Rolling Sevens and Elevens

Detroit casino pioneer Tom Celani built a personal empire on beer, gaming, fast bikes, and fine wine — Plus a few things he learned on the streets — and gave new meaning to the term ‘family values’
Games People Play
Luna LLC. Business: Gaming, wine, retail, development, lodging. Executive: Tom Celani, Principal. Headquarters: Novi. Employees: 1,000+. Revenue: $200 million (2007). Photograph by David Baditoi

Benedetto Celani sniffed the sticky morning air as he watched his son, just 11, climb into a packed boxcar and lean into his work. It smelled of diesel and grease, stale beer, and soiled tobacco — the cloying perfume of all-night debauchery in nearby blind pigs — and the ozone tang of rain. Today maybe it wouldn’t be so hot for the boy. He turned to leave for his own work and knew his son would be safe here, even on the cinder-paved paths of a working railroad yard in one of this hard city’s rawest neighborhoods. They had already spent a lot of time together, working those streets, talking to people, learning about them — becoming part of the community — and helping where and how they could.

As the boy worked among towers of beer cases in the boxcar, restacking them for unloading, one by one, several thousand times each day, he never counted to measure his progress. He thought about baseball — thought a lot about baseball. The games that were coming up, the teams his own would face. Strategy. And as the heat bloomed to almost 100 degrees, that week’s bottle of Faygo, cold in the fridge at home, was nice to think about.

He didn’t think about the larger lessons he was learning from this beloved man who dropped him off every day to work like his equal, or the friendships they made, or the value and security of a network of such friends. It was safe for him in this railroad yard, when it might not be for others, because father and son were good neighbors who earned the same in return. No matter your station in life, one of the lessons taught, it comes with a certain noblesse oblige.

The boy didn’t think about the lessons because such things are learned in increments too small to notice on their own, as they happen. He was, after all, just 11. Everything would coalesce in time.

“Different world today than it was then.”

Tom Celani dresses to the nines — beautifully tailored suits and shirts, snug white collars with plenty of starch, sleek shoes with thin leather soles, and a diamond-crusted ring big enough for a Super Bowl winner on one work-seasoned, thick-fingered hand.

He could have chosen a different place for a sit-down to talk about a life and career that he agrees is remarkable. This setting comes with background music, a throaty growl that sometimes rises from the parking lot below, muffled but instantly recognized as the voice of America’s street machine.

The building’s filled with them, and enough bikes move out its Farmington Hills doors each year to make this the largest such dealership in the Midwest and one of the brand’s top 10 in the country. MotorCity Harley-Davidson. Celani owns it.

He could have chosen his office in Novi, home of Luna, an umbrella company for a collection of businesses. They include Indian casinos, commercial gaming houses and slot machines, movie theaters, golfing and hunting suppliers, a Crowne Plaza Hotel in Niagara Falls, and real-estate developments in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Michigan. Celani owns or has an ownership interest in all of them.

Celani added Anderson Sales and Service in Bloomfield Hills to his collection a couple of years ago, and renamed it MotorCity Power Sports. It deals in snowmobiles and watercraft, ATVs, and scooters — big boy toys.

Most recently, Celani was approved for a new Native American casino in Clear Lake, Calif., located north of Napa Valley. The 50,000-square-foot facility is expected to open in late 2009 and offer 350 slot machines, as well as 10 table games. He is also principal of Cal-Neva Casino on the north shore of Lake Tahoe in Nevada, which was owned by Frank Sinatra in the 1960s.

It would be less practical to meet in the offices or kitchen/blending room of the new Celani Family Vineyards, which just scored 90 points from Wine Spectator for its first-ever chardonnay and, soon after, 92 points for the infant winery’s signature release, a great big cabernet called Ardore — Italian for passion. It’s in Napa Valley and usually where he’d really rather be.

“Different world today than it was then,” he says. It closes out the story of his early life as a willing and eager child laborer, helping his father, Ben, build metro Detroit’s largest beer distributorship, starting with three borrowed trucks, a blue-collar work ethic, and a talent for meeting people, making friends, and building relationships.

Ben was selling appliances for Sears, Roebuck and Co. in 1964 when he heard that Hamm’s Brewery wanted to return to selling in Michigan. He’d already had a career in the beer business and was still looped into the “beer guy” network. He learned that Hamm’s had found distributors throughout the five-county southeastern region — everywhere but in its largest city.

“Detroit was on the downside,” Celani explains. “There was some tension. It wasn’t an easy place to do business; a lot of the stores had closed up. So it was the roughest market you could get into.” But it was a vacuum waiting to be filled. Ben borrowed his trucks, built a business, and bought an abandoned warehouse on 12th Street and Avery, next to the Grand Trunk Railroad yard.

Games People Play
Celani’s wine cellar at his home in Bloomfield Township is crafted from American Oak. The wood grain is very tight, so it inhibits moisture. The 800-square-foot cellar, completed in 2001, is home to more than 5,000 bottles of wine. The wine is kept at 55 degrees and 70 percent humidity. “It’s a great place to relax and kick back,” Celani says. Photograph by David Baditoi

“Then the riots happened in ’67,” Celani says. “Our warehouse was right down [the street] from where it started. But we had a great relationship with the neighborhood, and the neighborhood watched over the distributorship.”

It was another lesson learned in increments as the young Celani went through school and played football, baseball, and basketball. “The only free time I ever had was going to work with my dad, because I loved it.”

By the time he broke from it to attend Central Michigan University, he’d also discovered that he had his father’s facility for making friends, sales, and deals, and that his handshake was as solemn a closer as ink on a contract.

Then Celani’s life changed in a way that might comfort those who try to find reason in the worst of times. During his first semester at Central, Celani’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, and he left to rejoin his family, never to return to school. She died in 1976, only 49 years old.

“My dad and I are living together, and I’m right back into the business full-time, which is fine with me,” Celani says. “And I’m working my way [up] the ladder. I came off the streets as a salesman and was in the office working on routing all the drivers.

“That’s where I was in ’82 when my dad [had] a heart attack.” Two weeks later, at 58, Ben died.

“There’s never a plan to take your son of 26 and have him know all the steps” of running the family business, he says. “I was halfway, but I wasn’t looking at financial statements; I wasn’t involved with that end yet.”

Two weeks later, Celani was summoned to Miller Brewing headquarters in Atlanta. His dad had taken Miller into the same markets as Hamm’s and had become one of its top producers. The beer execs told Celani that he and his business were on probation for the next year. The brewer had never had such a young distributor, but Ben was an old friend and a top performer, so they were going to give his son a shot.

When the meeting ended, Miller president Leonard Goldstein took the probationer aside. “He said, ‘Listen, you call me every day if you want; I’m there for you. I owe it to your dad — he was good to me, and I want to see you succeed.’ And he said, ‘Surround yourself with very talented people your whole life.’ I’ve done that,” Celani says.

Some of those people Tom knew worked for Mike and Marian Ilitch’s Detroit Red Wings, which had had a long-standing contract with Budweiser to provide the beer at Joe Louis Arena. Renewing the contract had always been a given, and it was coming due again when Celani got a tip from one of his insiders: If Bud was even one minute late renewing, he could bid.

“I liked what they were doing with the Red Wings,” he says. “At the time, they were a losing team, but they were drawing people, trying to make it exciting. I wanted to put Miller in there.” So Celani called Goldstein.

“It was like $600,000 at the time — this was 20 years ago. He says, ‘Tom, we’ve never done NHL, we don’t believe in it.’” But, Goldstein said, he believed in Celani. “They made a decision over the phone. And Miller’s still in ‘The Joe.’

“They obviously still think it’s worth their while, even though I haven’t been in the beer business for nine years,” Celani says. “Look at the Zambonis — one’s Miller Lite and one’s Genuine Draft. It was my idea to put [fans] on them. They think it’s heaven.”

Celani had to get out of the beer business. He’d entered the gaming industry 10 years before, developing Native American casinos in the West and one in Manistee, Mich., then selling them slot machines from a nascent company he bought and built into a moneymaker, bringing in $150 million a year.

He wanted to do something at home in Detroit, something “commercial” to expand beyond Native American casinos. In keeping with the naming theme of his other businesses, it would be called MotorCity Casino. Detroit real-estate developer Herb Strather remembers being brought into the investment, not only because of the money they made later when cashing out their holdings, but because of how it was done.

“Before we had inked our deal, he had to put in two million bucks,” Strather says. “And I thought, ‘This is my kind of guy. You can shake hands and do business.’”

But first, something had to give.

Games People Play
Photograph by David Baditoi

“We knew the state might have a problem with me holding a gaming license and a wholesale beer license,” Celani says. “We thought we could work through it, but they made the choice that it didn’t work.

“So we thought we were better off selling the distributorship and staying in the gaming business. The brewery decided to break the distributor up, and it was a fabulous deal for [me.] In ’82, we were doing about 3 million cases, and when I sold it, we had over 5 million cases on the street annually.”

Before finding his way into gaming, Celani and partner Roland Gentner — a competing distributor he’d bought out — decided to try out a new market together in Las Vegas. Gentner went west and found little to encourage an out-of-town beer business. Then, serendipity, in an entirely unexpected place: “Roland gets a phone call from a Vietnam vet from Rapid City, South Dakota.”

The state had just passed legislation allowing slot machines or blackjack with a $5 maximum bet. “He says there’s a startup company here that’s never done any business, but they have [gaming] rights to Deadwood.

“So we went and met these three guys. Two of them said, ‘We want out. We’re not going to put our name on all these bank lines.’ They needed a half million dollars immediately, so I loaned them the money and we bought two-thirds of the company for $2. It was called Sodak Gaming.

“Right place,” Celani says, understating for effect. “Right time.” Sodak negotiated the first compacts in the country with Native American tribes when South Dakota legalized casinos on reservations.

“Rapid City was a good city, Deadwood takes off, and we sell a lot of slot machines from International Game Technology (IGT) based out of Reno,” Celani says. “They had about a 75-percent market share in the world at that time for slots.”

Minnesota and Wisconsin followed South Dakota’s lead, and Sodak got in on the action. As expected, the gaming giants in Vegas and Atlantic City fought Indian casinos. But one quietly broke from the pack. “Harrah’s came to us and said, ‘Everybody’s fighting Indian gaming. We don’t think this is going to stop. We want to be part of your company. We’ll take you public.’”

Within a year, Sodak was trading on NASDAQ, annual sales were more than $150 million, and Celani sold it to IGT — a $230-million payday.

Besides enriching him and promising far more than even his success in the beer business, the experience taught Celani the unique ins and outs of Indian gaming and the concept of sovereign immunity. It was a stumper for commercial banks, which had been unable to perfect loans that satisfied their concerns about collecting.

So Celani, arguably the country’s leading expert on Native American gaming, stepped in and started personally lending development funds to interested tribes. His first was the Little River Casino in Manistee. Many others followed.

In 1994, Celani tried to make the leap into commercial gaming by taking on new partners in Michigan and campaigning for a statewide ballot referendum to allow non-Indian casino gambling. Voters approved, but Gov. John Engler refused. Two years later, they tried again with Proposal E to open three casinos in Detroit. It passed in a squeaker, winning by just 1 percent.

“I think it should be said that gaming would have never passed in the city of Detroit if it wasn’t for one thing: $500 million going to Windsor,” Celani says. “If you go back and look at the marketing and advertising that we created to win Detroit, it was as simple as watching a bag of money going over the river.”

Celani was literally banking on passage. He’d quietly assembled 20 acres of property in the heart of downtown, including the old Hudson’s warehouse and the Detroit College of Law. Plans for what would become Comerica Park had already been announced. “It would’ve been perfect rezoned as an entertainment district,” he says.

Then he got a call from Mayor Dennis Archer. The Detroit Lions were talking about moving downtown from the Pontiac Silverdome and, Archer said, “I need your 20 acres.” In exchange, Celani took a modest gain. “I gave it back for $1 profit to have the Lions come to Detroit,” he says.

What followed has been well-documented. The city now has three commercial casinos — MGM Grand, Greektown, and MotorCity, where Celani was an owner and manager from 1999 to 2005. When MGM put together a merger with Mandalay Resort Group — the majority owner of MotorCity — it had to unload one of them to comply with state law forbidding multiple casino ownership.

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Photograph by David Baditoi

Mandalay sold its stake in MotorCity to Marian Ilitch, who already owned 25 percent of the casino, and in turn, bought out Celani and partners to become sole owner. The agreement also ended a lawsuit brought by Celani and his Atwater Entertainment, who said Ilitch cut the MGM/Mandalay deal without involving them.

There was a big stir early this year when it was announced that Celani would buy 22 percent of Greektown Casino, which has run badly behind the competition in building permanent gaming facilities and hotels. But barely a month later, he changed his mind, citing conflicting time pressures with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, the biggest owner. Now, with Greektown filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late May, Celani may be back in the fold.

“They’ve got themselves in a situation where they probably overpaid two partners they had to buy out [who] weren’t licensable,” Celani says of Greektown founders Ted Gatzaros and Jim Pappas, who sold their equity in 2000. “So they’ve always been working in arrears, owing a lot of money.

“We had signed a deal with the tribe in the fall of  ’07, and I was down there for the next six to eight weeks. I learned a lot that maybe they didn’t even know was going on. And I went to sit down with them again and share that, and they didn’t want to hear about it.

“The biggest glaring thing is [a] lack of ownership participation. There isn’t an owner that’s down here full-time. It’s run by a tribal government; thousands of them have a little piece of the casino. Then you’ve got a management team down here that doesn’t have any ownership. They care about it, but I think — at the end of the day — you’ve got to have ownership.”

So the self-described “street guy” and one-time beer salesman sits back, watches, and waits, confident that he’s the right guy for the job — and a piece of the action — when the time comes.

“Is it over for me there? No. The tribe might just sell the whole thing. The group that’s in there now negotiating, which I’ve been talking to daily, would love me to come in with them if they decide to do it.” He describes the potential buyers only as “Michigan people who never have owned a casino.”

But Celani has covered his bets.

“I want to put myself in the position where, if it’s a hedge fund or new investors coming to Detroit, they might consider bringing me in as a partner if the whole thing gets sold.

“I’ve already been licensed. I have the passion. I live here.”

Home Is Where the Wine Is

The wine cellar in Tom and Vicki Celani’s baronial Bloomfield Township home is beyond the means of most upscale restaurants. Although its location is mostly 15 feet below grade, providing evenly cool surroundings all year, the wines Tom has collected for the past 20 years are kept behind glass at their own optimum temperature.

The walls are Michigan limestone, and the steps leading to the cellar were milled out of matching planks from a single oak. A refitted semi-pro kitchen off the cellar provides meals served at the cellar’s massive oak tasting table, or in the lounge, with its widescreen tube and the glassy-eyed but regal head of Tom’s first elk — shot in New Mexico.

The home is full of mementos. Some speak to the early days when Benedetto Celani, his wife, son, and two daughters lived in a 1,100-square-foot house in East Detroit — a souvenir figurine of the Hamm’s bear, faded family photos, and a deep-sea diving helmet given to Ben that Tom admits he’s tried on. Others track the success that followed his abrupt and bittersweet entry into business — a collection of pens, each with a tag showing the name and date of the deal it was used to sign, a photo with filmmaker/vintner Francis Ford Coppola, a black Western show saddle complete with paired holsters and ammo belt, all armored with Indian silver. Although their daughter is an equestrian who rides English style, Tom and Vicki bought it because they liked it.

The house is large enough to be staffed, though Vicki loves cooking Italian and makes dinner as often as she’s able and somebody’s home to eat it. It’s the centerpiece of the tony Turtle Lake luxury development, but was built in 1926, long before any other.

The couple met 25 years ago when Vicki was waiting tables in Livonia to pay for her classes at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Tom spotted her while at a weekly power breakfast with players in Ed McNamara’s political machine. He says it’s only coincidence that a recruiter from Hearts of Livonia, a golf benefit started by Ben 31 years ago, stopped by and asked her to volunteer. She agreed.

“I was single and had a lot of my young friends coming to the golf outing, and we always made sure we had very attractive volunteers,” Tom says. “So she was one of many very pretty women. I picked her out of a crowd.” He still makes her blush.

“We came out of the same background. Her dad was a union guy; my dad was a Teamster before he got his own break. Truly two blue-collar families.”

Now they live quite well, flying to New York or Italy, Colorado or Napa — wherever they want and their schedules allow. With two sons and their daughter still in high school, most of Vicki’s time is spent as an involved mother and housekeeper, running the refurbished but no less old and sometimes troublesome house. But she has more time now than when the kids were younger, “so it’s time to get back to work.”

So she’s taken on marketing the Celani vineyard and wines, including coming up with the labels.

“There are so many wines on the market now, and I think most people who go in to buy a bottle of wine have no idea what they’re looking for,” she says. “So they’re attracted to the label, to the name. Of course you want the wine to be good, but I think it’s real important that, out front, it’s attractive.”

Tom and Vicki bought the 17-acre vineyard just three springs ago and are finding enough to love about it that they may one day, in just a few years, shift their base to Napa Valley.

“It’s just a different industry compared to the gaming business, where it’s very cutthroat,” Tom says. “The wine business is very refreshing at the winery-owner level. People just open their doors, always trying to give you advice that’s very helpful.”

Not that he intends to retire; just pull back a little and slow things down so there’s more time for great wine, fine food, fast cars and Harleys, hunting, fishing, and family.

If it’s an embarrassment of riches, it only affects the kids.

“I’ve always had a nice car, and my kids would say, ‘Can you drive the truck and drop me off at school?’” Tom says. “I’d sit down and explain to them, ‘You know, your dad didn’t win the lottery. I work very hard every day.

“You’ve got to understand that if people work hard and are successful, they can do these things. You shouldn’t be ashamed of them. Don’t be ashamed of getting things the hard way.’

“And I’ve got it the hard way.”

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