Black’s Apollo Exit Follows ‘Deeply Trying’ Fallout Over Epstein

For Leon Black, it all got to be too much.

The man who built one of the most ruthless money-making machines in Wall Street history unexpectedly left his Apollo Global Management Inc. on Sunday, handing over the reins to one of his proteges, Marc Rowan, and a former U.S. regulator.

It’s a stunning turn for the 69-year-old, who for decades ran Apollo as an extension of himself -- combative, immovable and wildly successful. But after more than a year of scandal surrounding his ties with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, which had already led to him agreeing to leave his job as chief executive officer later this year, Black severed all day-to-day ties with the firm.

Black’s Apollo Exit Follows ‘Deeply Trying’ Fallout Over Epstein

“The last weeks and months have been deeply trying for me and my family,” Black wrote in a letter to his board. The scrutiny on his Epstein ties “have taken a toll on my health and have caused me to wish to take some time away from the public spotlight that comes with my daily involvement with this great public company.”

Investors seemed to welcome his departure -- a once-unthinkable outcome. Apollo’s stock climbed as much as 5.6% Monday, erasing its 2021 decline. Black’s Epstein connections -- he paid more than $150 million to the financier in recent years -- had threatened fundraising for the firm, and some clients were unhappy with a January announcement that Black would cede the CEO role to Rowan while staying on as chairman.

Citigroup Inc. analysts responded to the moves, upgrading Apollo to buy, citing “favorable” corporate governance steps.

“It became clear this was really the only option,” said Jerry O’Hara, a Jefferies Financial Group Inc. analyst, about Black’s exit. “The sooner that Apollo is able to put this in its past, the sooner they can work toward removing the overhang. The prior announcement said he was staying on as chairman. That led some to believe there was no change in his involvement with the exception of title. This rubber stamps it.”

While Rowan has taken over as CEO, Jay Clayton was named non-executive chairman, and Apollo added two more independent directors to its board, according to a Monday statement.

“Marc has seamlessly transitioned into the CEO role and I am confident Apollo will soar to new heights under his leadership,” Black said in the statement.

Epstein Links

After new evidence of Black’s ties to the late financier surfaced last year, Apollo hired a law firm to look into the matter. The investigation found that Black paid Epstein $158 million between 2012 and 2017 -- after Epstein pleaded guilty to felony charges in 2008. Apollo has long maintained it never hired Epstein for any services, and Black was never accused of any involvement in his criminal activities.

Apollo expects to report earnings that exceed analysts’ estimates and first-quarter fundraising that’s “trending toward the high end” of the firm’s annual range of $15 billion to $20 billion, Black said in the statement.

Shares of New York-based Apollo rose 4.5% Monday.

The appointments of two additional directors, Richard Emerson and Kerry Murphy Healey, bring Apollo’s board to 15 members, two-thirds of them independent. Clayton, the former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, had joined Apollo as lead independent director on March 1.

Clayton, who led the SEC for most of Donald Trump’s presidency, has worked with other with high-profile firms embroiled in controversy. As a lawyer at Sullivan & Cromwell, his clients included Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. and Ally Financial Inc.

“This wouldn’t be the first time someone from the commission comes in, which signals that the firm understands that it has gotten into lawsuits and allegations and it wants to move beyond them and needs to be better,” said Donald Langevoort, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. “I don’t think it’s just window dressing. Somebody like Jay Clayton doesn’t want to put his reputation at risk.”

During his tenure at the SEC, Clayton, 54, made moves that were widely seen as beneficial to private markets. For example, the regulator took steps to ease some of the longstanding restrictions that limit firms such as Apollo, Blackstone Group Inc. and KKR & Co. from raising money from the super rich, sovereign wealth funds and pension funds.

Athene Deal

Earlier this month, Apollo announced an $11 billion deal to acquire the remaining stake of insurer Athene Holding Ltd. that it didn’t own. The firm also said at the time it would convert to a full C-corp, with a one-share, one-vote structure. That day, during a conference call with analysts, Black was conspicuously absent. The Rowan era had already begun.

Rowan, 58, was considered somewhat of an underdog. While he was the mastermind behind some of Apollo’s most profitable wagers, including Athene, he was often in the background. He’s considered more staid than fellow co-founder Josh Harris, who was seen as having a closer relationship with Black and deemed to be a more likely successor.

Throughout his career, Black earned a reputation for overcoming disasters.

He founded Apollo in 1990 with partners from Drexel Burnham Lambert, the junk-bond shop led by Michael Milken that collapsed in a scandal. Following the 2008 financial crisis, Apollo came up with ways to protect its investments even when some of the companies it backed failed.

But Black’s ties with Epstein brought unprecedented scrutiny upon the firm, unsettling clients and shareholders. Some public pension plans halted their commitments.

Now is “the ideal moment to step back and focus on my family, my wife Debra’s and my health issues, and my many other interests,” Black said Monday. “I intend to remain Apollo’s largest shareholder, and strongest supporter.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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