By Jason Kelly
Ndamukong Suh chose to play football at the University of Nebraska for its construction engineering program. The connections he made through the school helped him build something he might not have expected.
The fierce, Super Bowl-winning defensive tackle has methodically put together a portfolio spanning commercial and residential real estate, tech companies and restaurants. As he weighs winding down his career on the field, he’s honing his ambitions off it.
Suh’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, is the starting point for his vision of tackling massive challenges, from affordable housing to the wealth gap. Blocks from where he grew up and went to high school, Suh and his partners are building Alberta Alley, which will feature restaurants and businesses owned or run by people of color.
“Investing and social impact can without question go hand in hand,” Suh said in an interview for the latest installment of the “Athlete|Empire” series by Bloomberg Quicktake. “I’ve always seen it as a true give-and-take relationship versus someone just always taking.”
Education Over Football
The 35-year-old Suh credits his parents — his father owns an HVAC company and his mother was a teacher — for emphasizing education over football. While he was highly recruited by other big-name college programs, he thought Nebraska’s construction engineering program would set him up to ultimately take over and grow his father’s business.
While that plan took a backseat to his National Football League career, Suh’s always kept his eye on life after the league. Back at Nebraska, he sought out introductions to executives and investors tied to nearby Omaha, including Warren Buffett. The legendary leader of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. took a liking to Suh. The two have appeared together at public events several times and speak about once a quarter.
“You go and meet them on their terms,” Suh said about developing his network. “They start to open up to you because they see you’re serious. They just want to share the knowledge, and as long as you’re reciprocal to that, the more you’ll gain.”
Those connections, along with ties to private equity firms including General Atlantic, have emboldened Suh to chart his own investment course with an eye toward broadening access to real estate ownership. He and business partner Joel Andersen, whose family is rooted in Portland real estate, are experimenting with ways to make affordable housing work better, including earmarking a small piece of equity in each project to share with low-income renters.
Suh says having a stake in one’s own home practically guarantees residents will take better care of it, as well as take a small step toward passing along some measure of wealth.
“I don’t want to be at the top of the pyramid or be amongst the 1% and be there by myself,” Suh said. “I want to bring other people with me.”
For the moment, Suh, now a free agent, hasn’t said where — or whether — he will play in the upcoming season. He’s been one of the most consistently feared tacklers since he came to the league with the Detroit Lions, before playing for the Miami Dolphins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with whom he won the Super Bowl in 2021.
Off the field, Suh’s the furthest thing from fearsome, softened in part by his wife, Katya, and their year-old twins.
He and Katya share a home office, regularly listening in on each other’s calls as they separately and together build businesses, as well as their family foundation. Continuing to play is ultimately both a family and a business decision, and she’ll be a key voice in it, Suh says.
“The analysis is very straightforward, and it comes down to numbers in a lot of ways,” Suh said. The calculation includes bettering his shot at the Hall of Fame if he continues to play versus growing the portfolio faster if he doesn’t.
“Timing is always going to be key. We’ve got a good process with me and the wife. She always says, ‘It’s ultimately your decision,’ but I truthfully know it’s both of ours.”
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com