Steve Marcus Marks 50 Years with Firm his Father Started
Fifty years in movies. Fifty years in hotels.
It has a nice ring to it, a little bit Hollywood, a little bit Milwaukee.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story of Steve Marcus, who in January 1962 joined the firm his father founded.
He’s 77 now, chairman of the board of Marcus Corp. and the central link in a three-generation story of family and business, entertainment and lodging.
“My job now is to stay out of the way,” he says, underplaying his role as wise counselor for a company that has weathered all kinds of economic conditions. He sits in a conference room, dressed in jacket and tie even on a day when the temperature soars into the 90s.
A few feet away, just beyond glass doors, Marcus’ oldest son, Greg, works as the president and chief executive officer. The corporation owns or manages 694 movie screens at theaters in seven states – the sixth-largest circuit in the country – as well as 18 hotels and resorts in nine states, including the Pfister and Hilton Milwaukee City Center.
And near Marcus is a photo of his dad, Ben, the tough, legendary Polish-Jewish immigrant entrepreneur who died in 2000. It was Ben who opened his first movie theater in Ripon in 1935, and then built the company a theater and a hotel at a time.
For nearly two hours, Marcus talks about life, business, family, the future.
He grew up on Gene Autry movies but says he was enthralled by “The Avengers.” (“Forrest Gump” remains his favorite movie.)
He remembers threading film through a projector as a boy yet marvels over digital technology.
After years of living in the suburbs, he now lives in the city. (He spends winters in Arizona.).
Ask him what downtown Milwaukee should look like – does the city need a new sports arena, larger convention center or new development near the lake? – and Marcus talks about involving the entire community in the decision.
“We’re constantly pitting one part of our community against the other around future important assets that we need to have,” he says. “I think what we need to do is spend some time civically finding out what is the totality of what we want and need, legitimate public investment kinds of things, and then develop a plan of how to pay for it and think of doing it over a period of time. Maybe it will involve a tax on ourselves of some sort. But the benefits of that may well wind up to be a whole lot more than what we would pay, and everybody would get a little bit of what they want.”
Ask him about the future of movie theaters and he lights up, saying they’re important places that bring the community together. Theaters, he says, need to become “entertainment complexes,” gathering spots.
“With the larger screens, the better sound, the stadium seating, it is night and day compared to what it used to be,” he says. “And it’s a fabulous presentation. Digital on a 40- or 50- or in our case 75-foot screens, the ultra screen, you can’t get that at home.”
Marcus is a father of three – his middle son, David, leads the family-owned investment firm, Marcus Investments, and youngest son, Andrew, is a documentary filmmaker – and a grandfather of nine. He has been married six years to his wife, Janice. His first wife, Joan, died in 2004. They were married 42 years.
Trained as a lawyer, Marcus says he’s a “hospitality-operations guy.”
In 1962, his dad led an investment group that bought the Pfister out of foreclosure. The building was rundown and maybe ready for a wrecking ball, but it had good bones and good potential, Marcus says.
His dad put him charge.
“I was sitting in the office (at the hotel) the first day,” Marcus says. “A knock on the door. A little gal in a uniform comes in and I said, ‘Can I help you?’ She said, ‘What room should I clean today?’ ”
Marcus says he told her, “How would I know? Don’t you have a housekeeper?”
The woman replied, “We did but she quit this morning.”
Remembering that long-ago conversation, Marcus says, “I thought to myself, welcome to the hotel business.”
He hired a housekeeper.
He has done a lot more since. He was president of the company from 1980 to 2008 and chief executive officer from 1998 to 2009.
His father was his role model, even if they did sometimes clash. Marcus once approved replacing a boiler, a decision his father countermanded. The memory still stings. But Marcus also says he “had no shortage of things to do and I had no shortage of sunlight to operate in.”
Ben Marcus really was a larger-than-life figure who was “a great schmoozer,” his son says. In 1935, Ben Marcus and his wife, Celia, arrived in Ripon to open a theater. How did he persuade his wife to move from Minneapolis to a small community in Wisconsin, where there was only one other Jewish family?
“He was very persuasive,” Marcus says. “I think she knew that was something he loved and wanted to do. There was a certain amount of excitement setting out on your own, trying to build something. The movie theater business was a good business. It was hard to find locations. All the big cities had been covered. . . . But they hadn’t moved into small towns. That’s why he was there.”
Marcus lived the first nine years of his life in Ripon, and then the next nine in Oshkosh. Eventually, the family settled in the Milwaukee area.
After studying law at the University of Michigan, Marcus worked for a brief time in real estate development in California but returned to Milwaukee. As a lawyer, he thought he could be helpful to his father.
“He had the real entrepreneur’s way of doing things, do the deal, the books and the paperwork sat in the back,” Marcus says. “And in those days, every time you opened a business, you had a separate corporation. He must have had 60 companies, just for the movie theaters. And every one of them had a set of books that you’re supposed to have minutes in, stock certificates. Those books had never been cracked open.”
Marcus organized the company’s vast business concerns, which came to include Big Boy Restaurants and Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises.
He oversaw the development of the Budgetel Inns chain – giving customers a Pfister room at a bargain price, or what he calls a “luxury-for-less philosophy.” In 2004, Marcus Corp. sold the chain, which became known as Baymont Inns and Suites, for $415 million.
Over the decades, the company, which went public in 1972, became more streamlined and focused on movie theaters, hotels and resorts.
Marcus also dived into civic activities, chairing the Greater Milwaukee Committee, United Way campaign and United Performing Arts Fund drive. He also made a key decision that helped unlock the potential of Summerfest when, as chair of the festival in the mid-1970s, he switched the food service system. Initially, one vendor served Summerfest. But Marcus helped open it up to independent owners, bringing in more choices and more revenue.
“My dad is pretty larger than life in a lot of ways,” Greg Marcus says. “His contributions have been huge when you think about it. My grandfather did a lot of great things. So did my father. I have to follow those two guys. My dad only had to follow one.”
Greg Marcus says, “My job is to continue what my father did, build on what my father did.”
And the father is not slowing down.
“The dude walks very fast,” Greg Marcus says. “It’s hard to keep up with him.”
When asked, Steve Marcus will give his son advice. More often than not, he’ll simply tell him, “Do what you think is best.”
Last year, Marcus gave a speech to students at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. At the end, he summed up his “tips for grabbing the brass ring of life,” tips that included such things as surrounding “yourself with people you enjoy,” and “be a person of your word.”
He closed by telling the students to have fun.
“Life is too short not to enjoy it,” he said. “If you get up each morning and look forward to the challenges of your work with enthusiasm, you have selected your career well. If you don’t, get out. There is no fate worse than looking back wondering why you didn’t choose a path that might have brought you true enjoyment. Remember, this is not a dress rehearsal.”
Filed in Press Coverage