Updated: April 23, 2014 10:14AM
Google “Ari Emanuel” and “uber,” and you’ll find frequent references to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s brother as the “Hollywood uber-agent” for many of the world’s most popular entertainers.
What’s far less known is Ari Emanuel’s ownership interest in Uber Technologies Inc.
Uber is the fast-growing technology company locked in a high-stakes dispute in places across the country, including Chicago. Critics here say the Emanuel administration favors Uber and similar companies offering ride-sharing phone apps, at the expense of century-old taxi and car-service industries.
Although the mayor insists he’s being scrupulously fair to all, the taxi companies say Uber will put them out of business unless City Hall regulates the up-and-comers as stringently as they watch regular old cabbies.
Either way, we now know which side at least one of the famously combative Emanuel brothers has taken.
Christian Muirhead, a spokesman for Ari Emanuel’s William Morris Endeavor agency, confirmed Tuesday that the agency continues to hold a stake in Uber. In a phone call from the agency’s offices in Beverly Hills, Muirhead said he couldn’t provide the exact size of the investment.
“We made a minimal investment in Uber a few years ago,” he said.
Minimal is, obviously, a relative term. Uber has reaped total investments of more than $410.6 million, according to PrivCo, a provider of financial information about private companies.
And Fast Company magazine wrote last year that what Ari Emanuel would “really love to see is an Uber sale for billions of dollars, with WME reaping its share.”
The company’s valuation has been estimated at $3.5 billion.
The talent agency’s investment was part of its second funding round, a company spokesman said. That was in December 2011— about three months after Uber began operating in Chicago. Other early investors included billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Goldman Sachs.
Much of Uber’s fate rests with elected officials here and elsewhere. Actor Ashton Kutcher, another Uber investor, recently slammed the “mafioso ... village mentality” of Miami leaders who blocked ride-sharing.
In a March 2013 interview with Fast Company, Ari Emanuel and his co-CEO at WME talked about Uber and other investments in the apps business.
“Uber is an incredible product,” Ari Emanuel told the business magazine. “They wanted some client endorsements, so we helped them with that. But we think we can do a reality show like ‘Taxicab Confessions.’”
“Is part of the appeal having equity?” the interviewer asked. “The possibility for a big payoff, as opposed to just an up-front fee?”
“Are you asking if we like money?” Ari Emanuel replied, laughing. “Is that the question? Are you in Hollywood?”
Back at Chicago’s City Hall, mayoral spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said there’s no connection between Rahm’s reaction to the company’s arrival here and his brother’s financial ties to Uber.
“Chicago is proposing the most comprehensive ride-share regulations in the country,” Hamilton said. “Safety and customer service are the No. 1 priorities and to suggest otherwise is absurd.”
Angry taxicab company executives, who have sued the city in federal court, had a different word to describe their thoughts on the mayoral brother’s interest in their nemesis.
“This is an outrage,” said Pat Corrigan, an owner of Yellow Cab.
He says taxi owners long have felt the city’s position on ride-sharing companies “made no sense” and that the WME investment in Uber is “the black matter that holds all the facts together.”
Corrigan says cab companies must comply with a lengthy list of city licensing and safety rules that a new City Council ordinance under consideration would not impose on their new competitors.
Uber spokesman Andrew Macdonald, replies that the pending Chicago ordinance “still has a lot of burdensome requirements” the company can’t support.
“Let competition prevail,” he said.
Macdonald adds that cities are grappling to figure out how to deal with the ride-sharing industry because “it’s a new movement, it’s a different animal.”
Ride-sharing’s growth could benefit Chicago, but having the mayor’s brother sharing in Uber’s future looks a lot like the sort of thing that isn’t at all new or different here.
It also makes it difficult for the mayor to look like he’s refereeing this big issue with only the public’s interest in mind.