View Full Version : Wilf draws on passion, patience with NFL team

11-24-2005, 05:12 PM
The Mercury News
Posted on Thu, Nov. 24, 2005

Vikings owner draws on passion, patience with NFL team

Knight Ridder Newspapers

SHORT HILLS, N.J. - Forty minutes west of Manhattan, in a broad, historic jumble of city and country, Zygi Wilf made his millions. And millions more.

"What's doin'?"

He speaks softly as he makes his way into Marino's, an inconspicuous nook that has served him broiled flounder for 40 years. The black-rimmed sunglasses are off, the smile is easy, the customers his chorus.

"I've seen more about you lately than when you made an honest living!" a city engineer hollers at the new Minnesota Vikings owner, now parked at one of a half-dozen tables covered with red-and-white-checked cloth.

Wilf parries with a toothy smile that comes quickly from under a signature salt-and-pepper mustache. But he's also a man with an edge - an alpha male who looks you in the eye, speaks directly, and carries an aura of wealth and success that can make others shrink with timidity.

The man, now infected by his team and Minnesota, has allowed a rare look into his private life. In extensive interviews last week with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Wilf shared his philosophy about real estate and his personal beliefs and how they will shape the future of the Vikings.

Many of his peers at Marino's didn't know Wilf from the Revolutionary War statues that sprinkle the rolling landscape of the north-central part of this state. Then Wilf and his real estate partners bought the Vikings for $600 million. Virtually overnight, his name slipped into the national sports idiom.

When the Vikings pursue their quest to restore their lost credibility, the country might see the 55-year-old owner on the sidelines, hands deep in his pockets or arms crossed in front of his chest, as if blocking for his quarterback. He is Purple and Gold all the way.

Red McCombs owned the team; Wilf is part of it. The morning after the Vikings' heart-thumping win over the New York Giants last week, Wilf's first job upon entering his office was to carefully write the game score on a team schedule front and center on his huge desk.

Anatole Hiller, a business partner who hikes with Wilf on the Appalachian Trail an hour west of Short Hills, says Wilf is consumed with the Vikings.

" `Anatole, it's like a magnet,' he would say to me. `I can't stay away. I want to be back in Minnesota,' 'Hiller says.

"You can't believe it. He's a New York, New Jersey type of person. He runs a huge business here!"

The exhilaration from the win over the Giants took Wilf deep into the night.

His wife, Audrey, was asleep, but he was glued to replayed words and pictures of a game he'll never forget. Sleep did not come for him until 4 a.m.

Though anxiety rules his psyche when the Vikings are on the field, Wilf has few doubts about the rest of his world. Its center is his family, who fill the top jobs in his constellation of private businesses. Its force is real estate, which creates $1 billion a year in revenue from New York to Los Angeles to Jerusalem. Its spirit is his grandmother, the late Miriam Fisch, who during the Holocaust saved his grandfather, mother and uncle by hiding them from the Nazis in a barn in Poland. And its passion is sports.

The messages on his office phone run more than two dozen the morning after the win over the Giants. Congratulations come from all corners of his world, including Debbie, his personal trainer, and Dennis, a Kansas City architectural firm executive who wants a contract for a new Vikings stadium.

Then Wilf takes a live call from Hiller.

"This is as good as it gets!" Hiller bursts with joy. Then he says the Vikings' offense could use a lot of improvement. The Wilf grin gets going again.

"It's great to have friends as Monday morning quarterbacks!" Wilf shouts back to Hiller. "I'll pass it on to the coach."

Laughter on both ends. Then quickly to business.

"How are sales?" Wilf asks.

"Very good," says Hiller, one of many partners in commercial and residential developments that make Wilf one of the biggest real estate players in America.

Under assorted corporate names - including Garden Commercial Properties, Garden Homes and Garden Communities - Wilf and his close-knit colleagues control properties in New Jersey, New York, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Wisconsin and California. Tenants include Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Walgreens and Lowe's.

In Los Angeles and San Diego, 2,000 families live in condominiums and apartments developed by Wilf partnerships. In Manhattan, near the mayor's Gracie Mansion on the East River, Wilf is erecting a 150-unit condominium building where residences will sell for an average of $5 million. A large hotel in Jerusalem and another in Tel Aviv, Israel, were built and are operated by him.

He has a law firm, Wilf and Silverman, that occupies space in his Short Hills headquarters; an insurance brokerage in the same building; and a chartered plane service at Morristown Airport called Garden Air. It is the home base of Wilf's personal plane, whose tail is painted - guess what? - purple.

In the past week, Wilf was in Kansas City, Mo., on Tuesday for NFL meetings, the Twin Cities on Wednesday and Thursday for team business and stadium talks with Gov. Tim Pawlenty's chief of staff, then back home Friday.

The success leads some to make generalizations about Wilf. A Twin Cities late-night talk show host recently said that Wilf is interested simply in Wilf, and all anyone needs to know is that he is a real estate guy from New Jersey.

"People watch those movies too much," Wilf says after hearing of the talk-radio comments. "They think everyone are the Sopranos."

Wilf is a complex man, soft and endearing to some, quite aggressive to others. He reportedly lashed out at the team after players allegedly held an inappropriate party on a Lake Minnetonka charter boat, and he has chewed out journalists more than once.

One of his companies ran into trouble with the U.S. government on allegations of housing discrimination. In 1999, the Justice Department sued Garden Homes Management Corp. for refusing to rent to blacks at three apartment complexes in Parsippany, N.J. Settlement of the case required managers at the developments to undergo sensitivity training.

"It was an unfortunate incident," Wilf says.

More so because the Wilf family knows the worst of discrimination. Family members were killed in the Holocaust for being Jewish.

The dark history helps explain the Wilf family's unusual, ironic lightness of being. Wilf's four kids - Jason, 25, Jonathan, 21, Elana, 19, and Stephanie, 10 - are a happy bunch. His 80-year-old father, Joseph, smiles ear to ear while telling of Zygi's strident opposition to backyard shrubs as a child - because they'd get in the way of touch football games. Wilf's mother, Elizabeth, giggles as she straightens his collar when learning visitors are about.

Wilf seems to carry the happy gene, too. "Who am I to be disappointed at whatever failures I might have faced, compared to what my parents and any other survivors of the Holocaust have gone through?" he says.

His charitable giving is mostly a private affair, but he estimates the family donates about $10 million a year to assorted charities that include Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Despite the millions Wilf deals in, Walter Foster says he is an everyday guy. For 15 years, Foster has operated the small Sunoco gas station across from Wilf headquarters.

"You'd never know who he was," Foster said. Wilf doesn't seek special treatment, waits his turn, doesn't play the money card. "We talk football and baseball, and we did even before he bought the team."

As Wilf steers his charcoal-gray Lexus past his numerous townhouse developments in closely linked communities, he talks about his trust in real estate, the need for patience in waiting for it to grow and a similar strategy for the Vikings.

Real estate enlivens Wilf. "I get to know every corner of it," he says, "just like I'm getting to know every corner of the Twin Cities - Hugo, Woodbury, Shakopee, Blaine."

When Wilf bought the Vikings last spring, he was buying into the gold standard of sports - the National Football League. But the team's early record was awful, players were being investigated in the "Love Boat" scandal, and Wilf began to understand more clearly that Minnesotans root hard against subsidizing homes for pro sports.

He is a man accustomed to hurdles, however: to village councils taking five years or more to approve his real estate projects, to earthquakes fracturing the foundations of his California housing developments, to juggling dozens of projects at once.

"It's probably like the quarterback who has to run all the plays," he says, steering his car into the cul-de-sac where his large French Chateau-style house sits in Springfield, a community that is made up largely of Jewish and Italian families.

He knocks on his front door and knows exactly what will happen. Teddy, the family's mocha-colored toy poodle, yaps like crazy from within. Wilf talks to him through the door like a giggly parent, then cuddles him when the maid lets him out. It's a sight few get to see, because Wilf and his wife guard their privacy scrupulously.

They are not yet comfortable with the news media and might never be. Wilf's focus is clearly on the team, and he does not seem daunted by early missteps.

"We are long-term players," he says. "The reward - the Super Bowl - will be worth the wait."

11-24-2005, 05:13 PM
I thought this was a good read & should be posted. It gives a more "in depth" background on our new owner.

11-24-2005, 05:21 PM
I've stated before and will again,

I think Wilf is a True Class Act.......

He will lead this team to the promise land, I can feel it in my bones...

Reading that story actualy gave me goose bumps....

Thank You Mr Wilf......

May you and your family, Enjoy this Holiday Season........

11-24-2005, 06:13 PM
" `Anatole, it's like a magnet,' he would say to me. `I can't stay away. I want to be back in Minnesota,' 'Hiller says.



He has his sights set right................Superbowl!