SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
December 6, 2009
Many celebrities have an easier time making money than managing it, Nicolas Cage being the latest in a long string of examples. That makes Wayne Rogers a bit of an oddity in Hollywood.
Rogers has been acting since the late 1950s, but is best known for his role as Trapper John on the hit TV series “MASH” from 1972 to 1975.
In real life, Rogers plays a successful investor and businessman. He has helped start up or turn around banks, a vineyard, a convenience-store chain and a barge company. He is active in real estate and is a director of public company Vishay Intertechnology.
He owns a tiny piece of the Oakland Athletics and is chairman of Kleinfeld Bridal, the New York shop featured on the reality show “Say Yes to the Dress.” He is a regular panelist on “Cashin’ In,” a weekly business show on Fox News.
Rogers, 76, was in San Francisco last week to speak to a National Investor Relationship Institute conference. He said some celebrities run into financial troubles because “they make too much money too quickly and feel entitled.”
Others “rely on a friend of a friend who made a lot of money with someone. They let somebody else do their due diligence,” Rogers said in an interview.
Rogers says he “does not use advisers per se. I do a lot of my own due diligence. If someone else does it, I ask a lot of questions: Where did you get this information? Who gave it to you? What were the circumstances? Have you verified it?”
Rogers lives in Destin, Fla., and has an office in Los Angeles, where he has people who help him crunch the numbers.
One key to his success is picking the right partners. “I was involved with bright people, innovative people, honest people, people who weren’t looking for an edge,” he says.
The home run
One of those people is Lew Wolff, a prominent real estate developer, hotel owner and managing partner of the Oakland A’s. The two became friends when Wolff was head of real estate for 20th Century Fox and had a bungalow on the lot where Rogers was taping “MASH.”
Wolff says Rogers, who majored in history at Princeton, “could memorize his lines in about 10 minutes” and during his ample free time would visit Wolff.
“We would talk about movies, business, everything,” Wolff says.
Rogers and Wolff were part of a group that co-founded Plaza Bank of Commerce in San Jose, which they sold to Comerica in 1991. “That was a major home run,” Rogers says.
Wolff says when he and a group of investors bought the A’s, he gave Rogers “a very small piece,” mostly for fun.
He calls Rogers a “very high-energy person” and “an astute businessman. If you have a project in trouble, he’ll do whatever it takes to correct the situation. He doesn’t run and hide or point the finger.”
Thanks to his acting, “about 100 million people know who he is. That helps sometimes in his business dealings. He has access,” Wolff says.
Say yes to distress
Although he has started some companies, Rogers likes to invest in distressed situations on the cheap. “I’m a thief,” he says.
“When we bought Kleinfeld’s in 1999, there was a brand but there wasn’t a business,” he says.
Rogers got into Kleinfeld’s through another partner, Ronnie Rothstein, and his partner Mara Urshel, a former senior vice president at Saks.
The company that owned Kleinfeld’s debt hired Urshel as a consultant. “After a month, she said, ‘Get hold of Wayne and let’s buy this business,’ ” he says. “I looked at the numbers. It was a disaster from that point of view. But she knew the name was valuable.”
The new owners assumed some of Kleinfeld’s liabilities and put in a small amount of cash, which they recouped when they discovered credit card charges that had never been submitted for payment.
Another valuable asset “was the demographic information we get when a bride makes an appointment. We said, ‘How can we monetize that?’ ” Rogers says.
One way was getting into the honeymoon business. Later this month, the store will begin selling men’s formal wear and suits.
The new owners moved the flagship store from Brooklyn to New York and opened boutiques in leading bridal shops in four other cities.
Rogers won’t say what the company is worth, but a year and a half ago, someone offered to buy it for seven times their investment to date.
Rogers says they are also considering spin-offs of their reality show, which runs on cable network TLC. It features brides-to-be shopping for a gown at Kleinfeld with friends and family.
One spin-off would follow the future bride as she plans the reception menu and gets to know her mother-in-law. Another would feature brides trying to lose weight before the big day.
“Why is any of this of interest?” Rogers asks. “I don’t know. It’s not the dress. It’s the people. It’s a soap opera.”
Even though he’s an actor, Rogers says he’s “not opposed to reality TV. It’s all about making money. If it enhances our brand,” he’s for it.
Urshel says Rogers helps out on the operational side of things and Kleinfeld benefits from his diverse business experience. “Without him we could not go as far as we have,” she says.
Banks and real estate
Looking ahead, Rogers says he sees opportunities in failed banks and real estate.
His bio says he has invested in real estate in California, Arizona and Florida – the triumvirate of property disasters.
Asked if he had lost money on these deals, he said, “Not yet. We own a shopping center in Temecula that is occupied and making money. In Florida I am doing a 500-home subdivision, just north of Eglin Air Force Base.” He says the property is worth more than he paid three or four years ago.
In New Mexico and Arizona, he invested in raw land, developed homes, sold them and still owns some of the property.
Politically, Rogers considers himself a “Jeffersonian democrat. The best government is the least government,” he says. “In some areas, I’m libertarian. I don’t subscribe to any one party, they are all bad.”
Although he’s staunchly against regulation, Rogers testified in Congress against the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the law passed in 1933 that kept banks out of the securities business.
Because bank deposits are insured “it’s a proper area to be regulated,” he says. Rogers blames the recent financial crisis largely on the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999.