Weekend at Bernie's

GEOFF MATTHEWS -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:58 AM ET

The Ottawa Renegades may still have some work to do when it comes to posting a winning record on the field, but with a multi-millionaire businessman in the owner's box, the team seems at long last to have put its financial affairs in order.

Bernie Glieberman is a fabulously wealthy self-made man who amassed his fortune in house construction, getting his start on his home turf of Michigan and now active in eight states.

How rich is he? Tough to say for sure. Glieberman himself seems a little foggy on the subject.

We're driving through Detroit's entertainment district when the subject comes up, spurred by a business deal he has just negotiated over the cellphone while we're heading for one of his housing developments.

Glieberman is something of a car nut, having once owned more than 50 vintage vehicles, and has his eye on a limited edition sports model Ford is just introducing to the marketplace. Only 3,000 of the 500 horsepower GT-40s will be made, and the re-sale prices are already skyrocketing.

He's anxious to get his hands on one and an out-of-town dealer is offering to make the arrangements, but Glieberman will have to act quickly because another dealership wants the car for a customer.

Glieberman talks to the dealer twice -- the calls sandwiched around a quick conversation with a business associate -- and then seals the deal. For $163,000 US.

Just like that. Quicker than you and I might decide between the whole wheat and the pumpernickel on our lunch break.

So we ask him point blank what he'd be worth if he cashed out all his holdings, and he ponders for a moment before giving a reply so unrehearsed and apparently sincere that we can't help but take him at his word.

"I don't really know," he begins. "It's tough to say because property values keep changing and I have already started to divest some of my holdings to my kids. But I'm at a stage when I'm not trying to make any more money. I can afford anything I want."

For the past few weeks that "anything" has included the Ottawa Renegades.

Glieberman feels that he has something to prove to Ottawa fans after abandoning them in the early 1990s, when he and son Lonie pulled out of the national capital after two seasons owning the Ottawa Rough Riders in favour of an expansion franchise in Shreveport, La.

The Gliebermans found themselves without a team when the CFL's U.S. venture failed after the 1995 season.

"We never should have left," he says. "Ottawa is a great football town. The fans here are yearning to support a championship team and that's exactly what we are planning to build."

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Bernie Glieberman is having trouble concentrating on the questions being tossed his way by a reporter in the box high above the north side stands of Frank Clair stadium.

The pre-season game between the Renegades and Montreal Alouettes is just getting under way on the field below and Glieberman isn't a patient fan at the best of times. "Lonie (the team's president) tells me I could never sit in one of the regular seats," he confides. "I'm always pacing."

Things look good in the early going, with quarterback Kerry Joseph hooking up with Jason Armstead on the second play of the game for a 54-yard TD. The good news doesn't last, however, as the Alouettes roar back and begin their march toward a 36-17 victory.

"We're still tuning up," says Glieberman. "Our objective this year is to at least be competitive in every game."

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Glieberman was thrust into the business world at an age when the biggest decision for most of his peers was who to take to the prom.

He was 17 years old when his father died of a heart attack at age 37, and for the rest of his high school years attended class in the morning and worked in the office with his dad's two surviving partners in the afternoon. In those days the business was focused on restoring and selling existing housing.

The school-work regimen continued through a couple of years in college, where Glieberman enrolled in business administration but quit before earning a degree. By the age of 21 he was a full partner in the firm and a decade later he bought it out and shifted into new construction.

He seems to have a knack for knowing what the market wants and when, whether it's in downtown Detroit, one of the city's suburbs or as far afield as Florida, where Glieberman says business is booming.

We hop into his sleek, black Mercedes Roadster for a tour through some of the properties his company, Crosswinds Communities, is developing. In an average year, the firm will build 1,500-2,000 housing units -- everything from starter homes to executive condos and single family detached.

A short drive from his office in Novi and we're pulling into Royal Oak -- one of a handful of towns ringing Detroit and home to the city's zoo.

"We jump started the home building industry here," says Glieberman as we weave through a development of townhouses and terrace homes, including one owned by Lonie. "There were 12 condos here when we arrived. We were urban pioneers. No one else thought people would pay decent money to live in the city. I felt that young professionals wanted urban lifestyles and I was right."

He repeated the success in nearby Birmingham, where we stop for lunch in an old train station converted into a restaurant and can see another Crosswinds development on the far side of the parking lot. It's built on a former lumberyard and features a variety of housing, including townhomes and what Glieberman calls live-work units, where the first level serves as a storefront office and the upper three floors are an upscale living area.

Later we'll make our way through the heart of Detroit, stopping at half a dozen sites where his company is fighting urban decay with upscale units priced at $250,000 and up.

His company, says Glieberman, is busier than it has ever been, but he's kicking back and learning to enjoy life. The company can run itself, thanks to the strong management team he has assembled.

"It doesn't matter if I show up at the office or not. Everyone knows what to do," says Glieberman, although most mornings he's still at his desk before the sun comes up. "Years ago, I thought I had to know more than my employees but this is the age of empowerment. You find the best people, pay them well and reward them with the right incentives and then you just empower them to do the job."

That, he promises, is the same approach he will bring to his football club, letting coach Joe Paopao and vice-president of football operations Forrest Gregg make decisions about player selection and game strategy.

He has the bankroll to see the team through a few years of losses, but hopes it will turn a profit in the long term.

"I'll work in the community, and help make sure the club does too. We want the Renegades to be part of the fabric of Ottawa ... where everyone can say they're glad to have us here."

GEOFF.MATTHEWS@OTT.SUNPUB.COM


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