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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 21, 2003 14 years ago

Whirlwind from Wharton

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A Tampa businesswoman will apply what she learned marketing Tropicana and Nestle products to a new equity fund she and some business school classmates are forming.

Whirlwind from Wharton

A Tampa businesswoman will apply what she learned marketing Tropicana and Nestle products to a new equity fund she and some business school classmates are forming.

By Francis X. Gilpin

Associate Editor

This isn't supposed to be an ideal time for raising big bucks to invest in flagging American manufacturing. But Joli C. Cooper says she and her partners aren't having any trouble at all.

"I can't say that's where the market is," says Cooper. "But our fund has been going well."

After just two months, Cooper and Williams Capital Partners LP have commitments of $50 million from private and public pension funds. That puts them a third of the way toward a $150 million goal, which they expect to reach sometime next year.

Their success might have something to do with where they've been and what they want to do with the retirement funds.

Cooper, 44, spent more than 20 years in consumer marketing at food and beverage purveyors such as Tropicana Products Inc. and Nestle SA. She came to Tampa in 1998 and rose as high as president and chief operating officer at Pasco Brands Inc., a subsidiary of Vitality Beverages Inc., which was formerly the citrus business of the city's Lykes family.

Among her partners in the new private equity fund is Robert Holland Jr., who was hired in 1995 to turn Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. into a dependably profitable enterprise. As Ben & Jerry's first CEO, Holland partly succeeded in spite of frequent clashes with the hippie founders of the Vermont ice cream maker.

Rounding out Cooper's partnership are fellow Wharton alums Mike Smart and Carl Cordova, along with Christopher J. Williams, head of one of the nation's top corporate-debt underwriters, Williams Capital Management LLC.

All but one of the partners are African-American and one of their New York-based fund's priorities will be identifying minority- and women-owned businesses that need capital, strategic advice, or both.

But the overall focus of Williams Capital Partners will be broader. Cooper says the partnership combines experience in marketing consumer brands with a traditional investment-banking component.

"I've worked with a number of investment bankers over the years and I knew that that was not just an idea. That was a great idea," says Cooper, whose enthusiasm helps make her voice heard over the whirring of cappuccino machines at a coffee shop in Tampa's Westshore district. "Bankers are bright and talented and they know the financials inside and out. But I'll tell you, from an operational perspective, they are not knowledgeable."

As for Cooper, she says: "I've grown up, pretty much, with business in my backyard." Cooper is the daughter of a retired three-star Marine Corps general who dove into business and politics after his military career.

J. Gary Cooper, who served as U.S. ambassador to Jamaica during the Clinton administration, has owned everything from a commercial bank to a flower shop in Alabama. His bail bond operation, one of several of his businesses where his daughter has worked, was known around Mobile for the catchy slogan: "You ring, we spring."

Joli Cooper graduated from her father's alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, and later took an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. After working on a New York trading floor for an investment firm, she spent five years in Los Angeles at Nestle. Among her accomplishments, Cooper boosted sales of Mighty Dog canine chow by more than 15% in the late 1980s.

Managing brands at a conglomerate was a welcome opportunity. "It's a wonderful platform to learn how to run your own business with somebody else's money," she says.

Cooper came back east to Tropicana while Seagram Co. Ltd. owned the Bradenton juice processor. She handled a number of overseas assignments, including one that required trans-Atlantic flights every other weekend while her son attended elementary school in Manatee County. Her subsequent Tampa job at Vitality helped reduce the travel, but she felt her family was still getting shortchanged.

"I had three children and, this is the honest-to-goodness truth, I never saw them," Cooper recalls. "I mean, my nanny dressed them in the morning. When I would get home, they were bathed and in their pajamas, pretty much."

Last fall, as she accepted an alumnae-of-the-year award at Wharton, Cooper announced that she was quitting the corporate world and going to work for herself. "There was a standing ovation," she says.

Along with opening a global business consultancy, Cooper is scouting for prospects for that first round of equity funding. She seeks companies in consumer package goods, distribution or manufacturing, with sales of between $50 million and $350 million. They should possess some proprietary advantage but need a little managerial and investment aid to exploit it.

"We're not venture capitalists and we're not LBO specialists, mezzanine financing. We're right in the middle of the risk spectrum," she says. "We're looking for fundamentally sound, middle-market companies. Yeah, they'll need work. But they'll need work on marketing growth potential, taking it to the next level, not taking them out of bankruptcy."

Cooper is certain the partnership will be investing in local companies. "Our competitive advantage is that we can add value to the management team," she says. "Bob Holland and myself, as industry partners, bring years and years of operational expertise to the table."

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