In the "no"

For Troy Polamalu, financial success means getting rid of yes-men

Originally Published: June 11, 2013
By Darren Rovell | ESPN The Magazine

Nyjah Huston was planning to defend his Street League Skateboarding gold at X Games Munich this week. But on Tuesday, he withdrew from the competition due to a rib injury. This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 24 Money issue. Subscribe today!

TROY POLAMALU ANSWERS the phone at his mansion in La Jolla, Calif.

"What's this I hear about you getting another house?" says the voice on the other end of the line. It comes across as more of a challenge than a question.

"It's a cheap house," Polamalu insists. "Like, really cheap."

The Steelers safety can certainly afford it. He has no debt, made $367,000 per week last season and has plenty of money in savings. 
"I made millions of dollars -- what's wrong with spending a small percentage of that?" he says.

The two volley back and forth for a couple of minutes about Polamalu's wanting to invest in a third home, but the idea quickly gets shot down. "It's not about whether you can afford it, Troy. It's what that money can instead do for you over the course of your lifetime."

And that was the end of it.

"As soon as the conversation was over, it was done, settled," says Polamalu.

The seven-time Pro Bowler admits to battling the kinds of splurges that have drained the finances of so many athletes. His custom Range Rover, which he bought for $100,000 when he signed his first NFL contract in 2003, is a reminder of that. But these days, he's smarter with his money, he says; he plans for the long-term. These days he's part of a team of fellow investors -- each one ready to check in on him, ready to say no to his latest whim.


Troy PolamaluGregg Segal for ESPNPolamalu listens to CEOs, not athletes, when it comes to money.
THE MAN ON the phone was Dusan Miletich, one of the managing principals of Arenda Capital. He's not Polamalu's agent or financial adviser but actually his partner.

Arenda is what's called a multifamily office -- there are around 4,000 in the U.S. -- and is made up primarily of the pooled funds of four families, Miletich's being one. Polamalu, who has netted more than $25 million after taxes since being drafted by the Steelers as the 16th pick overall a decade ago, is the office's most recent partner.

Family office companies such as Arenda manage the net worth of wealthy families like a business. That means everything from cutting checks for car payments and mortgages to handling personal finances. It also means investing any income generated to make more money and managing wealth from generation to generation by resolving estate-planning issues. Because Arenda includes more than one family, investment decisions are made by the group for the group -- everyone having something to gain, or lose.

The roots of Arenda go back to the 1960s with Miletich's father, Vel, who partnered with Parnelli Jones, one of the most prominent race car drivers at the time. The two founded a family office with the goal of living off their real estate investments while accumulating enough to take care of future generations.

When the housing bubble burst in 2008, the company shifted its focus from retail, office and industrial properties to apartment buildings, which could be had cheaply. That year it also added the Meyer family, one of the oldest commercial landowners in Beverly Hills and Pasadena and started real estate investment funds so outsiders could take part in its growth; Arenda now has about $500 million in assets under management.

Polamalu was introduced to the business in 2010 by his brother-in-law, Alex Holmes, whose sister, Theodora, married Troy in 2005. Holmes had recently taken a job as director of business development with Arenda and had some concerns about the Polamalus' finances and how they were being managed. This was family, after all. "He was being managed like every other athlete, and to me, that wasn't good enough," Holmes says.

He suggested Arenda.

In May 2010, Miletich and one of Arenda's other managing partners, Ryan Millsap, flew to San Diego to visit with Troy and Theodora. Things clicked. Polamalu and Miletich are both Greek Orthodox, and Polamalu, who is religious, describes Millsap as "theologically close."

"There were a lot of things in common," Polamalu says. "And there have to be, because when you do a business deal, there is a level of trust you place in people."

After a six-month probationary period, Polamalu offered an infusion of capital, and Arenda subsequently evaluated all of his business relationships, ditching most of them. Notably, the only person left standing was his agent, Marvin Demoff, who didn't manage any of his money.

Polamalu also agreed to hand over his day-to-day finances, his NFL salary included, and to give Arenda full bank account access to manage his lifestyle. Polamalu pays no fees for Arenda's services as he would with a financial adviser or agent. And unlike a financial adviser or agent, Miletich has no problem saying no, something that has forever haunted athletes who surround themselves only with yes-men.

"A guy comes to an agent and says, 'I'm probably going to invest in this yacht,'" Polamalu says. "And the agent might come back and say, 'You probably shouldn't do that.' But at the end of the day, he'll say okay because he doesn't want to lose the player."

For his part, Miletich shakes his head at what he deems a broken model. He questions the NFL Players Association, which brings in wealth advisers to talk to players, knowing that the same advisers are all hoping to sign those same athletes.

"If the people who advise all these athletes aren't willing to put their own money into an investment, then the athlete shouldn't either," Miletich says. "Ninety-nine percent of the people I've met are enablers. They bask in the halo of athletes. The best part about this is, if the other families don't like what Troy is doing, we'll fire him."

But there seems little risk of that. "Troy and Theodora are now family to us," Millsap says. "We're committed way beyond business."


SLOW AND STEADY isn't exactly a marketable philosophy in the world of professional sports, where careers can end abruptly. That's one of the reasons even Polamalu's Steelers teammates have no idea that he is a partner in this unique business structure. "In the locker room, the talk is just of the sexy things," he says. "Some guy saying, I made an investment and got this percent return."

[+] EnlargeTroy Polamalu
Gregg Segal for ESPNPolamalu may be the only athlete partner at Arenda, but his presence in the office is huge.
But one thing Miletich has taught Polamalu: Talk to owners, not athletes, for business advice. The way Polamalu sees it, Arenda is not only keeping him out of trouble but also helping him build a solid future for sons Paisios, 4, and Ephraim, 2. "I think a lot of athletes think, Let me put all my money into Home Depot or Facebook and just make tons of money out of it," Polamalu says. "The problem that athletes have is that they aren't businesspeople. I'm the first to admit that. I just haven't put in the time."

So far, the support system at Arenda has helped fill the gaps. The office's relationships allowed Polamalu to score an equity stake in LYFE Kitchen, a healthy-eating restaurant and grocery store concept recently lauded by Oprah Winfrey. Polamalu returned the favor by bringing in Hyperice, a new age athlete ice bag company valued at $5 million even before selling a single product at a brick-and-mortar retail store. Arenda now owns a 15% minority stake.

But real estate, not funding companies, is Arenda's primary business. When the company identifies a piece of real estate it's interested in -- it owns 2,800 apartments in 11 buildings in three states and 35 commercial properties in California alone -- the families decide how much they want to invest.

Miletich says Polamalu has been active since joining the group. "And he can take solace in the fact that I have more money in these investments than he does," he adds.

Yet Polamalu's contributions to real estate have so far proved unsuccessful. He was pushing hard for the company to buy land in Pittsburgh. "We tried," Miletich says of the failed effort in the Steel City. "But I'm not going to do the deal because Troy wants me to. I'm going to do the deal only if it makes sense."


BY ALL ACCOUNTS, the relationship with Polamalu has worked out well. But that doesn't mean Arenda has any interest in bringing on more athletes. Polamalu has been willing to learn and listen, something that athletes aren't typically known for. "I became a millionaire overnight by signing a piece of paper," Polamalu says. "I made more money in that one second than my entire family did in their lifetime. So the hardest thing for me to swallow was that there was a possibility that I wasn't going to become a billionaire overnight."

Polamalu has yet to cash in off anything he's put his money into. Instead, he gets paid from the revenue that comes from the rent the company collects, which Miletich confirms generates hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for the Steelers safety, the end goal being for him to live off that monthly income as a kind of allowance. Polamalu is still getting used to the challenges of living within a budget, though; because of his job and lifestyle, his monthly expenditures fluctuate more than those of the other office members.

But Polamalu has cleared the biggest hurdle: internalizing the idea of the long-term view instead of the immediate return. "He now understands that if you go in with the idea that you might own something forever, you're never upset if you get stuck with it, as long as there is cash flow associated with it," Miletich says.

Even better, if Arenda lives up to its billing, Paisios and Ephraim could one day be in the owner's box rather than on the sidelines.

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Darren Rovell | email

ESPN.com Sports Business reporter