Wirtz Corporation

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Wirtz Corporation

680 North Lakeshore Drive, 19th Floor
Chicago, Illinois 60611
Telephone: (312) 943-7000
Fax: (312) 943-9017

Private Company
Founded: 1922
Employees: 2,200
Sales: $1 billion (2004 est.)
NAIC: 711211 Sports Teams and Clubs; 531210 Offices of Real Estate Agents and Brokers; 424819 Beer and Ale Merchant Wholesalers; 424820 Wine and Distilled Alcoholic Beverage Merchant Wholesalers

Wirtz Corporation houses the varied business interests of Chicago's influential Wirtz family, best known as the owners of the Chicago Blackhawks National Hockey League team. The company is also part owner of the United Center, where the Blackhawks and the Chicago Bulls basketball team play. The privately held Wirtz Corporation is highly discreet about its holdings, which at the very least include insurance, liquor distributorships in Illinois and Nevada, banks in suburban Chicago and Miami, apartment buildings on Chicago's North Side, and real estate interests in Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas, and Wisconsin. The company is headed by William W. Wirtz, son of its founder. Next in line to inherit control of the corporation's voting stock is William Wirtz' son, William Rockwell "Rocky" Wirtz. Generating approximately $1 billion in annual revenues, Wirtz Corporation is one of the largest private companies in the United States.

Company Founded in the 1920s

The founder of the Wirtz empire was Arthur Michael Wirtz, who was born in Chicago in 1901 to a policeman and his wife. After graduating from the University of Michigan, he returned to Chicago to become a real estate salesman in 1922, which represents the start of the Wirtz Corporation. He was a gruff, imposing man, standing six-foot five-inches and eventually weighing 340 pounds. He was also driven to succeed, working all hours of the day. Wags suggested that his initials (A. M.) stood for "after midnight." After the stock market crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression, while other businessmen retrenched or failed, Wirtz hit his stride, picking up distressed properties for nickels on the dollar. He also became involved in sports during the early 1930s, joining forces with grain speculator James Norris and his sons. More than 20 years older than Wirtz, Norris was a Canadian-born businessman who had set up his grain brokerage in Chicago. Growing up, he was an excellent athlete, a standout at squash and tennis and an amateur hockey player as well. Norris attempted to land a National Hockey League franchise in Chicago, and when that effort failed he set his sites on a struggling Detroit franchise. In 1933, Wirtz and Norris formed a partnership to purchase the team and the Olympia Stadium where the Falcons, as they were then called, played their home games. Two years later, Wirtz and Norris acquired Chicago Stadium, home of the Chicago Blackhawks, but they would not gain control of the team until much later. During the intervening years, the partners acquired interests in other arenas and convention centers around the country, including New York's Madison Square Garden and facilities in St, Louis, Omaha, and Indianapolis.

Although not yet a hockey mogul, Wirtz became involved in a different ice skating business. In December 1935, he produced one of the first ice shows, which played for two nights at Chicago Stadium. Encouraged by the results, in 1936 he signed Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie after she won her third consecutive Olympic gold medal to star in a touring ice show, "Hollywood Ice Revue." It played 17 performances in nine U.S. cities, primarily in the arenas that Wirtz owned or held an interest in. Henie then launched a movie career, starring in musical comedies that showed off her skating skills and to Wirtz's delight promoted her ice shows. From 1937 to 1951, Wirtz and Henie co-produced an annual Hollywood Ice Revue that toured the United States and Europe. Wirzt focused on New York City in 1940, producing "It Happens On Ice" at the Radio City Music Hall and drawing 1.5 million people. Later in 1940, he and Henie took on Broadway, co-producing the Rockefeller Center Ice Revue. Although Henie did not skate in the show, it would draw 12 million customers during its ten-year run at Broadway's Center Theatre. Henie broke away from Wirtz in 1950 and tried competing against him. Wirtz replaced her with a younger Olympic champion, Canadian Barbara Ann Scott. Henie's review soon hit financial difficulties, exacerbated by a bleacher collapse at one of her performances, and in 1953 she was forced to terminate her show. Wirtz, meanwhile, continued to solidify his reputation as the king of the ice show format, going on to promote more Olympic skating champions: Jo Jo Starbuck, Dorothy Hamill, and Janet Lynn. He finally exited the show business in 1979 when he sold "Holiday on Ice" and another show to the owners of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

A Basketball Pioneer in the 1940s

Wirtz's evolution into a sports promoter was a function of his real estate business, essentially an attempt to find a way to make money out of his arena properties. After his success with Sonja Henie, Wirtz looked to professional basketball in the 1940s as a way to fill more open dates. College basketball had become quite popular in the 1930s, and many college players, to continue playing, joined industrial leagues or nascent professional leagues. In 1937, the National Basketball league was launched but struggled to survive until the end of World War II. In 1946, Wirtz, who was credited with creating the popular concept of the college basketball doubleheader, became the key figure in the creation of a rival professional league. He convinced arena owners who owned hockey teams to create the Arena Managers Association of America in order to establish the Basketball Association of America. For his part, Wirtz became part owner of the Chicago Stags franchise. The two leagues attempted to coexist, but the market for professional basketball proved too small. On the verge of collapse, in 1949 the NBL's six remaining teams joined the BAA, which then modified its name, becoming the National Basketball Association. The Stags played in the NBA's inaugural season, but the team never caught on with Chicago fans and ultimately folded. The NBA tried Chicago again in 1961 with a franchise called the Packers, but it soon moved to Baltimore to become the Bullets, later relocating to Washington, D.C., to become the Wizards. In 1966, Chicago received an NBA expansion franchise called the Bulls, but ownership was uncertain, leading Wirtz to once again become involved in professional basketball. He put together an investment group in 1970 to purchase a controlling interest in the Bulls, which he would head until his death.

Boxing was another sport Wirtz promoted as a way to fill Chicago Stadium and his other arenas. In 1949, he and Norris formed the International Boxing Club, which would go on to produce twice-weekly nationally televised prizefights and gain a stranglehold on championship fights. From 1949 to 1955, IBC promoted 47 out of 51 championship bouts held in the United States. The venture's control of the sport was so great that it attracted the attention of the government, and in 1957 IBC was broken up as a monopoly.

As a sportsman, Wirtz was best remembered as the owner of the Chicago Blackhawks. In September 1952, he and the Norris family gained control of the franchise. Three months later, James Norris died, leaving his interest to his sons. By 1954, Wirtz, along with his brother Michael, gained a controlling interest in the team. His son, William Wadsworth Wirtz, would play an increasing role in the running of the club and was named president of the Blackhawks and Chicago Stadium Corporation in 1966. The team enjoyed a golden era during the 1960s and early 1970s, winning the Stanley Cup in 1961 and fielding such players as high-scoring Bobby Hull and goalie Tony Esposito.

Real estate ventures and sporting interests were not enough to keep the inexhaustible Arthur Wirtz fully occupied, however. In 1941, eight years after the repeal of Prohibition, he acquired his first liquor distributorship, Milwaukee-based Edison Liquor Company. Over the ensuing years other distributorships would be brought into the fold, such as Judge & Dolph, Ltd., which he purchased from the Walgreen Drug Company in 1945. Judge & Dolph had started out in St. Louis in 1890 as a pharmaceutical company, then in 1933 was incorporated in Illinois as a Chicago wine and spirits wholesaler. The company added smaller operations so that by the mid-1990s it was selling more then half of the liquor and wine sold in Illinois. In addition, Wirtz Corporation became involved in the selling of liquor in other markets, such as Nevada, Minnesota, and Texas. Wirtz also entered the insurance field in 1960, when it launched the Wirtz Insurance Agency, offering property, casualty, and health insurance. Although it is difficult to determine when Wirtz Corporation became involved in the banking business, its holdings in this area eventually included Elmwood Park, Illinois-based First Security Trust & Savings Bank, First National Bank of South Miami, as well as a holding company which acquired interests in another 15 banks, including Charlotte, North Carolina-based NationsBank Corp. and First Union Corp; Columbus, Ohio-based Banc One Corp.; and Jacksonville, Florida-based Barnett Banks Inc.

Key Dates:

Company founded by Arthur M. Wirtz.
Wirtz and a partner acquire a Chicago Stadium.
Wirtz signs Sonja Henie for ice shows.
Wirtz acquires its first liquor distributorship.
Wirtz Corporation acquires controlling interest in Blackhawks hockey team.
A Wirtz boxing venture is ruled a monopoly and broken up.
A controlling interest the in Chicago Bulls is acquired.
Wirtz dies and is succeeded by his son, William W. Wirtz.
Wirtz and Bulls' owner Jerry Reinsdorf build United Center.
National Hockey League (NHL) season is cancelled.

A New Generation Takes the Reins in the 1980s

In August 1983, Arthur Wirtz died of cancer. Control of Wirtz Corporation passed to his eldest son, William, who inherited the voting stock. William Wirtz nonetheless work closely with brother Arthur Michael Wirtz, Jr. After graduating from Brown University in 1950, William Wirtz considered a career in the Central Intelligence Agency as well as archaeology before taking a job as a certified public accountant with Peat Marwick. Three years later, he joined his father in managing the family's myriad business affairs. When his father died, William was in his early 50s. He was politically and socially connected and had forged his own reputation as a hard-nosed businessman. Essentially, he carried on where his father left off, buying smart, holding onto assets, and looking to operate them efficiently. The Blackhawks remained a prized asset, the Bulls basketball team less so. In 1984, the owner of the Chicago White Sox, Jerry Reinsdorf, assembled a group of investors and purchased a controlling interest in the team. That was also the rookie season of Michael Jordan, who would lead the Bulls to six NBA championships and eclipse the Blackhawks, which became mired in mediocrity, a situation many fans laid at the door of William Wirtz, whom they regarded as cheap and derisively called "Dollar Bill."

Like his father, Wirtz was not a man to cross. In the late 1980s, he became interested in building a West Side stadium for the Bears football team and invited Bears' president Michael McCaskey to explore the idea with him. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, McCaskey joined forces with Mayor Eurgene Sawyer "in an attempted end-run around Wirtz in Springfield." The means for this action was a bill requesting state funds for street and sewer repairs that "included a clause that would have ceded control of 40 acres of Wirtz-owned parking lots to the Bears upon the death of Bill Wirtz or the sale of Chicago Stadium. In a flash, Wirtz assembled a clout-heavy lobbying team and snuffed out the move. It never even came to a vote. 'It's embarrassing. They should have known better.' Wirtz said of the episode."

United Center Built in the Early 1990s

The Bears remained in their longtime home of Soldier's Field, which was eventually renovated, but Wirtz and Reinsdorf joined forces in the early 1994 to build a new arena for the Bulls and the Blackhawks, the United Center. The project required the demolition of numerous homes, resulting in outcries from the community and the politicians that represented them. At the insistence of the mayor, Wirtz and Reinsdorf entered into talks with West Side residents and eventually agreed to invest millions in replacement housing, small business loans, and community projects.

The added revenues derived from the United Center helped to bolster the balance sheet of Wirtz Corporation, but Blackhawk fans continued to complain that the extra money did not trickle down to the players the team put on the ice. Wirtz also failed to keep up with the changing nature of the game. During the 1990s, the National Hockey League added four teams that played in the Western and Mountain time zones. Wirtz refused to televise home games in the belief that attendance would suffer, a policy long abandoned by other clubs. Because Chicago was in the NHL's Western Conference, a large percentage of its televised away games had late start times. In essence, the Blackhawks began to slip from the city's sports consciousness, and fans found it increasingly difficult to follow the team. The situation became so bad that the Blackhawks had to pay a local radio station to broadcast its games. The game itself was in trouble, due in large part to the owners' inability to rein in escalating player salaries. The league wanted the players to accept a salary cap that, in effect, would save the owners from themselves, but the players refused the proposal when a new collective bargaining agreement was negotiated in 2003 and 2004. In truth, because of Wirtz, the Blackhawks already operated with a self-imposed salary cap. Chicago fans took cold comfort in having an owner who, for the sake of fiscal responsibility, was willing to dump high-priced stars and put on the ice a collection of young players and lower caliber veterans. They gave Wirtz no credit for taking a principled stand. Instead, they thought he was finding a way to make money on a losing team. Consequently, Blackhawks' fans retained interest in the team only to the extent that they became embittered about how it was being run. When negotiations broke down between the players and league in 2004, the owners locked out the players, resulting in the cancellation of the 200405 season, the first time that a professional sports league had been forced to cancel an entire season because of a labor impasse. Players and owners finally reached an agreement in the summer of 2005. Moreover, with the Bulls enjoying a resurgence, there was a question regarding how much Chicago fans would care about the Blackhawks if and when the team returned to the ice. The Wirtz Corporation, because of its stake in the United Center, was better off than most hockey owners, and, given the company's many other business interests, the plight of the Blackhawks meant more to the Wirtz family's pride than its balance sheet.

William Wirtz suffered a heart attack in 1995, prompting him to quit drinking and give up a five-pack-a-day cigarette habit. A year later, he suffered a major loss when his brother, whom he regarded as his right-hand man, died. He continued to head Wirtz Corporation in 2005, but succession plans were already in place. William Wirtz's eldest son, William "Rocky" Wirtz, was to inherit the voting stock, so that one of the Wirtz children would have final say, thus emulating what his father had done when passing the mantle to him. There was also every reason to believe that the Wirtz Corporation would continue to be run in much the same way it had for decades: close to the vest. There was certainly no thought about taking the company public. As William Wirtz told Crain's Chicago Business, "I don't know anyone who has taken their family business public who doesn't regret it."

Principal Subsidiaries

Chicago Blackhawk Hockey Team, Inc.; The United Center (50%); Judge & Dolph, Ltd.; First Miami Bancorp, Inc.

Principal Competitors

Detroit Red Wings; St. Louis Blues Hockey Club L.L.C.; Johnson Brothers Liquor Company; Southern Wine & Spirits of America, Inc.

Further Reading

"Arthur M. Wirtz," Amusement Business, December 27, 1999, p. 11.

"Arthur M. Wirtz, Team Owner, Dies," New York Times, July 22, 1983.

Borden, Jeff, "Banks, Booze, Buildings," Crain's Chicago Business, April 14, 1997, p. 1.

Mullman, Jeremy, "Blackhawks Down," Crain's Chicago Business, November 2, 2003, p. 1.

Spielman, Fran, "The Puck Stops Here," Chicago Sun-Times, August 28, 1994.

Ed Dinger

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