Before he owns the Pacers, Steve Simon’s love of nature draws him to another organization
From the IndyStar front page, August 10, 2020
by Dana Hunsinger Benbow
Brought up in a family of commercial real estate gurus who built massive malls and shopping centers, Steve Simon never fell for the glitzy hype of steel and concrete.
Instead, he was the Simon who’d sling on a backpack, take a jaunt to New Zealand and hike for weeks at a time.
Simon is a self-dubbed “tree hugger” who fell in love with nature in the 1970s when, as a teen, his family visited friends in Aspen, Colorado.
The mountains. The views. The trees. The water. The beauty of that raw untouched land.
“What’s not to love?” said Simon, the eldest son of Indiana Pacers owner Herb Simon who, along with brother Mel, founded the real estate investment trust giant Simon Property Group. Land is “precious,” he said.
And after years of giving generously to the Central Indiana Land Trust, Simon is putting his mouth where his money is. He recently agreed to serve on the board of directors of the trust, which is dedicated to preserving the state’s land.
“Steve is deeply passionate about making the world a better place and tackling big problems like climate change in a pragmatic, results-oriented way,” said Cliff Chapman, executive director of the trust. “Preserving and restoring land in Indiana gets him excited as it’s great bang for the buck; we can support hundreds of species in relatively small areas and land prices are a fraction of what they are on the coasts.”
Simon, who lives in California, runs a successful private equity firm in Silicon Valley. He comes back often to Indiana and will one day take over as owner of the Pacers.
Despite the hectic pace of his life or, more likely because of it, Simon finds respite in nature. This week, he is taking his four kids camping. Many days, he can be found mountain biking or looking out at the ocean, which he calls an “amazing beauty.”
“Spending time where there is less people and less distraction is really important to me,” he said. “It’s definitely a big part of my spiritual practice overall.”
‘Comfort’ in the undeveloped
Central Indiana Land Trust is a non-profit devoted to preserving land. It really is that simple. And Simon loves that
“Indiana’s got a lot of beauty,” he said. “It may not be oceans or mountains, but it’s got beauty that’s not always apparent.”
Since 1990, Central Indiana Land Trust has protected more than 5,500 acres of Indiana’s natural heritage. It goes about doing so in various ways.
In some cases after receiving donations of land or buying land, the trust then manages them as preserves for the benefit of the public. It also forges legal agreements with willing landowners to protect their land by restricting certain activities and locking in conservation values. In other instances, it forms management agreements, helping landowners develop and implement stewardship plans that protect their properties.
“We’ve been giving for years as a (Pacers) foundation and me personally,” said Simon. “There is that comfort (in knowing) this land is not going to be developed.”
Simon remembers playing in the woods as a kid. The family would go camping with just a map and compass in those days before smart phones.
“There was something about getting in the backwoods setting in nature,” he said.
And that didn’t translate to wearing a suit to work for a big real estate business. Simon went to Indiana University to study public environmental affairs. But he was sidetracked by a semester with a buddy on a boat trip around the world and graduated with a general studies degree.
After college, Simon agreed to work for the family — with an ulterior motive. The Simons had major interest in an Indianapolis company then-named Logo 7, a licensed sports apparel manufacturer.
“I was a tree hugger at the time, so I was trying to get them to clean up their environmental (footprint),” he said.
Along the way, Simon learned a lot about business, about marketing, about company financials.
“And then at some point, I said, ‘Wow, you know they’ve had such an interesting ride in business,’” Simon said. “It was almost reluctantly in my mid 20s, I thought, ‘It’s probably worth learning the business and seeing what the whole Simon thing is all about.”
He joined Simon Property Group doing leasing and development, the foundation of the business at the time. He worked in big box leasing, the strip center division and marketing. He soon made his way to other parts of the company.
But he never became that brash businessman.
“Very simply, he has the Simon heart,” Rick Fuson, president of Pacers Sports & Entertainment, who has known Simon since he was 17, told IndyStar in 2018. “He’s a caring man. He’s smart. He’s a challenger…He is a wide thinker. He doesn’t just accept things as normal because there could always be a better way to do it.”
Right now, better for Simon means introducing more people to nature. In modern society, raising kids in the digital age, Simon fears few are getting to enjoy nature without distractions.
“How do we get other people to be exposed to the outdoors, particularly people from urban environments?” he said.
He hopes as a board member of the land trust he can help educate and, ultimately, lead more people “to pause and see the beauty of the outdoors.”
As for when he might take over the Pacers from his father, the succession plan isn’t set in stone. Until then, they work together with Steve Simon focusing on the budget and day-to-day matters for a team in the state he still adores.
“We love that Steve is making a case for the importance of investing in Indiana’s natural heritage,” Chapman said. “His involvement and generosity with the Central Indiana Land Trust is yet another example of the Simon family’s deep affection for Indiana.”
Find bios of Steve and our entire board by clicking the Board of Directors tab on this page.