PISTONS OWNER WILLIAM DAVIDSON CELEBRATES WITH LARRY OBRIEN TROPHY
Mike Blake  /  Reuters
Detroit Pistons owner William Davidson celebrates with the NBA Championship Larry O'Brien trophy with players Ben Wallace, left, and and Mehmet Okur after Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
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updated 6/16/2004 1:50:53 PM ET 2004-06-16T17:50:53

Last night, the Detroit Pistons won the NBA championship, making team owner William Davidson, who also owns the NHL champion Tampa Bay Lightning, the first owner in major professional sports history to win two championships in different sports in the same year. Davidson also owns the Detroit Shock of the WNBA, the reigning champion of that league. But despite Davidson's unprecedented triumph, and despite his being a charter member of the Forbes 400 with a fortune valued at around $2 billion, there hasn't been a feature business magazine story written about him in more than a decade.

That one can be a multi-billionaire owner of sports teams and still remain essentially anonymous seems even more remarkable than his string of victories. Especially since his main business is glass.

"I just don't want to be a public figure. I don't see any point in it," Davidson, 81, told the Associated Press earlier this month. Indeed, one of the rare times when Davidson was in the news apart from the teams he owns was in 1985, when he took his company, Guardian Industries, now based in Auburn Hills, Mich., private. At the time, the company had about $300 million in sales. Today its revenues exceed $4 billion and it employs, 19,000, which is just slightly less than Enron circa 2001, operating in 20 countries on five continents.

Davidson was a member of the first Forbes 400 in 1984, when we estimated his net worth at $210 million. Today, the one-time lawyer and graduate of Detroit's Wayne State University ranks as the 104th richest man in the United States and the fourth richest sports team owner. Along with Paul Allen, he is a rare individual who owns two teams. Though the Pistons and the Lightning are together likely worth more than $400 million, you will never see Davidson at a player signing or wooing a superstar.

He was also a charter member of Slate's list of top philanthropists in 1996. His major gifts include endowments of the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan, which is dedicated to the study of business in developing countries. The $30 million check he wrote in 1992 to get it started was one of the largest-ever contributions to a business school at the time. Four years later, he made an equal contribution for a business school at Technion institute in Haifa, Israel.

Davidson took over the family's windshield replacement business in 1957. The company entered bankruptcy the same year. But two years later, Guardian, as it was re-named in 1968 when its shares started trading on the New York Stock Exchange, broke into the auto windshield market during a strike against U.S. glassmakers. With the major players sidelined, Guardian imported glass from Europe and fabricated it for American Motors. His second big move came in the early 1970s when he built a float glass plant in Carleton, Michigan. The two acts effectively broke a long-standing oligopoly in the glass business.

Today the company has plants in Hungary, Poland, Luxembourg, Japan and Saudi Arabia. It claims to be one of the top 100 automotive suppliers in the world, and is an original equipment supplier to General Motors and DaimlerChrysler. It also makes architectural glass for major building projects around the world, including for the rebuilding of World Trade Center Building #7.

Guardian has been politically active in world trade matters. It lobbied the Clinton Administration hard for better treatment of U.S. glass firms under the North American Free Trade Agreement, and it pushed the first Bush administration to help open doors to the commercial glass market in Japan. In the mid-90s it built its glass plant in Saudi Arabia at the same time that Davidson was funding the university in Israel. In 2001, Syria announced it would boycott Guardian for its "Zionist leanings," but the action apparently had no effect.

While his other recent team purchases are of newer vintage, Davidson's ownership of the Pistons goes back to 1974, when Guardian was still trading on the NYSE. In his early year, he was most known for hiring and firing in 1979 a former University of Detroit coach named Dick Vitale — Vitale has long dined out on the story that Davidson axed him on his own front doorstep while a curbside limo waited with the motor running.

But the team won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990. The center on those teams was Bill Laimbeer, who now coaches the shock. The guards were Isaiah Thomas, now the general manager of the New York Knicks, and Joe Dumars. Today Dumars is the president of the Pistons.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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