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Millions from dot-com sale change Ferber brothers little

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SCOTT A. FERBER is almost frantic.

He has lost the little plastic cap to his ChapStick and it is eating away at him. He scans the floor, looks over the black overstuffed chairs and couch, then roots through a garbage can.

This from a man who could afford to buy a lifetime supply of ChapStick for all of Baltimore. "Geez," sighs the 35-year-old chief executive of Advertising.com.

Nine months ago, he and brother John B. Ferber, 31, sold the Locust Point company they founded to media giant America Online Inc. for $435 million in cash, a startling shift in their plans to take the company public. The brothers pocketed about $70 million apiece before taxes.

But the Ferber brothers still appear to be, well, the Ferber brothers. They haven't quit their jobs, gone off on soul-searching journeys to Tibet or blown wads on yachts, planes, mansions, horses, restaurants, friends and hangers-on.

"I am not changing," said Scott Ferber, who sits in his offices in a pair of khakis and a green shirt with no tie. "You can't change the person. I haven't bought a [fancy] car; I haven't even bought clothes. It is not a big deal to me."

John Ferber, a computer programming whiz, is boisterous, chatty and prone to loud bursts of laughter. In the summertime he commutes to work with his dog, Cody, by a modified personal watercraft, across the harbor from his townhouse in Canton. Scott Ferber, who lives 15 doors down from his brother, brings in his dog, Lucy, who has a padded canine bed in the office.

John Ferber is often one of the first to arrive in the morning, usually at 7. His brother is often on the road, across the country and in Europe, meeting with clients and potential advertisers. This quarter he will have spent about 50 percent of his time traveling.

"It's weird because I thought life would be different," said John Ferber, who is single and Advertising.com's chief product officer. "I don't think the reality has hit me."

They may be brothers but they definitely have their own ideas of what to do with their new wealth.

Scott Ferber wants to ignore it. He gets uncomfortable when people treat him differently. "People know what we are worth," he said.

In a couple of months, he, his wife, Karyn, and their two children plan to move into an $800,000 home they recently bought in Pikesville. The purchase was in the works well before the AOL deal was done, he said. His money is tucked safely away and is being managed by a number of large firms.

John Ferber still comes to work in jeans and a black corduroy jacket that he bought at a secondhand store, but he has indulged in his biggest weakness: cars. He recently picked up a Mercedes-Benz SL500, which sells for about $100,000; and a black 1976 Pontiac TransAm for $10,000. He also has bought a vacation property north of Boca Raton, Fla.

When he attends a concert he now buys the better seats, or upgrades to first class when he flies. But he always rents the cheapest rental car. He has hired a full-time money manager to invest his fortune. Most of it is in cash, but he and his money manager are gradually deploying it into stocks, hedge funds, real estate and a number of privately held companies.

"My motivation is measured by wealth," John Ferber said. "I want to have more and more and more. I also want to do good with it. I think I want to leave a mark."

Friends see little change in the brothers.

"As far as I can tell, I don't think their lives have changed at all," said W. Gar Richlin, Advertising.com's chief operating officer. "I really can't tell you of any change in behavior on either of their parts. They still work the same hours; you can still get them on e-mail."

As with the Ferber brothers, there are no noticeable signs that Advertising.com has changed, either. The company still maintains its youthful, corporation-be-damned personality, and there are no traces that AOL owns it.

Employees work busily, and from time to time the quiet is shattered by a loud howl.

"That's John," the company's receptionist said with a straight face.

Often newly acquired companies are quickly destroyed by their owner, and top executives are usually the first to go, but the Ferber brothers have nothing but praise for AOL.

"I am very happy. I have no plans to leave," said John Ferber, who noted that the brothers have employment contracts but can leave anytime.

"They are letting us do what we want to do," his brother said. "My job here is awesome. My job is to drive the business. I am out selling."

Their immediate goal is to continue to build Advertising.com and help AOL get back on top of marketplace rivals like Yahoo and eBay.

"Before I was driven by pressure and stress. Now my motivation is winning," John Ferber said. "My goal is to make us [AOL] No. 1 again. It drives me."

Money aside, Scott Ferber wants to make sure he raises his children right. Their college education is taken care of and if he loses his job or decides to quit, he can take his time before getting into something else.

He also wants people to know that he is who he is, a man who will obsess over a ChapStick cap and crawl under his desk to retrieve it. "I am just another guy on the street walking around."

Peter C. O'Neill, Maryland's former director of the Office of International Business, has been named executive director for Pennsylvania's Center for International Trade Development. O'Neill worked for Maryland's Department of Business and Economic Development for more than 10 years.

Bill Atkinson's column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 410-332-6961 or by e-mail at bill.atkinson@balt sun.com.

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