A cen­timil­lion­aire, a char­ac­ter, a friend

The Washington Post Sunday - - CAPITAL BUSINESS - THOMAS HEATH thomas.heath@wash­post.com

I at­tended a memo­rial ser­vice a few days ago at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity for one of Wash­ing­ton’s rich­est peo­ple that you’ve prob­a­bly never heard of.

Robert I. Schat­tner died at age 91 last month in Bethesda. He was the in­ven­tor of Chlo­rasep­tic, the sore-throat rem­edy.

When Bob’s will is pro­bated in the com­ing months, an eye-pop­ping, nine-fig­ure de­posit will land at the Robert I. Schat­tner Foun­da­tion, cre­at­ing a thun­der­clap in Wash­ing­ton’s phil­an­thropic com­mu­nity. The be­quest should make the char­ity one of the city’s rich­est.

I knew Bob for al­most a decade. I wrote one of my first Value Added col­umns about him in 2008 after he had called to say he was end­ing a long ca­reer that en­com­passed 70 patents and trade­marks and a 20-year stint on the board of First Na­tional Bank of Mary­land.

He was a prac­tic­ing den­tist back in 1952 when a guest at a cock­tail party asked him whether it was pos­si­ble to dis­in­fect the mouth after hav­ing a bunch of teeth pulled. Bob mulled it over on the ride home from the party. Then he started ex­per­i­ment­ing. Work­ing late nights after work, he mixed com­bi­na­tions of chem­i­cals in his “lab­o­ra­tory,” a five­g­al­lon jug he kept be­hind a shower cur­tain in his bath­tub. Even­tu­ally, he in­vented a mouth­wash that kills germs and serves as an anes­thetic for the throat. Chlo­rasep­tic was born — and a for­tune be­gan.

Bob was a gen­tle man who had a fond­ness for corny one-lin­ers. We de­vel­oped a friend­ship that in­cluded phone calls, a seat at his ta­ble for fundrais­ers and trips to sev­eral Na­tion­als base­ball games. Some­times we sat in my seats be­hind the Nats’ dugout. Some­times in Bob’s — be­hind home plate. Once we sat in the spa­cious suite of Na­tion­als’ owner Theodore Lerner, who was a long­time friend of Bob’s.

His idle chat­ter in­volved ei­ther in­vest­ing, bac­te­ria and how to kill it, or base­ball. Bob knew a lot, and he shared some of it with me — like the time he said one mea­sure of a pitcher’s game per­for­mance was his strike-to-ball ra­tio. It should be 2-to-1. He was a germa­phobe and turned me into one, as well. To this day, I re­frain from grab­bing the handrail on Metro es­ca­la­tors if I can avoid it.

Bob was fru­gal. Dur­ing one Na­tion­als game, I was get­ting up to go to the food stand when he reached into his pocket and pulled out two gra­nola bars. Cheaper than ball­park food, he said.

His fa­vorite res­tau­rant was Old Coun­try Buf­fet, hardly the eat­ing house for the cen­timil­lion­aire set. Bob’s close friend, Phyl­lis Bresler, told a story at the ser­vice about how Bob joined Phyl­lis and her par­ents at a prom­i­nent steak­house: “I re­call my fa­ther look­ing across the ta­ble laugh­ing and say­ing, ‘Bob, who is fool­ish enough to spend $8 on a baked po­tato?’ Bob shook his head and said ‘I know, go fig­ure!’ ”

De­spite his great wealth, Bob, whose par­ents had em­i­grated from Aus­tria, lived in a mod­est Mont­gomery County home that he bought for $60,000 five decades ago. He drove an ag­ing Lin­coln Town Car well into his 80s. I re­mem­ber one oc­ca­sion when he in­sisted on driv­ing me home from a Nats game. I was ter­rorstricken as the 85-year-old sped through Chevy Chase at night.

One of Bob’s best friends was the late Char­lie Bresler, Phyl­lis’s fa­ther-in-law. Char­lie and Bob went back 60 years. They met at a lo­cal bankers con­ven­tion. Char­lie was an­other busi­ness­man whose low-key na­ture be­lied his suc­cess. He looked out for Bob.

I came to know Char­lie and his wife, Fleur, through Bob. Char­lie was a for­mer Mary­land Repub­li­can politico. He ran Bresler & Reiner, a real es­tate firm. Char­lie was a great racon­teur, drop­ping his lat­est jokes on me dur­ing fre­quent phone calls.

I re­mem­ber one gath­er­ing at Char­lie and Fleur’s apart­ment, which is the size of Rhode Is­land and filled with Fleur’s sprawl­ing col­lec­tion of Amer­i­can crafts. My wife, Polly, and I had fin­ished our home­made chicken din­ner and were en­joy­ing the evening when Bob abruptly rose and said he had to go home.

What’s the rush, I asked. Bob was a crea­ture of habit, and he wanted to go home that night to work on his in­vest­ments. He was very de­voted to what he called his stock chart­ing. He ex­plained his strat­egy to me, but it never sank in.

Bob’s mil­lions be­gan ac­cu­mu­lat­ing in 1962, when the one­time den­tist who had a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in chem­istry sold Chlo­rasep­tic for $4 mil­lion. That was a bunch of money back then, but his real ge­nius was sign­ing on for 10 per­cent of the rev­enue for 15 years.

The money piled up. And he kept in­vest­ing. Bob ex­plained to me his love for buy­ing into com­mu­nity banks and then hold­ing on while the banks kept get­ting swal­lowed by big­ger banks. He and Char­lie in­vested to­gether on every­thing from Mis­sis­sippi barges to North Sea oil rigs.

Bob also had a big stake in Manny Fried­man’s EJF Cap­i­tal. Manny, a one­time school­teacher and at­tor­ney, is one of the most re­spected in­vest­ment minds around Wash­ing­ton. He still has the cer­tifi­cate from the first stock trade he made in 1961, when he was a teenager. It was a $36 profit on shares of Lo­ril­lard Tobacco.

Char­lie and Bob may have been dis­creet, but they also shared a weak­ness for pro­fes­sional sports teams. That’s the kind of wealth they had. They both got their wishes, sort of.

In 1971, Bob bought a hal­fown­er­ship in the Vir­ginia Squires Amer­i­can Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion fran­chise — as a tax shel­ter on the ad­vice of a Philadel­phia at­tor­ney. He at­tended one game.

After he sold his in­ter­est in the Squires in 1973, Bob made a suc­ces­sion of un­suc­cess­ful bids for prom­i­nent sports fran­chises, part­ner­ing with some of the big­gest names in lo­cal sports, in­clud­ing John Kent Cooke and Lerner.

Char­lie teamed with Bob in an un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt to buy the Philadel­phia Ea­gles and the Red­skins.

He of­fered to buy the Sen­a­tors from real es­tate de­vel­oper Bob Short in 1972 for $10 mil­lion, but Short took the team to Texas in­stead, where it be­came the Rangers.

Bob Schat­tner and fel­low in­vestors tried to buy the San Diego Padres in 1973 for $12 mil­lion be­fore McDon­ald’s founder Ray Kroc snatched up the team at the last minute.

He, Char­lie Bresler and Lerner tried to buy the Ea­gles in 1985, but again lost out, this time to a Florida car dealer. He tried to buy the rights to a Na­tional League base­ball ex­pan­sion fran­chise in the late 1980s, but the league de­clined to pick Wash­ing­ton. He was even part of a group that briefly ne­go­ti­ated to buy the Bal­ti­more Ravens.

When Cooke got caught in a bid­ding war for the Red­skins with cur­rent owner Daniel Sny­der, Bob was in for a big pile. But it wasn’t meant to be.

“Al­ways the brides­maid and never the bride,” Phyl­lis Bresler re­called in her memo­rial.

Bob’s late wife, Kay Fer­rell, was a Wash­ing­ton jour­nal­ist and ra­dio talk-show host. She died sev­eral years ago. Bob had two sons who were not in­volved in busi­ness.

He gave tens of mil­lions to char­ity. He was a big bene­fac­tor of the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia Den­tal School, from which he grad­u­ated at age 23 in 1948. There is a build­ing at Penn named for Bob. There was a Penn con­tin­gent at his ser­vice, in­clud­ing the den­tal school’s dean. He gave mil­lions to Wash­ing­ton’s Jewish Pri­mary Day School.

Bob Siev­ers also spoke at the ser­vice. He met Bob in 1995 when he was hired to be con­troller of a bac­te­ria-killing com­pany Bob had founded, called Spo­ri­cidin.

Siev­ers will over­see the Schat­tner Foun­da­tion. Robert T. Schat­tner — Bob’s nephew — also will be on the board of direc­tors with Sid Bresler, who is Phyl­lis’s hus­band and Char­lie’s son.

Siev­ers re­called some of Bob’s Borscht Belt lines, which no doubt be­gan when the 14-yearold played drums for $3 a night with a band in the Catskills. My fa­vorite: “I’m the boss, you’re noth­ing. So I’m the boss of noth­ing.”

Siev­ers fin­ished with the de­scrip­tion next to Bob’s pic­ture in the Penn Den­tal School year­book:

“A prodi­gious op­er­a­tor of no low de­gree, con­stantly on the job achiev­ing his pur­pose and goal in his own quiet fash­ion. Bob’s achieve­ments in the field of den­tistry are equaled only by his adapt­abil­ity in mu­sic — the Gene Krupa of our class. Bob will un­doubt­edly go a long way in his cho­sen pro­fes­sion.”

I would say so.

RICKY CARIOTI/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

When vis­it­ing with friend and Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Thomas Heath, idle chat­ter by late Chlo­rasep­tic in­ven­tor Robert I. Schat­tner in­volved in­vest­ing, bac­te­ria and how to kill it, or base­ball.

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