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Major Players, Without The Flash

From South African Farm To U.S. Entrepreneurship: 2 Hardworking Brothers Put Their Indelible Mark On The Transformation Of Downtown Hartford

May 29, 2005
By MIKE SWIFT, Courant Staff Writer

The headquarters of the Waterford Group, the company that will run the Connecticut Convention Center and will soon control the majority of downtown Hartford's hotel rooms, occupies a commercial no-man's land just shy of the Crystal Mall in Waterford.

The building seems almost embarrassed to draw attention to itself. The mattress store next door has a bigger sign than the Waterford Group, a company that has been involved in developing or operating hotel and gambling projects worth more than $2 billion.

In the lobby, visitors are as likely to meet children spilling from the most visible tenant, an orthodontist, as they are to mix with bankers or developers. The office of Waterford's chairman and chief executive officer, Len Wolman, is on the ground floor nearby, behind a door that doesn't even have a nameplate.

Headed by Wolman and his brother, Mark Wolman, the Waterford Group has been here since 1990, having occupied this same building through its construction and the later expansion of the Mohegan Sun casino in Montville - at the time the largest private development project east of the Mississippi.

In addition to the convention center, the Waterford Group currently operates or owns 28 hotels, including the new 408-room Marriott Hartford Downtown, which will be Hartford's largest hotel. The Wolmans are part of a venture to expand and renovate gambling facilities at a dog track in Bristol, R.I., and are working on a plan with the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians to build a casino in New York state.

The Wolmans, who formed a lucrative partnership with the Mohegan Tribe and South Africa-based Kerzner International to develop Mohegan Sun, ultimately stand to earn more than $500 million with Kerzner from that relationship, according to filings with the federal government.

So one might think they could afford a little flash.

"Why?" asked Len Wolman, when a visitor suggested the company's financial success might justify more lavish digs. He could not suppress a smile, pleased his thrift had been noted.

"We joke about that. We believe in R.O.I. [return on investment]," Wolman said. The orthodontist is an excellent tenant, he said, seeming perplexed at the suggestion that someone might think of renting to a tenant with more business cachet.

Other executives within the company say the Waterford Group's culture reflects the individual personalities of Len and Mark Wolman, as well as the relationship between the brothers, which somehow manages to incorporate both the blood-trust and the conflict inherent in brotherhood and family into a business partnership. The Wolmans, however, work hard to sell the idea that the company's success is not a result of their individual talents. They say their success is because of the collective talents of the team they built. Waterford Group workers are not called employees: They are "associates."

"There is no ego there," said William H. Reynolds Jr., chief investment officer of MeriStar Hospitality Corp., one of the country's largest publicly traded hotel ownership companies.

Reynolds, who has known Len Wolman for more than 15 years, said that in a hard-driving business in which virtually everybody works hard, the Wolman brothers stand out.

"They are smart, but they outwork everybody," Reynolds said. "And I think that's why they've been able to pull off some tough projects in Hartford that would be a real challenge for others to do."

From The Farm Life

The pre-dawn Wolman cellphone call has become a kind of legend among the state officials and others who have managed the development of Adriaen's Landing since 1999, when the Wolmans stepped in after plans collapsed for an NFL stadium on Hartford's riverfront.

The bleary-eyed state official or convention center executive will be lifting his toothbrush when the phone will ring, and a vigorous voice in the receiver, tinged with a South African accent, will say, "Rich?" or "Ben?" or "Chuck?", before launching into a description of the latest problem that Len or Mark Wolman are working to overcome.

The Wolmans grew up on a 2,000-acre family farm in rural South Africa in the late 1960s and 1970s. They spoke English, Zulu and, because they had to, Afrikaans - the language of the dominant white ethnic group in South Africa under apartheid. Len started driving farm tractors at the age of 6; Mark was nearly as young when he started driving them. They fed and cared for the animals, worked in the store of the holiday resort the family operated on the farm and helped build many of its 40 to 50 buildings.

In retrospect, it was their father, Nathan, who gave the brothers a grounding in the hospitality and construction industries. The older Wolman died at the age of 60 in 1979, several years after Len emigrated to the United States.

"Growing up, Mark and I were always close," said Len Wolman, who is 50. "But we always kind of found our own lanes. Mark was always into the dairy and working with the cows and that kind of stuff, and I was much more into the mechanical equipment, the tractors ... Then my parents developed a holiday resort on the farm. And every weekend and every holiday vacation were spent working. ... Weekends we had to work in the convenience store at this resort, serving people. When we ran out of milk, you had to run and get milk from our dairy."

"My grandparents lived with us also," said Mark Wolman, 47. "My parents were out working, and we always had surrogate parents. But for us, well, you'd think, maybe [it was] a little lonely life in some ways. But we didn't even know what that meant, being bored. What happened, the resort filled in. Weekends, people would come to our resort in caravans, daily picnickers, campers, dormitories for school camps. So weekends, we'd be providing [service] and have a lot of kids around. School holidays, there'd be camps and kids around. So there'd always be something."

Mark, whose office wall is decorated with a whimsical cartoon cow, said he still likes being around farm animals. Between the brothers, he is the quieter and more methodical, the one who thinks things through. Len, like the kid who loved being out in the fields at the wheel of a tractor, is the one constantly pushing the business ahead, unearthing new opportunities.

Both brothers are married - Len, who lives in Waterford, since 1983; and Mark, who lives in New London, since 1994. Both couples have children. None of the immediate Wolman family remains in South Africa. One sister lives in Australia, but everyone else is in Connecticut, including a sister in West Hartford and their mother, Marcia, who also lives in Waterford.



Len, the oldest of four children, was the first to come to the United States, at the age of 21 in 1976. He left at the time of the Soweto riots, when black students rebelled because the white minority in power was trying to force them to be educated in Afrikaans.

Because of the racial strife, "I didn't see a great future there," Len Wolman said. He left for the United States after completing hotel school.

Wolman's first real job in the U.S. was as a food service supervisor at a Holiday Inn in Groton, whose owners he met through a friend. Len launched the Waterford Group in 1986, managing a single hotel, a Days Inn in Mystic. Mark emigrated to the U.S. in 1988, after earning an MBA from the University of Pretoria, and founded Wolman Construction, which recently completed the $34 million renovation of the Hilton Hartford hotel. (Mark is the brother most directly overseeing construction of the convention center and Marriott projects.) Wolman Construction builds everything from hotels and high-end custom houses to a soundstage that has been used by Steven Spielberg and Joe Cocker.

Hotel Magnates

Even as the hotel management operation grew quickly in the late 1980s, Wolman Construction started small. In the early days, Mark Wolman and Bob Saint, currently the top Waterford Group employee overseeing construction of the convention center and the Marriott hotel, shared a single desk and a single room.

The relationship Len Wolman built with the then-chief of the Mohegan Tribe, Ralph Sturges, in the early 1990s would cement the Waterford Group's remarkable success through the development and construction of Mohegan Sun. The Waterford Group operated Mohegan Sun for four years.

Not everyone is a Wolman admirer. Lee Tyrol, a Westbrook entrepreneur who was part of the team behind the Mohegan Tribe when it was seeking federal recognition in the early 1990s, contends that the Wolmans duped him out of millions of dollars. Tyrol's company, which once had a 5 percent partnership with the Wolmans and Kerzner's Trading Cove Associates, relinquished its interest in Mohegan Sun for payments that totaled $7 million. But that deal was made soon before the Mohegans, Kerzner and the Wolmans reached a casino buyout package that gave Kerzner and the Wolmans 5 percent of annual gross revenues at Mohegan Sun for 14 years - a deal that could easily top $500 million.

A Superior Court judge rejected Tyrol's suit, but his lawyers are appealing. "Clearly, my client believes that he was treated wrongfully, that he was not treated fairly and squarely," said Michael O'Connell, a Hartford lawyer who represents Tyrol.

Hugh Keefe, who represents the Wolmans, said Tyrol was fully apprised of the negotiations with the tribe and had the option of rescinding his buyout deal. Instead, Keefe said, Tyrol "pocketed the 7 million bucks, and then they are going after more money ... They are trying to keep the $7 million and squeeze more out of the Wolmans."

The sheer size of the Wolmans' payday on the Mohegan Sun deal has also caused some dissension among Indian tribes. The Mohegan Tribal Council recently voted to withdraw from an association of Indian tribes after the association's president testified before the New York legislature about the size of the buyout.

The Waterford Group got a toehold in the downtown Hartford hotel market in 1999, when it helped develop and began operating the 120-room Marriott Residence Inn on Main Street.

But 2005 represents a quantum leap in Hartford for Waterford, marked by the opening of the Hilton in March, the convention center this week and the Marriott Hartford Downtown in August. Those three hotels will give Waterford more than 900 rooms, or about 55 percent of downtown's total inventory.

The company's workforce is growing by about one-third as a result of its new Hartford operations, but Len Wolman said the company's commitment to Hartford goes beyond payroll.

"My dad used to have a lot of different sayings, but the one thing that he taught us from a very early age is that it doesn't matter how much money anyone has. It's all about reputation," he said. "That's what we have at stake here: our reputation."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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