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