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Anthony Wilson: Still willing to gamble after all these years

Wilson, a millionaire real estate developer cum restaurateur cum hotelier, and now a retailer, is a sort of anti-George Eastman, an exception that proves the rule of the staid, careful Eastman spirit that is seen as the Rochester norm.
Since 1992, when he took the helm of the struggling Microtel Franchise and Development Corp. following the death of Microtel founder Loren Ansley, his childhood friend and business partner, Wilson’s focus has been the budget motel chain.
Microtel is on far stronger footing now, he says, but running it still takes 90 percent of his time and attention.
Such responsibilities would have been enough to discourage many from taking on a project so potentially irksome as the B. Forman revival.
But in doing so, Wilson has won the undying gratitude of the city’s downtown boosters.
Angelo Chiarella, president of plaza owner Midtown Holdings Inc., and Jeffrey Carlson, the city’s chief of economic development, even now show a breathless, pinch-me wonder at Wilson’s move.
“It’s good. It’s very good. It’s wonderful,” Chiarella says.
Echoes Carlson: “It’s wonderful.”
As to the venture’s riskiness, Chiarella adds, “Tony has an instinct. The decision had a lot to do with his own subjective feelings, but if the risk is great, so are the potential rewards.
“I’ve known Tony since he was in high school, and I think he knows what he’s doing.”
The B. Forman venture is a typical Wilson move: risky and one that Wilson admits he entered into partly for personal reasons. And while Wilson expects the venture to succeed, he says he began it as something of an afterthought.
Conventional retailing wisdom says the Midtown location is not the best choice for someone hoping to revive the venerable Forman’s franchise. The store’s Pittsford Plaza location is thought to have been the chain’s best, and perhaps only, profit center.
Eugene Fram, Rochester Institute of Technology professor of retailing, says Wilson is “stepping into an area that’s fraught with peril. He will come up looking either like a genius or an idiot.”
At 50, Wilson admits to slowing down somewhat. Even so, his lifestyle and business style are, for Rochester at least, sometimes considered flamboyant.
Much of his empire is privately held, and Wilson does not publicly state his worth. However, he acknowledges, virtually all of the $1 million in private money sunk into the $4 million B. Forman venture came from his pockets. Wilson says he could have found other investors but did not feel comfortable asking others to throw money into a high-risk venture. Besides, he adds, the amount is one he can afford to lose.
In the 1980s, Wilson, thrice married but now single, was known as a playboy who tooled around in expensive, imported sports cars and speed boats and opened the Ocean Club, a “Miami Vice” style nightclub for Rochester’s trendiest.
Now, the speed boat has sunk, the night club has been converted to a family-style restaurant called Union Square and Wilson is involved in a long-term relationship with a woman he hopes someday to marry.
The fast life of the 1980s, he swears, is behind him.
“To tell the truth, I don’t go out all that much anymore,” he says. “Most nights I’m working until midnight on business.”
Is Wilson’s toned-down lifestyle a reaction to Ansley’s death? He declines to speak about the event these days, but at the time he called it a shattering personal blow as well as a business crisis.
Ansley was 47 when he died, leaving a wife, five children and a business on somewhat shaky footing.
In 1984, Wilson became a partner in Ansley’s Hudson Hotels Corp., which then ran 11 hotels in New York, Florida and Pennsylvania.
Ansley’s brainstorm was to build modestly appointed, economy motels with downsized rooms, a concept for which he was hailed as a genius by the hotel industry.
The plan was to franchise the concept and let others build and operate the motels.
Wilson was to provide financial backing while Ansley supplied industry expertise.
Ansley and Wilson took the company public in 1989 with Ansley as president and Wilson as chairman. It had sold eight franchises, but Ansley confidently predicted the figure would mushroom quickly to as many as 600.
Soon after, however, the hotel industry nosedived in the 1990 recession.
Not only was business slow for existing hotels, but virtually no money was available for new construction.
The latter fact, Wilson says, hurt Microtel in particular. Since it aimed to sell franchises to developers who would build and run hotels, no money to build meant no business for the infant firm.
“We started up at the absolutely worst time,” he says.
At Ansley’s death, Wilson, whose knowledge of the hotel industry then was rudimentary, considered getting an industry maven to head the firm.
Within a week, however, he determined to take on the task himself, almost as something of a crusade.
Even now, Wilson speaks with a zealot’s passion of building value for Microtel shareholders, but he also seems to have been motivated by a sense of personal responsibility for Ansley’s heirs.
One of the firm’s first acts under Wilson was to buy back $1.65 million worth of Microtel stock from Ansley’s widow, and one of Ansley’s daughters now works for Wilson Enterprises.
While Wilson runs Microtel, longtime partner Ralph Peek oversees Wilson Enterprises’ other holdings, which include more than 1 million square feet of commercial and industrial real estate in the Rochester area, a stake in a Midwestern restaurant chain, Union Square, a Watertown residential development and now B. Forman.
Meanwhile, Microtel has progressed from anemia to glowing health under Wilson, says Richard Sands, Canandaigua Wine Co. Inc. president.
A stockholder since the company’s 1989 initial public offering who since has become a significant investor, Sands credits a long-standing personal acquaintance with Wilson for convincing him to invest in the firm.
Like many who know Wilson, Sands characterizes Wilson as a risk taker. But compared with Ansley, he adds, Wilson’s business style is staid.
“It’s impossible to say what Loren would have done if he had lived,” Sands says, “but if he hadn’t made some changes, I think Tony would have stepped in.”
Though Wilson is a risk taker, Sands says, his risks are calculated.
Wilson admits to a win-some, lose-some attitude in business. Despite the most careful planning, an element of luck always exists, he says.
Take the Watertown residential project, which has been unprofitably mired in federal litigation for several years.
“We did everything right there,” Wilson says. “Who could have known?”
Whether through luck or planning, Microtel, which several years ago looked like a worse bet than Watertown, is faring better.
Since Wilson took over, the firm has gone from eight locations to more than 20 with several planned or under construction. It also has seen revenues jump from $1 million for the year ended March 31, 1992, to $3.9 million in 1993. In the first nine months of fiscal 1994, sales totaled $4.76 million.
In 1994, the firm came out of the red for the first time. Since then, Microtel’s stock price has been rising from a low of less than $3 a share to a level closer to its opening asking price of $6.
Midweek, Microtel’s stock was trading at $5.50.
In Sands’ view, the firm’s turnaround is entirely Wilson’s doing.
“What Tony brought to the party was everything he’d learned as a real estate developer,” he observes.
Wilson’s most important move was a strategic shift from franchising to pursuit of joint-venture partners with which Microtel could build hotels, he says.
Wilson used a variety of non-traditional financiers, funding sources that Sands says were familiar to Wilson from real estate, but less known to hotel developers.
Finally, Wilson boosted Microtel revenues by having Hudson Hotels, which had been merged into Microtel in 1993, manage many of the joint ventures. The company thus created an income stream that in turn gave it working capital for more new development.
Sands and Wilson, meanwhile, have partnered in another hotel venture, buying a bankrupt former Sheraton Inn on Canandaigua’s waterfront. The two plan major renovations for the 144-room inn, planning to convert it to a resort and business complex.
Wilson seems to have accepted that fate has turned him into a hotelier.
He briefly gave up the Microtel presidency last May, turning it over to George Justus, a vice president with the company since 1988.
Justus recently left the post and Wilson is resuming the title on an “interim” basis; Justus will become a consultant to Microtel and remains a director.
Wilson explains the move in part as recognition of the fact that he truly has been at Microtel’s reins and plans to stay in control for the foreseeable future.
“George has tremendous presence in the hotel industry, but that isn’t what the firm needs now,” he says. “What it needs is to build value for stockholders. What it means is that I’ll be working on Microtel 26 hours a day instead of 23.”
[Rochester Business Journal Profile, Feb. 24, 1995]

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