Rugby in the DNA of Marco Masotti, the Sharks’ new US investor
Durban - He’s an undisputed king on Wall Street, a partner in a leading US law firm, has rugby embedded in his DNA and although New York has been his home for a while now, all things South African remains dear to him.
So it was inevitable that Marco Masotti, 52, who was raised in Amanzimtoti and moved to the US to further his legal career in the 1990s, would leap at an opportunity to make a multimillion-dollar investment in his country of birth.
That the outlay centred on rugby and his beloved Sharks made the deal even sweeter.
Earlier this month, the MVM Holdings consortium, which has Masotti at the helm, bought the controlling interest (51%) in the Sharks franchise.
Masotti views the investment as an opportunity to give back to the local game and dangle Durban’s allure to some of his big-hitting business and sporting contacts.
But benevolence was not the only reason Masotti got the ball rolling on the Sharks deal.
He firmly believes it made good business sense because the Sharks was a “great brand”, they had a good management structure, made transformation a business priority, and were connected to the Eastern Cape talent pipeline.
Masotti is now looking forward to establishing the Sharks’ worldwide footprint, including in the US where Major League Rugby is growing in stature.
Speaking from his New York base, Masotti said the Sharks investment was special because “they are my team”.
After all, making intelligent investments that reap handsome rewards for his backers is Masotti’s game.
As a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, a leading law firm involved in all aspects of American life, Masotti has been the driving force behind their private equity formation practice, which he pioneered in the late 1990s.
Presently, Paul Weiss is a big player in the US private equity and hedge fund fields.
And Masotti is the star of the show. He represents and advises some leading global investment companies and individuals.
His work in the marketplace has not gone unnoticed.
Top investment and business publications have billed Masotti as a MVP (most valuable player) and others referred to him as a “mover and shaker” in the industry.
After completing his schooling in Toti, he attended the University of KZN and achieved his law degree in 1991.
The next year, he achieved his Masters of Laws at the University of Virginia, US, having received a scholarship.
He met Max Kennedy there, the son of Bobby, and got caught up in their world, which set him on the path of getting involved with Democratic Party politics in the US.
“I have always had a bug for American politics and constitutional history. I consider myself a friend and supporter of Hillary Clinton, who I respect. I was a fund-raiser for her presidential campaign in 2016.
He joined Paul Weiss in 1993 and got to work with Ted Sorensen, a partner at the firm and the former speechwriter of John F Kennedy. At age 32 he became a partner at the firm.
“Ted was my mentor”.
Masotti’s other hero was boxer Muhammad Ali, who he met by chance, near his workplace in Manhattan, and they enjoyed a conversation on 6th Avenue, amid shouts of “champ” from people who thronged around them.
In 1997 he took a one-year leave of absence from Paul Weiss to clerk for Justice Albie Sachs at the South African Constitutional Court, which Masotti rated as a “life-changing experience”.
The father of three, Michaela, Alexander and Sophia, all university students, remains proud of his South African roots.
He is the son of an Italian immigrant, Venio, who died last year, and grew up on the outskirts of Toti.
Masotti made many friends during his school days, and also got involved with community activities.
After a long stint as a pizza-maker at the local Sanlam Centre, he got to know “almost everyone in town”. “I am a Toti boy,” declared Masotti. He attended Amanzimtoti Primary and Amanzimtoti High schools.
He remembers Mr Vincent, a teacher who encouraged Masotti to become a lawyer after listening to him argue on behalf of the Zulus involved in the Battle of Isandlwana.
Whenever Amanzimtoti High beat Kingsway High at sporting events, he described it as the “best feeling in the world”.
Cricket was his sport of preference, he captained his school’s 1st team, and even harboured hopes of playing for “Natal”.
While his affinity for rugby is wellknown and is also an avid Springboks fan, who was present when they won the World Cup in France (2007) and in Japan (2019), he accepted he was not cut-out for the rigours of playing the game.
“I was blessed with a rugby brain but not a rugby body,” he admitted.
His love affair with rugby began in earnest when he attended the July 24, 1976 Test match between the Springboks and the All Blacks, at Kings Park Stadium, with his Italian father.
“I was swept away and it has become a part of my DNA and South African heritage. I live and breathe it, and is one of the ways I remained connected to the country.”
Masotti often travels with Alexander to watch rugby and describes those excursions as important for relationship-building with his son.
He still has family living in the country. His mother Zeei, sister Vania, brother-in-law, Dr Hennie Goosen, and their children all live in Durban North.
“Our family usually gathers for Sharks and Springbok games.”
Although Masotti has lived in New York for nearly 30 years, he feels at home whenever he visits Durban.
“On every trip, my mother ensures our home is filled with boerewors, samoosas, biltong, curried vegetable pies and off course, lots of pasta.”
Masotti plans to spend more time in this part of the world and the Sharks investment enables that, he said.
“I also intend to encourage all the members of my consortium to re-engage with Durban, which is such an amazing city, and South Africa. It is part of why I am doing this.”
Some of his colleagues believe he is a lunatic for taking on the venture, based on how hard he worked at the firm.
“However, my clients and friends are very supportive and appreciate the very unique opportunity the investment provides.”
Before the Sharks deal, Masotti and company were set to invest with Cape Town-based Stormers.
Masotti said he was not popular with friends at the time, given his affinity for the Sharks, but that “led to nowhere” and now everyone is happy again.
Just as the MVM announcement was made there were rumblings that Siya Kolisi, the Springbok captain who plays for the Stormers, would be moving to the Sharks.
“The Sharks have a terrific young team and we need to be careful not to disrupt the culture at work. My hope is that we add to what is there in a thoughtful way, to win,” said Masotti.
Given Masotti’s heavy workload, he said his day was organised into 15-20 minutes increments of problem solving.
“We call it ’Whac-a-mole’ in my group — going from one issue to the next. It is frantic but exhilarating and I have learned to love it.”
He said his secret to success was to work hard and remain humble.
“To survive on Wall Street you need to do what Ali said: float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”
WHAT FRANCOIS PIENAAR HAS TO SAY ABOUT MASOTTI:
Masotti and Francois Pienaar, the former World Cup Rugby-winning captain, first got acquainted at a New York charity gala dinner in 2004.
“I had just founded the Make A Difference (Mad) leadership foundation. Marco and I chatted the night away, he loves rugby and generously supported the fund-raising that evening. We exchanged contact details and have become very good friends over the last 16 years.”
Pienaar said they meet at least once a year at Mad’s golf day in New York.
“He is on the board of the Mad Foundation in the US and together with his team of lawyers, they support us every year, which is very humbling.”
Pienaar said they also had their favourite restaurant in New York where they “share war stories under the Chatham House rules”.
When they decide on having a braai, Pienaar said: “Marco is not a good braaier, that's my area of expertise!”
He said Masotti’s work ethic, passion and love for rugby was outstanding and he was backed by a loving family.
To have achieved what Masotti has in his field, Pienaar said, requires someone who has the “brains to stand out”. “Marco’s expertise is razor-sharp. I have had a number of casual dinners with some of his top clients and the respect they have for his advice is clear.”
About having a hand in Masotti investing in the Sharks, Pienaar said he obliged because his advice was needed.
“Rugby globally is going through a very tough time (as other sports). It is time for a reset and repositioning of the game. The fact that the Sharks will be playing in Europe on a regular basis is a great opportunity to grow the brand.”
WHAT DR HENNIE GOOSEN, MASOTTI’S BROTHER-IN-LAW, HAS TO SAY:
“I started dating his sister Vania in the year 2000 and started to hear a lot of good things about him. He struck me as a very charming, confident, and intelligent guy with a strong personality, but very humble, which is rare.
“In 2001, I met him shortly after the 9/11 disaster at his office. He had just become full partner in the firm by then.
“I could see the staff liked him and he treated them well. He also looked good in his tailor-made suit.
“Marco mixes with the business elite and presidents, but is still humble enough to keep in touch with his old friends. He loves eating at Italian restaurants especially. But he rates his mom’s cooking best of all. He says nothing beats her pasta and red sauce.
“Salads are another favourite of his, as well as minestrone soup, all with a glass of red wine.
“He enjoys a good braai, particularly the Grabouw wors, Karoo steaks, crispy baked potatoes and mom’s red sauce.
“I have attended two Springbok matches with Marco and they lost both. The British and Irish Lions game in 2009 and the 2017 thumping defeat to the All Blacks in Durban.
“He usually sits quietly and analyses games. But beforehand, he is always excited and in full Bok gear.
“He can multitask, i.e. watch games and do office work. Marco has kept up with local games over the years and has the ability to scout talented players early on.
“Part of his investment with the Sharks is to give back to the local community. I predict exciting times for the Sharks.”