Winning Betts

“Most people thought we were completely off our rockers,” Roland W. Betts says as a sailboat glides past the windows of his vast office at Chelsea Piers on a sun-drenched afternoon in late July. Betts, 62, is recalling the consternation that greeted his 1991 decision to transform the then-dilapidated 1.2 million-square-foot pier complex on the west side of Manhattan, where the Titanic was heading in 1912 when an iceberg intervened.

Betts’ investment turned out to be highly successful, crowning an already impressive business career.

In 1983, guided by his Columbia Law School education and a four-year stint in entertainment law at Paul Weiss, he founded Silver Screen, a company that raised more than $1 billion from 140,000 investors to finance and produce about 75 feature films with The Walt Disney Company, including Pretty Woman and Good Morning Vietnam.

In 1989, at the urging of his Yale fraternity buddy George W. Bush, he assembled a team of investors to acquire the Texas Rangers. They sold the team in 1998 for a handsome sum that yielded the future U.S. president (Betts’ junior partner in the deal) a profit of $15 million. It was a 2,500-percent return on Bush’s $600,000 investment.

Bush and Betts, a staunch Democrat, remain best buddies.

At Chelsea Piers, Betts transformed a languishing eyesore into a hive of commerce. For the past decade, the Piers have attracted 4 million visitors a year, about the same number received by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History, where Betts serves on the board.

Spread across 28 acres, the complex’s amenities now include a golf club, two ice skating rinks, gymnastics and event spaces, a health club, a spa, rock climbing walls, soccer fields, basketball courts, a marina, several restaurants, dining cruises, a toddler adventure center, and TV studios that are home to Law & Order.

Betts ascribes much of his prodigious success to his legal training. “I’m very indebted to Columbia Law School,” he says. “The teaching was first rate. I use my legal education every day.”

And three decades after graduation, Betts maintains close ties with Columbia. He serves on the Dean’s Council (a group of senior advisors to the Law School), and in 2006 the Law School bestowed on him its Lawrence A. Wien Prize for Social Responsibility, in recognition of his efforts to deploy his legal skills for the public good.

These days, he devotes about 75 percent of his time to not-for-profit activities. He is currently the chairman of the trustees at Yale and serves on the boards of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where he is treasurer.

Best friends of U.S. presidents usually wind up being appointed to prestigious ambassadorships, but Betts has resisted such opportunities, preferring to focus on his business and philanthropic interests.

“He calls me the ‘Secretary Without Protocol,’” Betts says, referring to Bush, “which means that I can talk to him about anything, anytime. Sometimes he listens to me; sometimes he doesn’t.”

As for how he can be both a staunch Democrat and the best friend of George W. Bush, Betts seems to anticipate the question. 

“Firstly, I would say that media description is not the Bush I know,” he says. “Secondly, I don’t disagree with the president that much on terrorism and foreign policy. But domestically...” His voice trails off, diplomatically.

“I can try to convince him,” he says. “But nobody’s perfect.”

Christopher Mason is a New York City–based writer and a frequent contributor to The New York Times.