Linda Lovgren’s Sterling Career Earns Her Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame Induction
Wherever one lives there are those high achievers whose professional work and community service connote on them the epitome of respect, and that’s certainly the case with the subject of this profile, Linda Lovgren, a marketing-public relations expert known for her keen strategic thinking and execution. I can attest to her not only being extremely professional but eminently approachable as well. She’s just what you’d expect from a Midwest entrepreneur, too, with her legendary work ethic and unassilable integrity combined with that down-to-earth humility that makes her rather uncomfortable talking about herself. Of course, she makes her living polishing the image of others and so naturally she prefers deflecting attention away from herself to her clients. But it’s easy to see why clients would develop an easy rapport with her and place their trust in her. Yes, she’s as salt-of-the-earth as they come. But don’t assume that means she’s unsophisticated. Her blue plate client roster is proof she’s fully engaged in 21st century marketing-public relations techniques.
Linda Lovgren’s Sterling Career Earns Her Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame Induction
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in the New Horizons
“I’ve kind of always been a carpe diem or seize the day sort of person,” says new Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame inductee Linda Lovgren.
The highly respected public relations maven began her Lovgren Marketing Group in 1978 at the age of 30. It was an era when relatively few women, especially women that young, went in business for themselves. Growing up and working on her family’s far northwest Iowa farm taught the former Linda Hoeppner the independence and conviction necessary for being an entrepreneur. Her parents were both teachers but they left that field to run a farm and later formed another business. With that enterprising model as an example, Lovgren made the leap from working for others to working for herself only eight years after graduating college.
“It never occurred to me I could fail,” she says.
She’s keenly aware of the glass ceiling many women report encountering in the corporate world, then and now, but she didn’t experience it herself.
“I felt like when I started my business I had an equal opportunity to go after new business or to make people aware of what I was doing and to integrate into the community,” she says. “Now those aren’t things you do overnight, it takes time to grow a business, to grow relationships, and one connection leads to another connection. It’s this large linkage you begin to build.”
With businesswomen scarce then, her mentors were the opposite sex.
“As I discovered there weren’t very many women in business and so that made it a little bit tougher, and so a lot of my business mentors have been men.”
She says former Chamber president Bob Bell was a big help at the start.
“I went down to get a Chamber membership and I met Bob and told him what I was going to do and he said, ‘Well. let’s see what we can get you involved in that would be good.’ He kind of started to help connect me in various ways.”
Those connections not only aided her in getting established but forged a strong relationship with the Chamber that culminated in her serving as its first female chairman in 2003.
Several other prominent men have taken her under their wing.
“Hal Daub was clearly one of them,” says Lovgren, who’s been active in Republican party politics. “I got to know Hal when he was running for Congress and he hired me to do marketing work with him and we became very good, lifelong friends. In fact, when he was running for reelection in 1980 I had young children at home and one night we needed to have a meeting but I couldn’t leave because my husband had some obligation and I had kids to put to bed. So the meeting came to my house and Hal put my kids to bed. He read them the stories while his staff and I worked on the campaign. We always chuckle about that a little bit.
The late Bob Reilly, an Omaha PR-advertising legend, proved an invaluable resource as well.
“When I first started in business I realized I knew a lot about advertising and public relations but I didn’t know a lot about running the business. I didn’t know the business management practices for billing and managing. I called up Bob, who had been a partner in Holland, Dreves, Reilly and was teaching at UNO at the time, and I said, ‘Can I hire you to consult with me and help me through this startup phase?’ We talked things over at what turned out to be a long lunch and we developed a long friendship and great relationship.”
For someone as forward-thinking and confident as Lovgren, making a go of it on her own was a strategic move to advance her career. She entered the adventure with a come-what-may attitude that prepared her for whatever happened.
“As I look back on it now I just kind of looked at it as this is the next step in what I’m going to do, and if it works out that is spectacular, and it has been, and if it doesn’t work out, there will be another door opening.
Besides, when she and her husband moved to Omaha after college she tasted the disappointment of not finding the dream job she had her sights set on, yet she landed on her feet anyway and soon found the pathway to her career.
“I really had wanted a job in an advertising agency,” she says. “I had gone around and knocked on all the doors and dropped off my resume and nothing happened.”
She considered working in television, whether in front of or behind the camera. She acted in theater productions and did public speaking throughout high school and college. She studied broadcast journalism as part of her communications program at Indiana University, where she interned at the school’s TV station.
“I really wanted to work in that creative field of writing and production.”
Among other things, she was the IU station’s weather girl. “I knew nothing about the weather,” she admits. “It was all about the performance,” And about a pretty face and nice figure. Thus, she says, “my first job interview in Omaha was to do the weather on KMTV. But Carol Scott got the job.” With her TV and advertising aspirations foiled, Lovgren moved onto the next best thing.
“I went to work for KRCB Radio in Council Bluffs. I was doing the writing for all the direct accounts and doing a lot of voice-over production. If the news person got sick I did the news. It was a small family station at the time. This was before it was acquired by the Mitchell Broadcasting Company.”
Her big break finally came when veteran ad man Howard Winslow offered her a position with his Winslow Advertising agency.
“His clients included Sears, McDonalds, Shavers Food Marts and a number of retail stores. As creative director I was the writer-producer of all the spots we did. I really was well-suited for that. I enjoyed working with the clients.”
In seven years with Winslow she says “I got a broad education from him. That was a good foundation.” He was the first in that string of male mentors who aided her professional development.
Branching out on her own after working for Winslow was “a defining moment” in her personal and professional life, she says. Making it an even greater challenge was the fact she had a 16-month old child at home, with her second child on the way. Going it alone while pregnant was a big decision. She knew being a mother, wife and owner-operator would severely test her and the family.
She got the idea to go in business for herself when, she says, “some of the clients I had been working with came to me and said, ‘We know in a few months you’re going to take some time off but we would really like to continue to work with you.’
So I thought about that for awhile and decided I was going to start the company.”
She says she and her husband, Robert W. Lovgren, then a fresh from college Mutual of Omaha manager and now longtime executive with the company, discussed the pros and cons. “We talked about all of this and he said, “I know you really well and I know you’re not going to be happy unless you try because you’ll always look back and say, Should I have done this?’ So I had great support from him to start with.”
She concedes there were sacrifices and struggles being a working mom but she wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
“I know I was a happier person because I was working, which means my children were probably happier kids. It meant that when we spent family time together we spent very focused, productive family time together, and so that’s a positive. It was just a matter of figuring out how to make all the pieces fit.”
Finding the right balance, she says, was key. That was no easy thing either for this self-described “workaholic.” Having a driven nature is characteristic of virtually every successful entrepreneur and she’s no different. Her hectic schedule as a new business owner and mother was all she could handle.
“I had childcare in the mornings, so that”s when I’d see my clients and do my work outside of the house. Then I’d come home in the afternoons and do naps and activities with the kids, fix dinner at night and put the kids to bed. We would do that as a family. And then I’d resume work again.
“I’ve always been a late night person which probably was a good thing in this case.
I would always enjoy that peaceful time in the evening to work and think about the strategies for my clients and do creative things.
She says young entrepreneurs need “to think about how they want to use their time and what kind of balance do they want in their life. As their business grows and if they have a family then the pressures on priorities start to grow as well. There were times when I don’t think I did the best of job balancing those priorities but now when I talk to my kids who are adults and have children of their own they say, ‘Boy, Mom, we didn’t realize it then, but we’re kind of wondering how that all worked out.’ And it did, too, because they both have great families.”
A favorite way she maintains balance is by enjoying the great outdoors, particularly her sport of choice, fly fishing.
“I grew up on the Minnesota-Iowa border and my mom and my dad and my brother and my grandmother loved to fish. I learned to spin fish for bullheads and crappies and bass when I was growing up.”
She says she hadn’t fished for maybe 20 years when she and her husband were off on one of their backpacking, hiking, camping trips in Estes Park, Colorado and she noticed a promotion for a fly fishing instructional.
“I thought, That looks really interesting, I’m going to go do that, so I went on this Sunday night four-hour excursion to learn how to fly fish and that was it. I have taken to it you might say like a fish to water. I love it. Part of the reason I love it is it’s physical and what I do day to day isn’t very physical.
“I also enjoy the peace and quiet and just the serene atmosphere. It’s just you and the fish. It’s an opportunity to think about things that aren’t day to day work. It’s just kind of that emotional release and, of course, catching a fish is a lot of fun. It has skill and it has art. But most of all it has an emotional attachment with the people I’m around when I fly fish.”
The sport took on deeper meaning for her when it became part of her own and other women’s ongoing healing as breast cancer survivors.
“About three years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I was home recovering from a minor surgery reading a fly fishing magazine and there was something about an organization called Casting for Recovery. It’s a program that does fly fishing retreats for breast cancer survivors because the therapy of the fly fishing is good for the muscles in the arms and chest area. I contacted them and got together a group of friends and we had our first retreat in Nebraska last September.
Fourteen women. We went out to Valentine and fished on the Snake River.”
She emphasizes she was “very lucky” in her own bout with cancer because the doctors caught it early.”
Life throws curves at her like it does at everyone else sand she says it helps to cultivate positive attitudes and friends.
“I guess you could say I always had confidence but it didn’t mean I always got what I wanted and I think that’s really an important lesson to learn, too – that sometimes even though you think you’re the best or you’ve done it the best you aren’t going to win all the time, and in a way those are good growing experiences, too. I’ve never regretted and I’ve never looked back.
“I surround myself with a very eclectic group of people that I like to be around. They’re all energetic, they’re all achievers in their own way. Some are professionals, some are stay-at-home moms. Some of them are my fly fish pals. They all like to get out and do things. They’re all looking forward to what’s the next adventure we can have. They’re also people that are very loyal to each other. If you need help and you call them, they’re there.”
It helped that she knew what she wanted when she launched Lovgren Marketing. Thirty four years later she still looks forward to coming to the office every day. Her hunger has never left and it’s reflected in the can-do attitude she brings to the image enhancement, branding, message control and media liaison work she does.
“Get there, do what you can, do it with enthusiasm, and if things don’t go the way you want, pick up the pieces and find out how to put them back on track. That’s what I love about it, and no two days are ever the same.
“What keeps me going every day is that I really love what I do and I enjoy the relationships I build with clients.”
One of her firm’s big ongoing projects is the Clean Solutions for Omaha or CSO Program that includes sewer separation in northeast Omaha. Lovgren Marketing has been recognized for its work on the project with multiple awards from the Public Relations Society of America – Nebraska Chapter.
“When the city’s CSO project came along we were selected to do the public involvement work on it, so for the last six-plus years we’ve been doing public education in all sorts of fashions: marketing materials, media management and training, speaking to civic groups, working with schools and doing presentations to students about the environmental reasons for the project and how it will affect them into the future.
“It will be 15 years before the project’s implementation is finished and many years beyond that before we finish paying for it. I’ve gotten to meet people from literally every corner of this city, from the Mormon Bridge to Bellevue, from the Missouri River to Elkhorn, and I really get energized by talking to other people and finding out what they’re thinking and why they’re thinking it.”
She says public involvement projects like this are a new niche for her firm.
“When we started out we were primarily a retail advertising organization. We worked for restaurants, a clothing store, an appliance store, a car dealer, a bank and for Countryside village shopping center. Krug’s Men’s and Boys Clothing was our original client. We were very active in political campaigns for two and a half decades. About seven years ago we started doing a lot of work with municipal organizations.”
Lovgren Marketing Group led the advocacy campaign for the Omaha Convention Center and Arena bond issue.
Her company also does its share of earned media and event marketing. “We’ve done things like the ground breaking and ribbon cutting for Pay Pal and Gallup and the CenturyLink Center.”
As communications has evolved so has her business.
“The public relations field today is not just about news conferences and news releases,” she says. “It involves Facebook and Twitter and all the social media activities that are available now to help people get their messages out and to help manage messages. So staying up with technology, understanding how that technology can impact a client, those are all important.
“As time has gone on our business has changed dramatically. Twenty years ago we didn’t have personal computers. We do probably three times as much business with one person because of the computers and the Internet and the ability to communicate and get more information quickly. We can design more quickly and certainly make design changes more efficiently, and that’s good for the client.”
Technology can only take you so far though. Her profession, she says, is still about
“thinking and strategy to come up with the best product you can.” She feels her staff of five have some built-in advantages, including “the ability to connect our clients to the right people to get their business done. Because we are experienced and mature we have a lot of network and connection throughout the community, so we’re able to help people find the right places to get information effectively to market their products or services.”
She brings a wealth of experience and a considerable tool box to the table.
“I think I’m really good at sitting down with a client and saying, ‘What do you want to achieve?’ and then figuring out very useful strategic ways for them to meet their goals through marketing and public relations. And obviously one of the skill sets in that industry is having some creativity, being able to brainstorm with the client what creative ideas might help get that message to the public, what’s going to connect their product or service to their target audience.
“Over the years I think I’ve really honed a skill set that helps me get through all of the discussion and figure out what really is the underlying strategy for doing that.”
She’s quick to add, “i don’t do this on my own. In fact, sometimes I look at the organizational chart and I think I’m on the bottom of it. There are very talented people on our staff who do design and writing and PR and keep the organization functioning as a whole. We’ve had amazing talented people work here who I have enjoyed a lot. It’s a very collaborative kind of business. It’s like a family. Everyone has a task to do but as a whole we are so much better doing it together.”
What keeps her hungry for more after all these years is essentially the same thing that’s always motivated her.
“I think the thing I love the most is getting to the end of the day and knowing we helped a client or clients take one more step toward their success. You got the meeting you needed or got the ad finished and it looks great. Whatever that is it just makes you feel good when you go home.”
An indication of the mark she’s made locally is that she’s among very few women in the Omaha Chamber Business Hall of Fame. This year’s unusual in that she’s one of three women inductees, along with Ree Kaneko (Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and KANEKO) and Lori Hogan (Home Instead Senior Care). The other 2012 inductees are Land Title Company founder and former Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey, Midlands Business Journal founder and publisher Bob Hoig and the late co-founder of Pamida, D.J. “Tex” Witherspoon.
Lovgren feels Omaha abounds with many “capable” women professionals and that it’s only a matter of time before more of them fill top management and executive roles in corporations and other organizations. She points out that many of the most accomplished women are, like her, Kaneko and Hogan, owners of their own businesses. Women CEOs are harder to find.
“It will come,” she says.
A chapter in her life that once again found her in a male-dominated field was her involvement with the GOP. “I worked very hard in party politics from 1976 to 1980.”
She was state party vice chairman before becoming interim chair. “It’s a huge responsibility. I enjoyed it tremendously, and I learned a lot. I certainly met people all over the state. It was a great time.”
While working on the state committee to elect Ronald Reagan she went on a campaign junket the then-candidate made across Nebraska. She flew on the press plane and then got to sit next to Reagan in his limo on the way to a speech he was making in Grand Island. “
“I spent 15 minutes talking to him. That was very exciting.”
At the 1980 national GOP convention in Detroit she was part of a team that put together a daily newspaper delivered to delegates. She was on the convention floor and attended various parties. “It was a lot of fun,” she says.
“I did stay involved in party politics for a long time after that in other ways,” she adds, but today she’s more calculated in her political deliberations.
“I’m very interested in politics and where it leads because it has an impact on us every day in terms of the policy that’s made. I think it’s very important for people to pay attention to the candidates and the issues surrounding us.”
Just as politics can be topsy turvy, her life and career have had ups and downs but she tries keeping an even keel through it all. She buys into the conventional wisdom that one learns more from failures than successes.
“I do agree with that, and sometimes they aren’t big failures either. You know, in our business we have great clients but sometimes they merge with someone else or they sell their company or the relationship just doesn’t work and you move on and they move on. I never look at those as failures in the sense that a lot of people might. I look at them and say, What opportunity does that present for me to build a better company and to build better relationships with the clients we do have? So I think you learn from everything you do.”
As a matriarch in her field, she feels she has something to offer young people coming into the profession and embraces sharing her knowledge base with them.
“I take every meeting that I can get with them. Not only young women but young men, too. I enjoy talking with them because they come with new ideas and fresh perspectives. I think it’s important for them to understand what they want to do, what they want to be, and if I can help them sort that out I’m happy to do it. I haven’t done it all right but I’ve done enough things right.”
She says part of the satisfaction she takes from her career is when a former employee goes on to success of their own and tells her they couldn’t have done it without her. “That tells me I made a difference for somebody,” she says, “and that’s what we all hope to do in our life.”
For Lovgren, whose give back has included volunteering with the State Fair Board, Nebraska Kidney Foundation, Mid-America Boy Scouts of America and Habitat for Humanity, “the prize in the end is not one thing,” adding, “The prize is – Did I accomplish what I wanted to accomplish for the people who surround me and work hard for the company, for my family who have come along for this whole effort, for the clients we work for? It’s really more about knowing you have accomplished something that has made a difference for all of those people.”
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Every once in a while, and not nearly as often as I’d like, someone will give me a lead on a story. That’s what led me to Click Westin. The one-time Writer’s Guild of America member wrote for episodic television and had one screenplay produced as a feature. He also owned and operated his own L.A, advertising agency that did work for national clients. He seemingly had it all but then his battle with the bottle cost him his Hollywood career and very nearly everything else. Long story short, he cleaned up his act and in his decades-long sobriety he’s been an active AA sponsor and speaker in his hometown of Omaha, where he headed the advertising for his brother Dick Westin’s successful international food business. Now, in his 80s, Click is back writing screenplays. He recently had one optioned. My story about this engaging man who licked a serious problem originally appeared in the New Horizons. Since it’s publication a year ago or so the irrepressible Click has begun writing songs at a furious clip, even getting Nashville producers to take notice. Go Click! He’s an example of how older individuals often make the most fascinating subjects if for no other reason than the sheer expanse of life experience they represent.
Click Westin, Back in the Screenwriting Game Again at Age 83
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
More than 40 years after writing a screenplay that became the low budget feature film The Nashville Rebel (1966) with country music star Waylon Jennings in the lead, Omahan Clifton “Click” Westin may have a new script made into a motion picture.
At 83, Westin’s original crime thriller Center Cut has been optioned by Steve Lustgarten’s LEO Films. That’s no guarantee it will ever get made. Even if it does we’re not talking Oscar-caliber work here. But it is another mark of progress on his comeback trail in an industry famously cruel to artists his age and with his baggage.
That comeback, make it recovery, is both personal and professional and is a long time in the making. His reaching the point of despair with alcoholism interrupted his screenwriting career in the 1960s. He’s worked his recovery program for half-a-century. He claims 40 years of sobriety under his belt. But he only surrendered to the unmanageability of his disease after hitting bottom and having lost everything, his home, his first marriage, his family, his savings, his career.
After piecing his life back together on the West Coast with the help of a pistol-packing woman named Wilma, whom he married and is still with today, he began doing consulting work back in Omaha for his brother Dick, owner of Westin Foods, and before long Click and Wilma settled here. He’s been here ever since as Westin’s vice president of advertising and as a speaker at area AA confabs.
But there was a time when Click once did enjoy a Hollywood career. Nothing major mind you, but he was a working hack and card-carrying member of the Writers Guild of America. As he likes to say he paid his dues and learned his craft in the sink-or-swim crucible of studio staff scriptwriting with producer-syndicator Ziv Television in the 1950s. He churned out script after script for such half-hour episodic action-adventure series as Boston Blackie and The Cisco Kid
“It was kind of disappointing if you were looking for glamour because it was an office set up. You had a desk. The studios were outside the door, where they were shooting, but you never got over there. Your quota was to write two half-hour scripts a week,” he said.
As soon as you’d get an assignment, he said, “you start dreaming up something and you put in on paper. You learn your trade no matter what the writing assignment is. If you were a staff writer I’m not sure you even got credit for what you wrote. You never did see the result of what you wrote. You just had to turn in those assignments every week.”
He’s written about everything a writer can at one time or another, with the exception of a novel. “A writer’s a writer,” he likes to say. If Westin has a niche, it’s terse, hard-boiled dialogue and one-liner jokes, which is how he ended up contributing material on a freelance basis to such popular programs as The Steve Allen Show, You Asked for It and This is Your Life. He’s always been able to write fast, a vital commodity in advertising and TV.
The first stars he met predated his Hollywood career. It was 1948 and he was a World War II veteran studying journalism at then-Omaha University on the G.I. Bill when he went out to the West Coast to visit an Army Air Corps buddy who attended the University of Southern California. Westin got invited along with his pal’s fraternity brothers to serve as extras on the MGM musical Easter Parade. He got to visit with stars Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, whose path he’d cross again.
“My only scene is in the finale when everyone is walking down the boardwalk and I tip my hat to Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. That was the extent of it,” Click said in his clipped, just-the-facts delivery.
He said you can spot him at the end of the classic picture ”just for a moment. You gotta be alert. There’s really a lovely young lady on my arm.” To get costumed and made-up for the scene, he said, “we went in a tent and got our clothes changed. She had on this beautiful period dress with a hoop skirt and all, but underneath she’d rolled up her jeans,” giving lie to the carefully constructed illusion.
The whole Hollywood, big-studio moviemaking apparatus was an eye-opener for him. “I was just out of the service, still a kid. I was very impressed,” he said. Still, he had enough moxie to stand out, which is likely why he got selected to tip his bowler hat to the two stars. That and his six-foot-height and athletic good looks. It wasn’t the only time during the sound stage shoot he displayed his boldness.
“Onto the set came Peter Lawford and Liz Taylor. She wanted to climb up to the camera tower, and I was standing next to the tower so I took her up and on the way I thought, Why not?, and I said, ‘Listen, the boys at the fraternity are having a party tonight, I just wondered if…’ And she said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I’m busy.’ I thought, Well, I gave it a shot.”
If nothing else, the experience gave him a glimpse into a world he’d never seen before and some good anecdotes to share. “When I got the check from MGM I didn’t cash it, I brought it back to the Dundee Dell, where us college kids hung out, and waved it around.”
He swears that early behind-the-scenes exposure to the world of movies didn’t influence his decision to try his luck out there just a few years later. But that’s just like Click, who deflects or downplays things, unless they touch on addiction or on events like the Great Depression, when he learned what it meant to survive.
During the depths of the Depression his father Clifton, a native Omahan who also went by “Click,” lost his regular sales job. He gathered up the family, including a very young “Click Jr.,” and they hit the road to scrounge up a living.
The Cisco Kid
It turns out Click’s old man was highly resourceful. Among other things, he was a pool shark who once toured with the great early 20th century straight pool champion, Ralph Greenleaf. The elder Westin would sometimes appear in town pool halls as The Masked Marvel, taking on all comers in promotional stunts sponsored by the Coca-Cola Company. The sport was huge then.
Unfortunately, Click said his father was also an alcoholic.
When hard times hit, the sharpie was married with kids in the Nebraska Panhandle, stranded without a job, and so he did what he had to do to provide for his family.
“Dad acquired an old Graham-Paige automobile, he cut off the back and rigged a structure onto it to make almost sort of a covered wagon out of it, and we headed south. A good place to go during the Depression. He showed a great deal of foresight,” said Click.
Not unlike the Oakies displaced by the Dust Bowl, the family packed up what they had in their makeshift “prairie schooner” and headed for greener pastures in Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico. “We were just itinerant. We would pick up bottles and containers out of the trash in every town we’d stop, we would clean ‘em and redeem ‘em for change. Mom would make soap over an open fire and we’d sell soap door to door. My dad fixed pool tables and hustled pool. Anything to make a buck.”
These self-made gypsies would stay put awhile in select spots. They stayed in New Mexico long enough for Click’s dad to operate a roughneck pool hall where he ran a poker game in back. There were some wild and woolly times — drinking, shouting, fisticuffs, knives, guns. Click heard first-hand tales from old cowboys of epic cattle drives, scraps with Indians, riding with outlaws and Pony Express exploits. For someone with a vivid imagination like Click it was a golden time. The hardships of growing up without a home or its creature comforts didn’t resonate then, the excitement did. To him, it was just one big fat adventure.
“Well, lifestyles don’t affect children, they don’t know the difference, it’s the way life is, but in looking back of course it was quite severe, quite tough,” he said.
But also quite a rich life experience. By the time he started school it’s safe to say Click had lived and seen more than any of his boyhood chums. All that moving around though meant never being in one school more than a few months. “I probably attended as near as I could figure out 30 grade schools,” he said.
The family subsisted this way for almost two years before coming to Omaha. The hopskotching didn’t end entirely then either. “Here in Omaha whenever the rent was due we moved,” he said of his parents’ attempts to stay one step ahead of creditors. Click’s dad eventually did well with his own insulation business
At Benson Click proved a bright student. His kid brother Dick was a sports hero and entrepreneurial whiz who’s now in the Benson and Nebraska athletic halls of fame and the Omaha Business Hall of Fame. Click’s talents lay elsewhere. Blessed with a creative mind, he exhibited a way with words, writing for the school paper and penning O. Henry-like short stories. But entry into the military at age 18 put a hold on his storyteller ambitions. All the eligible males from his class of ‘44 enlisted.
His World War II service saw him man a ball turret aboard B-24s assigned submarine patrol duty in the Caribbean. His group never saw action.
Like many returning vets, he was eager to make up for lost time. He wanted to be the next Fitzgerald or Hemingway. He got his first taste of being a professional wordsmith composing verses for a Kansas City greeting card company. In Omaha, he filed articles and press releases for Northern Natural Gas Company and created on-air promotional spots and bits at WOW Radio, a then regional broadcasting giant. He and a popular performer, Johnny Carson, hit it off, and were drinking buddies at local watering holes, where they discussed taking Hollywood by storm. Before long, Carson left to pursue the dream. Westin soon followed, young wife in tow.
Westin never did complete all the required credit hours for his degree, but he did find a career. Show business agreed with his temperament as a cocksure promoter and curiosity seeker. WOW became his early training ground.
“I contributed to writing the noon day show called The Farm Hour. It was an audience participation show. It had a full band and a full cast, it had skits. It was a big deal at the time.”
Even though he didn’t know a soul on the West Coast except for Carson and a few war comrades, Westin leaped at the chance when NBC offered a spot in promotions in L.A. Then came his trial-by-fire at Ziv and writing for all those TV programmers. He also wrote for a TV series called Squad Car. “I did a ton of those.” he said. In addition to his small screen credits, he did uncredited script doctor work on all kinds of feature films. He’d rarely be given the entire script, usually just a small section to tweak a page here or a page there, to punch up some stiff dialogue with a dose of humor or a bit of color. One of the many pics he doctored was the 1959 WWII drama Up Periscope with James Garner and Edmond O’Brien.
He was not picky about the writing gigs he got. There was no pretense about him. He was very business-minded about writing. “You’d do assignments as they’d come along,” he said. Sometimes, he said, he was hired purely as insurance, his material never utilized. He didn’t care as long as he got paid. Some writers threw a hissy fit if one word of theirs got altered, he said, “but not me. I was never much interested in what they did with whatever I wrote. I would be today but writing then paid the rent and when an assignment was through I was looking for the next assignment, not what the hell happened to it or shaking hands with some tight ass star. That didn’t put bread on the table. I wasn’t interested in that. Really, I looked at writing very pragmatically. I wrote for a buck, not for artsy-craftsy or for posterity. I just wrote for a dollar, that was my living. Once you sell it you don’t own it. It’s like selling a house, you get paid for it and you move on.”
But his real bread-and-butter came as a broadcast advertising copywriter, producer and director. He did so many commercials, perhaps thousands, he said, “I don’t remember them all. They are not difficult for me to do. That would be my forte if I really got down to it. I’m as good at that as anyone. I can’t say that about any of the rest of what I do.” He worked for ad agencies and owned his own agencies. National accounts he handled included Alka-Seltzer, Chevrolet and Mattel. “’You can tell its Mattel, it’s swell.’ That was our biggie,’” he said.
He fondly recalls a 30-second spot for sup-hose he wrote and directed.
“The establishing shot was a steel frame building under construction. We moved up the scaffolding, a whistle blew, a couple guys in hard hats sat down and opened their lunch pails, their legs dangling from 60 feet above. They start to take a bite and they freeze and we follow their look to an I-beam suspended by a cable, where we see this beautiful pair of legs walk all the way out, turn around and walk back. The only dialogue was, ‘Men always notice women who wear sup-hose.’ That was one of my favorites because the visual told the entire story. That’s kind of rare.”
He produced live promos for L.A. area Dodge dealers featuring Lawrence Welk and his orchestra from the Santa Monica Pier. He wrote and produced many industrial films. One, The Invisible Circle, is still used by the California Highway Patrol.
He prided himself on being a jack-of-all-trades and mediums, perfectly capable going from writing to directing.
“You do what the assignments call for and if you have common sense you can see if it isn’t going anywhere or if it is. You don’t have to be a genius, you just have to have common sense when someone’s not coming across or overacting.”
In the late ‘50s he partnered with a young UCLA Film School grad, Richard Rush, in producing some major TV spots. Their experimental application of subliminal perception techniques, a process called PreCon, attracted much attention, including some unwanted queries by a United States Congressional committee concerned about precognition’s mind-control or brainwashing implications.
Click prepared an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher that called for inserting subliminal shock images. Hal Roach Studios purchased but never produced the property. Rush went with the project and the partners amicably split. Rush went on to be an acclaimed feature filmmaker. His Getting Straight and The Stunt Man won many admirers among cineastes here and abroad.
By the end of the ‘50s and the advent of the ‘60s Westin was years into his active addiction. For a time, he continued as a functioning drunk, maintaining a modicum of professional success despite falling apart on the inside. His disease, he said, accounted in part for his many career moves. Sometime before he hit bottom he created a syndicated show, Star Route, TV’s first book or scripted country music series. Rod Cameron hosted and guest stars included the Who’s-Who of country western stars — Johnny Cash, Rex Allen, Tex Ritter, Loretta Lynn, Glen Campbell.
That led to other countrified projects, including a syndicated radio series, Turning Point, and his feature script Morgan’s Corner being made as Nashville Rebel. Star Route and Turning Point were cast in Nashville and produced in Canada.
When Westin conceived Nashville Rebel he intended producing it himself but he couldn’t raise all the financing. That’s when he sold the script for some $6,000. He ended up getting “story by” rather than “screenplay by” credit even though he swears not a word of his manuscript was changed other than the title. Also, his surname is misspelled in the credits as “Weston.” None of it, he decided, was worth going to arbitration over. Now the film’s being rereleased on DVD and he’s eager to finally view it. That’s right, he’s never seen the film. Ask why he didn’t attend the premiere and he replies: “I was probably drunk.”
He said there are many months, even entire years from his worst acting out days he cannot recall. “A lot of what I’m telling you,” he said to this reporter, “it comes back in flashes. I can’t tell you what led up to it or what followed it. It’s gone.”
He tried AA a few times but whatever spells of sobriety he managed never stuck. He fell so far off the wagon his earnings for several years didn’t even register with the Social Security Administration. He describes these lost periods as “blackouts.” He was so far gone that all he lived for was his next drink or binge or drunk.
“If you’re a drunk your best friend is the guy you met five minutes ago on the bar stool next to you. There’s only a couple of subjects I’ve encountered in any saloon anywhere — girls, sports and politics. What else is there to talk about?”
The more the addiction’s fed, he said, “then naturally it progresses.”
He finally bottomed out when he awoke on a curb outside the L.A. County Jail, “kicked out” for the umpteenth time after drying out on another drunk and disorderly arrest. “I was spending life on the installment plan. I must have been in six to eight jails — L.A., Pasadena, Hollywood…I remember my first one. Boy, that was traumatic. Whew! Oh, God, I didn’t want anybody to know. After that it got common. Anybody I could call for bail I would.”
That last time he was alone and broke. “I had the change in my pockets — that was the total amount of all my assets. I didn’t even have enough money to afford bus fare to go back out to the Valley…the last place I remembered I left my car. I was without a car, without a family, without two homes.” He was divorced by then, his three kids living with their mom. It was the end of the line. No where to go but up.
He said the AA meetings he went to then were full of desperate people just like himself who’d burned every bridge and lost every possession.
“It would be strange today but not when I came up. It was different then. If you had a watch you weren’t eligible in my day, you hadn’t hit bottom. You wouldn’t walk into a meeting, you’d crawl in. There were DTs and convulsions quite frequently. You’d stick a wallet in their teeth and go on with the meeting. They were really tongue-chewing, babbling, falling-down drunks. That’s not the case today. My God, they drive their own cars to meetings. I lost my car.”
He still recalls walking into an L.A. bar called the Admiral’s Dinghy, where he’d arranged to meet a striking Eurasian woman named Wilma whom he’d become smitten with upon their initial meeting some days before.
“I came in a little late and I said, ‘I’m an alcoholic, I’ve got to go back to AA. Will you come with me?’ She’d never heard of it. She put down her drink, put on her white gloves, slipped off the bar stool and said, ‘Sure,’ and she never had another drink. I did, I continued for close to another year.”
As Click made him way back to sobriety Wilma was there for him. She’s a strong woman with a life history that, he said, “reads like fiction.” He said the L.A. native left home at 13, ran drugs in Mexico, worked her way up to being one of the first female quality control managers at a U.S. manufacturing plant and became a courier running skim money for the Mob and a hostess for mafia gambling parties. “That’s just scratching the surface,” he said. “Wilma is the most remarkable lady on the face of the Earth. She is something.”
His friend, playwright Sumner Arthur Long (Never Too Late), was writing a feature script about her life when he died. Click may one day take up the project.
Click’s turnaround meant learning a new, healthier way of thinking and behaving. Kicking an obsession, any obsession, is difficult. “It wasn’t easy to shake the addiction, of course,” he said. Starting over from scratch, as he did, was humbling, but people in the business and out of it, like his brother Dick, were there for him. “It shouldn’t have been that easy for me.” Estranging yourself from family and friends and then making amends is a painful but necessary process. He’s done it.
Until recently the only scripts he’d written since Nashville Rebel were slide shows, power points and commercials. But a few years ago he began getting the bug again to write a dramatic script. Then he got intentional about it by attending a pricey screenwriting colony in Superior, Neb. conducted by noted script guru Lew Hunter. Charged with writing 30 pages, Westin completed the entire 117-page script for Get Grey, one of five scripts he’s written the last couple years.
Hunter, another Nebraskan with success writing for TV and film, also served as an executive and producer at all three major networks and taught screenwriting at UCLA. Until the workshop he’d never met or heard of Westin, and vice versa, but the two old pros are now like a pair of long lost colleagues. They talk frequently. It’s rare either can find anyone else of their generation who’s been on the inside of TV/film culture as they have. Hunter can certainly attest, as Westin can, to the dysfunctional lifestyle that culture breeds.
Westin said his problem-drinking began before he ever got to L.A., triggered by the ritualistic rounds he and other media types made at Omaha bars. He likes to say “I was suddenly struck drunk” to make the point it takes years of abuse to become one. Once out in L.A. the social imbibing only increased. He got into a pattern of medicating himself with alcohol. Better to be numb than to feel anything. He and his old WOW mate, Johnny Carson, would go at it. “There was a bar catty corner across the street from CBS on Fairfax (Blvd.) and we would get together a few times a week and have a couple of drinks, oh, for a long time,” said Westin, who added Carson was one way on stage and another way off it. “There were two Johnny Carsons — the one on television and the one in private life, a very shy, inward man who didn’t have much to say. He wasn’t a turned-on individual at all.”
While environment and heredity undoubtedly contributed to Westin’s own drinking habit, he said nothing excuses it. “That’s a cop out.” He also doesn’t ascribe to any book or regimen that offers a cure. “There is no cure. You can arrest the disease, but as far as a cure, give an alcoholic who has experienced a great deal of abstinence a drink and see what happens.” Relapse. He knows, he’s been there.
Part of the stability he’s found in life has coincided with moving back here in the 1970s. He’d commuted for a time between L.A. and Omaha. Then, after his brother purchased Roberts Dairy (since sold), Click came back to run one of its operations in Sioux City. Later, Click took over its Dairy Distributors home delivery division. Not much of a businessman, he brought in Wilma to help run things.
One day, he witnessed just how much she had his back when a disturbed driver who’d been fired wielded a knife in the office.
“Wilma had a .38 in her desk drawer. She pulled it out with the toe of her shoe, she reached down, held it in her lap just calmly and pointed it right at the sucker spinning around there. I thought, My God if he turns and takes one step towards her we’re all going to be in the paper in the morning. She just sat there and said, ‘That’s enough.’ That’s all it took. She meant business. Oh, there’s only one Wilma. They call her the Dragon Lady.”
The couple lived in Omaha together several years but Wilma’s now in Hawaii, where she has her own business. Click commutes to visit her but wants her to move back.
In Omaha Westin’s started seven 12-step meetings and a transitional facility, Beacon House. He’s cut back on his AA speaking but always honors a request. He volunteers much of his time sponsoring addicts. His experience guides others.
“I sponsor a lot of people in AA and I have found where people are concerned there’s work, there’s family and there’s AA, and to me that’s not much of a life. I mean, it’s a life like everybody else has I guess but usually I insist they develop an outside passion. I don’t care what it is, golf or bird watching or music or whatever.
I always have some kind of a passion going outside what I’m doing. For example, I learned how to play a keyboard from scratch. Now I’m not a musician but I like to play songs. I did that for a long time. Then it was photography. I used to buy barn pictures. That got too expensive and so I cut that out.”
Other than writing golf may be his oldest passion. The Omaha Field Club member enjoys treating guests to lunch there, holding court with his rich reservoir of stories. On nice weather days a round of 18 holes is never far from his mind. When traveling to warm climes, as he often does, he tries working in a few rounds.
Ideas for movies come to him regularly now. On a “meditation drive” along Highway 6 in western Iowa the sight of livestock got him thinking about a modern-day cattle rustling scheme, which he developed into the feature script Center Cut. “I stick to very basic themes that are universal and can be adapted,” he said.
So, after all these years Click’s back in the game as a screenwriter again. Well, sort of. “It’s not the same. Now it’s more or less, oh, a hobby,” he said. “I remember the desperation of, Will this sell?, because the rent’s due. That is a whole different story. Now, I don’t give a damn if they buy it or not. My rent’s paid.”
Still, he’s grateful for what a comfortable position he is in that he can write at his leisure. He’s also keenly aware he’s been given a gift and a reprieve by having come out of his blackout with his mind and body intact. “Totally. I’ve gone to way too many funerals of people I knew then. I’m on borrowed time every day,” he said.
All of which explains his philosophy of living these days.
“If you want to do it, do it, because this ain’t no dress rehearsal. I’m in the third act and hopefully it’ll be a long act but I might not be around tomorrow. When you’re 83 things wear out. Nothing that I know of, but there’s parts that probably have about had it.”
His wit’s clearly not one of them.
- How They Write a Script: Walter Hill (gointothestory.com)
- “Screenwriters find work is dwindling” (gointothestory.com)
- Bond Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz Passes Away at Age 68 (cinematical.com)
Nebraska doesn’t have mountains or oceanfront beaches. What few iconic things it does have speak to the work ethic of its people. Omaha Steaks is a national brand, like Mutual of Omaha insurance or Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett, that people know and trust. It’s dependable, just like Nebraskans and the Nebraska family that founded the company and still run it today. This story, which originally appeared in the Jewish Press, is an appreciation for the history and growth of this food industry titan.
This Version of Simon Says Positions Omaha Steaks as a Food Service Juggernaut
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
First cousins Bruce and Todd Simon engage in the back and forth banter of media talk-jocks, except theirs isn’t idle chat but the dialogue of two men at the top of a food service industry company giant whose annual sales fast approach a half-billion dollars. In an interview at the headquarters of their family-owned Omaha Steaks empire, 11030 “O” Street, they revealed themselves as wry sophisticates with a knack for brokering deals, managing people and anticipating the next big thing.
After working together 20 years, their close familiarity finds each interrupting the other to complete a sentence or to make a point or to poke fun. They seem to enjoy the give and take. It’s all part of being the next generation, the fifth to be exact, to lead the corporate giant. Each apprenticed under his dad. Each holds fast to cherished lessons passed down from above.
For 89 years the company’s found innovative ways to market fine meat and other foods to residential and commercial customers around the nation and the world. Along the way the Omaha Steaks name has become such an icon synonymous with quality beef that its hometown enjoys crossover brand recognition.
Bruce is president/COO and Todd is senior vice president, but their bond supersedes titles or labels. They’re family. Two in a long line to lead the business.
“You know what we have? What we have here, we have an entire company of people who we trust — that we feel like we’re family with. That’s what we have here,” Bruce said. “That blood bond is really a family bond and it traverses not only the Simon family, it includes our executive committee, all the way down. There are guys I know in the plant that were there the day I started and I feel the same bond with them as I do to my cousin Todd. We all feel a responsibility to each other to make this place successful.”
As is their habit, Bruce turned to Todd, asking, “Don’t you think?” Whereupon Todd opined, “Well, I think it starts with the fact we’re a family business that allows us to really take those kind of family values into the whole business.”
“Not in a Bush sort of way,” Bruce joked. A nonplused Todd continued, “And it shows in the benefits we provide for our team in terms of family leave benefits or vacation benefits or day care. Scholarships.” “All that stuff,” Bruce interjected.
Legacy is never far removed from the Simons’ thoughts, as their fathers still take an active part in the company, always looking over their sons’ shoulders to ensure the family jewel is well-preserved. Bruce’s father, Alan Simon, is chairman of the board/CEO. Todd’s dad, Fred Simon, is executive vice president. The cousins’ late uncle, Steve Simon, died recently after years serving as senior VP and GM.
“My dad was and is pretty much the operational guy. He’s the guy who ran the meatpacking plant and who was the bean counter,” Bruce said. “Bought the meat,” Todd offered. “Yeah, bought the meat,” Bruce confirmed. “And Todd’s dad was the real marketing guy and Steve (Simon) was the sales guy.”
The three brothers — Alan, Fred and Steve — learned the business from their father Lester Simon, who in turn learned it from his father B.A. Simon. It all began when B.A. and his father J.J. Simon, both butchers, left Latvia for America in 1898 to escape religious persecution. With the meat business in their blood, J.J. and B.A. settled in Omaha, a meatpacking center, and worked in several area markets. In 1917 father and son opened their own meat shop, Table Supply Meat Company, downtown. Their niche was to process and sell beef to restaurants and grocers.
As the decades progressed Table Supply responded to the growing food service sector by supplying meat to Union Pacific Railroad in support of its large dining car services as well as to more and more restaurants here and in other parts of the country. Cruise lines, airlines, hotels and resorts became major customers. Lester Simon first took Table Supply to the public via mail order ads that enabled households to receive packaged shipments of cut beef. In 1963 the company published its first mail order catalog, whose product offerings soon extended far beyond beef steaks. Shipping-packaging advances improved efficiency, helping widen the company’s increasingly national and international reach.
By 1966 all this growth warranted an expansion in the form of a new plant and headquarters on South 96th Street. With the new facilities came a new name, Omaha Steaks International.
The 1970s saw Omaha Steaks take new steps in customer convenience by adding inbound and outbound call centers and a mail order industry-first toll-free customer service line. An automated order entry system was installed in 1987. The first of its retail stores opened in 1976. There are now 75 and counting in 19 states. Visioning the online explosion to follow, Omaha Steaks helped pioneer electronic marketing as far back as 1990. Omahasteaks.com became the banner web site for what is the company’s fastest growing business segment. A new web site, alazing.com. promotes the company’s convenience meals brand, A La Zing, which offers a line of complete frozen prepared meals.
Omaha Steaks underwent another expansion phase in the ‘80 and ‘90s, consolidating administration and marketing in two new multi-story glass and steel buildings whose sleek interiors abound with examples from the Simons’ extensive art collections and displays that tell the history of the family business.
If Bruce and Todd feel burdened carrying the legacy of a company that boasts two million-plus customers and employs some 2,000 folks, they don’t show it. Guiding their interaction in family and business dealings are the principles they picked up from their elders. By living those principles they fulfill their obligation.
“Our parents taught us to do the right thing. That’s really the only responsibility we have — just do the right thing. Do it all the time. Try to produce every single box of product perfectly. Try to satisfy every single customer perfectly. Do it right every time,” Bruce said. “It’s all about being honest. Everybody in our family has been impeccably honest. We don’t take advantage of people. We sleep good.”
“Right,” Todd said, “and I think it also extends to the environment we create. We could sit around and stress out about the fact we have 2,000 employees and their livelihoods in a lot of ways depend on the decisions we make. And I think we always have that in mind. I also think one of the things that makes it so we don’t stress out is that so many of those 2,000 people think the same we do and they take responsibility for what they need to take responsibility for. And because they do that the stress we carry is minimized.”
“But the whole thing is doing the right thing,” Bruce said. “I mean, if you’ve got building blocks and you set them up properly you’re going to have a very strong building. And that’s what we have and it’s because of every single block. Look, if spacemen came and took either one of us away there’s no question in my mind…this place would continue on because of the values that J.J., B.A., Lester, Alan, Fred, Steve and now Todd and I hold dear. It’s our whole corporate culture.”
The confidence they exude may be attributed in part to the up-through-the-family-ranks training the pair got and to the well-balanced team they form.
“It’s interesting,” Todd said, “because I think in a lot of ways we’ve both sort of followed in our fathers’ footsteps. You know, Bruce is very strong operationally, purchasing, finance…All the sort of back-office stuff is his forte. And mine is the out-front stuff — the marketing, sales. Managing the customer service aspect of that, motivating the front-line people to be people-people.”
“And somebody has to manage him, too,” kidded Bruce, before turning serious again. “Yeah, I think that when you’re a leader sometimes you’ve got to fake it. My dad used to say to me, ‘When in command, command.’ And that’s what I think we do. I mean, our dads built a helluva business and, you know, you always want to top it. I mean, George W. (Bush) just had to get Saddam and we’ve just got to sale a steak to every Chinaman,” Bruce said, smiling.
Unfazed, Todd said, “I think Bruce and I really complement each other well. I would say I’m an optimist and Bruce isn’t as much an optimist…in the sense that when we both come up with ideas I’ll see one side of the picture and he’ll see the other side of the picture. And since we’re both open too each other’s perspective on it, it really helps us balance it out.”
The way Bruce puts it, “I think our management styles complement each other as well. He is really detail-oriented sometimes and I am really detail-oriented when he’s not. And about different things. There’s some stuff that Todd goes, ‘Well, so, get it shipped.’ And I just look at him and I go, ‘OK…well, just sell it.’ He looks at me and says, ‘OK.’” Whatever the situation, they make it work. “Yeah, we do,” Bruce said, “and we get along, which is great, too.”
With two father-son teams comprising the ownership-executive ranks, the potential exists for family disputes that upset the company’s inner workings. The Simons diffuse those bombs with open dialogue and transparent dealings.
“For as long as I can remember the way we operate as a family is we get our ideas out,” Todd said. “We don’t bulldoze over each other. We’re all forceful about our ideas and our opinions, and we’ll raise our voices and we’ll do whatever we need to do to get our point across. But we basically come to consensus and we don’t leave the room unless everyone’s comfortable with the direction we’re moving in.”
“Right,” Bruce said. “We don’t fight about things. If there’s a reason to do something we discuss it and we figure it out. Because, hell, we’re all on the same page. What’s good for one is good for all. We’re never very formal, either. Usually we’ll discuss things over lunch.”
Talking business within the family doesn’t follow a 9 to 5 schedule. “Business doesn’t stop and start at the office for us,” Todd said. “I mean, Bruce could be on vacation and just decide to call me about something that’s on his mind.” “Well, technically, what will happen,” Bruce said, “is when you’re away from the place and the day-to-day that’s when you really get some good ideas and then we’ll call each other. I remember before cell phone were prolific I was in Italy and Todd was in Japan and we had this fax dialogue going on.”
Vision is important in any organization and each year Omaha Steaks holds an off-site brainstorm session with its top managers. Ideas and initiatives fly. “A lot of times those come not from me or Bruce but from the people out there in the trenches dealing with our customers every day,” Todd said. In the end, “Todd and I decide with our fathers where we’re going” as a company, Bruce said.
Two affiliate companies sprung from this visioning — the A La Zing line of convenience meals and OS SalesCo., an incentive division. Fred Simon entered the publishing world with The Steak Lover’s Companion, a cookbook co-authored with Mark Kiffen. Simon adapted classic dishes from recipes developed by James Beard, an Omaha Steaks consultant for many years. More cookbooks followed. Simon’s developed Omaha Steaks-affiliated restaurants. Many more restaurants exclusively serve the Omaha Steaks brand on their menus. The company’s also approaching 100 of its own retail stores nationwide.
Trust in themselves and in the team they’ve assembled explains why the Simons are open to new marketing avenues and new technologies that enhance the ability of the company to serve customers. A toll-free customer service line. Online ordering. In-store purchases. New product lines. Seasonings, sides, desserts. Whatever passes muster with the Simons or in the Omaha Steaks test kitchens gets rolled out.
“While we have innovated a lot here and we’ve developed a lot of proprietary tools and analysis and internal stuff, I wouldn’t say we’ve been on the bleeding edge of technology,” Todd said. “Because I think what we want to do is to use technology that’s going to help us to help our customers. We were one of the first companies to put in an 800 number because it made sense to help our customers communicate with us. When we implemented a centralized computer system one of the first applications was order taking.”
“We’ve had to do these things. The Internet was just very logical — Sure, we should have that. And the fact the entire world put a PC in their living room helped,” Bruce said. “But it was easy for us because when you think about it we were just bypassing the guy on the phone.”
As “easy” as he makes it sound, Bruce added Omaha Steaks has taken great pains to enhance its order-processing systems via the Web and the phone. “I’ve seen a lot of them and I’m proud of ours — I think it’s the best one I’ve ever seen. Our development team has done such an outstanding job with those products.”
“I still think what it gets back to is that we say to ourselves, How do we solve a problem for our customers? Whether that problem is placing an order quickly and efficiently or being able to log onto the web site and access their gift list or whatever it is. And then asking, Can technology help us with that? As opposed to implementing technology in search of a problem” to solve,” Todd said.
Online sales account for an increasing chunk of the company’s profits and Omaha Steaks will accommodate the dot com craze as the demand dictates.
“Our philosophy is be wherever your customers want you to be,” Todd said. “A lot of people love to shop online. I’m one of those people. But we’ve got a lot of customers today that don’t. People still fax orders in. People still mail orders in. People like to come into our stores. So, whatever works.”
The retail segment has “grown as fast as we’ve been willing to add resources internally to support it,” Todd said. Plans call for 15 more stores this year alone. That may seem an odd way to go with cyber commerce on the rise, but he said even a cursory look around town reveals a boon in retail development. “So the economy is alive and well for a number of different sales channels to prosper.”
Success may make some tycoons complacent but not the Simons.
“I feel like with this business I can be an entrepreneur. There’s always new challenges, new products to be developed or whatever. That gives me a lot of satisfaction,” Todd said. “What gives me a charge is just seeing the business grow, being successful in business, messing around with our dads in the business. And just the sheer volume of product we go through — it’s just staggering sometimes,” said Bruce, who figures Omaha Steaks processes up to 250,000 pounds of just top sirloin each week and close to 50,000 pounds of tenderloin a week. That’s tens of millions of pounds of beef a year.
They’ve been at Omaha Steaks a combined 46 years now — Bruce since 1980 and
Todd since 1986 — and there’s no reason to think they won’t be there 46 more. But it was never a lock they’d be there in the first place. University of Pennsylvania grads, like their fathers, each weighed other paths before falling in line. Bruce came aboard first. Right out of college. But not before he looked at “a couple other opportunities.” Neither his first nor only option, Omaha Steaks was a sure thing. He worked there as a kid. “I wanted to do it. I liked the business. I understood the business. When I was at school I thought about the business.” What finally swayed him, was the offer of $1,000 signing bonus his dad put on the table.
When it was time for Todd to graduate a few years later he faced a similar dilemma. “My dad was encouraging me. I think he wanted to work with me. I was a little bit hesitant,” Todd said. Like Bruce, Todd too worked at Omaha Steaks as a kid. But he and some college friends had started a sound production company (they later sold). He had other career choices. He turned to his cousin for advice, asking, Is this a good thing? Bruce assured him it was. The pull of family won out. “I kind of at the end of the day felt like I owed it to my family,” Todd said. “This family has provided so much for me.”
Neither is sorry he made the leap into the family pond. “Yeah, it’s turned out OK,” Todd said in a classic understatement. Working with their fathers has meant learning from the best. Their dads, along with their late uncle Steve, were recently inducted into the Omaha Business Hall of Fame. Todd’s dad Fred is an inductee in the national Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame. The company’s won awards and praise for its marketing and technology applications.
As for the cousins’ fathers retiring anytime soon, Bruce said, “We don’t say that word. They will never retire. They will never semi-retire. And the minute anyone would suggest such a ludicrous thing they would start coming into the office every day raising hell about every item on the balance sheet. They’ll never retire. They might go on vacation…” And that vacation may last for some time. But retire? No.
A sixth generation of Simons entering the business may be on the horizon. Todd
doesn’t have children and Bruce’s are still quite young. However, Bruce can see one of his daughters already thinking like a future mogul. On a visit to the zoo they waited in a long line at a concession stand, noting how the supervisor let the workers fall way behind, whereupon Bruce’s little girl said, “You know, Daddy, I don’t think that person is doing a very good job of managing that stand. That’s not a very good operation is it, Daddy?” He had to agree, his chest puffed with pride.
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The Storz Saga: A Family Dynasty – Their Mansion, the Brewery that Built It, the Man Who Loved It, a Legacy of Giving, the Loss of a Dream
The story that follows is a kind of sequel to the first story I did on Art Storz Jr., the beloved Omaha eccentric who had a magnificent obsession with his family dynasty and the mansion they built and that he tried to preserve as a lasting tribute. That initial story is also posted on this site. This follow up story was published in The Reader (www.thereader.com). Art fought the good fight to retain the mansion but in the end he had to give it up. The historic home was donated to Creighton University, which has since sold it to an Omaha couple who now reside in it and are restoring it. That would have made Art happy.
The Storz Saga: A Family Dynasty – Their Mansion, the Brewery that Built It, the Man Who Loved It, a Legacy of Giving, the Loss of a Dream
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Once the centerpiece of an Omaha German-American family’s brewing empire, the brawny Storz mansion at 3708 Farnam Street is the brewmeister house that beer built. Much like the Storz brewery ranked as a dominant family-run business for 90 years until sold by the clan in 1966 and shutting down five years later, the big gabled house was a high society icon during the 20th century but now, for the first time, it’s fallen out of the family’s hands.
This is a story about a house that defined an era in Omaha affluence and connoted the influence a family wielded in shaping the city. It is the tale of a magnificent obsession by one Art Storz, Jr., a third-generation heir and self-described black sheep of the family, who, with the aid of a gambling tycoon, warded off creditors in trying to make the house a brick-and-mortar tribute to the Storz heritage. It is a story of industry, intrigue, money, love, fear, desire, loss and legacy played out in public and private arenas.
A fitting symbol for a family enriched by their conspicuous manufacturing success and openhanded with their generous community support, the 27-room residence was built from 1904 to 1907 to the scale and opulence of the area’s affluent Gold Coast standards by Storz Brewing Co. founder Gottlieb Storz. The German emigre, an honored citizen in his native Benningenam, worked as a brewmaster before starting the company that bore his name at age 24. Boasting a third-floor ballroom serviced by an elevator, a sun room patterned after the solarium aboard the Bremen oceanliner, a music room, servants quarters, a grand foyer and a richly appointed decor featuring mosaic-tiled fireplaces, quarter sawn oak woodwork and stained glass windows, the mansion was designed by architects George Fisher and Harry Lawrie in the Jacobethan Revival style. The exterior includes relief panels displaying key ingredients in the brewer’s art: barley, hops, grain. A carriage house adjoins the mansion.
Guests were, by definition, members of the social elite and therefore feted in the Victorian era’s rich style. Family lore has it that as children Fred and Adele Astaire, son and daughter of Fritz Austerlitz, Storz Brewing Co. employee, often whirled around the ballroom at parties and recitals. Holidays were marked by extravagant celebrations and decorations. The house, which outside the Joslyn Castle has few local counterparts in its old-style grandiosity, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Preservation Magazine once featured it in a spread. “They’re not going to be building houses like that anymore,” said Art Storz, Jr., 82, the last member of the family to occupy it.
After the family patriarch, Gottlieb, died in 1939, the mansion was home to one of four sons, Arthur C. Storz, Sr., and his family. During his reign as master of the manor, Arthur, Sr., a brewery VP and president, made the home into what Art Storz, Jr., the eldest of Arthur’s two sons, called “a showplace.” A combination bon vivant and man’s man, Arthur C. Storz was a race car driver and World War I aviator, a rugged outdoorsman, an amateur gourmand, an astute business executive and a classic hail fellow-well met chap. He hosted lavish black-tie bashes, trimmed with elegant place-settings and floral arrangements, for an eclectic and gilded circle of friends.
For special occasions, the house was transformed into giant set pieces, once as a replica of a showboat and another time as an airplane. “They were just fantastic parties,” Art recalled. His father imported finely-trained German chefs and butlers to head the domestic staff. Art likes painting his folks as common people, saying, “My mother and dad were not ostentatious. If any of us kids would of showed any inkling of that, I think they would have kicked our butts.” Still, their privileged lifestyle set them apart. Art and his brother Bob actually grew up in a Field Club area home with an indoor boxing ring, rifle range and pool room.
A meticulous person who demanded order in everything he did, the old man ruled with an iron hand at home and at work. One who never suffered fools gladly, he could reduce anyone to putty with his withering stare and sharp tongue. “My dad scared a lot of people. He was a tough guy. He’d rip ya, but once it was all over, it was done. He’d never hold a grudge,” Art said. Expressions of affection were rare. “My dad knew the word love but he didn’t use it.”
With his charisma and connections the senior Storz became a powerful civilian advocate for the U.S. Air Force and the airline industry, using his abode and his storied hunting sanctuary, Ducklore Lodge, near Lisco, Neb., to court military brass, industry titans, politicos, celebrities and assorted movers-and-shakers. Among the who’s-who attending Storz sprees were cinema star Jimmy Stewart, a former flyer himself, broadcasting personality Arthur Godfrey, SAC commander Gen. Curtis LeMay, wartime hero Jimmy Doolittle, WWI ace and race car legend Eddie Rickenbacker, whom Arthur Sr. flew with and raced against, and various big-wigs, including Omaha moguls Peter Kiewit, W. Dale Clark and Leo A. Daly.
In son Art’s opinion, the mansion may be without peer locally as a historic residence: “I doubt if any home in Omaha can even come close to it as far as history and the significant people that have been in and out of there over the years.”
The same was true at the handsomely outfitted Ducklore refuge, where Arthur Sr. hosted everyone from Hollywood legends Wallace Beery and Robert Taylor to Air Force top dogs to the heads of General Motors and Union Pacific. But the place was not just reserved for blue bloods. Enlisted men were welcome there along with Storz employees. An annual Storz-led Armistice Day celebration in nearby Lisco fed and entertained thousands.
Also a strong advocate for the city and state, Arthur Sr. is credited with influencing the placement of the Strategic Air Command at Offutt Air Force Base as a player in the Air Force Association and steering the early growth of Eppley Airfield as Omaha Airport Authority chairman. His staunch support of air power netted him the Exceptional Service Award, the highest civilian citation the Air Force bestows. With Arthur Sr.’s death in 1978, his son Art said Omaha “lost a real champion for this area.”
Two of Arthur Sr.’s brothers and Art’s uncles made names for themselves, too. Adolph, who headed the United States Brewers Foundation, was a noted breeder and exhibitor of show horses. Through his two marriages he merged the Storz’ with two other preeminent American families, the Haydens, owners of the former Hayden Brothers Department Store, and the Anheusers, of the St. Louis brewing company fame.
Robert Herman Storz’s many interests included raising prized cattle, serving on such community boards as the Chamber of Commerce and Ak-Sar-Ben, spearheading the building of Clarkson Hospital and the development of Memorial Park, whose dedication President Harry S. Truman attended, and donating millions to the Joslyn Art Museum and Omaha Community Playhouse. Also a media baron, in 1949 he joined his son Todd in purchasing Omaha radio station KOWH, which anchored Storz Broadcasting Co., a chain of radio stations Robert Herman Storz became president of after the tragic 1964 death of his son, at age 39, of a cerebral hemorrhage.
As a long-standing family brewing dynasty, the Storz’ moved easily in the high society echelons of the brew world, where many German emigres made their fortunes. While the families socialized together, their empires engaged in fierce fights for consumer preference. “My folks were very close with the Coors’, the Metz’s, the Millers, the Strohs and others,” said Art, “but they were awful competitive, too.” At its peak, he said, Storz didn’t take a back seat to anyone. “We were an old-line company. We’d been successful, like the other companies, in selling the family name and been a leader for year after year after year.”
Art Storz, Jr. assumed his role in the brewery in the 1950s, directing its marketing and advertising. After its sale and the death of his parents, he dedicated his life to preserving the mansion. His late brother, Robert Hart Storz, was also a brewery executive. When World War II erupted each brother, like their father before them, became a flyer in the service of their country. But where Bob served with distinction, leading the famed 1943 raid on the Romanian Ploesti oil fields, Art got dressed-down for a stupid stunt. It would always be that way — with Bob, the dashing chip-off-the-old-block, seemingly doing no wrong and Art, the insecure one, never measuring up to their father’s “stringent yardstick.”
Besides making the house his residence, Art rented it out for receptions, gave tours and led an effort to turn the residence into a museum. His life there was a contradiction. Amid all the opulence, he lived austerely after renouncing his inheritance in a dispute with family members over the disposition of the home. He handled much of the house’s and property’s upkeep himself. He had no car. He dressed like a handyman, preferring corduroys, jeans or shorts, a t-shirt and a cap. Despite acute shyness, he often opened the home to guests and visitors.
Despite his near pauper status the Storz name gained him entry into powerbroker circles. While unable to raise sufficient funds for the house’s restoration or rebirth, he did make it a kind of living-working museum by keeping its possessions largely intact and displaying memorabilia relating to his father’s exploits. Eventually, he ran into financial difficulty, owing some $70,000 in back taxes, and came close to losing it all in the late ‘80s, but was bailed out by a family friend, Michael Gaughan, the son of Art’s former Creighton Prep-Creighton University classmate, Jackie Gaughan, who made millions as a Nevada casino-hotel owner. The younger Gaughan, also a well-monied Las Vegas casino-hotel magnate, paid the back taxes, bought the property and subsidized its upkeep. In an oft-quoted assessment of why he intervened Gaughan, who once worked at the brewery, said it wasn’t so much historic preservation as it was “to preserve Art” (Storz).
When, last June, Art took a bad fall at home, breaking a hip, his nieces convinced him it was no longer safe for him to be cooped-up all alone in such a massive place — there had been break-ins and items stolen — and moved him into the Westgate assisted living facility, where he remains today. He resisted the move. He wanted to return home. But since he was a tenant, not a title-holder, he had little say.
Meanwhile, the house he made into a shrine was donated to Creighton by its owner and his benefactor — CU alumnus Michael Gaughan. The university has not announced plans for the house, although it will likely host tony alumni affairs. Family members offered up a variety of objects and furnishings from the house in an estate sale last December at Collectors Choice. Storz, who hates being separated from the place he fought very public battles over, is upset with himself for not securing it as a permanent memorial to his family and their deeds.
“I saw this coming,” he said. “I get pretty down on myself over the home because I feel I didn’t do the job I should have done. I was in over my head with this thing, but I couldn’t walk away. I was in love with the whole damn place. And, well, now I guess Creighton’s paying the bills.” His mind often rehashes his fight to hang-on to the home. “I think it was kind of crazy, you know, trying to do what I was doing because I didn’t have this,” he said, rubbing his fingers together to indicate money. “I let my love get involved with it. It hurt me, too, boy. I feel bad because a lot of people helped financially, none more than the Gaughans, and I failed.”
Hardly a failure. After all, it still stands as a proud symbol. Since moving he’s received an outpouring of notes and cards from people expressing cherished memories of the home and admiration for his fight to save it.
As for the home itself, he hopes something of the Storz legacy is “retained” in whatever new life Creighton decides for it and that, under no circumstances, it be converted into a frat house, the fate of another vintage Storz mansion, at 40th and Dewey, also owned by Creighton. A third old Storz dwelling, at 39th and Harney, has found new life as the Renaissance Mansion. Two other Storz homes were long ago razed by the University of Nebraska at Omaha to accommodate parking and new construction on campus.
During his travails to retain the house Storz was dogged by the irony that he, of all his polished relations, should be carrying the Storz banner given youthful indiscretions that brought unwanted attention to the family.
There was the “buzz job” he pulled during World War II when, as an Air Force pilot he flew his Flying Fortress low over a wide swath of Omaha, just for the thrill of “showing off.” At one point he maneuvered the four-engine B-17 bomber close to the old Blackstone Hotel, right across from the mansion, swooped by the spires of St. Cecilia Cathedral and roared over the homes of an uncle and aunt. A general panic ensued and, once his superiors got wind of it, he was court-martialed, never rising above the rank of captain.
There was also his penchant for speeding in cars. “I was a rebel,” Art said of his heller days. “I took some tremendous chances.” Then, in the early ‘50s, a breech-of-promise suit surfaced weeks after his only marriage, which ended in divorce. His wife, a member of a Nebraska ranching family, got custody of their two kids. He’s had little contact with them over the years, especially after fighting-off his adult children’s attempts to claim the house in the ‘80s.
Being a Storz has often been a burden.
“I felt terribly intimidated by it all,” he said. It didn’t help that his milquetoast personality was no match for his father’s and uncles’ domineering presence and the looming shadows they cast. “I’ve always been very insecure because I’ve known there’s no way I was ever going to walk in any of my family’s footprints,” he said from the one-room apartment he’s turned into a mini-Storz hall of fame at the Westgate care center he resides in. “I just wasn’t cut out to be what they were. My family left some big footprints, you know.” They were, he said sheepishly, “a hard act to follow.”
Still, his devotion to his family never wavered. Perhaps it was his desire to still measure up in his father’s eyes, but he wanted the Storz’ many contributions to the community remembered. In a sense, they are. The Storz Expressway is named after his father and everything from a hospital wing to a museum gallery is named in honor of his uncle, Robert Herman Storz, and his wife Mildred, whose $1 million gift renovated the Joslyn fountain court.
“Our family played such a prominent role,” Storz said. “When you think of the economic contributions Storz Brewing alone meant and then how my family always got involved in so many civic things, I think we’re an awful important part of this area. It makes me proud.” The family keeps giving, too. The Robert Herman Storz Foundation, with assets of more than $7 million, supports a wide range of community organizations.
The thriving business that provided the capital to pay for the Farnam Street Storz mansion along with the other palatial Storz estates, and that made possible the family’s well-known civic philanthropy is largely unknown today except by oldsters. Only the red brick smokestack and a scattering of buildings, now in disrepair, still stand as reminders of this industrial juggernaut. Spread-out over a multi-acre site along North 16th Street, the Storz Brewing Co., which operated from 1876 to 1966 under family ownership, employed anywhere from 300 to 500 workers and produced more than 350,000 barrels of beer a year. A strong regional and select national brand in Nebraska, the Midwest and on Air Force bases (courtesy the family’s Air Force ties) Storz was the most prominent player in what was once a booming local brewing scene and a name that prompted strong loyalty among consumers.
Its state-of-the-art production and packaging operation, occupying more than 15 buildings, featured spotless red tiled floors and walls, burnished stainless steel and copper fixtures, millions of dollars worth of gleaming equipment, ranging from mashers and brew tubs to bottling and labeling machines, along with massive cellars for storing beer and huge garages for sheltering and maintaining the company’s large fleet of delivery trucks.
Railroad tracks ran right up to the back of one building to allow for direct box car access — with imported hops, barley and grain off-loaded and cases of beer on-loaded. A hospitality room, patterned after a brewhause and hunting lodge and adorned with the stuffed heads of big game bagged by Arthur C. Storz, treated employees and customers alike to food and beverages. A Storz-owned tavern, one of many the brewery had, was adjacent to the plant.
The whole works ran with the Prussian-like precision and efficiency demanded by the Storz’, who oversaw every step. To assure quality, early brewmasters were brought over from Germany, where Gottlieb himself learned the brewing arts, and later brewmasters trained under their fathers. It was, as Art likes to put it, “a class deal. Everything was immaculate. All I can say is is that everything was of the finest quality. We had a top-level operation.”
That quality extended to Storz marketing-advertising campaigns, which spared no expense in using the finest materials and devising the most discriminating images for positioning its beer as the purest brew around. Outdoors themes became a Storz trademark. A classic ad pictured snow-capped mountain peaks and green Douglas firs in the background as cowboys on horseback ford an icy-cold river and make their way to a big frothy mug of Storz beer in the foreground with the pitch — “Refreshing as the whole outdoors…take some home for your weekend pleasure” — scripted below the idyllic scene.
A cursory web search finds Storz memorabilia bringing prices comparable to bigger brand names. “It says to me we did things very well,” Art said. “Our material never looked ma-and-pa. It held its own against anybody.” He has the awards to prove it. Storz also got in on the ground floor of tying their product to sports, as the company hired gridiron legend Red Grange and diamond legend Leo Durocher as spokesmen for early network telecasts of NFL football and major league baseball, respectively, that Storz helped sponsor.
Almost from the start, the brewery enjoyed fat times. Then, when Prohibition went into effect in 1920, lean times hit. The company laid off much of its work force but unlike other breweries continued operating, making near beer, ginger ale, soft drinks and ice. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Storz picked up where it had left off. Over the years the Omaha-brew won medals in Paris and Brussels and gained increased market shares.
By the early 1960s Storz controlled 51 percent of the Nebraska market, outselling all its competitors combined. It finally met its match when national brewers began selectively underpricing their beer in Storz home markets.
“The national brewers never could make any inroads in our markets, but then they started playing dirty,” Art said. “It was pretty obvious they were trying to get us. That always burned me up, too. I will always wonder how they got away with that. That had to be a bitter pill for my dad. My father had great love for the business and he wouldn’t have sold unless” declining profits and rising expenses forced his hand.
In 1966 Arthur Sr. and one of his brothers, who together owned all the stock, sold the brewery to Iowa Business Investment Corp., a consortium of Iowa investors that then leased the operation to Grain Belt Breweries of Minneapolis, under whose management the brewery lasted a few more years before finally closing for good in 1972. The former brewery buildings have found some reuse in the years since.
Art rues that he and his brother Bob “never had the opportunity to carry-on the family business.” Art tried getting his father to meet the nationals “head-on, but he wouldn’t go for that,” opting instead to sell rather than fight. Art used to visit the old brewery site, but it’s too painful for him to see the ruins left behind.
“I could cry when I look at it now. It’s all torn to hell. My family worked very hard to make the Storz name whatever people think of it today. My family was one of Omaha’s very few industrialists. We made our own product and we marketed it successfully against the biggest names in the land.” As for the imposing family mansion that sits empty and that no he longer has a key to, he said, “I would have gone to hell for this house. I know it sounds crazy, but I would have died for this house. It was a love affair.”
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The late Art Storz Jr. was a strange, lovely man whose fierce devotion to his family and to their legacy as successful beer brewers, as civic leaders, as philanthropists, knew no end. He was a mass of contradictions. Generous to a fault. Shy, unassuming, and eccentric to the end. Getting him to give me an interview the first time was like pulling teeth, and then when he did what should have taken an hour or two became a marathon session of three or four hours, followed by another, before he finally got comfortable with me. The following story, which appeared in the New Horizons, was the first I wrote about him. I did a subsequent piece, which I have also posted. The mansion in the headline or title of the story offered here really was Art’s magnificent obsession. He finally did have to leave there for a nursing home, where I visited Art a few years ago. He was as sweet and squirrelly as ever. A little broken-hearted, too. He’s gone now but hardly forgotten. He will always remain one of the most unforgettable characters in my life.
The Magnificent Obsession of Art Storz Jr., the Old Man and the Mansion
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
First-time visitors to the historic Storz mansion are unsure what to make of the shy, self-effacing old man greeting them at the front door. In his ball cap, T-shirt, baggy trousers and sneakers, he might be mistaken for hired help or an overripe guest when actually he’s a reluctant heir to the Storz Brewing Co. fortune.
The 77-year-old eccentric is Art Storz. He lives austerely in the brawny, brick Farnam Street mansion that his beer baron grandfather, Gottlieb, had built in 1907. While the sole occupant of the imposing, gabled, gargoyle-adorned home on Omaha’s fabled Gold Coast, he’s never quite alone there. Not with a well of precious memories to tap. Memories of a golden bygone era that, for him, is never far away or forgotten.
Anyone familiar with his oft-troubled past must find it ironic that this one-time “heller” ended up master of the mansion after committing some highly publicized indiscretions. The most infamous episode came in 1943 when, as a U.S. Army Air Forces pilot, he guided his four-engine Flying Fortress dangerously low over a wide swath of Omaha for the thrill of “buzzing” his hometown.
During the brazen stunt, which he describes today with both sheepish regret and cockeyed pride, he used St. Cecilia Cathedral’s spires as pylons to angle the massive B-17 bomber right past the Blackstone Hotel and over the mansion. Then he repeated the maneuver. The sight and roar of a low flying bomber caused a minor panic, including a stampede of pedestrians and rash of auto pile-ups.
“Thank God nobody got hurt,” he said in a recent interview at the opulent mansion. “If I would of ever hit anything, I’d of wiped out things for blocks. I could have killed a lot of people. I think I was a good enough pilot that I didn’t have to worry about that, but it’s easy to say that now.”
Amazingly, after causing all that commotion mid-town he headed west to “buzz” the homes of an uncle and aunt. “My uncle was shaving with a straight-edge razor when I went through his backyard. He damn near became Robert “Van Gogh” Storz because he nearly clipped off his ear,” the nephew recalls impishly, adding that his aunt, who liked imbibing, was so shaken that she “was fishin’ bottles out of the chandeliers.”
The stunt got him in hot water with civilian and military officials and he was ultimately given a general court-martial. He remained in the service, but never went overseas and never rose beyond the rank of captain during a 29-year Air Force reserve career. His punishment might have been more severe if not for his late father, Arthur C. Storz, a former flier and well-connected aviation supporter.
It was a scandal the family found hard living down. There were to be others, including a divorce. Always, Storz most acutely felt the disapproval of his father, a stern family brewing chief and taskmaster. “My dad used to like to put me down because I was kind of the Peck’s Bad Boy of the family,” he said. “But I deserved to be put down. I was an embarrassment to the family – and he didn’t like it. And he didn’t let me forget it. He really was a good guy, but boy, was he tough. He’d really take it out on you if you got out of line. He had a stringent yardstick.”
Storz also lived in the shadow of his younger brother, Robert Hart Storz, an Abel to his Cain and the apple of their father’s eye. Art suffered by comparison. Where he was a self-described “rebel,” Bob was a model citizen. Where he disgraced his uniform, Bob was a decorated hero. Where he was barely tolerated at the brewery, Bob was made a top executive.
Controversy followed Art in later years too, most notably in the battle he waged in the 1980s to hold onto the mansion in the wake of foreclosure proceedings. Despite his black sheep image, he has a genuine personal stake in the Storz success story. He was, after all, the brewery’s advertising director during some of its fattest years – designing multi-media campaigns that won numerous awards, even if his father discounted them.
Inside the 27-room home today, he’s surrounded by mementos that recall an era when his family’s empire still reigned – before national brewers’ predatory pricing strategies forced the sale of the company in 1966. “It was like cutting my heart out when Storz Brewing Co. was sold,” he said, “because I’d always hoped my brother and I would get a chance to run it. I loved the brewing business.”
For three-quarters of a century Storz beer dominated the Nebraska market, flowing from taps like pure gold. At peak capacity, the firm’s north
Omaha plant employed hundreds of workers, ferrying its own fleet of refrigerated box cars and trucks. The Storz name carried enough clout to open doors and get things done.
Storz likes nothing better than immersing himself in such sweet remembrances of things past. Of rich old times at the mansion – when the family entertained on a grand scale with lavish parties, fancy balls and sumptuous feasts. When prominent industrialists, politicians, military officials and screen idols were feted there and well-trained servants manned each of its three floors. When it wasn’t just a home, but a showplace. If its walls could only talk, oh, the stories they might tell. Of back room business deals and garden romances. Of juicy gossip and heated debate. Of late nights filled with music, laughter and lively conversation.
Fortunately, Storz is around to serve as storyteller and guide, even if it comes hard for someone so shy. He’s never been comfortable being the son of industrial titans and society mavens.
“I was terribly intimidated by it all. My family left some big footprints and I’ve always been very insecure because I’ve known I was never going to walk in any of their footsteps. I just wasn’t cut out to be what they were.”
To avoid meeting people he’d make himself scarce at social functions. “It was so painful for me that I would take a powder. My brother and sister were just the opposite. They were polished and self-assured. I never had that. I just always felt very inadequate. And I still deal with that to this day.”
Yet for all his insecurity, he loves showing off the home. It’s held special meaning for him as long as he can remember. After his grandparents’ deaths, he moved there with his siblings and parents in 1939. He’s lived there continuously since the mid-’50s. His father died at home in 1978, and his mother, Margaret, lived there until shortly before her death in 1981. He helped care for his parents in their final years. Near the end, his father finally uttered the words he’d always craved: “He said, ‘Art, I love you,’ and he kissed me on the side of the face. I always knew he loved me, I’d just never heard him say it,” he emotionally recalls.
A promise he made to himself in 1981– to stay in the home and care for it – still drives him today. His fondness for it runs so deep that he’s risked everything to save it. He nearly lost it several times in the face of legal challenges and financial crises. His fight to retain the home even pitted him against family members. What made him persevere and pay such a steep personal price?
“It’s been a love affair,” he said. “It really is a deep feeling of love for the place and for the history of the Storz family. I doubt if any home in Omaha can even come close to it as far as its history and as far as the significant people that have been in and out of here. There’s too much history here for me to walk away…I’d go to hell for this house today. I would give up anything for it – anything. I’d even give up my life.”
Some say it is his life. When people arrive for tours, his dour demeanor visibly changes. His eyes brighten, voice lightens, posture straightens and step quickens as he swells with pride at the prospect of telling the Storz saga again. And what a saga it is. A dynasty marked by entrepreneurial spirit, philanthropic generosity, civic boosterism, visionary deeds and fabulous bashes.
Gilded memories are among the few luxuries Storz has allowed himself since renouncing his inheritance during a 1981estate dispute with his siblings. Aside from straining his relationship with his brother and sister, he said, “That wasn’t hard, because money’s never been important to me. What hurt really bad was when my kids got control of the money and tried selling me down the river.” He alludes to when his two adult children, from whom he’s now estranged, tried ousting him from the home.
Since the early ‘80s he’s subsisted almost entirely on his monthly Social Security check, a small pension and the largess of friends. He has no car and can often be found pounding the pavement many blocks from home. Except for a part-time helper, he maintains the extensive, well-manicured grounds himself. While recent hernia surgery has slowed him, his passion for the home and its vibrant history remains unabated.
Only with the help of friends has he nourished his dream for the mansion. A dream for this Omaha landmark and National Register of Historic Places designee to be preserved as a museum and lasting monument to the Storz legacy.
He has indeed made the home a kind of shrine to his family’s storied past. Throughout are displayed photos, paintings, letters, awards and assorted other memorabilia that document far-ranging activities and accomplishments.
He’s turned a basement room into “The Eagle’s Nest.” There, framed photos and newspaper clippings salute his father’s prominent role in aviation, which had its beginnings in World War I flying alongside ace Eddie Rickenbacker. Over the years, the elder Storz kept in touch with the flying fraternity and keenly followed aviation advances. As WWII dawned, he counted among his close friends such Air Force luminaries as Gen. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, Gen. Curtis LeMay and Brig. Gen. James Stewart, the late beloved actor. During the Cold War, he played a key role in selling top military brass on the idea of locating the Strategic Air Command here and he spearheaded the development of Eppley Airfield. He was awarded the military’s highest civilian honors.
Another passion of Papa Storz’s was the great outdoors, and his son has converted a basement room into a mini-“Ducklore Lodge” – the family’s beloved hunting resort near Lisco, Neb. – whose walls practically sag from the weight of so many trophy fish and fowl the old man hooked and bagged. Family brewing patriarch Gottlieb Storz built the home and two equally impressive family palaces nearby as conspicuous symbols of Storz success. Edifices to the American Dream made good. While all three homes survive, only the Farnam mansion remains in the family. Nothing was spared in its design or construction, which took three years. Much of it appears as it did in its heyday. A glaring exception is the interior’s painted-over walls and ceilings, which obscure their original quarter-sawn oak finish. Storz one day hopes to have the paint stripped and the wood restored, but that project – like others on hold – awaits needed funding.
The mansion’s Old World craftsmanship survives in leaded-glass doors, stained-glass windows, Tiffany lamps, ornately carved woodwork, mosaic tile fireplaces, exquisite murals and countless other fine details. The pale brick facade includes limestone panel carvings depicting the stuff of the brewmaster’s art – barley, hops, corn.
The third-floor ballroom, where the legendary Fred and Adele Astaire began dancing, is off-limits while awaiting renovation. The main-floor solarium is a sublime replica of the sun room aboard the famed Bremen oceanliner his grandparents sailed on. The study, music room, parlor and dining room are arranged and decorated in period detail.
Storz can offer insights about every room, antique and feature and recall anecdotes of stars (Wallace Beery, Robert Taylor, Arthur Godfrey) and dignitaries (Doolittle, LeMay) who dined there.
Those close to him agree his near obsession with the home is a Prodigal Son’s symbolic attempt to win his father’s approval. Storz himself said hopefully: “I think my father would probably say, ‘Art, you did a helluva job.’ I think he really would be proud of me.”
The demands of maintaining an elaborate old home have strained his own meager finances and those of the Storz Preservation Foundation he created in 1982. Things have gotten so tight at times that the utilities have been shut off. “I was in some terrible messes,” he recalls. “I was totally broke once, and I was petrified.” When he first took on the project, friends and family members considered it Art’s latest folly. “I felt that way, yes,” said his brother. “I felt it was too much. There was too much involved to preserve it.”
Art said he was tempted to sell the home – “to take the money and run” – rather than keep it. “The reason I wanted to run is because I was afraid I would embarrass the family name. I really couldn’t visualize managing this operation. It’s a helluva big job. I knew it was going to cost a lot of money. And I thought, ‘Where the hell is it going to come from?’”
But he stubbornly stayed on. “I never did run because the love’s too great,” he said. He takes satisfaction in the fact he eventually kept the mansion despite the many hurdles, long odds and nagging doubts. “I gave it everything I had – my heart and soul – because I love the place. I think I’ve really been tested. There were times when it felt like I’d been in the ring with Muhammad Ali. I hung in even when I was whipped.”His brother, with whom he’s grown close again, has come to respect his devotion: “I give him credit. I don’t know how he did it. I have admiration for him. He loves that house. It’s a love affair – it really is.”
Others still marvel he pulled it off: “I was afraid he was going to lose the whole shootin’ match and end up on his rear out in the cold,” said Omahan Dick Deaver, a fellow flier and lifelong friend. “I give him credit for seeing it through.”
The constant struggle did take its toll. As Art explains, “The pressure was just tremendous. That kind of stress had a disastrous effect on me. I got really depressed. I was just browbeat so bad that I didn’t even want to be around anybody. I let the place go. And I hate to even admit this, but I got suicidal.” He purchased a gun for the deed. “I was really going to knock myself off, but I never could pull the trigger,” he said. Storz, who still suffers from depression, adds, “I’d rather take a good whippin’ physically then take one that emotionally tears you into little pieces.” In the end, he couldn’t bear disgracing his family that way. Besides, he still had his mission – the home.
Retired Omaha World-Herald reporter Howard Silber, who’s known Storz for years, said, “I don’t think he’d be alive today if it weren’t for that mission and that zeal. He lives for that.”
Storz survived his darkest days with the aid of friends. “When I look back and think about the people who helped me, I just thank God I had friends like that. I’ll never forget what they did for me. And don’t think it wasn’t hard for me to accept. I feel a great debt.”
His lowest point came in 1988 when, due to delinquent property tax payments totaling more than $73,000, the home was auctioned off at a forced sheriff’s sale. It was purchased by a bidder who planned turning it into a restaurant. A judge gave Storz two years to redeem the taxes and allowed him to remain in the home. When an effort to raise the needed money failed, things looked bleak. With the deadline only weeks off, a father-son tandem of Las Vegas gambling magnates came to the rescue. The father, Jackie Gaughan, was a classmate of Storz’s at Creighton University, and when he heard his old chum was in trouble he enlisted his son Michael’s support. Once the taxes were paid and the home reclaimed, Michael Gaughan became its legal owner and Storz its chief trustee. A trust fund helps defray the property’s operating costs and taxes.
“If the Gaughans hadn’t bailed me out, I would have gone down,” said Storz. “They were my biggest benefactors.” He’s also grateful to the local media for its sympathetic coverage of his plight. “The media made me sort of like David and the people trying to knock me out like Goliath,” he said. That depiction suits him fine. “I’m a staunch competitor. I would never quit.”
Even with the home’s immediate future secured, he frets what will happen after he dies. “I’ve got 16 years here of fighting for my life and I don’t want to lose it now. Everything I’ve done has come from my heart. When I’m gone I hope somebody says, ‘Well, he’s carried it far enough – it should be kept intact.’”
As a working journalist who depends on assignments from several different Omaha area publications for my living, I once in a while find myself in the position of accepting assignments from two different clients to profile the same individual in their respective pages. That happened in the case of KFAB radio program director and on-air personality Gary Sadlemyer. Both the City Weekly and B2B Magazine asked me to profile him within a few weeks of each other, and so not for the first time and I suspect not for the last time I ended up writing two separate profiles for two different publications, the stories appearing only a couple months apart. It’s a challenge I enjoy. I am sharing those stories back-to-back here and I will let you be the judge of how I handled crafting two distinct articles from the same source material.
Future posts will feature a few more examples of my facing the same challenge and hopefully being up to it.
A Good Man’s Job in Radio is Never Done
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)
Omaha’s KFAB bills itself as Nebraska’s radio “superstation.” The designation refers to the long reach of its 50,000 watt signal, the tradition that comes with 84 years on the air and the market share dominance the commercial giant’s enjoyed since the 1950s. It’s a full service institution, minus complete music tracks.
KFAB was once so ingrained in ”the fabric” of listeners’ lives, program director Gary Sadlemyer said, radio dials remained set to 1110 AM for decades in people’s homes, offices, vehicles. The middle-of-the-road broadcasts were the first thing heard upon rising and the last thing heard before retiring. The music, news, ag reports, weather alerts, sports coverage, personalities and corny banter became familiar, comfortable touchstones. The call letters synonymous with Husker football in its glory years. All of which made KFAB a hard-to-break habit.
Radio does not exert the hold it once did on people’s time and loyalty in an era of cookie-cutter programming, remote ownership, the Internet, iPods, CDs and cable television. So has radio lost its relevance in this new media age?
“Not according to the numbers,” said Sadlemyer, host of KFAB’s popular Good Morning Show weekdays from 5:30 to 9. “The latest industry figures I’ve seen indicate something like 93 percent of Americans listen to radio.”
FM rock/pop has its devotees. Public radio claims a niche audience. Satellite or subscription radio may be the next wave. Satellite purveyors’ maneuvering to do local programming draws Sadlemyer’s ire because local news/talk is not in their original charter. For now though AM talk rules. KFAB is that format’s local cock-of-the-walk. While studies confirm folks don’t tune into radio as often as they once did, he said the medium’s ubiquitousness keeps it vital.
“What’s not to like? It’s free and it’s easily accessible. You don’t have to worry about remembering to program it,” the veteran broadcaster said. “It’s amusing to me that people proclaim the death of AM radio. AM radio is really the strongest of them all. Talk radio is the number one format because it’s always local, at least to one extent or another. You’ve got local shows with guys talking about local issues and local news and weather. No iPod’s going to give you that.”
Talk is the medium’s version of blogging. Gossip, bullshitting and rant turned genre.
Now in his 32nd year at KFAB and 35th overall in radio, Sadlemyer’s experience reflects how the biz has changed in that time. He’s not crazy about the direction radio’s gone, especially stations being in the hands of fewer, larger multi-national companies. “I’m on my seventh or eight owner now,” he said.
He weathered the without-a-parachute jump from middle-of-the-road to talk radio in 1989. In the wake of deregulation the industry was in turmoil — mergers, acquisitions, spin-offs, staff cuts, format changes.
“The year we made that switch,” he said, “we didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t know how to do talk radio. I was our first talk show host. It was a natural progression for a news station like ours but we needed to do that on a more gradual basis…So KFAB went through this horrible down slide. I managed to survive it. Now we’re back up there, but it was a climb. It was a tough time.”
He can laugh about it now but he recalls the “show from hell” when he booked, without pre-screening, an expert to discuss radon gas. The guest turned out to be “the meekest, mild-mannered little nerd you ever heard. No personality whatsoever. No voice. Now if that happened today,” Sadlemyer said, “I would do maybe five minutes and move on. But I had him on the full hour. The sound of radios turning off was deafening.”
But talk radio was the future and KFAB forged ahead before figuring things out. That’s the kind of misstep that comes from unstable ownership.
For years KFAB was owned by May Broadcasting, a venerable Shenandoah, Iowa company. The Lincoln Journal-Star bought the station, selling it in ‘86 to Henry Broadcasting. Beginning in ‘96 KFAB went through a series of absentee owners — American Radio Systems, Triathlon, Capstar, Chancellor Broadcasting — before current owner Clear Channel Worldwide bought it in 2000. This “owner-of-the-month club,” Sadlemyer said, “was like, Who’s our owner now? That period in the history of the station is not my favorite.” While entrenched at KFAB, where he envisions himself to be another 10 years, he knows nothing’s guaranteed in today’s revolving-door, bottom-line environment that keeps budgets tight and staffs small.
“Hey, I don’t know if I get to work 10 more years. They might blow me out of there tomorrow,” he said. “What I mean by that is that when you’re talking about these huge mega corporations, nothing’s ever personal. If you’re a good professional you like it to be personal because than you’re safer. If it’s impersonal it’s easier for some bean counter in a suit to downsize you out of a job. That’s the difference.
“I don’t think radio was designed to be a Wall Street-driven enterprise. Radio’s meant to be an integral part of whatever community it’s in. The difference is you don’t have complete autonomy and access like you do with local ownership. At least there’s a connection. Big companies driven by investors, rates of return, boards of directors and Wall Street need to have efficiency. Sometimes they go too far and you end up with not enough people but that’s true in a lot of industries now. I mean, ideally, could we use more people in our building? Yes, we could.”
The days of full radio news crews are gone, although KFAB’s an exception locally.
Still, he said, an overall tighter ship has meant doing more with less.
“What I really have is three jobs — program director, operations manager, Morning Show host,” he said. “When I get off the air at 9 we have a meeting right after the show every day to prepare for the next day. And then my administrative role kicks in. On the programming side it’s OK, how do we sound? We could have done this better. Operations is about this train having to run on time. Technical things, schedules. It’s just so multi-faceted. I enjoy it all but there are times when it gets frustrating to just not be able to do justice to everything.”
For all the ownership merry-go-rounds and format changes he said he still feels like that young guy fresh out of Brown Institute in Minneapolis, a technical school the Minnesota farm boy attended. Brown placed him at KRGI in Grand Island, Neb., where he learned the ropes announcing, reporting, producing.
“I’m still doing the same thing as far as I’m concerned I did from day one. I just love it. I don’t feel any differently from what I did when I was 24. I don’t think, God, I can’t wait to get out of here. I never think that way.”
By choice he still runs his own audio board when hosting the Morning Show. “I like it that way because I like to depend on myself for the pacing, and if there’s something I want to do and I’ve got in my head I can just move things around and make it happen. I’m responsible for the show and this gives me control,” he said. “Besides, it kind of like a dues-paying thing. It’s a lost art in a way. That’s just the way I learned to do it and I like it.”
It may be a carry-over from his old-school ways but the business of radio is vastly different than when he started.
Stations built strong identities-followings based on readily discernible differences. That’s changed with the move toward digital automation, canned, subscription service content and a generic one-size-fits-all approach.
“The Top 40 stations had personality jocks and they were all over the community,” Sadlemyer said. “Some stations still have some of that but it isn’t like it was back then. You don’t have the freedom now to go crazy and create things on the air. To create promotions. The budgets aren’t there. So local radio is not what it was.”
Back when KFAB commanded a 37 share Sadlemyer said the station’s “neighborly style” engendered trust, which in turn earned loyalty. On-air figures like wry Lyell Bremser, Cronkitesque-Walt Kavanaugh and high energy Kent Pavelka were household names. As Sadlemyer’s Morning Show cohort Jim Rose might say, they had “more name recognition in my home than me.” Even ag man Roger Flemmer, whom Otis Twelve described as “a real Les Nessman,” had a certain flair.
KFAB was a Rock of Gibraltar in radio terms. Solid, stable. A bedrock of family values and Midwestern work ethic.
The guys-next-door vibe is still there but now it’s married to that ironic, satiric edge so endemic in media today. KFAB’s conservative, Fox News-allied, Clear Channel-owned corporate character plays to Nebraska’s Red state sensibilities. Sadlemyer’s own right-wing Republican colors play as folksy rather than polemical.
It’s not all straight-laced, as the predominantly male, testosterone-driven broadcasts and off-air studio discussion have a boys locker room-schoolyard humor side. The slams, barbs, retorts, asides and repartee can be a bit silly.
“I revert to the 11-year-old in me,” Sadlemyer said. “I always take that with me.”
The fast-paced show is part conversation, part schtick. In response to Rose’s cranky complaints about the host’s music selections one morning, Sadlemyer said, “You’re a ticking time bomb.”
Serious issues mix with trivia, celeb gossip and syndicated comedy bits. It’s mostly light and glib. The ad-libs reminiscent of Jay Leno or David Letterman. Sadlemyer always seems to find the right phrase to encapsulate things, which is why his homespun charm makes him such an in-demand “pimp” for sponsors/advertisers.
KFAB flirts with sexism. Its web site features a “Babes” tab with photos of hotties. It’s enough to make the Mount Rushmore icons of Nebraska radio — Bremser, Kavanaugh, Ken Headrick — roll over in their graves. On-air, divas like Rosie O’Donnell and Hillary Clinton are the objects of digs. Items on sexcapades and sex studies provide ready fodder. Once the mikes go cold the innuendo grows thick. When someone pushes things too far, the avuncular Sadlemyer sounds his disapproval like a Presbyterian minister reining in his disobedient flock.
Producer Roger Olson’s suggestive off-air comments one morning prompted Sadlemyer to say, “I don’t think I want to hear about it.” “Gary, you’re a prude,” Olson teased. “No I’m not,” Sadlemyer replied. “That’s the deal now if you have any standards,” Sadlemyer said with a wink and a smile to a studio guest. “That’s why I’m a dinosaur — I’ll never make it in radio.”
He has little to worry about. Anyone who can command roasters the caliber of Sens. Chuck Hagel and Ben Nelson and Husker athletic director and coaching legend Tom Osborne, as Sadlemyer did for his February Omaha Press Club Face on the Ballroom Floor induction, is far from extinct.
His run in radio still has legs. His place in Nebraska broadcast lore is secure. That doesn’t mean he can’t be moved. Only last fall his cool facade was tested by the breaking Von Maur tragedy, when his dry humor gave way to sober deliberation.
“You just have to do the best you can in that circumstance and try to transmit information, which we had very little of in the first hours,” he said.
Besides the Von Maur shootings, he said the hardest thing he’s dealt with on-air was the “internal tug of war” he felt over reports that ex-Husker football player Brook Berringer was killed in a small plane crash. Sadlemyer had gotten to know Berringer working on Husker football broadcasts. On the day of the crash in 1996 the first information coming in was “pure speculation,” said Sadlemyer. He erred on the side of caution, waiting for confirmation, before putting Berringer’s name out there where family could hear it before authorities notified them.
Nebraska Radio Legend Gary Sadlemyer
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in B2B Magazine
1110 KFAB’s Gary Sadlemyer is a calm, considered voice of reason amid the shock jock stunts and blow hard rants that can pass as radio announcing these days. The consummate professional, host of the popular Good Morning Show weekdays from 5:30 to 9 when not attending to his program director and operations director duties, is the last holdover from a golden era at the AM giant.
KFAB ruled the airwaves among Omaha broadcasters in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. It was THE station of choice for vast numbers of listeners and THE place to work for news hounds or middle-of-the-road DJs.
When the then-24-year-old Sadlemyer started at KFAB in 1977 he joined seasoned veterans and certifiable legends in Walt Kavanaugh, Lyell Bremser and Ken Headrick. He counted himself lucky to be in their company.
Growing up on a farm near Eagle Bend, Minn., where he went to school and his father ran a trucking company, Sadlemyer didn’t hear KFAB, whose 50,000 watt signal carries long distances but not quite that far north. Even listening to some backwoods station was enough to spark his imagination.
“I’ll never forget, I was around 10 years old, running an errand in the car with my mother and the radio was tuned into our little local station,” he said. “I remember listening to the announcer and thinking, I’ll bet that’s fun. Listening to that guy I imagined what it looked like in the booth. At some point I realized I don’t listen to radio the way other people do. They didn’t pay attention to it like I did.”
Par for the course for kids he went from being enamored with radio to dreaming of being a landscape architect, then a teacher-coach, then a lawyer. After a stint at Concordia College (Moorhead, Minn.) he reset his ambitions on radio and attended the Brown Institute in Minneapolis, where he received rudimentary training. What sold him on the technical school was a guaranteed placement working at a real live station. He wanted a job in radio so bad he told Brown officials, “I don’t care — I’ll go anywhere. Just give me a box of records and a microphone.”
To his surprise he was hired by KRGI in Grand Island, Neb., a big station in a good-sized town — not the typical way a green radio hand starts out.
“I was so lucky. The program director at KRGI was on vacation and the general manager, who knew virtually nothing about radio, called Brown. He’d fired someone or had someone quit, and he needed a guy right now. So I ended up being the guy. The program director got back from vacation and he was like, What have you done to me? But I survived that somehow.”
He learned the biz from the ground up, announcing, spinning records, covering news, running the board. “I got to learn all that stuff. It was fun,” he said.
Good fortune played a part in his leaving KRGI for this region’s radio mecca — KFAB. Not that he wasn’t happy in Grand Island — he was. If he were going to leave it would have to be for a special opportunity.
“I didn’t want to come to Omaha unless it was KFAB,” he said. “I knew there was one station in that market worth working for at the time, and in my opinion it was KFAB. I thought, That thing is the Rock of Gibraltar. Husker sports, a tremendous reputation, a tremendous name. This is the kind of place that can really provide some stability.”
Holding out for KFAB was one thing. Getting on there was another. Luckily he was befriended by “a real character” in Grand Island, Charlie Winkler, who just happened to be friends with Lyell Bremser, the genial voice of Big Red sports and the general manager at KFAB. Sadlemyer said Winkler “was kind of like a father figure” and when asked “if he’d put in a good word for me — he did.”
In his best Bremser imitation, Sadlemyer recalled what the inimitable radio icon told him when the novice called to inquire about a job. “Well, I’ll tell you, we don’t really have anything at the moment, but send a tape and we’ll keep it on file.”
Sadlemyer didn’t think much more about it. A year or two passed. “And out of the blue one day in November of ‘76,” he recalled, “station manager Ken Headrick called and said, We have an opening — we’d like you to come and talk about it.” He was offered the job the same day he interviewed. After talking it over with his first wife he did what anyone in his position would do — he took the job and ran with it.
On top of the usual hassles that come with settling in a new place the young couple dealt with extra challenges.
“It was rough right away because we didn’t know a soul. I was working seven to midnight and Saturday and Sunday,” he said. “Not making much money. And then we found out we were going to have a baby. It was just a tough stretch but we got through that.”
It wasn’t long before office politics turned ugly. A group of disgruntled employees agitated to make KFAB a union shop. Bremser wasn’t having it. Sadlemyer wisely chose management’s side. At the end of the fray the agitators were let go and Sadlemyer moved to the more plum weekday morning shift. Life was good. He absorbed everything he could from the old radio pros around him.
“I’d go in and bug them to tell me stuff,” he said. “How does this work? Take me through this process. They were wonderful about it. They all became friends.”
They all showed him the ropes but the one who really took him under his wing, he said, was Headrick, the boss. “He spoke to me like a dad. A very no-nonsense guy. He wasn’t warm and fuzzy but he was a mentor to me.” Headrick was there for him when he “went through a very painful divorce” in 1986. Three years later KFAB made the awkward leap into what was ballyhooed as the next big thing on the AM band — talk radio. It’s proven to be just that. Sadlemyer hosted KFAB’s first live talk show. The transition took time for a station whose announcers were previously “not encouraged to be funny or to talk a lot,” he said.
What won listeners over in the end, he said, was “KFAB’s neighborly style.” It’s a vibe Sadlemyer’s perfected with his folksy, homespun manner and dry wit. His personal life got better, too, as he remarried and his kids thrived.
The ‘90s saw many of his trusted colleagues at the station retire and KFAB go through what he disdainfully calls “the owner of the month club” — changing hands several times. “It was like, Who’s our owner now? That period in the history of the station is not my favorite,” he said.
His own duties changed to include more administrative responsibilities. The biz changed to a more controlled, corporate model. Less personality. Less soul. He’s not crazy about what’s happened in radio but he’s never lost his passion for it.
“I just love it. The work is fun. I don’t feel any differently from what I did when I was 24.”
He said his favorite part of the job “is not promotions and it’s not the business-sales end of it, but it’s the relationships with the listener and with the advertiser. With all due modesty I think I’m a pretty good commercial spokesman for people because I don’t do any spots where I don’t know ‘em and I don’t believe ‘em. And I love telling their story, absolutely love it. And getting to know ‘em and hearing about the latest offer they have. I just love that part.
“And getting out on remotes and at public events and meeting listeners, yeah, I enjoy that, too, because everybody’s different, everybody’s got a story.”
By choice he still runs his own audio board when hosting the Morning Show.
“I like it that way because I like to depend on myself for the pacing, and if there’s
something I want to do and I’ve got it in my head I can just move things around and make it happen. I’m responsible for the show and this gives me control,” he said. “Besides, it kind of like a dues-paying thing. It’s a lost art in a way. That’s just the way I learned to do it and I like it.”
At age 55 he figures he has 10 more years as a radio personality. A sure sign of how entrenched he is in the public’s mind and in media circles is his recent induction in the Omaha Press Club’s Face on the Ballroom Floor. Thirty-one years after signing on with KFAB and its roster of legends he’s now a legend himself.
- Larry King Radio Return? (huffingtonpost.com)
- Letters: Local talk radio needs dial tuned to the right (knoxnews.com)
- Complaints and anger dominate talk radio (mysanantonio.com)
- Critics still hoping for ouster of Omaha mayor (sfgate.com)
This is a story about a pair of accomplished women who are partners in life and in work and who have branded themselves and their company as Rebel. M.J. McBride and Caroline Wilson form a dynamic couple. Their passion for what they do and how they do it attracted me to them and their story, and I believe this article for the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly,com), which ran a shorter version of the piece, does them justice. I think you’ll like them as much as I do.
What’s in a Brand? For Rebel Interactive, Everything
©by Leo Adam Biga
A shorter version of this story appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)
When you’re audacious enough to go by Rebel, you better live up to the name. It turns out M.J. McBride and Caroline Wilson, owners of Omaha branding agency Rebel Interactive, are mavericks in most everything they do.
For starters, consider that these women left corporate careers to go in business for themselves. The move was also a commitment to their personal relationship, as they’re partners in both business and in life. The couple enjoy an openly gay relationship in conservative Nebraska, a state notoriously unfriendly to same sex unions. Imagine the risk McBride and Wilson take in being up front about who they are in social/business circles that undoubtedly include some homophobes.
The couple’s quite comfortable sharing their life status with people they meet for the first time, which is certainly rebel in these parts. That’s the point. McBride and Wilson are comfortable enough in their own skins to declare their love, to have it published, without fear of repercussion. Why? Because they’re all about being true to themselves. The truth will set you free. That, as much as Rebel, is the credo behind their own personal-professional brand.
“A powerful aspect of the Rebel brand is being authentic,” said McBride. “This applies to all aspects of our lives, and our business is a big part of our lives. Caroline and I believe that being open and real is our opportunity to educate, create possibility and make a difference in the world we live in.”
Living out loud is nothing new to this pair. “We’ve lived more than half of our lives ‘out,’ so it’s common to us,” said McBride. “What I recall is being in a much more powerful place when I was open and willing to educate people who needed more understanding. The other principle I always remembered — and this goes for anything — is your silence will not protect you.”
Far from silent, the couple’s chosen, especially McBride, to publicly advocate for gay rights. She’s past president of Citizens for Equal Protection (CFEP).
“What’s important to us today is letting people know that same sex couples need the same rights and responsibilities as married couples. Caroline and I are at an extreme disadvantage legally,” McBride said. “Most are shocked when we explain that when either of us dies we will pay a 48 percent-plus tax to pass assets to each other. Nebraska has (among) the highest combined taxes. And I believe it is our responsibility to bring about the change we want to see in the world. Working with organizations like CFEP is a great way to do this.
“Educational activism is Rebel.”
Ah, there it is again, the “r” word. Since this is a story about business/life partners who brand themselves and their company as Rebel, it’s important to note McBride and Wilson are far more than the sum of their parts. To just say they’re rebel is as superficial as calling them Lesbian Ad Babes or using some other misogynistic, gay-bashing label. By itself, rebel doesn’t represent what the partners and their company, a full-service marketing, advertising, Internet agency, are all about, which is designing innovative, interactive experiences that connect clients to customers.
The desired result: commerce. Selling clients’ brands/products in the marketplace.
McBride and Wilson work the way corporate consultants do. They interview client management/staff, review current marketing efforts, gauge customer attitudes, discover what makes a company tick, what distinguishes its products or services. Rebel figures out what works, what doesn’t, what needs tweaking or overhauling. Rebel also operates like industrial psychologists in determining a client’s values, personality, character. Where its healthy, where its dysfunctional, where what it promises to provide fails to match what it delivers.
Gaps between perception and reality are identified, addressed. Think of it as image inventory. Brainstorming occurs in Discovery Workshops, Ignite Sessions and the Rebel Think Tank. It’s all part of the proprietary branding process that’s become Rebel’s M.O. Before Rebel externally launches a brand, McBride said, the brand must be understood, embraced internally, among owners, managers, employees. Only then does it go live. Among Rebel’s promises is “bringing brands to life.”
“We talk about being your brand, in all levels, all layers, in every single thing you do and say — your hiring practices, how you pay people, the choices you make, the partnerships you make, the vendor relationships you make and definitely the customer relationships you have and the products you build,” McBride said. “It’s either all brand-enhancing or brand-damaging.”
Visit Rebel’s web site, rebel-interactive.com, or its offices at 1217 So. 13th St., or view any of its self-promotion print pieces, from business cards to letterhead, and you’ll see a consistently sleek, spare red-white-black design and color scheme.
“It’s our colors,” McBride said. She calls this coordinated, integrated strategy “environmental branding.” It can be accessorized, too, to fit any occasion. “It’s about making everything rhyme, wardrobing your brand basically. The concept is it’s an inclusive wardrobe that is YOU, whether you’re at a cocktail party or the pool or the office.” Thus, Rebel has its tuxedo and its casual outfits. Wilson’s collectible red Honda 450 motorcycle is often parked in the client lounge.
The Rebel Gals, as they’re sometimes referred to, practice their own principles. McBride, who can sound preachy at times, even goes by “The Brand Evangelist.” She’s the author of a book, Small Business Brand Plan, a motivational seminar, “Access to Personal Brand Power,” and s workshop, “Be Your Brand Technology.”
Internalizing this whole brand thing is not just about tags or slogans or mantras for McBride-Wilson, it’s the way they do business, it’s the way they interact with the world. It’s their lifestyle. They embody what it is to be your brand.
Sharing the same brand helps them successfully live and work together.
“When you have two people that are really passionate about what they do and each other,” McBride said, “it just becomes your life. It’s all a part of your life. We’re the perfect yin-yang balance. I have global brand-managing experience. I know brands inside and out. I know what’s going to work for our clients. I am extremely comfortable consulting any size client any time of day. Caroline brings banking and operations and what we call razor sharp creative and then client research. She’s just an encyclopedia of information.”
Both love people. McBride enjoys developing staff, Wilson doing customer relations.
Rebel gets clients to see branding as a 24/7 proposition. “The fastest way to get them to understand that is to talk about what it costs them to not be their brand or to have a brand that is fragmented. It exponentially costs more to have a confused brand,” said McBride. “When you have clarity with your brand and everybody understands it then you’re just prone to have more brand enhancing activity going on and therefore you’re having an exponential result, which is what we train our customers to think about — exponential results on brand value.”
McBride offered classic examples: Coca Cola’s “the real thing,” Nike’s “just do it” or YouTube’s “broadcast yourself” campaigns. Simple, clear, enduring, identifiable messages that encapsulate each company, its culture, its product, its image.
Rebel-designed brands include “Edgeworthy” for Fringes Salon, “Progressive Christian thinking” for Augustana Lutheran Church and “The Benson Beat” for the Benson/Ames Alliance. Clients range from small businesses and nonprofits to large corporations and organizations to neighborhoods and communities. All need a hook.
“A tag line is a perfect tool for clarity when it comes to a brand,” McBride said, “so if a company has a tag line that actually is relevant to internal and external audiences then we are excited about bringing it to life. If it doesn’t relate, if it’s generic, if it doesn’t present any competitive advantage or create an experience, then it’s really just some words. What we want to do is create a cohesive, clear message. The more clear your brand is then the easier it is to break through all the noise, all the clutter and actually deliver that message.”
Said Wilson, “Brand alliteration may stand the test of time, like BMW — ‘the ultimate driving machine.’ You still see that, they still use that, and they’ve used that as a campaign for at least 25 years. I like to use cars because cars are an excellent example of big brands, big advertising dollars, big names, global reach. Chevy, ‘like a rock.’ Like a rock stood a long time, people still relate to that. It’s still part of their brand and it really illuminates Chevrolet and who they are. So it can start as a tag line and be a powerful alliteration and then it can just take on a life of its own.”
Tag lines are just one tactic, McBride emphasized. “Not all companies are going to use that tactic but sometimes they’ll use that and then other tactics,” she said.
An effective branding campaign, she added, is an expression of “how we experience the brand through our senses. To the degree you can have a hook into those different areas and build on those, the more relevant your brand becomes. Then you can create brand loyalty and then develop new products, extend your brand and grow your business with a lot less effort.”
“A great example is Rebel,” said Wilson. “Exponential Results was our brand. It was under everything, it was on everything, and that was our promise, that was our brand. Now that lives on, that’s still our promise, but its really the experience now people have” that brands the agency. “Everything we do at Rebel in terms of branding — the thinking, the methodology, how we start here and just keep pushing it up — that’s what we give our clients,” she said.
“What makes them rebel is they’re not afraid to get out there. They’re very bold, they have very cutting-edge, fresh ideas, they’re very fun,” said Bluestone Development’s Christian Christensen. “We’ve been very impressed with what they do. And they’re just fun to be around.”
The agency’s name grew out of Rebel Graphics, which Wilson opened in ‘99. M.J. joined her and their boutique agency took off in ‘05. They now employ six people.
“We had the opportunity when we started the company to call it Wilson-McBride, McBride-Wilson and Associates, which is fine, but then we started looking at other ways to name the company and Rebel was it because we knew we were rebel for all these reasons,” said Wilson. “We wanted to start our own company, which isn’t something everybody does every day. We left great jobs, great companies to do that, and everyone thought we were nuts. We just said, ‘This is going to work, this is something we want to do, we’re going to make a difference.’”
A catchy, provocative name by itself is not enough, McBride pointed out. “A name and a logo is not a brand. We’re talking about much, much bigger than that.” So, what is a brand? “Well, it’s everything,” Wilson said.
Using Rebel as a case study, McBride said the two of them asked themselves, “What are we really passionate about?” The answer: “We’re passionate about what’s possible,” said McBride. “When clients come in here and they start talking to us about what they need to accomplish we’re interested in what is possible. What is possible means you haven’t thought of it yet. It’s like a breakthrough concept. We are passionately driven by what’s possible for us, for our employees, for our community, for our clients, for our planet. That’s what we’re excited about.”
The way Rebel applies that passion, McBride said, is by “giving our clients what they want, so really listening to them and laying our expertise on top of that and then making that a reality. We exist to help our clients have exponential results, exponential growth and profitability. If it’s not about money then it’s about prosperity.” Thus, the Rebel brand states, “brand, interact, profit.”
Getting people to buy into the whole brand concept is easy today, the partners said, but was a real stretch when they first opened shop. Mention branding then, McBride said, and people asked, “Are you talking about branding cattle?” Wilson said, “Yes, people literally said, ‘What do you mean by branding?’ So we were talking about it before most people, at least in Omaha for sure.”
McBride said while her evangelizing helped sell the concept here, Omaha finally caught on to the branding movement. “Other parts of the world are experts at branding and they got the concept a long time ago,” she said. “Now it’s a very strategic way to manage a business and it’s caught on and it’s here to stay.”
The current economic crisis would seem to be a bad environment for advertisers and advertising. Yet McBride said Rebel business has never been better. “We always say the best business to be in is branding, marketing and advertising or alcohol in these kinds of times,” she said, smiling. Skittish consumers, she added, are more apt to buy a strong, well-defined, easy-to-see brand.
“Customers are looking for stability and they want to go with winners,” she said, “and if you’re going to market during these times you’re going to be viewed differently than those dropping out of the market or not visible.”
Pulling ads sends the wrong message, she said. “People are going to assume you’re not doing well and you’re not a viable solution for whatever they want to be. Everything cycles and right now there’s less clutter, less noise in the market, so if you’re willing, like some of our ‘A’ clients are, to be in the game promoting your brand, you’re going to be way ahead when the cycle comes back to normal. Everybody else may be catching up or trying to reestablish or reinvent,” she said.
McBride said feel-good appeals lack traction right now.
“In these times it’s no longer about what people want or want to associate with, it’s about what they need,” she said. “We’re doing workshops on recession branding, working with clients on how to tailor their brand strategy for this kind of an environment. There’s lots of different strategies you can employ right now and really it’s about working with branding experts like us and then looking at what it is your brand is up against and finding creative, breakthrough solutions.”
Increasingly, Rebel’s designing wired, social connectivity campaigns for clients.
“There’s always a new opportunity to build their brand and to be in front of their customers,” McBride said, “and right now we’re developing a lot of social media packages for clients who already have a terrific online presence. We’re using all the applications Google has available, integration with Facebook, Twitter and all the popular social media outlets. We do eblasts or text messages that go directly to people’s phones. This is not random, it’s solicited, so it’s very powerful. All of a sudden our clients have a whole new universe of customers.
“Traditional marketing is very passive, whereas social media is right on target with authentic branding because it’s not passive, it’s participatory. It’s a one-on-one relationship and it’s very intimate.”“That’s exciting,” said Wilson.
A social consciousness attends Rebel’s popular social networking events. Its Rebel Yells and Rebelation Keynotes are forums for smart ways of doing business and for discussing community issues. Rebel taps its vast data base to get things done.
“Officially or unofficially we have a rebel network of extraordinary people we deal with as part of doing business,” said McBride. “For example, we sent out an appeal one Thanksgiving to help a family and in three minutes we had thousands of dollars donated. That got us thinking about the generosity of our clients.” That led to the Rebel Women’s Fund, a nascent micro-lending program “to support people who have an entrepreneurial spirit, just like Rebel, and want to really create something of value for their community and need the money to do it.”
McBride said a new, trademarked online donations product by Rebel is helping nonprofits across the nation raise money to support various women’s causes.
Wilson’s a driving force behind the South 13th Street Community, an association of area business-property owners and residents. She and McBride not only office in the neighborhood just south of the Old Market, they live there, sharing a Rose at SoMa residence. Wilson said the district has “a lot of potential, a lot of activity. It’s a great corridor into downtown. A lot of people are coming back into this area. Thirteenth St. was just designated an area of community importance or an ACI. That’s pretty much establishing a baseline for everything going forward there needing to map onto a specific code of design, so that’s exciting.”
The partners serve as “a conduit” for community development. It’s part of being good neighbors and social entrepreneurs. How very Rebel of them.
- Brand Image: You Are What Your Followers Say You Are (socialmediatoday.com)
- Nostalgia brands – what to do if you spot one (adliterate.com)
- Someone has to hate your brand (drewsmarketingminute.com)
- Everything Matters – Part II (keithiveymarcomm.wordpress.com)
- WikiLeaks: The outlaw brand turns to spin and merchandising to cement its rebel status (daveibsen.typepad.com)
Verne Holoubek’s Road Less Traveled: How Harley Davidson, Printed T-Shirts, and the Counter-Culture Movement Helped this Former Nebraska Farm Boy Make Pop Culture History
I likely stumbled upon Verne Holoubek’s story the way I do a lot of figures I end up profiling — by coming across an article or item mentioning them or by someone telling me about them. Sometimes I’m given a fairly full portrait of the person, other times just a sketch. In the case of Holoubek, it was another profile subject of mine, folklorist and author Roger Welsch, who mentioned his friend Holoubek in the course of an interview as someone I should look up. Long story short, I heeded Welsch’s advice and arranged to meet Holoubek, and I’m glad I did. He has a helluva story. My take on his story originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader,com).
©by Leo Adam Biga
When Verne Holoubek left his family’s homestead farm near Clarkson, Neb. in 1961 for the state university in Lincoln, he fully intended on getting an ag degree, then coming home to help his dad run the place. It’s what the eldest son of a traditional Czech farming family was expected to do. But by year two a restless Holoubek embarked on an unimagined path as a hip entrepeneur in the printed apparel field.
He was in his 20s when the dreamer in him — he expressed a talent for drawing in high school — merged with the pragmatist in him. It all began with magic markers and army surplus jackets. Holoubek applied basic designs to white parkas he sold at home Husker football games. Then came T-shirts, what became the core of the company he formed, Holoubek Inc. Fraternities snatched them up. His operation evolved from the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity house basement to the regional festival-fair circuit to a downtown Lincoln print shop to a full-scale production plant in Pewaukee, Wis., a Milwaukee bedroom community. Holoubek Inc., became an industry legend and made him a fortune. Many of his T-shirts are collectibles.
His journey from farmland to boardroom took some unusual routes. He did time as a “Forty Miler,” a reference to his early days as a carny hand-painting T-shirts at carnivals within a 40-mile radius of home. The allure of the road beckoned him to travel ever farther out. He got his ag degree alright, but opted to make a go of this T-shirt thing with his wife, Terri. The company survived many early struggles.
By the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, this once summer sideline turned serious business venture. A big break came when a then-fledgling discount store called Target gave him end-cap display space. His T-shirts sold-out. At the height of the T-shirt craze Holoubek designs were in every shop in every mall in every town in America. He expanded, going international. Along the way he acquired a client, Harley Davidson, whose open road nonconformity and anti-authoritarian spirit fit his own.
“I was a rebel from the beginning,” he said. “I’ve never liked the status quo. I’m not real big on authority. I mean, I always kind of go around it if I can.”
On a recent Nebraska visit Holoubek stood in a dirt road that intersects the small family farm he grew up on to consider how he’s come so far from so little. He used to ride a pony to the wood-frame, one-room school house just up the road. As he looked past the undulating corn and soybean fields to the far rolling hills poet Ted Kooser likes to call the “Bohemian Alps,” he grew quiet, only the sound of wind and meadowlark interrupting the stillness. Then he spoke.
“I guess I was always looking at these horizons wondering what’s over there. When you stood atop a haystack over here,” he said, indicating a field, “you saw all the lights in David City across the river. That’s about 46 miles. It’s just that curiosity. Intense curiosity. The word ‘vision’ has been used in a lot of interviews I’ve done. Where I get that, I don’t know.”
Upon further reflection, he gave his father props. “My dad was really forward thinking,” he said, “and maybe that’s where I picked up some of that vision. He always used the latest stuff” on the farm. “He was big into conservation” before it was popular. “We terraced all these fields. He built the first steel shed in the area.” It’s still standing. “He and Mom hired an architect to build their house. It has innovations that still seem modern.”
Holoubek’s sense for this place and for the land is profound. He’s never really left it or it him. “That’s really where it starts. Growing up on a farm, learning how to work, learning how to have fun — freedom, independence. Every day you made you own day,” he said. He proudly showed two visitors from the city the tiny Catholic church, long abandoned, and the adjoining cemetery where his family attended services and where his grandparents are buried, respectively. He pointed out, too, where he ran a tractor over the only rock in a field, the ditch he slid his car into and the gully he and his pals partied in.
His parents, now in their late 80s, still live on the land. When they’re gone, he said, “we don’t know what’s going to happen to this farm. There’s nobody left in the family to run it.” He admires how his parents hung on there. How his dad diversified with an automotive service business. Verne’s followed in his footsteps, always keeping hands in different pots. And just as the old man bucked convention agitating for agricultural reforms as a National Farmers Organization activist, Verne’s gone his own way the whole ride.
Known as a pioneer in printed apparel, Holoubek found innovative applications of words and images by pen-and-ink, air-brush and silk-screen, iron-on heat-transfer, which he’s an originator of, and multi-color press. He fed the counter culture movement’s creation of a new casual wear market for shirts emblazoned with ads, artwork, pop icon figures, sport team logos, protests, phrases, lyrics, poems, jokes, names or just about anything else. Few anticipated the demand. Poised to capitalize on it, he helped make the heretofore naked white T-shirt a colorful medium for commercial exploitation and personal self-expression. A walking billboard/canvas equated with cool.
“People wanted to identify with something or identify themselves,” he said. “I think rock ‘n’ roll and the Vietnam War gave it a little help because it was a protest…a statement. You could say things, you could be comical, you could be serious, you could be political, you could be religious, you know, whatever you wanted to put on your shirt.”
Wherever he looked, he saw opportunity. He plugged his company into a then- burgeoning lakefront Milwaukee music festival called Summer Fest, where upwards of a million people come see name acts over ten days. In charge of merchandising, Holoubek-printed T-shirts sold big and fast. He also tapped the rock-pop-country music concert scene, printing T-shirts for KISS and Charlie Daniels, among others. And right from the start he hopped on the Hollywood merchandising bandwagon that began with Star Wars and Superman.
Besides the vision to see these trends, Holoubek was in the very age bracket that gave them life. He was an unreformed hippie. He looked the part, too.
“I was young and looked young. Full beard, long hair, cowboy boots, outrageous clothes. Nobody thought people that young should own businesses,” he said. “The concept of entrepreneur wasn’t discovered yet. Nobody knew how to pronounce it, spell it. I was always the youngest one in meetings with lawyers and bankers and marketing guys. I was kind of an oddity.”
By the time the company took off in the early ‘70s, he was “the old guy” at 31. The average age of his 150 employees was 23. “A lot of college kids,” he said. “That’s when college kids used to work in factories for the summer. We had great parties…great picnics. Charlie Daniels played at one of our company picnics.”
Emboldened by youth, “we came in and just blew away” competitors-vendors, he said. “We were brash and kind of cocky, but we took care of our customers.” At trade shows the team “put on the dog. It was show time. Maybe that came from the carnival,” he said, where setting up your booth is “flashing your joint. A joint was a store then. It’s all different now.”
Holoubek Inc. didn’t have to look hard for new artists-designers. “We were a hot name in town, so people wanted to work there,” he said. “The talent came.”
A big break came when he cultivated the Harley account. He’d printed Harley decals and stickers but not apparel, where the real money lay. With Harley’s rebirth in the mid-’80s, he pushed the Skull and Cross Bones rebel image to new heights as the brand’s exclusive apparel licensee. The gig made him a multi-millionaire. His Harley sales went from $350,000 to $40 million. Along the way, he got hooked on the cycle subculture he still embraces today at 63.
The Harley mystique, he said, “does capture you. First, it starts with love of motorcycling. If you ride, there’s nothing like it. It is just a thrill and you want to ride all the time. You can’t get enough of it.” Then there’s the image, as much a product of apparel-accessory lines and marketing pitches as the bikes themselves.
“Harley was brilliant enough to offer this clothing line,” Holoubek said. “It’s very expensive stuff. Their leather jackets cost $200 more than any other jacket, but people want the logo. The T-shirts sort of augment that. You wear your Harley stuff when you’re not riding. For sure, you wear it when you are riding. People want that identity. The real phenomenon is when people travel to rallies. They buy a T-shirt wherever they go. Pretty soon they’ve got a closet with a couple hundred shirts. It just kind of caught fire and it became THE thing.”
His own immersion in all things Harley happened almost by osmosis. “It was pretty easy to get into the Harley mystique because I was already around them,” he said. Before his indoctrination into that world he was “into bikes” as far back as college. “I actually rode to my graduation from college on my bike,” he said. “So, I’ve always had a bike,” but he admits, “I didn’t ride Harleys and I was not a biker. I was a college biker. My first bike was a Honda.”
He makes a point to differentiate between “real bikers” and motorcycle enthusiasts. He feels the real bikers comprise “about 1 percent” of the riding population. “I think bikers come in degrees,” he said, “I’m in the 99 percent group. Its hard to peg, but there is some biker in everybody.”
Ever the rebel, he once “took up motocross. Not racing, but riding for fun,” he said. “After work a bunch of guys would sneak into the Evinrude Proving grounds. The company tested snowmobiles there in the winter. We trespassed all summer.”
He’s an active member of a Harley biker club called the Ugly M/C. He wears a belt buckle with the name-insignia stamped on it. The Uglies possess a rich lore. “Uglies were able to go to Hells Angels parties and they came to ours,” he said of the respect they carried in hardcore biker circles. The Uglies also did security details for concerts-festivals, but enforced things less violently than their Angels brethren.
His Uglies II chapter includes celebrity brothers Peter Fonda and Larry Hagman. It’s for riders. No dilettantes allowed in this Wild Angels-Easy Rider crowd, even if members are senior, tax-sheltered rebels-without-a-cause now.
“Yeah, it’s a riding club. We ride hard. They’re just great guys and a lot of fun,” said Holoubek, who prints the club’s various shirts.
Aficionados will tell you Holoubek printed the best of the Harley collection. “They’re classics,” Fonda said. “There’s some great art there,” Hagman said.
As proud as Holoubek is that his work stands the test of time, he’s really jacked by his Uglyhood. “You have to ask” to join, he said. He did, and a Harley dealer sponsored him. Verne paid his dues for a year. “Here the rubber meets the road,” he said of this trial period. “You cook, clean, wash bikes, and do other duties as assigned. No rough initiation. It’s all in good fun. Ugly members are for life and we are careful to pick guys that will fit in for the long term. More do not make it in than do. One ‘no’ vote keeps you out of the club. Sometimes it takes three votes before you make it.” He won’t say how many it took him, but “they made me Ugly.”
Fellow Ugly Peter Fonda, now a close friend, met Holoubek when he rode out to Milwaukee for Harley’s 90th anniversary. He said they hit it right off despite their “very different backgrounds.” Then again, he said, they share a connection to Nebraska and its virtues. “He’s worked very hard to get where he is in life and he deserves every penny of it in my mind. The first thing I noticed is he has a very genuine heart. He’s a very generous person,” Fonda said. “When my wife had back surgery and it got botched, all my friends were concerned about me because I was really down. Verne flew out, for no other reason than to see me — to see I was alright and taking care of myself. Now that’s a true friend.”
Holoubek’s Wisconsin home is a kind of base camp for Uglies attending Sturgis rallies and Harley events. His “second home,” a beach front property in Akumal, Mexico, is always open to friends. “It’s beautiful down there,” Fonda said. “He likes to share his good fortune with friends. I think it only means something to him when he’s able to share it.” Fonda returns the favor by having Holoubek and company to his Montana ranch. Verne stays in Brigit’s room.
Nebraska author Roger Welsch tells an anecdote about how he and Holoubek met in a neo-nouvelle rich way. “I get a call one day from Akumal, Mexico on the Yucatan (Peninsula),” Welsch said. “The voice on the other end” is Holoubek’s. He wants to talk to Welsch about a book he has in mind. Welsch tells him, “‘Well, it’s really stupid to be talking about writing a book on the telephone. Shouldn’t we be sitting on a nice wide beach sucking on tequilas?’” To Welsch’s surprise, Verne says, “‘Good idea. There’ll be a ticket waiting for you…’” And there was. “It’s guys like this who know how to spend their money right you want to have as friends,” Welsch said. “He’s just a super guy. Easy going. A sweetheart.”
Fonda confirms Holoubek knows how to relax. It’s easier now that he’s retired and not wired to his business. “We enjoy doing the same things and we enjoy doing those things together,” said Fonda. Similarly, Larry Hagman and his wife enjoy travel with the Holoubeks, including a recent Costa Rica trip the couples made.
Terri Holoubek often joins Verne on rides. He describes his wife, an Omaha native, as “an equal partner in my life” and “in the business. She was there from nearly the beginning and we have worked together on every aspect of the venture. She did take the time to raise four great kids while keeping me in food and clothes and lots of advice on major decisions. She’s very intuitive.”
They’ve made some epic rides together. “We did 3,600 miles on the Glacier National Park ride — the Ride to the Sun. On the way back we rendezvoused at Peter’s (Fonda’s) ranch. From there we took off for the ride to Sturgis. On the ride into Sturgis from Devil’s Tower we road two-abreast at 80-miles an hour in formation, not the kind of thing you normally do. That was a great ride.”
He said the Sturgis experience, “which has been a regular stop for me over the last 20 years, is the REAL DEAL for bikers. Originally a race and hill climb, bikers camped in the city park in town. Over the years it has grown into the mainstream much like Harley Davidson has became an acceptable” brand. “The biggest change is that the riding public became more middle class just in time for the boomers to take part. It’s a lot of fun.”
The couple have ridden to the Four Corners and Daytona Beach They do charity events, including the famous Love Ride in Glendale, Calif. They would normally be up in Sturgis this week for the big rally. But a double-vision problem has idled Verne’s riding for now. That doesn’t stop them from having a good time. Between scuba diving at their ocean-front get-away in Akumal, touring old Europe, cruising in their classic ‘56 Packard or making Lake Michigan waves in their speed boat, this couple has fun. Earlier this year the couple celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in Paris and Amsterdam.
Over the years Holoubek sold off most parts of the business, keeping only the prized Harley licensee segment. In 2004 he sold it too — to clothing manufacturer giant VF. Some hard feelings soured the Holoubek-Harley romance, but he doesn’t talk about them except to say, “It’s a big company now. It ain’t like it used to be when the family ran everything.” One Harley legend he remains close to is chief designer Willie G. Davidson, a grandson of the founder.
Holoubek tried retiring “once before.” He put “a management team in place and it just didn’t work out,” he said. “Either I didn’t run the team right or I didn’t have the right guidelines or I didn’t know how to be a chairman of the board and let somebody else run your company. I take the business very, very personally. I think about it 24 hours a day.” When sales went flat and good people left, he “came back to work.” He dealt with irate customers and vendors who felt his absence. That first day back he and Terri vowed, “‘Next time, we sell.’” That’s what they did.
The sale and retirement leave ample money and time. He could live anywhere, but still resides in Wisconsin and keeps close ties to Nebraska. While he never came back home to live again once he reinvented himself in college, he’s remained close to his family, most of whom still live in state. He keeps busy with vintage automobile and tractor collections, amateur photography and 400 acres of land he and Terri farm at their Wisconsin retreat. They also run a charitable foundation.
Fonda worries that without the action of a business to run, Holoubek might have problems. “I remind him, ‘Don’t retire, because that’s when people die,’” Fonda said. Holoubek says Fonda needn’t worry. First, he stays busy. “Life in retirement is very full,” he said. Second, he’s having too much fun. “I don’t believe you have to work your whole life,” he said. “I’ve watched people work to the grave in their business. There’s so many other things to do in the world I think I can do than just run that business.”
Passion drives Holoubek. It’s what gave him “a passport” and “a way out” of the farm in the first place. Finding “that avenue where you can create your own” destiny, he said, is a gift. “You’ve got to want to do something from the heart, and I feel very fortunate I’ve been able to do that.”
- Out Of Print: Books on shirts. Shirts on a mission. (couturecult.com)
- Ugmonk (coolhunting.com)
- Famous Men and Their Motorcyles (artofmanliness.com)
- Clothing company grew up in a barn (thestar.com)
- In pictures: custom Harley-Davidsons (telegraph.co.uk)