Stephen Ross is Feeling the Heat of Politics

His Trump Fundraiser Brings Threats of Boycott Against Equinox and SoulCycle    

8/9/19 – – Stephen Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins and chairman of The Related Companies, is an American success story.

Starting with a modest family loan, Mr. Ross has built privately held Related into one of the world’s most successful real estate development, management and investment firms. New York City’s Time Warner Center and the recently opened Hudson Yards multi-use developments are among Related’s landmark properties, and the company, true to its urban-lifestyle focus, owns Equinox, SoulCycle, Blink Fitness, and Pure Yoga. Among his philanthropic commitments, Mr. Ross founded the Ross Initiative in Sports Equality (RISE), and The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business bears his name. 

Despite all his generosity and achievements, my guess is that most people don’t know a whole lot about Stephen Ross. That’s changing fast, however, thanks to a Washington Post article that ran on Wednesday, revealing that he will be hosting a big-bucks fundraiser tonight in his home in Southampton for President Donald Trump. Since then, his name has been among the top searches on Google and the social media platforms for Equinox and SoulCycle have been inundated with obscenity-laced calls for boycotts.

This tweet by celebrity Chrissy Teigen captures the level of outrage online:

“f***equinox . . . oh and f*** soulcycle but I thought that way before this anyhow”

What’s the explanation for this sudden storm of shame and anger?


In Chapter 3 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Where Crises Come From”), we discuss nine common sources from which crises spring: people, products, priorities, policies, performance, politics, procrastination, privacy and past. When the invitations went out for tonight’s Trump fundraiser, Stephen Ross touched the third-rail of social interaction and public relations: politics.

The American public is pretty much split down the middle between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Both ends of the political spectrum – especially people on the extremes – hold passionate beliefs. Of course it’s your right to express your opinions and back any political party or politician you want. But if in your role as business leader you pick a side, you’re probably turning off and, in today’s hyper-charged environment, offending half the public and your potential customers, as well as a significant portion of your employees.

Responding to the growing outrage, Mr. Ross issued a statement, explaining, “I always have been an active participant in the democratic process . . . I have known Donald Trump for 40 years, and while we agree on some issues, we strongly disagree on many others and I have never been bashful about expressing my opinions.” Pushing back against the criticism of his politics, he said: “I have been, and will continue to be, an outspoken champion of racial equality, inclusion, diversity, public education and environmental sustainability, and I have and will continue to support leaders on both sides of the aisle to address these challenges.”

Equinox and SoulCycle posted responses on their social media platforms, reaffirming their beliefs in “tolerance and equality,” and distancing themselves from the fundraiser and Stephen Ross. Equinox pointed out that, “Mr. Ross is a passive investor and is not involved in the management of either business.”

Not impressed with these appeals, one Equinox user encouraged a boycott, posting this on the company’s Facebook page: “Ditch the norm by supporting your local gyms, and not places with bull**** owners.” And Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills called out what he saw as the hypocrisy of Mr. Ross supporting the work of RISE (created to “educate and empower the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice and improve race relations”) while raising money for Donald Trump: “You can’t have a nonprofit with this mission statement then open your doors to Trump.”

Even the dean of the Ross School of Business seemed to take a swipe at the college’s benefactor: “At Michigan Ross, we rise above hateful rhetoric and live the values we aspire to.”

Demonstrating one of the “predictable tendencies” of crises discussed in The Crisis Preparedness Quotient (“Organizations in crisis attract predators”) New York Sports Club, a competitive fitness company, posted this on Instagram:

“FYI: This Friday, August 9th we’re not doing anything in Southampton. COME WORK OUT WITH US. . . Commit to something better.”

I guess all’s fair in love and marketing.

One of the few people defending Mr. Ross is President Trump, who today told reporters as he left the White House for his trip to Southampton, “I think it makes Steve much hotter . . . the controversy makes Steve Ross hotter.”

Not sure I agree with that assessment, but Steve Ross is surely feeling the heat – from the media, customers threatening to boycott his companies, NFL players, and I’m sure some faculty members at the University of Michigan. He’s not backing down, and the party is still on for this evening. That’s probably his best short-term strategy. Cancelling the fundraiser would not buy any forgiveness from those who despise Donald Trump, and would diminish any support he may have from those who don’t.

It will be interesting to see how things go tonight and if the threatened boycotts against Related’s fitness firms gain momentum. A lot will depend on how loyal customers are to Equinox and SoulCycle. If the companies have been providing value and a satisfying experience, most people, even if angered by Mr. Ross’s politics, will stay put. And the severity of the backlash from the Dolphins and the University of Michigan will be determined by the respect and understanding Mr. Ross has earned from those organizations. They know Mr. Ross. And if they believe he is sincere when he says he’s an “outspoken champion of racial equality, inclusion, diversity, public education and environmental sustainability,” the storm will pass.

For business leaders and crisis counselors, the lesson is clear: Stick to business and avoid entering the arena of politics as much as possible. Hosting a fundraiser for a politician from either party in today’s toxic environment is an invitation to crisis. That may be unfair and bad for democracy, but it’s reality. Stepping into the minefield of politics will not make you hotter. Proceed with caution.

UPDATE 8/16/19 – – Fallout from the Trump fundraiser hosted by Stephen Ross continues, as fashion designers, including Rag & Bone, move their New York Fashion Week shows from Hudson Yards (developed by Ross’s company) and jewelry designer Dana Lorenz cancels her membership in the Council of Fashion Designers of America (Ross’s wife Kara, who is a jewelry designer, is on the board) stating, “I will no longer participate if a woman that funds the current administration remains on the board.”

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