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One plus one equals three for White Lotus Group


One plus one equals three for White Lotus Group

by Leo Adam Biga
leoadam.biga@morningsky.com

White Lotus Group CEO Arun Agarwal likes to say his Omaha real estate development company has a simple business plan:

“One plus one equals three.”

This win-win-win, sum-greater-than-parts philosophy works for the vertically integrated firm that optimizes design, financing, implementation, delivery and operation of complex or re-purposed real estate assets.

The growing company does projects in various business segments, from the downtown signature hospitality project that is Hotel Deco to the Nebraska Realty’s corporate headquarters office at 17117 Burt Street. Its portfolio of mixed-used projects in five states focuses on value adds fulfilling social-community needs.

30 Metro Place is an example. The $20 million development on the former site of a beloved Omaha eatery, Mr. C’s, will serve the Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus, where three new buildings have risen across the street. Together with MCC’s $90 million buildout and the $88 million Highlander Village taking shape a mile south, Metro Place is woven into the North O redevelopment fabric.

The five-story, 113,000-square-foot mixed-use Metro Place will feature 110 affordable apartment units, a retail space, a health and wellness component and connectivity hubs. The City of Omaha stamped its approval on $1 million in tax increment financing for the project.

“What we’ve really tried to do is make this consistent with the college,” Agarwal said. “It’s really meant to be a stakeholders building in the sense it should work for the college as the major anchor in the area, and of course, still be a site utilized by the rest of the community. So we wanted to blend it in as much as we possibly could.”

With a projected spring 2018 delivery, Metro Place’s rectangle box structure will pop once the “prominent exterior rainfall system” panels are installed. The multi-colored fiber cement panels are “a very expensive and forward thinking product,” Agarwal said. “It’s going to be a very complimentary look to what the college is doing. Partly because our building is so big and long, we didn’t want it to be very flat looking.”

White Lotus Group’s Brad Brooks did the conceptual plan. BVH Architecture implemented the full architectural and engineering. Ronco Construction is doing the hard hat.

Metro Place is among several North O projects for WLG. The $25 million, 16.5-acre mixed-use Sorenson Place is taking shape at 58th and Sorenson Parkway after unexpected delays from buried concrete debris.

“That’s a very challenging project,” Aragwal said. “It’s definitely taken a fair amount of time to kind of figure out what the best path is. We eventually came up with an idea to excavate the concrete, crush it onsite and then use it as base for sewer separation projects or other concrete road projects.

“The project’s infrastructure for the most part is in.”

The site will feature 120 senior apartments that could start construction by mid-October. An adjoining Family Dollar store and Armor Storage self-storage facility are both now under construction.

The final acre is out for development or sale, a slice of land that has piqued the interest of a national retail chain.

The senior living component responds to what Agarwal called “a dearth of affordable senior apartment living.

The site’s close proximity to Immanuel Communities and CHI Health Immanuel hospital provides “good complimentary services needed and available to us.”

For the affordable senior housing feature, he said, White Lotus is aiming at HUD (U.S. Housing and Urban Development) financing.

Fakler Architects and Ronco Construction are helping realize the project.

Three projects north of Sorenson Place along the Ames Ave. corridor further exemplify WLG’s approach.

The former Ames Plaza indoor mall has been given new life as a mixed commercial space.

“It’s a great example of a building that many expected to be thrown away, so to speak. The significance or success we find is seeing something that other people can’t see. When we came to the Plaza we saw the skeleton of a building we thought we could resurrect, repurpose and complete an adaptive reuse of.

“Sure enough, an 80,000-square-foot structure slated to be demolished is now not only repurposed, but 100 percent occupied. Heartland Workforce Solutions recently renewed for 10 years. They’re a fantastic community partner.”

Planet Fitness and Amor Storage are other tenants.

“We used tax increment financing on Ames Plaza. The city was the participant there,” Agarwal said.

WLG will next develop a vacant acre-and-a half parcel that came with the Plaza’s acquisition. Praxis and Quarter will develop 12 units of senior housing at 58th and Fowler in what’s dubbed the Ames Row Houses.

Affordable tax credits will be used.

Adjacent to the Plaza is another recent acquisition – the long vacant Ames Bowling center – envisioned as home to employers of 200 to 250 next generation jobs.

“We have a vision of creating the Googlesque Ames Innovation Center there. It’s 43,000 square feet on a single-story, on-grade site. We’ll cut open the ceiling, put an atrium in there and make it very bright. Brad Brooks in our office recently did a refacing or facade improvement plan so that we can do either call center or IT help technology positions. Neighboring Heartland Workforce Solutions would be a huge partner.”

It’s a $5 million development.

Projects like these, he said, have a better investment return than some others “because there’s a lot less competition and for that reason I think your margins are better,” adding, “But they take a lot longer and they’re a lot hairier, so the risk-reward is a different ratio.”

Beyond the financials, he said he’s motivated “to do social good; There’s a need for it.” He said, “You feel good doing it because you know you’re delivering something that is a need, and it’s good professionally from an economic standpoint because you know it’s meeting an unmet demand. So that’s just good business. But there’s such a social need as well. We’re really passionate about this Ames Innovation Center because we think we can create as many jobs as the Walmart on 50th and Ames.”

“I think we can create a state-of-the-art satellite facility in the North Omaha community that brings jobs there,” he said. “We’re working the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce to identify employers to provide the jobs. We’re working with Heartland and Metro Community College to provide the training.”

For the plan to work, it has to make business sense.

“Our construction team and design team is working really hard to make it cost effective so that it’s a compelling case for a West Omaha company to do business in North Omaha,” Agarwal said. “I don’t expect anyone to do us a favor by occupying the building. That doesn’t work to us – that’s bad business if we’re begging for somebody to come here.

“To me, if you have double-digit unemployment in North Omaha and you need help desk, customer service, call center, tech jobs that are trainable, then there’s no reason not to cultivate that there and make sure we have a mechanism to train for the jobs we need. It’s going to take a commitment by all parties.”

His company’s applied for Community Block Grant funding and may apply for TIF funds.

“I’m assuming we will apply for other programs as available and as appropriate.”

White Lotus likes working in the urban core space.

“It’s significant to us. Deals in the urban market are tougher to source because there’s a lot of prideful ownership, as there should be, so it’s really hard to assemble properties.”

Agarwal is a licensed real estate agent but works with local brokerage houses, like Investors Realty and The Lund Company, for their expertise.

The group’s Park Plaza conversion reignited a Midtown building and it’s nearing completion of the Turner Park Apartments east of there at 30th and Dodge Streets.

“We really like being adjacent to the Creighton campus. Any collegiate, really – 30 Metro Place being a prime example – we like. We do stuff around the University of Nebraska Medical Center. We’re partners with Green Slate Development and Clarity Development on projects in that UNMC-Blackstone area.”

Millennials are a coveted demographic.

“In the Old Market we’re working on a collaborative co-lab facility in a former Kraft Creamery at 1401 Jones Street,” he said.

The brick structure was among the last available warehouses in that historic district.

“Very few opportunities exist to be a part of downtown. We are excited our project will have a wide appeal taking the best of other Tier 1 cities into a new state-of-the-art model. I’m passionate about the look and feel and the architecture of these buildings. This one looks like its bland from the outside, but it’s actually quite beautiful. We will be pursuing historic tax credits.”

The $5 million project is envisioned as a 43,000-square-foot mixed-use, entrepreneurial shared space for new creativity and new companies, whether in tech, food, marketing or manufacturing.

“We would augment that creative environment with a test kitchen or a brewery. We just finished conceptual planning and are moving into schematic plans.”

WLG has a secret asset on-staff: painter-muralist-sculptor Justin Queal.

“Art is a huge component of our projects,” Agarwal said. “We add cultural art and custom art to all of our projects through installations, paintings, sculptures and custom furniture. We have our own wood shop.

Queal did extensive work for Hotel Deco, A mural he did for the historical J.F. Bloom Building in Omaha’s North Downtown (NoDo district) celebrating the College World Series was featured on ESPN.

Agarwal and his team also engage in suburban projects.

A $150 million 140-acre industrial park is slated for Sarpy County. A planned Northwest Omaha housing subdivision off of 180th and Fort would encompass 110 new homes.

“We have a lot going on. Our team is burning the midnight oil. I’m appreciative of their work.”

Experts weigh-in:

Brett Posten
Principal, Highline Partners
One of the biggest challenges facing a visionary developer like White Lotus Group is that big ideas tend to get lost, diluted and turned into mediocre projects as more and more organizations get involved.

Their vertically integrated model is one of the best ways to make sure everyone is aligned from start to finish. We need more developers who think this big and who can execute it to the end.

30 Metropolitan Place is a real stake in the ground.

Chris Nielsen
Associate Broker and Development, DP Management LLC
The senior living component is interesting as the baby boomers will start to fill in the existing projects. The gap in market rate and low income senior housing as well as regular housing will begin to stress existing supply. With the increase in the cost of construction and decrease in skilled labor, the emphasis the Governor has put on tech schools and Metro’s commitment to providing education will help rebuild this once thriving area by providing jobs, training and projects in North Omaha. Time will only tell as this area must commit to the catalyst and continue the progress.

Chris Nielsen
Associate Broker and Development, DP Management LLC
I think that if there are economic incentives such as TIF and HUD financing, projects like these can thrive. The state has been reviewing the use of TIF and it has it’s uses in metro areas as well as rural communities, both trying to drive economic growth in changing climates that the rest of the world left behind.

When states review the use of TIF, this use is different for urban versus rural, but should not discount developers trying to solve the same problem, bringing projects to the underserved while also trying to cover debt service so that these economic hubs don’t become a flash in the pan. White Lotus should be commended for its efforts as it’s easier to build something with a fresh canvas in the sprawling burbs, rather than work through the nuances of redevelopment and struggle to finance while finding investors with similar visions.

http://www.morningsky.com/

Behind the Vision: Othello Meadows of 75 North Revitalization Corp.


Behind the Vision: Othello Meadows of 75 North Revitalization Corp.

A law degree in hand, Othello Meadows in 2008 returned back to his roots in North Omaha, where a voter registration project that turned out record numbers of minorities led him to feel the need to stay in his home community and turn around decades of decline.

by Leo Adam Biga
leoadam.biga@morningsky.com

Othello Meadows is the executive director of Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp.

Othello Meadows III rode the Omaha brain drain train to play ball at East Carolina, get his law degree and establish a defense and family law career in Atlanta. Then he returned home to work on a voter registration project that put him in close contact with the North Omaha neighborhoods he grew up in. That 2008 project registered record numbers of minorities. The experience also marked a turning point in the life of Meadows, who found the community he grew up in in such decline that he resolved to stay to try and turn things around.

His new focus on revitalizing North Omaha coincided with the Empowerment Network’s efforts to transform the area. Conversations with local leaders and philanthropists led him to form Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp., whose $88 million mixed-use, purpose-built Highlander Village on the site of a former public housing project is now in the final build-out phase.

Jay Palu
Architect, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architects
We have a long working relationship in eastern Omaha in a variety of building types that match what Othello is looking to do. But that’s the easy part.

What Othello provides is the hard part, which is a deep understanding of the community that he’s trying to serve, a love of that community, and a vision for a way to do business.

Meadows’ decision to make a difference in his hometown has resulted in Omaha not only regaining one of its best and brightest, but in reactivating a once dying neighborhood. It may not have happened if he hadn’t been ready for a career change.

“I was kind of tired of what I was doing and wondering where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing, and then I got this opportunity to work on a voter registration project here. I had never done anything like that. Everything I’d done had been strictly for-profit stuff. Some part of me felt like I was supposed to go back home doing something more meaningful.

“It turned out to be probably the best decision I’ve made. It was more fun than I had had doing anything in a long time. I thought, I can’t go back to what I was doing before. It meant too much, it felt too good. I wanted to find a way to keep this same feeling.”

It was another feeling, despair, he saw expressed in North Omaha, and his desire to replace it with promise, that ultimately inspired the creation of Seventy-Five North and its game-changing project.

“I lived in other communities that had issues but it still felt like there was hope and positivity there. When I came back to Omaha as an adult it felt so much different than those places. It felt like there was no hope, it felt like there was so much despair.”

Like many Omaha natives, Meadows concluded North O’s long awaited reset needed to happen now.

“When things start to happen in a real concrete fashion then you start to peel back some of that hopelessness and woundedness. People are really tired of rhetoric, studies and statistics and want to see something come to life.

Jay Palu
, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architects
We at Alley Poyner feel that a number of neighborhoods — especially vulnerable neighborhoods — have been the subjects of experimentation for a long time. Othello has focused us toward listening to the community, talking to individuals who live there, and producing a different result not by experimenting as much but using communication, outreach, and community meetings to do what we think will work well.

Othello is extraordinarily well-read and traveled, and he’s researched solutions that makes our job easier. The staff, partners, and community leaders he brings together are all from the same mold; After a few brief conversations, you realize when someone isn’t in it at the same level, and Othello constantly brings together partners who are as motivated to make change in this neighborhood as he is.”

The work of the Empowerment Network and others set the stage for 75 North, he said, by generating “a greater awareness about issues on the north side.” “People were actually really starting to talk about what makes this community different, how do we identify the things keeping it in this cycle. There was this burgeoning support for doing significant things in the community.”

He said a spate of new North O housing developments delivered “real tangible benefits for people that live in those neighborhoods.”

Then the Sherwood Foundation offered him the opportunity to realize the Seventy-Five North’s ambitious Highlander project.

“I couldn’t pass up this chance of a lifetime to work on a project of this magnitude in a city I care about.”

The project checks several urban revitalization boxes with its high quality, mixed-income housing, birth-to-college education pipeline and onsite support services.

“The whole reason for us being here in this neighborhood is to make sure it gets better,” he said.

Highlander, he added, represents an investment in capital and human resources to address “the very stubborn issue of intergenerational poverty” plaguing the area.

In his 2011 TED talk, “Place as Fate: The Injustice of Geography,” Meadows asked if the place of your birth should determine the quality of your life. He simply wants to help give North O residents the same chances others in the city get to realize their potential.

Meadows advocates positive community changes starting in people’s homes. He and wife Tulani Grundy-Meadows, a Metropolitan Community College professor, are themselves products of stable, two-parent family homes and now model that same same stability as the parents of two boys. For them, strong parents and families are the frontline change agents in neighborhoods and communities.

“The highest form of leadership is motherhood and fatherhood and providing that leadership for your own individual family first and kind of radiating from that,” he said. “That leadership is more internal and helps a community guide its own destiny rather than saying, who’s going to come in from outside and help us fix this?”

He feels grassroots leaders at the community, neighborhood and block level are the real difference-makers. He hopes Highlander and projects like it help people find ways to become “their own change agents in their own communities.” He said, “All these little small actions within a community are what make the sea change. You don’t get it from a guy holding a bullhorn, you get it in lots of little pieces. It’s a real test of the will of the community to say, I’m invested here, this is my neighborhood, this is my community, I’m going to make a lot of really small but right decisions.”

He sees leaders like himself facilitating change.

“The reality is what we may do is give that ball at the top of the hill the slightest of pushes, but everybody has to keep it going. So maybe you start something – maybe you’re a catalyst. I try to think of myself as someone that sparks something that gets something else going.

“True leadership is service and service for a cause. I try to think of myself as somebody who is kind of a vessel for a lot of the hopes and desires for this neighborhood.

Jay Palu
, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architects
There’s a lot of risk in development. The success of any developer depends on a number of financial target being hit, plus, a number of complicated technical aspects just have to work out. When you start a project, there are things you’ll discover in the process that will delay or defer or modify things. There will be a number of complicated things with procurement, contracts. In the end, it’s still construction which can wear people out. But there’s been a positive vibe since day one for Othello and his team. They’ve all got an attitude that perhaps we can all learn from about how this is really a remarkable project. To a lesser degree, every project we get that touches designers is really remarkable; it’s something new that we get to either create or bring back to life in a renovation. Othello has the attitude that’s steady, confident, supportive, humorous. It’s refreshing; We leave meetings where sometimes we have to make hard decisions feeling treated with respect, kindness, and quite frankly it’s addictive to be around people making positive change and see them enjoy it and ask what else they can do; It’s been really positive for us.”

He took this everyone-has-their-part-to-play philosophy from his late father and other elders.

“He was probably the biggest influence. Then I was fortunate enough to have really good mentors after him.”

With North O on everyone’s radar, more development is happening there now than in the previous few decades combined. Public and private projects on Ames Avenue, 24th Street and 30th Street are tangible signs of progress. Highlander’s North 30th build-out is the result of several funding streams.

“Anytime you’re working in a neighborhood like ours you have to be kind of creative,” Meadows said. “You’re talking about 40 percent philanthropy and then the rest kind of split-up into equal parts: new market tax credits, low-income housing tax credits, regular debt and equity. It’s all broken-up by phase and by housing type and by building, so it’s different with every building on the site.”

The project just got its first tenants moved in. This dream to improve a blighted area where nothing seemed to ever change is now a reality.

Tulani Grundy-Meadows has described her husband’s “wondrous spirit” as a key to his following dreams.

“He seeks wonder in anything he does.”

Meadows once left here, but he’s glad to have returned to help shepherd North O’s revival. He’s heartened that many are fighting the same good fight to fulfill shared dreams for the community they call home.

“It’s exciting to see people I’ve known a long time staying committed to where we grew up. The easiest thing to do is to go somewhere else. I did it for awhile. But it’s good to see there are other people who say, at least for awhile, I’m going to play my role, I’m going to do my part.”

He’s sure he made the right decision to return and is happy to see brick-and-mortar progress, but he’s unclear about the impact he’s having.

“If you care about neighborhoods, and people and creating a better quality of life for families, then you are always wringing your hands about whether or not what you are engaged in is making a real difference.”

The Motivator – Willy Theisen


Serial food entrepreneur Willy Theisen of Omaha has a methodology for success in life and business that he likes sharing with others. When he’s not making deals or overseeing his various moneymaking ventures, he’s speaking to groups of aspiring and established entrepreneurs about some guiding principles he follows that he feels can help people achieve their dreams.  Many of his most attentive audiences are high school and college students who were not born when he had his breakout success with Godfather’s Pizza. He’s had many successes after selling Godfather’s and he’ll be stategizing and pitchng until his dying breath but he’s not just about accumulating weath and possessions these days, he’s also about giving back, and he views passing his wisdom and experience on to others, whether as a speaker or mentor, as a form of public service. My new profile of Theisen in the May-June-July 2017 issue of Metro Magazine (https://issuu.com/metmago/docs/thegivingguideandeventbook2017) delineates some of the key tenets he lives and works by and that he gladly shares with others.

 

The Motivator.

Willy Theisen

Photo by Jim Scholz

“We Don’t Coast!”

The Greater Omaha Chamber ads say it. Nebraska is motivated and motivational. So is one of her most inspiring success stories, Willy Theisen. This serial entrepreneur who first made a name for himself as founder, chairman and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza Corporation is anything but idle at 71. He still puts in 70 hours a week between his business pursuits and community endeavors.

After selling the brilliantly branded Godfather’s chain he grew to 500-plus franchises, he went on to new hospitality industry adventures. He returned to his roots with Pitch Coal-Fire Pizzeria but doing more refined pies than Godfather’s. With Pitch a hit in Omaha’s prime Dundee neighborhood, he’s opened a new eatery there, Paragon, featuring a completely different concept.

Theisen’s come a long way from his brash rise to fast-food fame and fortune that found him making news for his lavish lifestyle – once renting a Concorde supersonic passenger jet to take him and birthday celebrators to London and back. Over time, he’s devoted considerable energy to civic service work, including serving on the Omaha Airport Authority and Creighton University boards. More recently, he’s been appointed to the Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Franchising at the University of Nebraska Omaha. He’s also been appointed chairman of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau Advisory Board and named a Creighton University Business Ethics Alliance Trustee.

With Nebraska feeling the pinch of persistent brain drain, massive state budget deficits and the loss of major corporate players, this serial entrepreneur is viewed as an economic stimulus expert.

At a recent presentation before Skutt Catholic High School business students and members of Future Business Leaders of America, he said, “Who creates jobs? Entrepreneurs create jobs.” He shared how he was taken aback to learn that in its 44-year history, Godfather’s has created more than half a million jobs.

His proven business savvy is well recognized per his induction in the Omaha Restaurant Association Hospitality, Omaha Chamber of Commerce and Nebraska Business & Commerce Halls of Fame.

Because of his-real world expertise and experience as a self-made man, he’s often asked to present before audiences ranging from professionals to high school and college students. He especially looks forward to interacting with young people because he believes in cultivating and supporting emerging entrepreneurs.

“I really think these people who produce new ideas and share those ideas and have them nurtured is our future job growth in this state,” Theisen said. “I think it’s a must that we identify and nurture them as early as possible.”

He told Skutt students: “Entrepreneurs are people that can see things other people don’t see.”

Theisen and Gallup Global Channel Leader of Entrepreneurship and Job Creation Todd Johnson share a passion for finding and coaching young entrepreneurs. In June, a group of area youth identified through Gallup assessment profiles as high potential entrepreneurs will attend the Omaha Builders Internship at Gallup, and Johnson’s already secured Theisen’s help.

Life Lessons.

“I called Willy and said, ‘I’m going to have the next generation of you here at Gallup for a month, will you engage?’ and he said yes. So he’ll mentor, coach and present to them.”

Johnson said the idea is to be more systematic, scientific and intentional in the early identification and development of entrepreneurial talent.

“Willy and I have really bonded on that project. We’ve socialized it and, I dare say, evangelized it and we’re going to set-up Omaha as a best-practice mecca. Gallup sees Willy right in the middle of the mentoring and coaching of this next generation of entrepreneurs.”

In recent Gallup testing he scored highly in eight of the ten metrics associated with greatly successful entrepreneurs, including knowledge-seeker.

Anthony Hendrickson, dean and professor of Business Intelligence & Analytics at Creighton University’s Heider College of Business, said he admires Theisen’s curiosity about what makes things work.

“He came to the Harper Center to speak to a group of students. I took him on a quick tour of the building, including the food-service kitchens. Willy wanted to walk through those facilities and see what was being prepared, how, by whom, the menus and processes. Willy was just trying to learn if there was anything he might have missed as a restauranteur. Ever the student of business and life.”

Theisen’s public speaking is part of a philanthropic thank-you to the city that supported his big idea.

Van Deeb, a national real estate speaker, author and coach, said, “Willy is spending the majority of his time giving back to the community that made him so successful. We spend a lot of time together and I see it and I feel it. He’s wanting to give to youth hope, direction, inspiration.”

Theisen said, “I make time now. Before, I probably cared just about things more than the impact I could make. I was always too busy working, opening restaurants all over the country. I don’t want to go all over the country. We’ve got a lot of stuff to do right here and it’s not all about restaurants – it’s about people.

“A lot of people are busy all their life and they don’t want to be part of anything. They just let things happen. I don’t want to let things happen – I want to make things happen. When I get done with a project I want it to be better off with my involvement than without it.”

Beverly Kracher, a Creighton business professor and CEO-executive director of the Business Ethics Alliance, said, “Willy is smart enough to see he has power. He’s also a man of character enough to use that power to take care of our community and to act responsibly.”

Johnson said he admires Theisen’s commitment to the Business Ethics Alliance they serve on together.

“We have events across the city throughout the year and you can always find Willy. He’s known as a man that shows up and I think that’s a real important insight into who he is. I can’t think of a time when I asked for Willy’s help and he said no. I sure hope I’m as generous with my time, talent and treasure in 20 years as he is. He’s such a good role model.”

Theisen said his focus on “giving back and paying forward” is something that “comes with age and from involvement in the community,” adding, “It just evolves into this and it becomes more important than not.”

When presenting he eschews prepared notes for a conversational, freestyle delivery that invites talk-back. His message emphasizes certain principles he lives and works by as well as certain truths he believes. One is the importance of first-time jobs and what they teach.

“First-time jobs give young people confidence. They direct you to come in on time, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ It gives you confidence in the things you need to be set up in to succeed. At Godfather’s it just happened that about 80 percent of the 545,000 jobs created during the company’s history have been filled by first-job seekers.

“Working at Godfather’s was a starting point for many young individuals. What’s most fulfilling to me is that they have gone on and bought houses and automobiles, raised children, contributed to society, and that first job was a part of their foundation.”

Growing up, Theisen’s parents modeled and he adopted a work ethic and earning-your-own-way mentality.

“I always had a job. I painted house numbers on curbs, I caddied, I worked in a pool hall, I flipped burgers, I cut lawns, I bagged and carried groceries at Eddie’s Market, I killed chickens in the market’s basement.

“I did a lot of stuff – and all of it matters. All of it got me here today.”

At Skutt he stressed that from humble origins great things can spring forth. Students young enough to be his great-grandchildren listened intently.

“My best audiences are young people,” he said. “I think they’re looking for a direction and I talk right to them, I don’t talk down to them. I relate to them. I want to be something they can count on. I’ve worked with young people in business all my life.”

Dale Eesley, an associate professor in UNO’s College of Business Administration, said, “Willy doesn’t lecture students. He tells them stories from his career and encourages them to look for the best in themselves. He emphasizes hard work – something anyone can do if they set their mind to it.”

Theisen knows any group includes entrepreneurs.

“There’s a handful of them in every audience. They’re there, we’ve just got to find them and show them the opportunity. Hopefully, I can inspire them to maybe have the courage to take it one step further.”

Eesley considers Theisen “a true mentor” figure for youth. “Many times I have arranged for students to seek advice from Willy. On several occasions he has hosted ‘Dinner with an Entrepreneur,’ where four to six students from the Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization join him at Pitch and get to know him personally as well as professionally. Students all say it’s the highlight of their school year.”

Creighton’s Hendrickson said, “Willy is a tremendous resource for young people, especially aspiring entrepreneurs. He takes time to visit with students individually, listen to them intently and provide encouragement and wisdom about their ideas. He is quick to share the positive potential he sees in their thoughts and plans but equally quick to provide the kernels of truth they need to hear about the challenges they will face. I have referred many students to him.”

Until recently, Theisen said, what few entrepreneurial classes local schools offered were only for graduating seniors or graduate students.

“It’s too late. We can’t wait until they’re seniors to identify them as entrepreneurs. We’ve got to have entry-level. Now schools have departments and programs for entrepreneurship. This is where these ideas come from. They only need one and from one you can take it and make something out of it, and our schools now nurture that out of people.”

Theisen tells students none of this support existed when he was their age. “The word ‘entrepreneur’ wasn’t even used. We were called futzers or daydreamers.”

So much of what forms us, he tells audiences, is our habits. His checklist of positive habits to follow includes “showing up on time, being a person of character and being credible.” He encourages those working first jobs to foster traits that develop good lifetime habits that connote trust. “Be dependable, come in early, stay late. Make the boss look great. That’s how you advance.”

He said along with doing things right “comes confidence, then ethics and then trust,” adding, “I want to get people to where somebody can look at them and say, ‘I trust you, I can count on you, because you’re here on time, ready to work.’ I tell young people you gotta be ready to work when the opportunity is there. Don’t say, ‘Can I get back to you on this?’ Someone else will do it.”

He said the trust that flows from being ethical in business is not a legal requirement but “it sure helps to be a person of your word.” Besides, he said, “It is the right thing to do and the relationships are so much better when you’re ethical. No hidden agendas, no backroom deals, no going around in an underhanded way.”

He built his first business empire on trust.

“From 1977 through 1979 I opened 450 Godfather’s Pizzas in 36 months. You couldn’t have done it if you didn’t trust each other, if you weren’t ethical, if you picked the wrong partner to go into these things with. None of it would have happened.

“Some of the first franchise deals we had back in 1974, we didn’t have written agreements. You know what we had? You grabbed a person’s hand and you looked at them right in the eye and took them at their word.”

 

 

metroMAGAZINE/mQUARTERLY MAY/JUN/JUL 2017

 

 

Long before franchising became an option, Theisen had to sell a banker on a dream.

“Something life-changing for me happened in late 1972. I went over to Southwest Bank to get a small business loan. I was nervous. The lending manager I met with, Joe Sullivan, said, ‘What’s your idea?’ ‘Well, what I’m going to do is I’m going make a big, thick pizza with a bunch of toppings on it and I’m going to put my store right in the middle of Thomasville Apartments. There’s 500 or 600 people living there and everyone’s going to come there; nobody’s going to cook.’”

Theisen, who worked for a real estate developer then, had no real collateral other than his vision and belief.

“All I had was a rough ballpoint-ink outline of the building on a cocktail napkin. Joe looked at me and said, ‘Where’s the rest of your business plan?’ ‘That’s it.’ He stared at me, and said, ‘I like it, it’s simple, I understand it.’ He gave me Small Business Administration loan papers. He guessed I wasn’t good at filling out forms and said, ‘I’ve got a guy.’ He asked, ‘Do you work at night?’ ‘Yeah, I work at night,’ ‘Will you start tonight?’ ‘Yeah, I’ll start tonight.’ His accountant and I got those forms filled out and I got the loan. You know what Joe made that day? He made a character loan. He made me a loan. That’s what I call the Sullivan Effect.”

Additionally, Sullivan offered some sound advice via an admonition. “He said, ‘When you open your place, I want to see you there.’ I asked my business partner at that time, Greg Johnson, ‘What do you think that means?’ ‘It means you’ve got to be there all the time.’ I was there all the time. That’s the Sullivan Effect, too.”

Business Ethics Alliance activities have given Theisen fresh insights into lifelong practices.

“I thought I was always doing the right thing but now I know I’m doing the right thing, and I get a little more satisfaction out of it.”

Of his fellow Alliance trustees he said, “It’s evolved into quite a good list of individuals. It’s not a coincidence most of them are leaders. They got there being that.”

Creighton’s Kracher said Theisen brings credibility to advising about jobs since he’s created so many.

“He grooms young people to help them understand what it means to work hard, to show up on time, to be accountable, to be trusted – all those character traits that matter if you are going to be a business person.

“He takes the time to educate students that half of life is about showing up and in his fundamental belief that business and life is based on trust.”

She said his charisma plays equally well with students and seasoned business professionals.

“You can’t help enjoy hearing him speak and then afterwards telling five people what you heard.”

Theisen stresses to audiences the building blocks of success must be cultivated. “This just doesn’t happen,” he said. “You don’t wake up one morning and get this when you’re 69 years old. This is the fabric and core of who you are and how you treat and greet others.”

As a veteran restauranteur he knows how key quality control is. It’s why he shows up to observe and listen. He always checks the restrooms to ensure they’re clean. He stops to ask diners about their experience. He follows orders from the kitchen to the table to see if they’re coming out right.

One night at Pitch he followed an onion rings order from the kitchen to a table where two young women sat sipping cocktails. He regaled them with what makes the rings so fresh and special when one woman interrupted to say, “Willy, we trust you.” “And it kind of took me,” he said. “It’s all I’ve ever worked for. It’s the core and fabric of what I am. Everything I am is to be trusted.”

Built on Trust.

“Trust”, he told Skutt students, “means everything to me. It doesn’t come quick, it doesn’t come easy. You’ve got to earn it every day. That’s one of your strengths.”

No detail’s too small for his attention. Nothing gets overlooked, ignored or abandoned.

“I try to talk to young folks about solving small problems. I’m a master at solving small problems. I try to have big ideas sometimes, but I want to solve small problems. If you’re driving to an appointment and you cut yourself short on time, you make yourself late and thus less credible, and I try to teach people how important that is,” he said.

“I generally ask, ‘How many of you made your bed this morning?’ I make the point it’s the first achievement of the day. There’s research showing you’ll be happier several percentage points by doing that one thing. Your day flows from there because it’s done. Then you clean up, get dressed. It organizes you and gets you set to take on things.”

Kracher said, “He’s a perfectionist and that perfectionism has driven him to the successes he’s had. He looks at every single detail over and over, down to the toilet paper in his restaurants’ restrooms.”

Theisen’s never without a to-do list.

“This is my to-do list,” he said, holding a small sheet of memo paper filled with entries. “I’m going to finish it and then I’ll have another list for tomorrow. But you have to finish things. You can’t leave everything half-assed, half-done. That’s what I tell people. You have to show up, you have to be prepared and you have to finish things.

“That’s who I am, that’s how I live my life. Successful people are finishers. If you’re a finisher, you’re going to be successful.”

In his talks, he said, “I really provoke thought. They remember me when I leave. That’s my job. That’s one of the reasons I’m there. I give them points to think about and I present in an untraditional way.” In a given session, he said he and students get around to discussing “food and beverage, hospitality, politics, education. Omaha’s generous philanthropic community and the philosophy of giving back and paying forward. We talk about a lot of things. It’s fun for me and them.”

Theisen doesn’t just engage with audiences of privilege. Through his work with UNO he visits inner-city schools to interact with diverse students, many of whom come from trying circumstances.

“This past summer my friend Van Deeb and I visited several inner-city high schools together – Blackburn, Central, South and Benson – to let them know UNO is an option to help people be entrepreneurs if they want to be entrepreneurs. It’s not for everybody.”

He said, “Something eye-opening happened at Benson. I was miked up, walking back and forth on stage, chatting, when I looked down in the front row and this young man was sound asleep. I looked over at the guy next to him and said, ‘Wake ‘Junior’ up, would you?’ So he gave him a shot and ‘Junior’ sat up.

“When I got done I was getting my things together on stage to join the students for Godfather’s pizza when I saw ‘Junior’ approaching me stage left. He’s a big guy. I thought, ‘This can go either way.’ He towers over me and I look up and he says, ‘Mr. Theisen, I want to apologize for falling asleep.’ I asked, ‘Who told you to come up here?’ ‘Nobody, I come on my own. After I did get with it, I heard you have to man up and take ownership for everything you do. That it’s not a blame game.’ So he shook my hand and as we walked off stage he put his arm around my shoulder, and I think I changed him for only a minute. He changed me.

“It was humbling. I’m up there to teach some takeaways, positive direction, leadership skills as sort of a life coach, and when he came up it tore at me because he heard enough that it changed him. It reminded me how fortunate I am to be in front of those students. He took my words to heart and that made my day and made it well worthwhile going there and sharing. I know I made an effect on one person for sure and hopefully many more. I take away so much more then these kids get. I’m the beneficiary of this when I get done with one of these groups. I love it.”

He’s well aware many of the urban kids he addresses face challenges their suburban peers do not.

“I was at Blackburn and this girl was asleep when I walked in the room. This was a group of students that had left school and were coming back to graduate. They were a little bit older and they were on a mission. I said to her, ‘You probably need a little more sleep,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, I do, because I’m pregnant.’ I said. ‘Well, you know, others have been where you are and you’ll get through it. By coming here you’re going to get a high school degree and things will get better.’”

Connecting.

“They have tough lives. Listening to them, having empathy for them and encouraging them are among the things I try to give back. They don’t want me to sit up there and bark at them for an hour. I talk to them and I draw out of them things. They must trust me or they wouldn’t tell me.”

Todd Johnson said Theisen instinctively reacts to his audience and adapts as needed.

“No matter the setting or audience, Willy manages to engage. He figures out a way. And if you think about entrepreneurs, they always figure out a way. They see or hit an obstacle and they go over it, around it, under it and I think that applies to his community involvement and communication.

“He can read a room and adjust on the fly if he has to. He’s pretty good at that and he keeps it snappy.”

Van Deeb said he’s impressed by Theisen’s ability to reach people.

“I truly admire how he connects with youth. He relates to them. He commands the room. You can hear a pin drop. They listen to every word he says and he’s not just talking about being successful in business. He’s talking about how to be successful in life. Treat people well, do what you say you’re going to do, be on time. He never brings up his financial success. It’s never about making money, it’s about being a good person, and it’s refreshing.

“What I see in Willy is he cares about people. He wants to be significant in people’s lives. When I look at these students’ faces, it’s clear they’re learning from him.”

Far from the public eye, Theisen also personally intervenes in the lives of young people in crisis or at crossroads.

“Some people come into my life that are on the wrong track and need help getting over humps. I get gratification from seeing somebody get on that right track and do well. As a respected friend of the family I can often come in and talk to kids better than the parents can. I go in pretty straight-forward – here’s what we gotta do, no nonsense, no excuses.

“Many a time I get their attention when everything else has failed. We agree one-on-one what we need to get done. It’s better that way. I make the young woman or man responsible and we get on a timeline and we start. I don’t want to get disappointed and I don’t want to disappoint them. so we’ve both got to do X to get to where we’re going.”

Theisen didn’t come from money and he’s worked for everything he’s gotten. He’s had his own setbacks, both personal and business. He faced a serious health issue several years ago. He knows what it’s like to struggle and fail, though he likes to think of those misfortunes as “things that just didn’t work out.”

All of it’s given him a heart “for the little guy.”

“I’m a guy for second chances, I really am,” he said. “I don’t give beatdowns. It used to be one-and-done with me. As I’ve gotten older, I feel it’s more important to give second chances. I’ve seen people that have tried really hard to live up and they can’t do it the first chance and so I give them another. I know when somebody’s really trying and they just need a little more time.”

Whether for kids or adults, his how-tos are the same.

“There are steps I want people to take. To be formidable, competitive, resilient. To be mindful. To have empathy. To take and have ownership. To be a person of your word, I want people to know I walk the talk. I’m somebody you can count on.

“These are just words but there’s true meaning behind every one. My epitaph, if I do have one, would read: ‘He was a good guy who tried right some wrongs over the course of his life.’ That’s a big deal to me.”

Theisen doesn’t dwell on his mortality, not with a granddaughter to dote on, projects to work on and commitments to keep. But he’s aware each passing year brings him closer to the end.

“What I’m not going to do is waste one day.”

He’s never been more content or grateful knowing his purpose in life as a builder and creator is never really done and may even outlive him.

“I have good health and good fortune. I try to eat right. I hit the gym. I get enough sleep. Yeah, I’m very happy. I’ve not been any happier. I look forward to tomorrow and the next day. I don’t look back much. I want to move forward. I’ve got so many things to get done. I have to solve small things in each of them. They need me.”

 

“My epitaph, if i do have one, would read: ‘He was a good guy who tried to right some wrongs over the course of his life.’ That’s a big deal to me.”

Read more, including what young entrepreneurs have to say about Willy Theisen’s motivational impact on their lives, in our DIGITAL EDITION.

 

My Small Business Story

November 2, 2016 Leave a comment

My Small Business Story
As someone who writes stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions, I plug into what makes people tick and share their personal brand with the world. My work as an author-journalist-blogger introduces me to remarkable individuals whose stories I tell in books, articles and posts. Just as I find inspiration in these subjects, so do my readers. How do I know? Nearly every day I get to speak with or write about fascinating people whose stories affect me in some way. Readers tell me they are variously moved or stimulated by what I write.
 
Indeed, my mission as a writer is to inform, educate and entertain. If I can make readers feel and think, to learn and grow, to break away from the mundane, then I have done my job.
 
It has been my privilege to write about topics that affect my community, including issues having to do with race. On those occasions I believe my work does make a difference by giving voice to the voiceless and providing context for complex subjects. I have also had the opportunity to travel for my work, including reporting assignments in Africa, Washington DC, Hollywood, North Dakota and the greater Midwest.
 
There is an old saying that everyone has a story and I wholeheartedly believe that. Each of us has something to say and to offer. It is my great pleasure to give people a platform in which they can be heard.
 
I have entered the LinkedIn ProFinder Small Business Contest. Should I win, I would leverage LinkedIn and LinkedIn ProFinder to find new stories to tell, collaborators to work with for telling these stories across different channels and sponsors to support these projects. LinkedIn and LinkedIn ProFinder could also afford new opportunities for me to travel inside and outside Nebraska in search of stories and to conduct research. These tools would also enable me to hire an expert to enhance and coordinate my social media.
 
Additionally, I would leverage LinkedIn and LinkedIn ProFinder to help realize two dream passion projects of mine:
•the multi-media Nebraska Screen Heritage project
•the multi-media Omaha Black Sports Legends project
 
LinkedIn and LinkedIn ProFinder are wonderful tools for engagement and connectivity among thought-leaders, service providers and professionals from diverse disciplines. These tools can help bring stories to larger audiences and thus allow this work to make an even bigger impact.
 
We are all experts in our own fields and specialties but nobody knows it all. Therefore, I am eager to strategically use LinkedIn and LinkedIn ProFinder as tools for exploring collaborative partnerships. It will facilitate sharing stories across broader canvases in some cases and within niche segments in other cases. It is all about finding the right audience for a particular message or story.
 
Storytelling is my craft, my trade, my livelihood, my calling. Consider this post a call for likeminded individuals to work with me in telling compelling stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions.

 

Pot Liquor Love: Passing the torch at the Dundee Dell

August 29, 2016 Leave a comment

I have always been partial to the fish and chips served up at the Dundee Dell. The old line Omaha pub has a loyal following for its grub and spirits and for its ultra casual vibe. There’s something traditional and classic about the way it looks and feels and does things. So when I got the assignment from Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/) to do this piece on the recent ownership change at the Dell I was more than happy to accept because I was curious to meet the man who’s headed the place for the last three decades, Pat Goebel, as well as the man he’s passed the torch to, Greg Lindberg. Both gentlemen have years of experience in the food business. Goebel inherited a legacy in the Dell. Lindberg made his name and success as the entrepeneur who brought fresh seafood to Omaha to a whole new level through his Absolutely Fresh Seafood markest and Bailey’s and Shucks restaurants. Selling the Dell to someone as experienced as Lindberg eases Goebel’s mind that he’s leaving it in good hands and Lindberg is respectful enough of what Goebel created there that he’s asked Goebel to help smooth the transition. Goebel’s pleased to do just that. It’s been a spell since I’ve dined and hung out at the Dell and after meeting the men and learning how passionate they are about the place what it means to them I’m eager to renew my own relationship with it. You can bet I’ll order the fish and chips and even though I really don’t imbibe I may break down  just to sample one of those aged Scotches the joint takes pride in. Oh, and on some other visit I have to try the hot pastrami sandwich that both Goebel and Lindberg recommended.

Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

 

The fish and chips at Dundee Dell are crisp and delicious.

 

Pot Liquor Love:

Passing the torch at the Dundee Dell

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the August 2016 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)

 

In the wake of Piccolo’s closing, leaving Omaha one less signature Italian steakhouse, the Bohemian Cafe announced it would serve its last Czech specialties in September. So when rumors surfaced Pat Goebel was selling the city’s oldest pub, the Dundee Dell, local diners and imbibers alike quaked at the thought of some dillitante swooping in and ruining a good thing.

Fears were allayed when news got out the Dell was purchased by veteran Omaha restauranteur and wholesale food maven Greg Lindberg. The midtown landmark has joined his Absolutely Fresh Seafood, Shucks Fish House and Oyster Bar and Baileys family of businesses.

Since taking over last spring, with Goebel staying on to ease the transition at Lindberg’s request, the new owner’s made it known to devotees the magic that makes the Dell won’t change.

Lindberg, who often bent an elbow at its old 50th and Dodge location and followed it to its current 50th and Underwood site, appreciates what he’s inherited when he calls the homey  establishment an “icon and institution.”

“The pressure I feel is to not screw it up, because it is the Dundee Dell,” Lindberg said. “My witnesses or judges are the loyal customers and employees.”

He said being the steward of a legacy that goes back to 1934, when it started as a Jewish delicatessen, then went through a steakhouse phase, before tuning pub, is a “labor of love.” He’s also quick to add, “I believe I can make money with this. I think I can make it a good business and a fun place for me to be. I’m doing this because I want to do this.” There’s also a deeper reason that motivated him to buy the Dell – he didn’t want to see it shuttered the way so many historic restaurants have and chance a franchise opening in its place.

“I believe in small business,” he said. That belief goes back to his father who championed buying on main street as publisher of newspapers in Sergeant and West Point, Nebraska.

By the time Lindberg operated his own ventures, he saw too many mom-and-pops go under.

“I was selling fish to all these restaurants owned by hard working people trying to feed their families. The chains kept moving in and kicking these people out. That sucked, that is not the way I want my town to be, so I fight back.”

 

Photo of Greg Lindberg

Greg Lindberg

 

Lindberg admires that Goebel enjoyed a long run (he bought it in 1989) and “kept the vibe, the spirit” while giving it “a breath of fresh air” upon moving to its new digs in 2000. Lindberg’s added new systems, fresh carpeting and other overdue updates to provide “new energy” and “get it shiny,” but he’s kept most everything else the same. That includes the famous fish and chips and the hot pastrami sandwich. Holdover executive chef Mary Tomes is introducing new seafood and traditional English pub items. The Dell’s epic collection of Scotch varietals is being curated to further brand the Dell as a niche neighborhood joint where you can get certain scotches you can’t anywhere else.

Lindberg said his familiarity with Scotch was limited to drinking it, but he’s learning from Goebel, a bonafide connoisseur. Goebel’s vast store of spirits knowledge is not the only reason Lindberg asked he remain in-house awhile.

“A lot of the Dell is between his ears, quite frankly. Plus, he’s the face of the Dell.”

Lindberg’s getting ample face time with Dundee regulars. “Whatever the politically correct term is for people with money and education, well, they’re here,” he said, “and that’s cool, I like it.” The Dell can appeal to an upscale clientele looking for a relaxed setting, but looking at Dundee’s mostly gourmet eateries, it fills the inexpensive pub niche otherwise missing.

He’s learned things since starting his first business in 1979.

“A lot of times in my life it’s been knowing what not to do. I have ideas from here to the Interstate. single-spaced. I’m a list guy.

I’ve kept my last two phones and computers because they have so many lists and they don’t talk to each other. There’s some good ideas in there, but you can’t do everything.”

Many eateries go awry, he said, by “trying to be all things to all people – too many things on the menu.” “Ideally,” he said, “I’d shave off a third of any menu.”

He believes the front and back of the house are only as good as the people working them. He was impressed enough by Goebel’s tight-knit corps that he’s kept the entire staff intact.

“We haven’t gotten rid of anybody.”

“I could not be more pleased,” Goebel said. “It really is family.

So many of our staff have been here 10 years-plus. We take care of our people, we support each other. If somebody’s having a rough spot, we gather around and help them through it. If there’s a wedding or a new baby’s born, we all celebrate.”

Lindberg isn’t messing with a good thing. “Everybody talks about their place is family,” he said. “This is the real deal. There’s a lot of amazing stories about what Pat’s done for these people. If you’ve got good people, you can do anything, – I believe that in my soul. I’ve done my best to surround myself with talented, hard working people. I actually like ’em and they tend to like me.” Yes, running a business comes with hassles, but “good people take most of those away from you,” he said.

Goebel feels he’s leaving his people and place in good hands.

“Greg and I really see eye-to-eye on things. I wanted to find       somebody who’s vested in the legacy, in the tradition, in the Dundee Dell, and wanted to maintain that going forward, and I found that in Greg. I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I’m very invested emotionally here. I will always be. But it’s time for me to pass the torch.

“This thing needs to be respected and honored and cherished. It’s not just another part of a large operation. I mean, do we really need another Applebees? Does it make Omaha better? The Dundee Dell does make Omaha better.”

 

 

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Lindberg said the timing was right. The Dell took a hit from extended street construction a few years ago that made accessing it a pain. Business further  lagged this last year. When he heard Goebel was seeking a buyer, he contacted him to discuss terms and discovered the depths of the struggles.

“It got rough. It was spiraling down. Staff were a little beat down over lack of money to fix things. The way I saw it,” Lindberg said, “if I didn’t do it, this thing was going to fall. It was close.”

Besides not wanting the Dell be another Omaha eatery casualty, taking on a new challenge is just what he needed.

“I’ve just been having a good time with Shucks and Bailey’s and Absolutely Fresh for decades. It wasn’t always fun, but it has been for quite some time. This has reenergized me. I don’t have to work, but I like it. I’m 61-years old, I’ve been doing this for 37 years. I’ve been saving money – not for the first 12 or so – but I’ve been saving money ever since. I’d be fine. I could retire.

“But then what?”

 

The Dundee Dell is one of the oldest and most recognizable establishments in Omaha's famous Dundee neighborhood

 

Ever the entrepreneur, Lindberg needs the rush that comes with business risk and reward. Then there’s the symmetry of it.

“I bought it from Pat, who had it for 27 years. He bought it from Neil Everett, who had it for 27 years. That’s Haley’s comet weird.”

Lindberg’s not sure he’ll make it  27 years himself, which would be 2043, but he’s happy to settle for another milestone.

“It will be a hundred years old in 2034. I can make it that long.”

Visit http://www.dundeedell.com.

The Silo Crusher: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trev Alberts

August 27, 2016 2 comments

Full disclosure: When the University of Nebraska at Omaha unceremoniously dropped the school’s highly successful football and wrestling programs five years ago, I took out my disappointment and frustration in some posts that might have read like rants. The posts were not written as a journalist trying to be objective but as a UNO grad, former UNO sports information staffer and lifelong Omaha resident who had grown close to both programs through my work as a journalist. My posts were my personal opinion and presented as such. The only time I wrote anything about those events in my role as a journalist was in a New Horizons cover story I did on Mike Denney in the immediate aftermath of it all. My siding with Denney definitely bled over into the story and I make no apologies for that because it was a passionate and honest response to a traumatic severing. My sympathies were entirely with Denney and I let him have his say, though he was actually quite tame in his comments, even though he was deeply hurt by what happened. I do regret not getting athletic director Trev Alberts and chancellor John Christensen to comment for the story, though I think I tried. If I didn’t, well then that’s my bad. As fate would have it, I was recently assigned to do a piece on the state of UNO athletics five years after those events and this time around the assignment called for me to tell the story from UNO’s point of view, which meant interviewing Alberts and Christensen. I must say that after talking to those two men, particularly Alberts, I have a mcuh better appreciation and understanding of why the deicison to eliminate the two sports was made and just how wrenching it was for them to make. I believe the rationale they lay out today is more telling than what they communicated then, but that may be a function of my not wanting to hear what they said before. I am sharing here the new story that I did for Omaha Magazine  (http://omahamagazine.com/). It’s featured in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue.

 

TrevAlberts1

The Silo Crusher

Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trev Alberts

August 26, 2016
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek
Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

The story of athletics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha has fluctuated from wild success to heartbreak (and back). All-Americans, post-season runs, and national title traditions collided with mismanagement and sparse spectator attendance.

Then a fresh Maverick joined the fray. Trev Alberts—one of the most decorated defensive players in the history of Huskers football and a former ESPN anchor—took the mantle of UNO’s athletic director in April of 2009.

Tensions bubbled behind the scenes. Chronic budget shortfalls clashed with fractious booster relations. Although new to his administrative role, Alberts knew enough about balance sheets and group dynamics to recognize systemic disarray and dysfunction. “We were in trouble and we needed to find some solutions,” he says.

The current academic year marks five years since Alberts dismantled UNO’s beloved wrestling and football programs. Alberts looks back on his crucial decisions without regrets. But the “solutions” didn’t come easily. In 2011, the former football star had to cut the sport that defined his own athletic career.

He saw that the financial equation for UNO’s splintered athletic programs no longer worked. A struggling Division I hockey program could not prop up the remaining Division II programs. Even with a hefty university subsidy, low athletic revenue painted a bleak picture amidst rising costs.

UNO’s bold response was to transition its entire athletic program to Division I by joining the Summit League in 2011. Because the conference does not accommodate wrestling or football, those two sports had to go.

News broke with awkward timing. Maverick wrestlers had just clinched the Division II national championship for the third straight year. A few hours after their victory, UNO Athletics began reaching out to notify celebratory wrestling coaches of the grim news.

Public rancor ensued. Coaches and student-athletes of the winning programs were left adrift. History, however, has proven the difficult decisions were healthy for the university and its athletics department.

Alberts found a key ally in chancellor John Christensen. The man who had initially recruited Alberts promoted him to vice chancellor in 2014, thus giving athletics a seat at UNO’s executive leadership table. “There needs to be absolute integration and now we have internal partnership, collaboration,” says Christensen.

Five years have passed. Athletics programs are stable. Sport teams no longer operate in silos. Alberts dismantled the barriers to build a strong overall athletic department: “When I got here, it appeared we had 16 different athletic departments,” he says. “There was no leadership. We hated campus. The mindset was the university leadership were out to get us, didn’t support us, didn’t understand us. The athletic department would blame the university; the university would blame the athletic department. 

“Strategically, my job was to get on the same page as part of the university team. I asked John Christensen to define his goals. He said community engagement, academic excellence, and (being) student-centered. I had to explain to staff everything we do is going to try to help the university advance its goals and every decision we make, if it isn’t student-centered and doesn’t support academic excellence and community engagement, we’re going to ask ourselves why are we doing that.”

Since then, the athletic department has made major strides. The hockey team made the 2015 Frozen Four, men’s basketball contended for the 2016 Summit title and saw a 65 percent attendance increase, and other sports have similarly fared well. With added academic support, the cumulative student-athlete grade point average of 3.4 is among the nation’s highest.

Alberts says that cutting the beloved football and wrestling programs meant “a really trying time, but galvanized the department and the university.” He continues,“We came together as a university. This was an institutional decision. It wasn’t John and I in a corner room deciding. We had a lot of people involved.”

Even with unanimous University Board of Regents approval for the athletic department shake-up, emotions ran high among constituents opposed to the cuts. Despite pleas to save wrestling and football, Alberts says, “The data was going to drive the decision-making. We weren’t going to manage the outcome of a good process. We moved to Division I because the market had an expectation about what the experience would be like, and we weren’t able to meet that expectation.” Maintaining the programs, especially football, would have required larger expenditures at the next level and exacerbated the fiscal mess.

Everything was on the table during deliberations: “We looked at trying to stay at Division II and regaining profitability in hockey, we looked at Division III, we looked at having no athletics, and then we looked at Division I. The conclusion was Division I would bring us an opportunity to get at more self-generated revenue through NCAA distributions.”

It was all about athletics better reflecting the “premiere urban metropolitan university” that Christensen says defines UNO. As the strategic repositioning set in, academics flourished, new facilities abounded, and enrollment climbed. Christensen says going to D-I was “a value-add” proposition.

“We looked at our peer doctorate-granting institutions and they were all Division I,” Alberts says. “The real value an athletics department has to a campus is essentially a brand investment. You have alumni come back, you have student engagement. That’s really the role you play. We are the front porch of the university.”

What followed was the rebranding of UNO to associate more with Omaha and embrace what Alberts and Christensen call “the Maverick family.” The rebrand is encapsulated in the construction of Baxter Arena, a D-I sporting facility adjacent to UNO’s midtown campus that also provides a venue for community events.

The past five years were not without tumult. Some longtime donors withdrew financial support in response to UNO cutting wrestling and football. Businessman David Sokol reportedly cut part of his pledged donation in reaction. But donors have since returned in droves.

Van Deeb, another longtime booster and a former UNO football player, was initially an outspoken critic of UNO cutting wrestling and football. “My big disappointment was not that it did happen but the way it happened. Even being on the Maverick athletic board, we had no clue it was coming,” says the Omaha-based entrepreneur.

“But that’s in the past,” says Deeb. “I couldn’t be prouder of where UNO is headed as an athletic department and as a university. I’m 100 percent behind the progressive leadership of Trev Alberts and John Christensen. They’re all about the student-athlete and the future.”

Alberts realizes that some hard feelings linger. “We have people who I don’t think will ever be a part of what we’re doing, and I understand that,” he says.

Regardless, there was enough community buy-in that private donations reached new heights ($45 million) and helped build the showplace Baxter Arena. Alberts cites the construction of Baxter Arena as a tangible result of the move to Division I.

Deeb says Baxter Arena has propelled UNO to another level. “When you’re around campus or at a UNO event there’s a level of excitement I can’t describe,” he says. “It’s a great time to be a Maverick supporter.”

The arena has proven a popular gathering spot for greater Omaha. This past spring, some 100,000 people attended high school graduations there, a realization of the chancellor and Alberts’ desire for greater community engagement.

Although few of UNO’s current students remember what campus was like before the rebrand, that doesn’t mean that Alberts or his team have forgotten. They still recognize the historic importance that the canceled sports provided to the university.

In fact, Alberts joined Van Deeb and several other community leaders on a steering committee seeking to honor one of UNO football’s greatest athletes, Marlin Briscoe. “An Evening with The Magician,” will celebrate the school’s most decorated football player, an Omaha native and civil rights trailblazer, at Baxter Arena on Thursday, Sept. 22.

As a quarterback at UNO (then called Omaha University), the Omaha South High School grad set 22 school records (including 5,114 passing yards and 53 touchdowns during his collegiate career). Briscoe became the first African-American starting quarterback in the NFL during his 1968 season with the Denver Broncos. He played for several franchises during a nine-year NFL career, spending the majority of time in the league as a wide receiver with the Buffalo Bills. He won two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins.   

On Friday, Sept. 23, UNO will unveil a life-size statue of Briscoe on campus. Alberts says he envisions that the sculpture might be added to “a champions plaza” whenever the south athletics complex gets built-out. “This is not necessarily a UNO thing; it’s an Omaha thing,” Alberts says. “Marlin is a great person with a great story, and it’s been an honor to get to know him.”

Under Alberts’ leadership, the university does not seek to diminish the importance of those former storied programs. But he has to keep an eye toward the future. “I’m absolutely bullish on where we are today and where we can go,” says the optimistic Alberts. “We’re only scratching the surface. We are an absolute diamond in the rough.”

Visit baxterarena.com for more information.

TrevAlberts1

 

Room with a view: Omaha Design Center

August 2, 2016 Leave a comment

The Omaha Design Center is THE swank new spot to hold events in town. It’s owned and operated by the people behind Omaha Fashion Week and they’ve crafted a flex space that hosts a diverse slate of events. Read my story about the Omaha Design Center and the entrepreneurs who make it happen in the Fall issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/).

 

 

Room with a view: Omaha Design Center

Creative space is new home for Omaha Fashion Week and more 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in Fall 2016 issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

If Nick and Brook Hudson appear calmer at Omaha Fashion Week (OFW) this fall, it’s because they’ve found a permanent home for this once gypsy event at their recently opened Omaha Design Center (ODC).

Upon founding Fashion Week in 2008, the Hudsons were its sole proprietors and producers until bringing in Greg and Molly Cutchall as partners. Now the two entrepreneurial couples have joined forces as owners of Omaha’s newest event facility. Located in the former TipTop Ballroom at 1502 Cuming Street, ODC opened in March with the Spring OFW show. Omaha native Kate Walz, an OFW veteran and star Parsons School of Design student, was the first designer to show there. The space has earned raves from the fashion community from clients who’ve held weddings, parties, receptions and charity events there.

“People are just amazed at how beautiful and open the space is,” Brook Hudson says. “It’s impressive.”

“We’ve gotten lots of good responses,” Greg Cutchall confirms.

Nick Hudson says Fashion Week regulars and newcomers “loved it,” adding, “Our attendance was up 15 percent. People really like the energy of the space.” Its size and flexibility allows OFW to do more shows, including a new Kids Rule Fashion Show.

A 31,000 square foot flex space that is Fashion Week’s own rather than leased and that seamlessly accommodates diverse, design-oriented events is what drew the partners to purchase and refurbish the facility.

Supply and demand meet vision

The deal made sense for Fashion Week and for the catering operations the Cutchalls have. The couples met when Greg’s catering division started doing food and beverage service for Fashion Week VIP tents. They saw a shared opportunity for a year-round event space. The Cutchalls purchased the building last December and financed the remodel work. The Hudsons became co-owners in a stock swap.

“Nick and Brook are the marketing force behind the business. They’re great at creating and branding events of all kinds. My wife and I and our office team are more the business and operations side,” Greg says.

The architectural firm Alley Poyner Macchietto, who offices next door at the TipTop Building, did the redesign. The firm’s Laura Alley, a business development and community relations administrator, first recommended the site to the Hudsons.

“When Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture moved into this building and this neighborhood, we saw the potential for what it could be and we began looking for others who loved design in all its various forms. First we filled our space, then the Co-Lab next door. Then we started thinking of the ballroom. Ryan Ellis with PJ Morgan Real Estate suggested Nick and Brook might be looking for space. They were exactly the kind of passionate, design-minded, creative people we hoped to connect with.

“The space had all the right parts to fit their needs, and our design team – led by Michael Alley and Katrina Stoffel – was able to help them envision how the space could look. We are beyond thrilled to have the Omaha Design Center as our neighbor. It serves as a catalyst for some of our city’s most creative and passionate minds.”

Eight weeks of demo and construction produced an as-new, ready-to-use event space  “That’s kind of how it all came together. It was a big undertaking,” Greg says.

Makeover transforms facility

The facility’s once dull, generic banquet interior has been been remade as a chic, industrial warehouse-meets-party room. Extraneous walls and a drop ceiling were removed to open up the space, whose main ballroom has a high exposed ceiling. Polished concrete floors accent towering glass chandeliers suspended by chains from the metal beam-works. There’s also a smaller adjacent ballroom. An L-shaped granite-topped, mirror-backed bar is built into the lobby. A portion of the lobby serves as an art gallery. Another section supports pop-up vendor wares. Satellite bars can be easily set-up throughout the facility. Vintage furnishings round out the hybrid retro-contemporary feel.

Movable panels covered by sheer curtains can turn the space intimate or expansive. The panels are backlit with colored LED lights that can be programmed to create any mood or atmosphere – from casual to formal, from fun to romantic, from bridal or ball to rave.

“The lighting is immersive – it’s all around you,” Brook says. “It feels like you’re not just looking at the stage but you are a part of it. It’s really interesting.”

The remodel added state of the art lighting and sound systems. Backstage are ample amenities to support events and crowds from 200 to 2,000. There are dedicated bridal and grooms suites that double as green rooms or dressing rooms. two commercial kitchens, storage bays, a loading dock. Offices and meeting rooms are planned.

“We finally have everything we need in one spot,” Brook says, adding  that OFW no longer has to bring in things like portable restrooms or to rent off-site storage units.

The whole works remedies issues the Hudsons contended with during OFW’s first eight years, when the event got staged at various indoor and outdoor sites, most recently under a football field-sized tent in the Capitol District downtown. Certain risks and limitations come with leasing spaces others control. And where the outdoors in Nebraska is concerned, weather plays a factor.

 

metroMAGAZINE’s mQUARTERLY Fall (AUG/SEPT/OCT) 2016 Issue
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Finding home

Nick says, “Everything possibly that could go wrong at those events would go wrong. The building helps make Fashion Week more stable.”

Before, Brook says, “when things came up, such as inclement weather or equipment failures, we were hostage to the site. Here, we know what to expect. It’s predictable. We know it’s going to be air conditioned and heated, it’s not going to get flooded. It’s a home.”

Participants finally have a venue to display their skills to full effect.

“There’s a lot of different people involved and it’s really important they have a good platform to showcase what they’re doing for their experience and their work,” Nick says. “It’s a very growing and building experience for designers and models, for hair and makeup people, for the photographers, musicians and artists. It is too for the people planning and producing the event. Brook has a whole program of young volunteers and interns who make it their career. This new space means they can have a better experience.”

Brook says, “It’s a place where they can come and be their best.”

“The reason Fashion Week became successful was the basic concept we’re giving a professional platform for all these different creative young people who wouldn’t normally have that opportunity for free,” Nick says. “Now we can do it even more professionally. That is a huge breakthrough for us. The reason we kept moving is we could never find a space quite right in terms of infrastructure. The ceilings were too low, the space backstage was too cramped,”

Brook says, “It took a lot of energy just to compensate for all that and to reinvent the wheel every season and now we know what the wheel is. Now we can focus on just continuing to improve the productions and the creativity and the entertainment value. It opens up so much more time and energy to focus on things we’ve never been able to do before because we were busy getting water and air conditioning.”

Fashion Week audiences can expect ever more theatrical shows to go along with full, well-outfitted guest services at OFW events.

Nick says not only do participants have a better experience, the audience does, too. That’s important to an event that’s been so embraced. “Lots of people have really supported this event over the years, they’ve helped it grow, in some cases they’ve helped support some of the creatives, and because the creatives can focus more on being creative the audience is going to benefit from that as well and have a great evening, so it’s a really big step up for our community.”

Staging events in this flex space affords unlimited possibilities.

“When we have Fashion Week we design it how we want it to look and in a lot of spaces that’s harder to do – you have to take it how it is.

Here, it’s very easy to adapt it individually to what you’re looking to create,” Nick says. “It’s very creative inspiring. You come in here and personalize it to your tastes. There’s lots of things you can do.”

Brook says, “It’s a blank canvas and a playground. It can be used for many different events, in many different ways. It imposes few restrictions. Every time you walk in we have totally different events with totally different setups. It’s always something different. It’s really great.”

Design central

The owners saw that a single venue that could provide the right fit for many kinds of events is in short supply in Omaha.

“There’s a void in the market for facilities that can accommodate       mid-range sized events,” Greg Cutchall says.

“We realized if we needed something like this for Fashion Week there were all these other people who needed something like this for their nonprofit or their family or their business,” Nick says  “We called it the Design Center to reflect the designing of individual events here but also because we encourage design. Besides Fashion Week we do design-oriented things here, which is exciting, and were trying to help the fashion eco system, which this is now a big part of. The fact that it’s in the heart of this North Downtown neighborhood that could be Omaha’s design district is even more exciting.”

Creatives abound in the area. As a creative hub and staging ground,

Omaha Design Center aligns well with creative community neighbors Co-Lab, Alley Poyner Macchietto, the Mastercraft, the Hot Shops Art Center, Slowdown, Film Streams and the coming Kiewit University.

The Center is also within walking distance of several hotels and a short drive from the airport and the Old Market. The site’s already seen a broad menu of events, including a Terence Crawford victory celebration, the Berkshire Hathaway MoneyBall, a fight card and a comedy troupe. It is hosting College World Series events, a Halloween bash and a New Year’s Eve party. Everyone from models to boxers to aerialists to fire dancers to musicians have performed there. Weddings will always be, as Cutchall says, “our bread and butter.”

“We thought there would be demand for something like this and there has been,” Brook Hudson says. “We started promoting it in December and I don’t think this space has been empty since April.”

Nick Hudson says, “We’re now facilitating events for these other communities here in town. It’s exciting having these different communities and organizations coming in and doing events here. It’s all about creating community and the community building you get through events. We’re big fans of diversity. It’s always been very important to us having a really diverse crowd of people doing different things and we’re getting that same thing here. Now we just want more people to be aware there is this new space available to come celebrate through events.”

Brook says, “Yeah, we want people to come make some memories.”

“Bookings are going stronger than we anticipated our first year,” Greg Cutchall notes. ‘We’ve been very pleased and we think it will continue to grow as more people learn about the facility and see what we have to offer.”

After all the moving around OFW did, Brook Hudson is just glad to have a place she and others can count on.

“It’s good to be home,” she says. “My team is excited about that as well. All of our interviews, meetings and programming happen here now. And we get to share this great space with other communities.”

Fall Omaha Fashion Week unfurls there August 22-27.

Visit http://www.omahadesigncenter.com.

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