Waterford's Winning Ways
When Len and Mark Wolman walked downtown Hartford six years ago, vacant storefronts dominated, a huge parcel near the intersection of Interstates 84 and 91 was a brownfield and the very notion of making the area a tourist destination seemed outlandish. But then-Governor John Rowland had a vision for the brothers Wolman to execute: a downtown revitalization that would include a convention center, a first-class hotel and a science center. That vision took a giant step forward this summer with the opening of the $271-million convention center and the $81-million Marriott Hartford Downtown.
Managed by Waterford Hotel Group, one of several Wolman-related firms based in southeastern Connecticut, the 409-room, 22-story Marriott links to the new, user-friendly and, at 540,000 square feet, huge Connecticut Convention Center at the junction of Interstates 84 and 91. The hotel blends traditional Marriott guestrooms with flashy public spaces and several spirited, modern restaurants; it's a refreshing blend of the regular and the unorthodox.
The hotel, the convention center, the $150-million Connecticut Center for Science & Exploration set to open in winter 2007-8 and supporting retail yet to come make up the bulk of Adriaen's Landing, an extraordinarily ambitious, $771-million development still a few years from completion. The Marriott is the first new, full-service hotel to be built in the state capital in more than 20 years. It's full-service, like the Waterford-managed Hilton Hartford that opened this spring, and the Mystic Marriott Hotel & Spa, another property that comes as close to a resort as the Wolmans want to venture.
Named after Adriaen Block, a Dutch explorer who staked out the Hartford area in the early 17th century, Adriaen's Landing is the most prominent expression of the Wolman approach. Along with the hotel ventures, their construction arm and their gaming enterprises, it makes Waterford Group a shoo-in for Lodging Hospitality's Developer of the Year for 2005.
Len is 50, Mark 47. The brothers are soft-spoken but decisive, they're creative, and they know what they want. Their approach is both playful and analytical.
“Every project is very similar,” Mark says over breakfast at Octagon, the chi-chi restaurant the Wolmans operate at the Mystic Marriott. “It's just the magnitude and the complexity. You're just dealing with many more parts, but the basic philosophy is, you approach each project as building blocks. You have a vision for where it is going to go and there are fundamentals: land control, you have to see how you're going to finance the facility, and you have to come up with a road map from concept to opening.
“It's not just opening, it's the life cycle.”
Such farsightedness explains why the Wolmans develop with expansion in mind. It also explains their talent for politicking from the most basic municipal level to the highest reaches of state government. Where Mark oversees day-to-day operations, Len handles bigger-picture negotiations. Both involve the shared talent of diplomacy.
Hotels are the biggest part of their business. Waterford Hotel Group manages more than 3,800 rooms in 28 properties in 10 states and employs 1,400 associates. The Wolmans and long-time partners, brothers Richard and Peter Slavik of suburban Detroit, seek individual owners or joint ventures in hotels they franchise and manage. They favor Marriott products, though they also franchise other brands including Hilton, Carlson and Choice.
At the same time, they've achieved a high profile in gaming through a joint venture with Kerzner International in the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, CT. They're also partners with Kerzner in a projected, $600-million casino project near Monticello in New York's Catskills Mountain area that they would finance for the Stockbridge Munsee Mohican tribe in exchange for a percentage of the revenues. At Mohegan, the Wolman brothers and Butch Kerzner, through Trading Cove Associates and Kerzner International, enjoy five percent of the gross revenues. Mohegan takes in about $1 billion a year.
Another partner is Barry Sternlicht, head of Starwood Capital. He's involved with the Wolmans in BLB Investors, which will sink $125 million into Lincoln Park, a Rhode Island dog track and gambling center BLB plans to improve and expand.
SEPARATE AND CONQUER
Founded in 1984, Waterford Group is the parent company. The branches are Waterford Hotel Group (for management), Waterford Hospitality Group (for ownership), Waterford Gaming and Wolman Construction. Under those are Waterford Group Restaurants, Waterford Venue Services and Waterford Development.
“We have multiple operations and we need a separate focus and branding and marketing strategy for them,” Len says. “Each company has its own distinct purpose.
“What's my next company going to focus on? If we find another hotel site, we'll form a company to develop that hotel,” he says. “That's how we set up our organization: each one has separate ownership, each one has separate financing, none of them are cross-collateralized. Each deal stands on its own. We don't want to put one deal at risk with another deal.”
That philosophy also applies to the Waterford organization, which values loyalty and rewards enterprise. It's why Lisa Beers, who began as a receptionist, now is vice president of public relations and sits on the executive committee. Rob Winchester, who began as an assistant comptroller, now is president and COO, business development, Waterford Hotel Group. Terry Pickard, president and COO, operations and marketing of Waterford Hotel Group, began as a general manager.
“A hotel is like a city in one building, and ultimately, the most exciting part is the people,” says Len. “The most exciting part for me is watching our organization grow and seeing the opportunities it has provided.”
“There are a lot of opportunities in our organization,” he says. “Human Resources and the managers have to work with individuals, understand their career paths and make sure our goals are mutual. That sets up a long-term relationship.”
Len and Mark and their two sisters (who are not in business) grew up on a farm 60 miles east of Johannesburg, South Africa. Their father eventually developed a holiday resort and “we all worked there growing up,” Len recalls. “We were comfortable. He was able to educate us.”
After graduating from high school, Len wasn't sure what he wanted to do; although he liked mechanical engineering, he couldn't get into the program he wanted, so he joined the South African Air Force, ending up in “a great posting”: an officers' mess in Pretoria. Then he went to Witwaterstrand Technikon, a college with a three-year hotel-school program. “I actually applied to the hotel school and wasn't accepted to the management program, so they put me in a two-year catering program,” he says. “Fortunately, I was switched and attended the management school.”
Upon graduation, he went to work for Sol Kerzner, who would later develop the mega resorts Atlantis and Southern Sun, at two Johannesburg hotels, the five-star Landdrost and the three-star Sunnyside Park. “I really got exposure to all the elements of those hotels,” Len says.
In 1976, he emigrated to the U.S. and took a job as a foodservice supervisor at a 99-room Holiday Inn in Groton, CT. After subsequent jobs with Westin, Hyatt and Four Seasons, he invested $35,000 for a seven-percent interest in a Days Inn in Mystic in 1986, and the Waterford Hotel Group — the seed of all things Waterford — began to grow.
EXPANDING THE VISION
The Wolmans kill the opposition with kindness and facts no matter the size or scale of the project.
“We've taken the approach that it's got to be a win-win for both parties,” says Mark, who heads Wolman Construction. “We want to work and be part of the community that we're in.” He cites a Holiday Inn in New London, CT where the Wolmans wanted to develop a restaurant . Opponents said the eatery might aggravate pollution in an adjacent reservoir, so the Wolmans changed their plans for surface design filtering systems to a system of concrete chambers under the parking lot, quelling the complaint and paving the way for an Outback steakhouse.
“Our approach has always been to work with the neighbors and try to engage all the relevant parties,” Mark says. “If you know it's going to be a sensitive issue, you go out and meet with the town. And there may be subsets to a town, like a fire district. You also meet the relevant regulatory authorities, and we often meet neighbors.”
Adriaen's Landing, however, was far greater in scale and complication, but state support, both political and economic, simplified it considerably. Since 1999, the state of Connecticut has invested nearly $1 billion in Hartford's comeback, spanning a parking garage, a renovated department store, funding for continued improvements to the Connecticut River front, reconfiguration of various highway arteries to Adriaen's Landing, and financing for the Marriott Hartford Downtown.
“When we were first called, we didn't know much about Hartford although we were doing a conversion, taking a historic Henry Richardson-designed building and converting it to a Residence Inn by Marriott,” Mark recalls. Pressed by John Rowland, the Connecticut governor who resigned last June following a business scandal, the Wolmans decided to pursue the project, particularly after meeting with key Hartford business people. The site had its appeal. “The demographics are so compelling,” Mark says. Twenty-three million people live within a two-hour drive of the 33-acre Adriaen's Landing site and 54 million people annually travel the interstates that bypass it.
In 1999, Rowland was campaigning for his first term on a pledge to revitalize Connecticut's cities, especially Hartford. (“A Republican had figured out a Democratic issue,” Mark says.)
“This was a city that was so down on itself,” Mark recalls. “There was so little hotel product, and with millions of people passing by the city on the highway daily and with so many major corporations, we got more excited and wanted to do something.”
So Waterford became master developer of Adriaen's Landing. “During that period, we had to have control. Otherwise, we would have gotten stuck,” Mark says. A 15-year tax break and $15 million in federal Department of Housing and Urban Development loans also helped.
The state also paid for remediation of what was then a brownfield. “A lot of testing was done; every time you dug something, you'd pull an old car out, an old pipe,” says Mark, who convenes meetings each Tuesday to manage Adriaen's Landing. He figures the project won't be fully operational until 2007 or 2008.
Meanwhile, Waterford continues to develop hotels. “Our approach on development is opportunistic,” says Len Wolman. “We don't have a set goal to develop X number of properties. We are not in the market to acquire cash-flowing properties. We try and create significant value with the opportunities we get involved in.”
Premium select-service product, like Courtyard, Residence and Springhill by Marriott and Homewood, Hampton and Garden Inn by Hilton, is the Waterford specialty. “That segment is where we see future growth coming from, whether it be purchasing a site and developing it or buying a property that is run down which we gut, rehab and reposition as a premium brand,” he says.
They restrict their development to the United States. “Everyone speaks the same language, the laws are the same, and the U.S. is a huge place,” says Len. “It's just an incredible country to do business in, and it's manageable.”
New England is special, however. “It's where our corporate offices are located, and even though there are huge barriers to entry, the attraction is that you build long-term value in the assets you operate and develop,” he says.
You also build long-term value in your company. “The biggest priority I have is our reputation,” Len says. “There's nothing more important to us than our reputation. There's also nothing more important than my family.”
What of leadership? “Leadership is recognizing quality in great people, surrounding yourself with those kinds of people and giving them the authority and autonomy to execute within a framework that creates a team with a common goal.
“I wouldn't expect anyone do anything that I wouldn't do myself, and I generally expect more from myself than I expect from others.”
THE BIG IDEAS
People relationships are critical. As a developer, how you treat your partners, financiers, associates and guests is key. “How you service all those relationships is crucial,” says Len Wolman.
Maintain your reputation and value integrity above all, Len says. “Integrity is open honesty at every level.”
Take the long view. “It's not just opening, it's the life cycle,” says Mark Wolman.
Want to use this article? Click here for options!
© 2014 Penton Media Inc.
Acceptable Use Policy blog comments powered by Disqus
Enter a City:
Select a State:
Select a Category: