Waitt Co. uses prowess to guide businesses

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Posted: Sunday, December 15, 2013 12:00 am

When Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli won the Wimbledon tennis championship using a Prince racket last July, Omaha’s Waitt Co. paid her a big bonus.

Prince successfully resurrected its once-dominant Prince Graphic model racket in October, following a suggestion from a Waitt Co. executive.

When Prince opened a new Innovation Center this month at the IMG Sports Academy in Sarasota, Fla., Waitt Co. footed the bill.

That sort of hands-on work with racket maker Prince shows how Waitt Co. uses both its financial muscle and its management expertise to guide businesses that it considers partners in enterprise.

“At the end of the day, we’re looking for well-run businesses where we can invest alongside management and help them build great businesses,” said Waitt CEO Dana Bradford. For Waitt founder Norman Waitt Jr., “making money really is a distant second, believe me.”

Waitt made a billion dollars co-founding Gateway Computers with his brother, Ted, and then sold out of the company in 1991. The exact size of Norm’s fortune today is confidential, although in 2008 Forbes magazine guessed that it was more than $1.8 billion.

Today, Waitt Co.’s holdings are valued somewhere above $700 million. Since Bradford joined the company two years ago, he’s been in charge of finding the best way to put that money to work, and he believes he’s on track. “We have no pressure to invest, so we can be patient.”

Bradford has downsized Waitt’s entertainment holdings and is selling its broadcast network. He has focused on real estate development and a mixture of brand-name consumer goods, from football chin straps to high-end handbags to home appliances.

Waitt, Bradford and other principals of Waitt Co. have invested in Premier Bank, along with primary owner and bank operator Greg Stine.

The company briefly held a piece of Gavilon Energy, which sold this month to NGL Energy Partners of Tulsa, Okla., for a reported $890 million.

Greg Heckman, president and CEO of Gavilon Group, said he sought minority financing for the energy transaction from “a knowledgeable and sophisticated investor who had the ability, flexibility and confidence to move quickly.”

That was Waitt Co., he decided. The joint ownership could have lasted several years, but the sale to NGL came quickly, closing Dec. 2.

“The Waitt team was great to work with and a big help,” Heckman said. “They are true professionals, and we look forward to working with them again.”

Bradford said Waitt excels at such transactions. “Our preference is to partner with people like Greg Stine or Greg Heckman.”

Waitt and Noddle Development of Omaha are in the early stages of developing a 200-acre mixed-use project in north Denver. Waitt also owns two office buildings in Denver, two in Las Vegas and two in Scottsdale, Ariz.

As a community service, Bradford is working with groups on plans to redevelop the old Playland Park property in Council Bluffs, which he said should be part of a master plan for the Iowa side of the Missouri River.

Waitt’s purchase of the Prince brand of sporting goods in June 2012 is an example of one deal leading to another. Less than a year later, heirs of golfing legend Bobby Jones decided to trust Waitt Co. with the commercial development of the Jones brand, which reflects on the legacy of their family.

Mike Ballardie, CEO of the Prince sports equipment company, said Waitt’s ownership has been refreshing, bringing new ideas along with financial support. “They’ve thrown a lot of ideas out at us and challenged us in many different ways,” partly because Waitt executives have experience outside the sports equipment industry.

In the past, he said, Prince made some decisions based mostly on gut feelings. “They’re helping us understand why we need to know more about what we’re going to do before we do it.”

It was Waitt President John Schuele’s idea to pay some tennis pros for performance rather than the usual endorsement retainer. “You have a bigger carrot in front of the player when they do well,” Ballardie said. “We’re more than happy to pay them, rather than paying and hoping they perform.”

Waitt advisers recognized a gap between Prince’s premium brand image and its revenues, he said, along with the importance of innovation. Prince’s market share had slipped to No. 3 or 4. “They know that it’s going to take a while for Prince to get back to the No. 1 spot.”

So far, revenues and profits are “a little down” from plans, he said, but the direction is right. “We have a good raft of pros on the books,” he said, including David Ferrer, ranked No. 3 in tennis, and top-ranked squash player Ramy Ashour.

“We have a lot of good up-and-coming juniors that play with Prince and will be well-known,” Ballardie said. “Waitt is keen for us to identify the right players that will support our business in the future.”

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