Zygi Wilf Plays The Game-August 2011

Throughout his real estate career, he has preferred to stay in the backfield. Getting a new stadium deal has pushed him onto the rough and raucous gridiron where sports and politics do fierce battle.
Zygi Wilf Plays The Game-August 2011

It must have been fun for Zygmunt Wilfbetter known, of course, as Zygi—when he became the majority owner of the Minnesota Vikings in 2005. But now that he’s embroiled in a tough fight for a new stadium, you can’t help but ask him: Is it still fun?

Wilf says that it is. Sort of.

Sitting in his office overlooking the Vikings’ empty practice field at a quiet, locked-out Winter Park in late June, he gives that question a moment’s additional thought.

“Well, being a developer and having to work on the political end and the economic end and trying to figure out how to succeed on all fronts is very complex, no doubt,” Wilf says. “There are no easy solutions, whether building a house, a shopping center or”—he pauses again—“a football stadium. It involves a lot of political involvement and economic evaluation. We feel we’re very well suited for that. We feel we can bring a dynamic to the stadium that will be very exciting and hasn’t been experienced anywhere else, and we’re going to evolve that into something we hope will get built.

“I shouldn’t say ‘hope.’ I mean ‘will,’” he adds with a laugh.

If you missed the part where he slammed the table and said, “Hell, yes! This is great fun!,” that’s because he didn’t. By all accounts, Wilf is a classically purposeful, goal-oriented guy, and the rare times he pauses to talk to the press are first and foremost an opportunity to advance his principal business, which is getting the stadium built on a 260-acre site in Arden Hills. Put another way, the business of business is his idea of fun.

At 61, Wilf is trim and fit, his clothes are all quality stuff, and despite a schedule that has him essentially commuting by private jet from New Jersey, he keeps a good salesman’s sense of humor fairly close to the surface. But the most pervasive sense of Zygi Wilf is that he’s not a guy who freely gives a lot of himself away. He is focused firmly on a goal. 

But then, he does come from a very driven family. And Wilf emphasizes how important his family is to him and to his business success. Family values mean, in part, how you operate and how you treat people. It also means relying on other family members for help and insight. That has carried over to his football team: Wilf’s brother Mark is the Vikings’ president, and his cousin Lenny is the team’s vice chair.

The Wilf family’s story, as you might expect from Holocaust survivors, is astonishingly dramatic, so far out of the realm of a “normal” wealthy family’s history that it seems like fiction. If only. 

Wilf’s father, Joseph Wilf, Joseph’s older brother Harry, their sister Bella, and their parents were deported to a Siberian labor camp during World War II by the Russians from their home in Jaroslaw, Poland. Bella later died in the Warsaw ghetto. The end of the war and liberation only added to their peril when yet another round of pogroms broke out in Poland in 1946. The family escaped to the American sector of divided Germany, where Joseph met his wife-to-be, Elizabeth Fisch. Her own history—with the Fisch family using forged “Aryan papers” to escape the ghetto in the Polish city of Lvov (now Lviv, in Ukraine) and her father hidden for two years in a dugout under a barn, without the knowledge of the farmer—only adds to the saga of the clan’s determination to survive.

“You can’t overstate this,” says Vikings minority owner David Mandelbaum, who has been in business with the Wilf family for 50 years. “This is a family that arrived here, after what they went through in Europe, with neither money nor language. In terms of understanding Zygi or any of the Wilfs, family culture is critical.”

The Wilf family eventually settled in New Jersey, soon starting a construction operation. “When Joe and Harry went into business, and for years after, they shared the same office and worked at desks that faced each other,” Mandelbaum says. “They overheard each other’s conversations. They discussed everything. Every disagreement was out in the open.” Mandelbaum adds that this approach isn’t much different from how the family operates today. Joseph’s sons, Zygi and Mark, as well as many of their generation’s own children, “have their own projects . . . . [But] there’s a family council that offers advice when needed,” Mandelbaum adds. The Wilfs continue to keep virtually all decision making and problem solving within the family.

Zygi Wilf came on board after finishing law school, helping the family firm become, in time, one of the 20 biggest commercial development companies in the U.S. (See “What the Wilf Team Runs.”) The Wilfs are now one of the richest families in New Jersey. But the size of their business and their extensive philanthropic activities, which include major contributions to Holocaust remembrance museums in Israel, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, haven’t seemed to have raised their profile. 

“They are so very low-key, if you ask someone out here in New Jersey, ‘Who is Zygi Wilf?’, they’ll tell you, ‘Oh, he owns the Minnesota Vikings,’” Mandelbaum says. “That’s how the public here in his own home state knows him.” 

Mandelbaum observes that the Wilfs have “built literally thousands of apartments, dozens of shopping centers, and have given millions away to charities . . . . Look at the donor lists for cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis and they’re on it. But most people don’t know. That is just how they operate.”

Minneapolis businessman and community leader Harvey Mackay, who was involved in getting the Metrodome built, was one of the first to welcome the Wilfs to Minnesota six years ago. “I’ve been close to all the owners of the Vikings, and I think the Wilfs have been excellent,” he says. “They are very, very competitive, which is essential in any business, but especially sports. Zygi told me his motto is, ‘Second is last.’

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“This is a family who achieved what they have the hard way,” Mackay adds. “And they came [to Minnesota] with a good name. You can’t buy that.”

While keeping his residence in New Jersey, Wilf has put time and energy into cultivating Minnesota business allies like Mackay. One of Wilf’s stock rationales for his stadium goal is the allure a successful pro football team has in drawing top corporate talent to an area. Reports say that he has built relationships with state corporate leaders including General Mills CEO Kendall Powell and US Bancorp CEO Richard Davis. (Neither was available to be interviewed for this story.) 

These are allies that an outsider can find useful, particularly in the political sphere. Businessman and former U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz notes that “in business, you come to a conclusion, you have an agreement, or you don’t. Politics isn’t always like that. The only thing you can do, when you’re unfamiliar with it, is hire people who are more accustomed to that world.” Boschwitz points in particular to Wilf’s hiring of Lester Bagley as the Vikings’ vice president for public affairs and stadium development. With his 20-year career as a public-policy lobbyist, Bagley knows the nooks and crannies of the Minnesota State Capitol. 

Wilf also has made himself familiar with the literal lay of the land in the Twin Cities. “I thought I was going to bring him up to speed on possible [development] sites around the city,” recalls Mike Christenson, Minneapolis’s Director of Community Planning and Economic Development, who met Wilf soon after he took control of the Vikings. “But he knew more than I did about every site I mentioned. He had already visited them. He knew the zoning, the previous uses.” 

While various private and public players have proposed sites for a new stadium (see “Déjà Vu?,” for a detailed look at the proposals), Wilf has made it clear that he favors the proposal offered by Ramsey County this spring. But he is being careful how he pushes for it. Wilf, Bagley, and Wilf’s brother Mark hardly need reminding that they are playing a complex public relations and political game. If former Vikings owner Red McCombs overplayed the threat of moving, Team Wilf isn’t going to repeat that mistake. But then, the Wilfs don’t have to remind anyone that the team’s lease at the Metrodome is up after the 2011 season—and that Los Angeles, despite the fact that California’s budget deficits are even more epic than Minnesota’s, is finally beginning to coalesce around a plan for a stadium to be sited next to Staples Center in central L.A.

Wilf emphasizes that he has no interest in the lure of Los Angeles. “We are in this,” he says, meaning ownership of the Minnesota Vikings, “as a multi-generational venture.” This attitude is partly due to a desire to emulate renowned NFL families such as the Maras, owners of Wilf’s boyhood heroes, the New York Giants—families that stayed loyal to one city. And if you can read a balance sheet, you know that owning an NFL team is an investment that historically has appreciated over time. McCombs sold the Vikings to the Wilf group in 2005 for $600 million—after paying just $246 million for the team in 1998. 

Indeed, pressing Wilf on any stadium location other than Arden Hills is pointless. “The Arden Hills site is a real football stadium site,” he says. “With the tailgating and everything, we believe it can be a real economic engine for that area. Now is the perfect time to do it. We have done everything necessary to get it done. Los Angeles is not on my radar. There’s nothing, there’s no deadline for me to tell them anything.”

“On the whole, [Wilf] has been rather patient,” says Wheelock Whitney, the former Vikings owner and a gray eminence in local business, political, and sports circles. Whitney describes himself as “a fan of [Wilf’s]. He has shown that he is committed to this.”

But is Wilf prepared to be patient yet again, if the stadium debate goes nowhere this year? “Those who want to get it done here, in Ramsey County, are working hard to get it done,” he says. “We have been patient enough to wait for the right opportunity and the right partnership. We have that now.”

It’s worth remembering that Zygi Wilf didn’t originally sign up to be the Vikings’ lead investor. At first, he was simply one of a number of small-share limited partners drawn together by Atlanta businessman Reggie Fowler to buy the team from McCombs. The appeal of being a part-owner was partly due to being a football fan, and partly due to the potential of being part of development projects around a new stadium. But when Fowler couldn’t get the requisite financing on his own, Wilf took charge. 

And with the stadium battle now fully engaged, a very private businessman has had to become a very public figure. 

Boschwitz, who is well acquainted with the transition from the relative obscurity of business to the political circus, observes that “you gain a great deal of self-confidence when you succeed in business. You really do think you can handle just about anything. But it is a very significant change, moving into the public eye. A lot of it is irrational, yes. And it is very disconcerting when you lose control.”

Being in the public eye means having to face Minnesotans who object (rationally or irrationally) to giving taxpayer money to a multi-millionaire. There are Web sites like NoVikingsTax.com, which describes itself as “the project of several neighborhood activists and community organizers—Minnesota taxpayers who are tired of their money getting taken by the government for the benefit of private businesses, particularly sports teams.” Another site, NoStadiumTax.com, describes its backers as “a coalition of citizens and groups opposed to the spending of critical tax dollars on stadiums that will largely benefit two multi-billionaire owners and their millionaire employees.”

Opinion polls also haven’t exactly been encouraging. According to Star Tribune Minnesota Poll results released in May, more than 60 percent of respondents said the Vikings should keep the Metrodome as their home field; nearly 75 percent said the team shouldn’t get any public money for a new stadium. 

At the State Capitol, several legislators have expressed opposition to taxpayer funding. The Ramsey County Charter Commission passed a resolution (which has no force of law) asserting that a half-cent county sales tax that Ramsey County has offered to raise to help fund the stadium should be approved by county voters. The St. Paul City Council also has weighed in against the Arden Hills proposal, since nearly half of the sales tax revenue would come from city residents, according to Minnesota Department of Revenue figures. 

Were the stadium plan to overcome opposition and a facility be built, it would likely boost the Vikings’ market value. Forbes calculated that value as the third lowest of all NFL teams, primarily due the lack of revenue from the Metrodome. Provisions of the lease that expires at the end of this season direct a high percentage of revenues to the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission. A new stadium with a more liberal contract for the team would dramatically increase the Vikings’ cash flow and long-term value. 

Additionally, the Wilfs are clearly interested in controlling development around a new facility. Ramsey County is proposing to buy 430 acres of the 2,370-acre Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site. Of those 430 acres, 260 would be used for the stadium and parking; the Vikings would purchase the remaining 170 acres for potential future development. (In 2007, the Wilfs had sought to buy land for redevelopment around the Metrodome, based on a proposed new stadium on the Dome site. They pulled out when that plan fell through.) The possibility that the Wilfs could profit from the site in addition to goosing up the value of the team has added resistance to the stadium proposal in some quarters.   

But while many Minnesotans may look upon the Wilfs with a bit of suspicion, others have been more welcoming. Bagley points to the Wilfs’ investment in stars such as Steve Hutchinson and Jared Allen, and the team’s expanded outreach and philanthropic activities under their ownership. And Zygi Wilf appears to be taking the limelight in as much stride as he can. He has even undertaken outstate barnstorming tours with Vikings players. Bagley laughs when he recalls kids in a school gymnasium in southern Minnesota waving signs saying “Zygi!” Not exactly the kind of response you get at a Home Depot ribbon cutting in Passaic.

“People have been generally nice,” Wilf says of Minnesotans. “They’ve been supportive and appreciative, I’d say. Our fans are our partners.”

And the press? Wilf laughs. “Some of the writers will tell you things that you realize you need to learn,” he says. “Those you put in the register. But we take the attitude that as long as you’re aboveboard and not trying to circumvent the process, we can live with whatever they say. You have to be able to take the criticism with the praise and all the other attention.”

He adds, “It’s a part of this game.”