Barden Companies, Inc.

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Barden Companies, Inc.

400 Renaissance Center, Suite 2400
Detroit, Michigan 48243
Telephone: (313) 496-2900
Fax: (313) 496-8400
Web site:

Private Company
Employees: 4,000
Sales: $372 million (2004 est.)
NAIC: 713210 Casinos (Except Casino Hotels); 721120 Casino Hotels; 236220 Commercial and Institutional Building Construction

Barden Companies, Inc., is a holding company whose subsidiaries primarily operate gambling casinos and develops real estate. The firm owns the Majestic Star floating casino in Gary, Indiana and Fitzgeralds casinos in Tunica, Mississippi, Black Hawk Colorado, and Las Vegas, Nevada. Other Barden companies include real estate developer Waycor Development Company; Barden International, which pursues business ventures in Namibia; and Barden Entertainment, which markets a video jukebox. Headed by African American entrepreneur Don Barden, Barden Companies is one of the ten largest black-owned firms in the United States, according to Black Enterprise magazine.


The different enterprises that make up Barden Companies are the brainchild of Michigan native Don Barden. Born in 1943, he was the ninth of 13 children and grew up poor on a nine-acre farm in the Detroit suburb of Inkster, Michigan. He learned the value of hard work and determination from his father, who worked at the Chrysler auto plant and repaired cars on the side, and his mother, who helped the family raise animals and grow vegetables for food. When he finished high school, Barden scraped together enough money to begin attending Central Ohio University, but he was forced to drop out after a year when funds ran low. He moved in with an older brother in the city of Lorain, Ohio, near Cleveland, and took a series of jobs ranging from cafeteria manager to assistant to the president of a shipbuilding company. In 1966 Barden took $500 he had saved and opened a record shop called Donnie's, and also began to promote concerts, work as a disc jockey at parties, and release records on his own small label.

With record sales slow due to competition from discount department stores, in 1968 Barden sold his store and started a public relations and marketing firm. He had once briefly published a small newspaper with a partner, and now he started a weekly called the Lorain County Times. In 1971 Barden found out from a military recruiter that recruitment offices would soon be moving out of post offices into spaces of their own, and he quickly decided to buy a building and lease it to the military. After submitting a successful bid for office space, he received a $25,000 bank loan and bought the building. Two years later he sold it for $50,000, and then bought another building for $85,000 from Ohio Edison, which he leased back to the utility. By 1975 the real estate business had grown such that he was able to begin construction of a new $1 million building.

The early 1970s also saw Barden win election to the Lorain city council and start working for a Cleveland television station, where he served as host of a talk show and as a weekend news reporter. After using his political connections to ensure that 4 percent of the new cable television systems in Lorain and neighboring Elyria would be owned by minorities, he invested $2,000 in each. Two years later he sold his stakes for $200,000, and immediately began laying plans to buy cable franchises of his own. In 1981 he formed Barden Communications, Inc., which bid on cable franchises in seven cities around the United States.

Wiring Detroit For Cable in the 1980s

Barden first won the right to provide cable service to 10,000 households in his old hometown of Inkster, and after successfully connecting them on time and within budget, he was able to secure franchises in nearby Romulus and Van Buren Township. After these were established, he turned his attention to winning the franchise for Detroit, with 375,000 households. When bidding was put off until December 1982, it gave Barden more time to prepare, and he spent $500,000 to create an eight-volume proposal, which was declared the winner the following year.

Barden moved to Detroit in late 1984 and immediately began the complicated process of laying out the cable system. To help fund the massive undertaking, he partnered with Toronto, Canada-based Maclean Hunter Ltd., a conglomerate with interests in cable television, magazines, and newspapers. Maclean arranged to provide $100 million in financing, and took a 49 percent ownership stake in the system.

In 1986 the five-year wiring process began. More than 100 miles were laid underground, at a cost of $350,000 per mile, with the rest strung across utility poles for $20,000 per mile. During this time Barden sold the Romulus and Van Buren systems while he continued to expand his real estate interests, founding Waycor Development Co. in 1988 to build the $61.5 million Wayne County Detention Facility in Hamtramck. Later projects included an apartment complex in Detroit and a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Canton, Ohio. Another business that attracted Barden's attention was radio, and in the late 1980s he won licenses to build stations in several states. He would go on to build or acquire five stations in the Chicago, Illinois metropolitan area.

Not all of Barden's ventures were successful, however. His attempt to turn the vacant Stouffer's Northland Hotel in Southfield, Michigan into a senior citizen's housing center was abandoned after he spent $1.5 million to buy it, and another $1 million was invested in a Pontiac, Michigan savings and loan which was later taken over by the Resolution Trust Corporation.

By 1992 Barden's Detroit cable system was fully operational and had attracted 120,000 subscribers. The entrepreneur already had other projects on the drawing board including Cable Cheque, which would offer cable subscribers discounts on their bill when they purchased certain products, and a low-power cellphone-like device, which he had allocated $1 million to develop. Barden Communications now employed 332, and had taken in $91.2 million in its most recent fiscal year. In 1992 the firm was named Company of the Year by Black Enterprise magazine.

Move Into Gambling in 1993

In 1993 Barden partnered with St. Louis-based President Riverboat Casinos to work on obtaining a license to operate a casino in Gary, Indiana, where boat-based gaming had just been legalized. The deal was to be a 50/50 partnership, but when President began having financial problems, Barden took full control. A new company, Barden Development, Inc., was formed to oversee this new business.

In the fall of 1994 Barden sold the Detroit cable system to Comcast, Inc., after partner Maclean Hunter had been acquired by the cable giant. His take from the deal was $105 million, and he funneled some of the proceeds into his new gambling boat project, which had recently been given the go-ahead. By now Barden had also acquired a stake in University Communications, Inc., which marketed a computer-based learning and communications system to schools and corporations.

In the fall of 1995 Barden reached an agreement with Trump Indiana, Inc., to form a 50/50 joint venture called Buffington Harbor Riverboats LLC that would develop a dock, restaurants, and parking for the gambling boats each planned to operate. In June 1996 the Majestic Star Casino opened on a leased boat, which would give way the following year to a new 40,000 square foot, $50 million vessel that featured 1,550 slot machines and 70 table games. The firm sold $105 million in secured notes to fund the expansion, which included significant development in the dock area, whose cost was shared with Trump.

The year 1996 also saw a new business unit called Barden International reach an agreement with the government of Namibia to build a $15 million plant in that country to convert General Motors vehicles from the American standard left-hand drive to Namibian right-hand drive. An initial $31 million contract was signed with the Namibian government for conversion of 823 vehicles including Chevrolet pickup trucks and Bluebird buses. Barden was also named General Motors' official distributor of cars and trucks to the country. His wife Bella Marshall, an attorney who had served as Detroit's finance director, was appointed president of the new unit.

Back in the United States, Don Barden was already working on an even bigger venture. Casino gambling, as recently as the late 1970s legal only in Nevada, had lately been touted around the country as an antidote to joblessness, and in 1994 the beleaguered citizens of Detroit had voted to allow it after a casino was opened just minutes away in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Once Michigan voters approved the plan in late 1996, Barden launched a public campaign to win one of the three permitted licenses. Competing against ten others, he made it to the semi-final round of consideration, but in November 1997 was declared out of the running. Unhappy with the decision, which awarded casinos to two major gaming companies and the Sault Ste. Marie Band of Chippewa Indians, Barden sought a new vote on the licenses, arguing that Detroit, which was more than three-fourths black, should allow at least one casino to be owned by an African American-controlled firm.

Key Dates:

Don Barden forms Barden Communications, Inc., to win cable TV franchises.
Barden wins bid to build Detroit cable system.
Barden founds Waycor Development to build jail, other projects.
Barden Development, Inc., formed to seek Indiana gaming license.
Barden sells cable interests for $105 million, forms Barden Companies.
Majestic Star floating casino opens in Gary.
Barden loses bid for Detroit casino, begins working to overturn ruling.
Barden International opens auto conversion plant in Namibia.
Barden buys three casinos from Fitzgeralds Gaming.
Barden Technologies, Barden Entertainment formed.
Barden wins half of $79 million Indian tribe casino settlement.

A referendum on the awarding of casino licenses was set for August 1998, and to bolster his chances Barden brought in a new business partner: superstar Michael Jackson. The pair proposed a billion-dollar casino, hotel, and theme park complex on Detroit's waterfront, and Jackson also flew with Barden to Namibia to promote his newly-opened plant there. The effort to win a license was unsuccessful, however, with Barden winning only 45 percent of the vote. Also in 1998, the entrepreneur sold the five radio stations he owned in the suburbs of Chicago.

In 1999 Barden filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Michigan and its gaming control board along with Detroit, its mayor, and its city council, which alleged that the casino selection process had unfairly given other bidders preferential treatment, but a judge ruled against him in July. Detroit's MGM Grand casino opened a week later in a $225 million temporary location, and the other two followed suit over the next year and a half. The year 1999 also saw the sale of Barden's educational software business.

Fitzgeralds Casinos Acquired in 2001

In 2000 Barden began working on a deal to buy three casinos from the bankrupt Fitzgeralds Gaming Corp., which were located in Tunica, Mississippi, Black Hawk, Colorado, and Las Vegas, Nevada. The $149 million deal was completed in December 2001, just after the September 11 terrorist attacks had devastated the travel industry, and Las Vegas in particular. Barden put up $14 million of his own funds and sold $135 million in bonds, which he raised on a ten-day tour to 40 institutional investors in 12 cities. The Tunica casino was the most profitable, being the premier gambling facility in its region, while the Black Hawk and Las Vegas properties were smaller players in their respective areas. After taking control Barden moved to diversify their workforces by hiring blacks and women for prominent jobs in each. The casinos, in particular the Las Vegas one, would be marketed increasingly to African Americans, trading on Barden's status as the first black casino owner in the United States and now the only one with a Las Vegas property.

In 2002 Barden formed new companies called Barden Technologies and Barden Entertainment. The former would develop computerized voting machines, while the latter made a video jukebox for use in bars and casinos, with initial deployment in Barden's own facilities.

In June 2003 Barden's various enterprises, now known collectively as Barden Companies, were once again chosen as Black Enterprise magazine's Company of the Year. The firm was ranked sixth on the list of top 100 industrial/service firms owned by blacks, with total revenues of $347 million (95 percent of which was now derived from gaming). In October the company was refinanced through the sale of notes worth $260 million, and the firm also boosted its credit line to $80 million.

A short time later the underperforming Las Vegas Fitzgeralds casino was incorporated as a separate entity within Barden Companies. The firm had recently spent $2.5 million on upgrades to the 638-room property, and was working on expanding the Black Hawk Fitzgeralds and adding a new blues club/restaurant, Koko Taylor's Blues Café, to the dock area of the Majestic Star Casino.

The energetic Barden was now serving as vice-chairman of finance for the presidential bid of congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri, targeting donors in the black community. He had earlier helped raise funds for the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton.

In the spring of 2004 Barden bid on a license for a horseracing track in the Detroit suburbs, but his effort proved unsuccessful. The year also saw his Namibia operations taken over by another firm, after Barden International gave up its GM distribution contract. There had been complaints that the vehicles chosen for conversion were unsuited to the rough terrain, and some had gone unsold. Barden remained committed to seeking other investments in Namibia after the sale, however.

In 1997 the Lac Vieux Chippewa Indian tribe filed a lawsuit against Detroit's winning casino bidders that put roadblocks in the way of permanent casinos, and then in 2002 Barden had agreed to help the tribe build a casino if they won a license. They were ultimately denied one, and in 2004 agreed to settle their claims against two of Detroit's three casino owners for $79 million, to be paid out over 20 years. Barden expected to receive half the total, but when the tribe stopped making payments to him, he sued them. In October 2005 a judge awarded him $33 million, slightly less than the claimed amount.

In November 2005 Barden announced a $253 million deal to buy Trump Indiana, Inc., which owned a floating casino in Gary and a 300-room hotel. It would give Barden two gambling boats there as well as full ownership of the dockside restaurants and parking that Trump had shared with the Majestic Star. After the acquisition both vessels would be upgraded and a portion of the new one would be given over to smoke-free gaming. Barden had also recently purchased a 3.8 percent stake in Detroit's Greektown Casino, which he planned to sell to the casino's majority owners, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, for $16 million.

Nearly 25 years after Don Barden entered the cable television business, the firms that made up Barden Companies, Inc., continued to grow under the leadership of their founder. The planned acquisition of Donald Trump's floating casino in Indiana would increase his gaming holdings to five properties, and Barden also appeared resolute in his goal of someday owning a gambling facility in his hometown of Detroit.

Principal Subsidiaries

Barden Development, Inc.; The Majestic Star Casino LLC; Barden Nevada Gaming LLC; Majestic Investor Holdings LLC; The Majestic Star Casino Capital Corporation; Majestic Investor Capital Corporation; Buffington Harbor River Boats LLC (50%); Waycor Development Company; Barden Entertainment, Inc.; Barden International, Inc.; Barden Technologies, Inc.; Gary New Century LLC.

Principal Competitors

Harrah's Entertainment Inc.; MGM MIRAGE; Boyd Gaming Corporation; Trump Entertainment Resorts, Inc.; Isle of Capri Casinos, Inc.

Further Reading

Amupadhi, Tangeni, "Barden Motors Shuts," Free Press of Namibia, December 15, 2004.

Ankeny, Robert, "Barden Casino Set to Sail," Crain's Detroit Business, July 21, 1997, p. 1.

, "Barden Trump Card: Experience," Crain's Detroit Business, February 10, 1997, p. 1.

, "City and Barden Vie for Votes on Casinos," Crain's Detroit Business, July 27, 1998, p. 29.

, "Digital Video Jukeboxes are Barden's Next Big Venture," Crain's Detroit Business, February 2, 2004, p. 38.

, "Jackson's Role With Barden Unclear," Crain's Detroit Business, July 13, 1998, p. 20.

Bodipo-Memba, Alejandro, "Barden Gets Trump Deal," Detroit Free Press, November 5, 2005.

Bray, Hiawatha, "Wired for Success," Black Enterprise, June, 1992, pp. 134-137.

Chappell, Kevin, "Don Barden: Hitting the Casino Jackpot," Ebony, October, 2004.

Goodin, Michael, "Faces: Don Barden, The Barden Cos.," Crain's Detroit Business, February 27, 1995, p. 64.

Guest, Greta, "Barden to Get Part of Payout," Detroit Free Press, October 7, 2005.

Gupte, Pranay, "Detroit's Gift to Namibia," Forbes, October 19, 1998.

Hughes, Alan, "The House Always Wins," Black Enterprise, June, 2003, pp. 126-133.

Hughes, John, "Millions of Dollars, Past Successes Are Not Enough for Don Barden," Southcoast Today, August 24, 1997.

Hyde, Justin, "Judge Rejects Lawsuit Seeking to Stop Casinos," Associated Press State & Local Wire, July 22, 1999.

King, R.J., "Barden Seeks Metro Racino," Detroit News, April 20, 2004.

Lam, Tina, "An Unfulfilled Desire," Detroit Free Press, February 23, 2004.

, "Lawyers Spar on Detroit Casinos," Detroit Free Press, May 2, 2002.

Lowery, Mark, "Barden Selling Detroit Cable Franchise," Black Enterprise, September, 1994, p. 17.

McNeil, Jr., Donald G., "Black Pioneer Answers the Call; Detroit Entrepreneur Sees 'Sleeper' Market in Namibia," New York Times, July 7, 1998, p. D1.

Smith, Eric L., "Barden's Excellent Adventure," Black Enterprise, May, 1998, p. 74.

"Timeline of Events in Detroit's History with Casino Gambling," Associated Press State & Local Wire, August 2, 2002.

Windsor, Shawn, and M.L. Elrick, "Investor Pursues Bid for Detroit Casino," Detroit Free Press, April 23, 2002.

Yerak, Becky, "Barden Buys Vegas Gaming Hall," Detroit News, October 23, 2001.

, "Barden's Record in Indiana Mixed," Detroit News, November 17, 2002.