|By Gary D'Amato, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 8, 2005 - Ashley Cooper was having a really bad time.
It was the fall of 2002 and Cooper, an Oconomowoc native, was fighting off creditors and on the verge of taking a financial bath.
He and a partner had purchased the John DeLorean Estate out of bankruptcy for $17.5 million and planned to develop real estate and a golf course on the 500-acre site in affluent Bedminster, N.J.
"We had $7 million worth of contracts in real estate, then two cataclysmic things happened," Cooper said. "We had state zoning issues and, more tragically, 9-11 happened. That basically put a kibosh on our plans.
"With no money coming in, we basically hit a wall."
Then one day, a stressed-out Cooper answered the phone in his office and heard, "Ashley, this is Donald Trump."
"I literally thought it was a joke," Cooper said. "I had had a particularly bad day, and I was in no mood."
But it really was The Donald.
The New York icon and star of the NBC reality TV series "The Apprentice" told Cooper he was interested in buying the DeLorean property. One month later, they closed on the deal. One of the purchase points was that Cooper would stay on board to oversee real estate development and construction of a private Tom Fazio-designed course.
That's the short version of how Cooper, a one-time basketball star at Oconomowoc High School and Ripon College, came to be a member of Trump's trusted inner circle.
Cooper, 44, who lives in Summit, N.J., recently was named a managing partner of Trump's new company, Trump Golf Management LLC.
Cooper will continue in his role as chairman of the Bedminster property. He also will work to attract national and international events to the Trump golf properties and will help identify sites for potential development.
Basically, Cooper is Trump's right-hand man when it comes to golf.
"Donald really trusts his key people and gives them an enormous amount of flexibility," Cooper said. "People that perform for him and protect him and make him look good, he gives them a lot of rope."
Trump wants to become a major player in the golf industry. He already has invested $200 million in courses in New York, New Jersey, Florida and California and is looking to add more to his portfolio.
"We'll do high-end, exclusive developments around the world," Cooper said. "I'm going to Mexico to look at Cabo (San Lucas). We're looking at a deal in Brazil, a piece of property in Scotland and a couple opportunities in the U.S., in Charlotte and Las Vegas."
It was Cooper who suggested Trump visit Whistling Straits during the 2004 PGA Championship to see how the Kohler Co. operated its acclaimed hotel and golf resort.
"He said, 'Why (in) the hell would we want to go to Wisconsin?' " Cooper said. "I said, 'Trust me, this is one of the most beautiful places in the U.S.' It was classic, because Herb (Kohler) and Donald formed a fast relationship. I think Donald has an enormous amount of respect for Kohler, as do I.
"We aspire to do what Herb has done."
Cooper is an avid golfer and holds a single-digit handicap, but he never imagined he'd wind up running Trump's golf empire.
He starred as a 6-foot-4 forward for Ripon College, leading all NCAA Division III scorers with 601 points as a senior in 1981-'82. He still ranks fifth on the Red Hawks' all-time list with 1,363 points.
"He was a very good athlete," said Ripon coach Bob Gillespie. "He had a great personality, too. He was the kind of guy who could sell anything."
After college, Cooper started a career on Wall Street.
"I got hired to go into Solomon Brothers' training program in New York, which was a huge opportunity for me," he said. "I was too ignorant to be scared. I didn't know what I was getting into."
Eventually, Cooper was offered a partnership at Montgomery Securities, which was sold for $1.2 billion to NationsBank in 1997. A merger with Bank of America followed in 1998.
"That was a very, very good thing for me and my partners," Cooper said of the financial windfall. "I was 38 and retired."
He dabbled in high-end real estate and bought the DeLorean Estate with partner Jim Downs. That's when problems cropped up and Trump stepped in.
"Donald has been the perfect owner," Cooper said. "He's given us the capital to do whatever we want."
Cooper said "The Apprentice" has helped to humanize Trump, a larger-than-life figure who is known for his real estate holdings, his hair and his wives -- and not necessarily in that order.
"He once said to me, 'Ashley, you have no idea what it's like being in my life,' " Cooper said. "And now with 'The Apprentice,' it's multiplied tenfold. But I think the show has enabled people to see another side of him.
"He's become a very good friend of mine. We talk at least twice a day."
Trump asked Cooper to appear in a taping of "The Apprentice." That show is scheduled to air in March. Cooper and his wife, Linda, also were invited to attend Trump's recent wedding to wife No. 3, Melania Knauss.
Which raises a question: What does one buy Donald Trump for a wedding gift?
"We got them a Tiffany plate engraved with their wedding invitation," Cooper said. "He liked it."
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