Black is a managing partner of the legendary buyout firm Apollo Global Management, which he co-founded in 1990.
The son of a prominent exec (see below) and an art gallery owner, Black was raised in Manhattan and graduated from Dartmouth and Harvard Business School. It was at Drexel that Black first made his name: He spent 13 years at the firm and headed up its leveraged buyout group, working with the likes of Carl Icahn and T. Boone Pickens to finance their aggressive takeover bids. Drexel soon imploded, of course, and his mentor, Michael Milken, went to jail. But Black managed to emerge unscathed from the Drexel rubble and in 1990 he took his vulture capital experience with him to Apollo, which he co-founded with two former Drexel colleagues, Joshua Harris and Marc Rowan.
Apollo made a name for itself in short order, snapping up the debt of insure Executive Life for $3 billion, a 50 percent discount to its face value. In the 1990s Black turned around a handful of distressed properties including Telemundo and Intelsat, earning a rep as a savvy investor with a knack for making money from distressed investing when market conditions are tough, and profiting from the bull market in better days. Today Black and his two partners oversee a handful of sprawling funds, including Apollo Investment Corporation and a real estate arm led by Bill Mack called Apollo Real Estate Advisors. Apollo raised its sixth fund, a pool of capital of more than $10 billion, in 2006.
While the firm has always been one of the most respected buyout shops, Black still managed to surprise the industry when he wrapped up a startling $37 billion worth of new deals at the end of 2006. In one frenzied week during December, Apollo acquired a majority stake in Harrah's Entertainment (together with the Texas Pacific Group) just days after buying control of the Henry Silverman-led real estate conglomerate Realogy, which owns Coldwell Banker, Century 21, and Sotheby's International Realty. Alas, access to cheap capital, which fueled the acquisition spree, has come back to haunt Apollo as the markets have dipped downward. Linens 'n Things, which Black purchased for $1.3 billion in 2006, has since filed for bankruptcy, and several other holdings—most notably Realogy—have been severly weakened by financial crisis.
The market downturn hasn't dampened Black's deal enthusiasm. Apollo teamed up with two other private equity firms in mid-2008 to acquire $12.5 billion in leveraged loans from Citigroup. And the firm recently raised a new $20 billion fund.
A prolific presence on non-profit boards, Black serves as a trustee of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Jewish Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Asia Society, and MoMA, along with Sid Bass, Ron Lauder, Jerry Speyer, Marie-Josee Kravis, Dick Parsons, Donald Marron, and Vartan Gregorian, among others.
Black and his wife are longtime art enthusiasts and the couple's collection, one of the largest in the city, contains works by impressionists, old masters and contemporary artists. They were lsted as one of ARTnews' "Top 10 Collectors" in 2008.
Leon was a student at business school when his father, Eli Black, the chief executive of United Fruit (now Chiquita), committed suicide by jumping off the 44th floor of the Pan Am Building. The company had run into serious financial difficulties; investigators later discovered that Black was connected to a Honduran bribery scandal. The events served as the inspiration for a scene in The Hudsucker Proxy, the 1994 film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
Leon is married to Debra "Debbie" Black. They live at 760 Park Avenue and spend weekends at homes in Southampton and Bedford. (The indoor tennis courts on his 90-acre Westchester estate burned down in October 2008.)
Black's taste for distressed deals extends to office space, too. Apollo operates from Tyco's former offices at 9 West 57th Street, the famed midtown tower owned by Sheldon Solow. Black himself sits in Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski's old office.