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Obsessively secretive Wilfs face tough judge curious about business deals

I’m not sure that Minnesota’s three-week due-diligence investigation can tell us the whole story on the extent and soundness of Mark and Zygi Wilfs’ financial status.

Mark Wilf, far left, and Zygi Wilf, left, celebrating with Gov. Mark Dayton following the stadium bill signing in May 2012.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen

On Monday, a New Jersey judge will decide whether or not to keep the Wilf family finances from becoming public.

As you no doubt already know, the Vikings owners, brothers Mark and Zygi, and their cousin Leonard were found to have defrauded two former business partners of millions in a 26-year-old real estate deal. Post-verdict, the Wilfs’ lawyer said that the family “has earned a well-deserved reputation for integrity and honest dealings.” Up ’til then, apparently.

The judge hasn’t yet decided how much they’ll pay in damages, but to hear Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority Chair Michele Kelm-Helgen tell it, the news shouldn’t be too earthshaking. She announced the other day that preliminary results of a due-diligence investigation was enough to assure her that even under the worst-case scenario, the Wilfs would have enough dough left over after paying the judgement to ante up the $477 million they’ve promised. Still, we don’t know how much money the Authority deemed worst-case but: a) it’s probably less than $477 million; and b) the Wilfs could appeal. 

In any case, the stadium deal doesn’t require that the Wilfs put up the entire $477 million. Some $200 million will come in the form of a loan from the NFL to be repaid from a per seat fee that normally goes to the competing team. And there are estimates that the team could reap about $274 million in stadium naming rights and personal seat licenses, leaving the Wilfs only $3 million short — and exactly where all real estate barons like themselves aim to be — using a maximum amount of OPM (other people’s money) and almost none of their own.

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My estimates of what the Vikings are likely to garner from naming rights and personal seat licenses aren’t that generous. The Twin Cities are not, say, New York, which received $400 million for naming rights and the same for seat licenses. I think our team is more like the Cleveland Browns, who took in about $100 million in naming rights and $35 million from seat licenses. If so, owners might have to cough up — $125 million or so. Given the size of the Wilfs’ real estate empire, that shouldn’t be a heavy lift.

But that’s hard to know. The family seems to be almost obsessively secretive about their businesses. The state legislation that outlines the stadium deal forbids the disclosure of either the Wilfs’ or the Vikings’ finances; and members of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority have had to sign confidentiality agreements.

On Monday the Wilfs will have to plead with Judge Wilson to keep their business records sealed. It’s hard to say whether she will show them mercy. She already declared in open court that, at least in this particular business deal, the Wilfs displayed “bad faith and evil motive.”  In the course of the trial, she said, she had not seen “one financial statement that is true and accurate.”  

I am hoping that the judge forces the Wilfs to go open-kimono. Knowing anything about their past dealings is well-nigh impossible. The only discussion of their business I could find appeared in a June, 2000 issue of National Real Estate Investor.

According to Orin Wilf, Leonard’s son, who seems to be the most voluble member of the family, Garden Homes, a developer of single-family dwellings, began in the 1950s with Harry and Joseph Wilf, brothers and Holocaust survivors who emigrated from Poland to the U.S. after World War II. Gradually, the Short Hills, N.J., company spawned Garden Communities, which built and acquired apartment complexes. The company website brags that it now owns 90,000 units. You’d never know who owned the company from the website, however. Its “About Us” section names no names or staff members.

A subsidiary, Garden Commercial, according to its website owns and manages “in excess of 25 million square feet of retail and commercial space, which ranks in the Top 20 in the United States according to leading industry surveys.” Most of its holdings, with the possible exception of the poetically named Dewey Meadows in upscale Basking Ridge, N.J., are of the standard variety, a strip of cheaply built big-box stores surrounded by a parking field.

In a 2012 interview with the New York Times, Orin Wilf reappears as president of Skyline Developers, a New York subsidiary of Garden Homes; its most recent development is a luxury condo project where apartments sell from $3 million to $14 million. He and his dad, he also noted, own 5 to 10 percent of the New York Yankees.

But there’s more.

In tracking political donations (the Wilfs gave pretty even-handedly to both parties, by the way), I found that they listed several employers aside from the various Garden enterprises: Waterside Plaza Association, Union 22 Plaza, United Jewish Communities, Garden Hills Residence, Wilf & Silverman, JHW Associates, Lamington Developers, Lakeside Village Association, Mazdabrook Development and Kinnelon Heights Association. I suspect, but don’t know, that every single development they own is its own separate business.

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And, another tantalizing fact: In 1997, Leonard Wilf and his then-wife were involved in what a New Jersey Court press release decribed as “one of the state’s most complex divorce cases.” It took two judges to resolve, one from the Tax Court who was asked to determine the gross value of each of 290 properties with a total estimated value between $60 million and $300 million. Apparently, long-form litigation is a family hobby.

All this is to say that I am not sure that a quickie three-week due-diligence investigation can possibly tell us the whole story — the extent and soundness of the Wilf empire, their past business practices and their possible penchant for Jarndyce v. Jarndyce-style lawsuits.

The Wilfs’ secrecy may not be hiding anything particularly nefarious. As Holocaust survivors, who lost every last stick and stone they owned to the Nazis and their Polish collaborators, the entire family may have become hard-wired for discretion.

But, if like Minnesota, you’re in partnership with them on one of its most expensive civic undertakings, well, you probably can’t know too much.