James Sidell: "Hitting Above Average"

From Wheaton Matters - Spring/Summer 1998

As a power-hitting second baseman and center fielder, James "Jack" Sidell P'76, '79 helped the Tufts University baseball team win its first berth in the NCAA championship tournament. He may yet do the same for Wheaton.

Through an early gift to the Campaign for Wheaton, the Wheaton trustee and parent provided the college with the means to build a first-class baseball stadium and to add baseball to its roster of intercollegiate athletics programs.

As a gift, the stadium aptly expresses the personality of the giver. "I love the game. I'm an avid Red Sox fan," says Mr. Sidell, who began playing the game as a Little Leaguer in Brighton and Brookline and later turned down offers from several major league ball clubs after graduating from college. "I felt that Wheaton should have a baseball team and, to me, that meant having a good, professional-type stadium would be very important."

James V. Sidell Stadium, which was dedicated during Family Weekend, is one of the finest Division III baseball facilities in the Northeast. Mr. Sidell's decision to support the construction of the stadium represents his appreciation for the college, both as the alma mater of his daughters Stephanie '76 and Kathy '79 and as the institution he has helped to guide as a trustee since 1991.

The new stadium's impact on the college extends beyond the positive influence of adding one new sport to Wheaton's athletic offerings. It makes the college eligible to join the region's new premier athletic conference, and maintains its historic affiliation with the NEW 8 Conference, which includes MIT, Babson, Brandeis, and others.

Having enabled the establishment of a new sports program, Mr. Sidell finds himself in a very familiar position: financier to a new enterprise. The CEO of U.S. Trust Company in Boston for more than 20 years, he built his career as a banker on lending to small businesses. Mr. Sidell entered the banking industry by working in a bank's commercial lending division after earning a master's degree at Boston University. Recognizing the need for an institution dedicated to commercial lending, he put together a deal to purchase the former Brighton Bank and Trust, which was re-named Barclay Bank and Trust. Then in 1970, Barclay Bank bought, and merged with, the larger U.S. Trust Company in Boston. Under Mr. Sidell's leadership, the institution grew from holdings of $40 million to more than $3 billion.

"We got more than our share of young entrepreneurial companies and that's really how we built the bank," says Mr. Sidell, who is now the managing partner of corporate finance at Fechtor, Detwiler and Co., in Boston. "Basically, I was an entrepreneur. I always was offended when people called me a banker; I preferred to be called a lender."

To many of Boston's top restauranteurs, Mr. Sidell holds yet another title: godfather. Where many banks were reluctant to invest in the restaurant industry, which has a reputation for volatility, Mr. Sidell, a self-confessed foodie, dug right in.

"It was kind of an expertise that the other banks were afraid of so it was a good niche," he says and then adds: "I really evaluated restaurant business plans by gut instinct. With restaurants, the numbers are meaningless. Restaurant success really comes down to three factors: the people, the concept and the lease."

He proved particularly adept at choosing promising restauranteurs. Indeed, many of Boston's best-known eateries, including Jasper's, Biba, Olive's, Bertucci's and Au Bon Pain, got their start with assistance from U.S. Trust and Mr. Sidell. (He is also proud to point out that his daughter, Stephanie, is proprietor of a successful restaurant, Stephanie's on Newbury.) "It was a wonderful match-up and to this day those people have not forgotten who believed in them."

His record in restaurant investing is particularly impressive given that the industry is best known for the ferocity of the competition just to survive. Mr. Sidell acknowledges the competitive nature of the restaurant business, and of commercial lending, but says his own career as an athlete has helped him to cope.

"When you play competitive baseball, or any competitive athletics, you really learn sportsmanship and discipline," he says. "You learn to be a good loser as well as a winner, and I know it helped me to mature in college. It probably does make you a more competitive person, which I think is healthy. It really helped me."