about his investments, since they are mostly private.
O'Hurley could easily live on his Seinfeld syndication royalties. But after years as a work-a- day actor, it's hard for him to turn down gigs, even now. Peterman-as-pitchman alone, he admits, is worth seven figures a year. The character, he says, "is that Mr. Magoo-type buffoon who can say anything for corporations."
After graduating from Providence College in Rhode Island with a theater degree in 1976, O'Hurley took stock of his financial future. "I knew how to act," he says, "but I didn't know how to make a living out of it." So for five years he deferred his dream and worked in public relations, where he was able to squirrel away some money. "I was miserable. But I learned that the business comes first, then the show."
O'Hurley moved to New York in 1981 to pursue acting and eventually made a nice but unremarkable living on stage and as a soap opera mainstay. Then came the casting call for the Peterman character in 1995, six years after Seinfeld debuted. At the audition, O'Hurley was handed a J. Peterman catalog and asked to create the voice behind the product descriptions. "I thought of a '40s radio host mixed with Charles Kuralt," he says. Out came the melodramatic baritone that would become one of the show's trademarks. ("I'm afraid it's your urine, Elaine. You've tested positive for opium. That's right. White Lotus. Yam-yam. Shanghai Sally.")
So popular was the character that, in 2001, the actual John Peterman, whose company ended up in bankruptcy after overexpanding, approached O'Hurley with an invitation to invest in the real thing. Says O'Hurley: "He and I would walk together in Manhattan and every other person would stop me and say, "'Hey, Peterman!"' The character, O'Hurley calculated, gave the real J. Peterman Co. around $825 million worth of NBC (GE ) publicity over the years. As a board member and investor, O'Hurley focused on improving the brand's Internet and licensing strategies, both of which have paid off: The company is now turning a profit and once again expanding, carefully this time.
MORE THAN A PRETTY FACE
The Peterman character has figured prominently in O'Hurley's other business ventures, too. John Robison, founder of Round One Investments, was sipping cocktails at a Santa Monica (Calif.) bar one night in 1998 when, he says, "I heard the Peterman voice behind me." Robison struck up a conversation and before the night was over called O'Hurley an "ad whore" -- to which, according to Robison, the actor deadpanned, "I prefer `commercial concubine."'
The two discussed the major holding at Round One, an online video-technology company that needed a spokesman. O'Hurley agreed, with the understanding that he be given a hands-on role at the investment firm. Now, he's a principal partner and has an equity stake in the shop. O'Hurley has returned the favor, bringing on Robison to invest with him in cafeteria chain Piccadilly Restaurants, of which he and a group of private investors own 40%. "He's not just another pretty-faced actor," says Robison. "He has a commanding business sense."
In 1997, a partner at Heritage Capital Advisors met O'Hurley at a golf benefit, and the two chatted about the stock of Shop At Home, a struggling television-shopping channel whose shares, O'Hurley figured, could benefit from a strategic shake-up. "I said I wasn't happy with it lying so flat," he recalls. "So why don't we buy the entire company?" John Ray, Heritage's president, says O'Hurley made a compelling case that the stock was trading at less than its asset value.
So Heritage, with O'Hurley on board, made a $5 million investment and, at his prodding, "rabble-roused" for operational changes. In 2002, Scripps bought a controlling stake, allowing Heritage to sell its position at more than triple its investment. Heritage then used the proceeds to snap up five struggling gospel and country radio stations in the South. On an O'Hurley hunch that the growing Dixie Hispanic market was underserved, Heritage converted them into Spanish-language stations and quickly sold two at a nice profit; the remaining three are now drawing substantial interest from big media players, says Ray. (O'Hurley will only smack his lips when queried about their asking price.)
The actor sees his investing exploits as validation that he's more than a well-coiffed talking head. "They approach me as a spokesman," he says, of the investment firms that keep offering him various opportunities. "But I want equity and a say in the partnership."
Now the actor-financier is preparing to circle back to the Manhattan theater scene to star in the musical Chicago -- equipped with both business smarts and some extra pocket money. "Not every actor is going to make $20 million a picture," he says, putting aside the Peterman persona for a moment to share his career's lesson. "But there are still ways to use money to own things, so that you're not just a gun for hire."
By Roben Farzad