Potential Royals owner John Sherman: ‘the kind of guy who would pour himself into it’

Entrepreneurship turned John Sherman into a well-respected voice in Kansas City. He’s shared investments with some of the city’s most influential businessmen. Served on company boards with some of them.

But the long-lasting nature of many of his business relationships here stretches to a similar vision of the city’s future — and most notably the sports identity within it.

And his voice could soon grow in volume.

A group led by Sherman is in discussions to purchase the Royals from owner David Glass, multiple sources told The Star on Tuesday.

Two sources described the talks as advanced, with one telling The Star that a deal could be finalized by the end of the year. The sale would need to be approved by MLB owners. League rules would also require Sherman, 64, to relinquish his minority ownership stake in the Cleveland Indians.

The negotiations were first reported by The Athletic.

Attempts to reach Sherman for comment Tuesday night were unsuccessful. The Royals issued a statement Tuesday evening that said: “The Kansas City Royals are not in a position to make any comments on the published speculation regarding any potential sale of the ball club. The Royals will make no further statements at this time.”

Glass, the former president and CEO of Wal-Mart who turns 84 next week, is currently in his 20th season as owner and CEO of the Royals. He was appointed interim chairman and CEO after the death of Ewing Kauffman, the Royals’ first owner, in 1993. In April 2000, the Glass family acquired the Royals from Kauffman’s estate for $96 million.

In April, Forbes estimated the Royals were worth $1 billion. Under Glass, the Royals reached back-to-back World Series, winning the 2015 championship, but have finished with a losing record in 14 of the last 19 seasons. They are on pace to finish with 100 or more losses for the sixth time under Glass.

Cliff Illig, the principal owner of Sporting Kansas City, declined comment on the potential Royals sale and stressed that he is not involved in any group’s negotiations. But he spoke to The Star about Sherman, a man he called a friend. Illig described Sherman as smart, thoughtful, energetic and someone who takes civic pride in Kansas City.

For years, Illig and Sherman discussed business investments. More recently, as Sherman became an Indians vice chairman and minority owner in August 2016, sports overtook the conversations between friends.

“Obviously you can see how the Indians have maintained (their success), and the Royals have fallen behind a little bit the pace the Indians have set. It’s not hard to imagine that guys like John, based on their interest in Kansas City, would love to see the Royals doing better,” Illig said. “What we did in 2015 and the press that created was spectacular. I can’t imagine anybody in baseball doesn’t realize that takes really special owners who have a vision for what they’re trying to do and the wherewithal to invest, and they’ve got a substantial commitment to seeing not just the team do well but try to win championships.

“I find John to be totally engaged in that thought.”

Sherman has been a Royals season-ticket holder in the past and has called baseball a “passion.” His experience in Cleveland perhaps offers a hint of how he might approach ownership in KC. When he bought into the Cleveland franchise, he told The Star he looked forward to “working closely with (chief executive and chairman) Paul Dolan as a partner to help the team compete for a World Series title.”

“My sense in chatting with him about how league meetings go is that he’s a participating member there,” Illig said. “I think he’s respected by other baseball owners, so I have to believe if he chooses to do something here in Kansas City, he would get a lot of support from baseball and the other owners.

“I think the transition for someone like him would be a lot easier. He knows the organizational structures. He has a good handle on player transactions. He’s well-informed. And he’s one of those guys who rolls up his sleeves and figures it out.”

Asked about Sherman’s leadership style in the business world, Illig said, “My sense he’s a good delegator, but at the same time, he’s a guy who really likes to understand how things work. If he’s leading a group (interested in the Royals), he’s the kind of guy who would pour himself into it.”

Illig, part of a group that bought the then-Kansas City Wizards in 2006, stressed the slow nature of sports franchise negotiations.

Because of Sporting KC’s success, many have asked him to lead a Royals purchase. He’s remained consistent in his praise of the Glass family’s work, though he’s acknowledged a transition is likely at some point.

But he won’t be on the receiving end of a handoff. He is, however, willing to be more than a simple bystander if asked.

“The Illig family, like many civically-oriented people here in town, certainly would consider providing some support to an effort that’s being led by somebody else, but there’s certainly no structure to that today,” Illig said. “I’ve been consistent with this: We’re really busy doing what we’re doing. We don’t have any appetite to dilute what we’re doing (with Sporting KC) by stirring something else up. But at the same time, we as a family are part of a civic group in Kansas City that fundamentally believe in Kansas City’s sports identity. If there’s a role that we can play or be supportive, we’re willing to consider it.”

In business, Sherman is known as a successful entrepreneur who started two energy companies. His first, LPG Services, merged with Dynegy, a regional electric company.

Sherman and Royals founder and original owner Ewing Kauffman were two of the inaugural inductees into the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Bloch School of Business Entrepreneurs Hall of Fame.

Entering the energy business, Sherman drew from earlier career experience at Ferrellgas Partners, a Liberty-based propane gas company.

In 1996, he founded Inergy, a propane firm that merged with Crestwood Midstream Partners in 2013. He still serves on the board of directors for both Crestwood Equity Partners, which gathers, treats and transports natural gas. The firm earned nearly $4 billion in revenue last year.

In a 2006 interview about his success in the propane industry, Sherman said his business philosophy focused on not worrying about things he can’t control.

“What I worry about the most is that we are recruiting and rewarding and retaining the people that it takes to carry out our strategy,” he said.

Sherman has been involved in Kansas City civic and philanthropic efforts for years.

In 2011, his family made a gift that University of Missouri-Kansas City Foundation officials said was one of the largest in the School of Education’s history. It allowed the school to create a think tank focusing on urban education issues.

Sherman himself is a graduate of Ottawa University, located in Kansas about an hour southwest of Kansas City.

In 2014, Notre Dame de Sion School said it received its largest ever one-time gift from Marny and John Sherman. While the school didn’t disclose the amount of the gift, officials said it surpassed a previous record of $1 million, according to Star archives.

Sherman is a trustee for Kansas City’s Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. He’s also a trustee for UMKC, a member of the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, a group comprised of the region’s largest private employers, and a trustee of the National World War I Museum. He’s a past chairman of the board for the Truman Presidential Library in Independence.

In 2014, when he was serving as chairman of the search committee looking for the Kauffman Foundation’s next CEO, Sherman said, “We are looking for a leader that understands and appreciates the impact of successfully executing Mr. Kauffman’s vision.”

As for baseball, Sherman said in 2016, “You really have to be a fan.

“It starts with baseball. It’s a business, and it’s an interesting business. But if you’re not a fan, I don’t think you’ll enjoy the business.

“It starts with being a fan.”

Star business reporter Kevin Hardy and sports columnists Sam Mellinger and Vahe Gregorian contributed to this report

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Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball for The Star. A native of the Northeast, he’s covered high school, collegiate and professional sports for The Lowell Sun, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Allentown Morning Call and The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s won awards for sports features and sports columns.