Sandy Sigoloff: Private Man in the Limelight : Wickes Saved, He Focuses on Growth

Times Staff Writer

When Sandy Sigoloff attended the recent opening of the Treasury of San Marco exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he was suffering from jet lag after a business trip. So the chairman and chief executive of Wickes Cos. decided to head for the bar and order a Perrier. As he approached, the bartender gasped, "Oh, my God, he is really here!"

"I looked around," Sigoloff recalled, "but he was talking about me."

Wherever Sanford C. Sigoloff goes these days, he gets recognized. His appearances as a TV spokesman for Wickes' Builders Emporium unit have made him a national--and even international--celebrity. Strangers call out to him, "We got the message, Mr. Sigoloff," the advertising slogan for Builders Emporium.

The television commercials have thrust the very private Sigoloff into the limelight. "I try to be courteous with people, but quick," Sigoloff says. "I used to be self-conscious when people would stare at me. Now, I just smile back."

The young-looking, impeccably groomed Sigoloff has only grudgingly appeared in the commercials, even though customer surveys and sales show him to be an effective spokesman. "I acknowledge the first round (of results), but it is still difficult," he says of making the commercials. "I'm not an actor. . . . I'm not used to having 40 people watch me make a mistake."

Sigoloff's reputation has been built on highly complex corporate turnarounds. In less than three years, he pulled Santa Monica-based Wickes through a tough Chapter 11 reorganization. He had previously steered two other Los Angeles-based companies--Republic Corp., a conglomerate, and Daylin Inc., a retailer, through similar successful reorganizations in the 1970s.

The 54-year-old Sigoloff is now taking Wickes into a new phase, having repaid all of the company's $1.6-billion Chapter 11 debt with a combination of cash, notes and 80 million shares of new common stock.

Come Labor Day, when the company completes its recently announced $1-billion cash acquisition of the consumer and industrial products businesses of Gulf & Western Industries, Wickes expects its annual sales to double, to $6 billion.

The acquisition was announced only weeks after Sigoloff said that Wickes planned to make a purchase within a year. The speed and scope of the move--less than six months after the company's emergence from Chapter 11--are signs of a new direction for Sigoloff as well.

Some Sigoloff observers believe that he acted quickly to avoid what happened with both Republic and Daylin, which were snatched out from under him just as they were nursed back to health.

While Sigoloff was on the prowl for a company that Daylin could buy, W. R. Grace & Co. unexpectedly made a successful bid for Daylin. "Sandy has said he was too conservative," says Jeffrey Chanin, who worked with Sigoloff at both Daylin and Wickes and is now a corporate finance consultant at Drexel Burnham Lambert in Beverly Hills. "Management at Daylin was too conservative in terms of making an acquisition. . . . He certainly moved aggressively this time."

"This is, in a sense, a new field for him to conquer," says Edmund M. Kaufman, a senior partner at Century City law firm of Irell & Manella who has known Sigoloff for 20 years. "He hasn't had as much of a track record to make companies grow once they are out of bankruptcy."

Still others believe that Sigoloff simply needed a new business challenge. Sigoloff, who has committed himself to Wickes for at least the next five years, acknowledges that he gets bored easily.

"Someone said I'm the type of guy who would take a vacation on an island," Sigoloff says. "The first day I would survey it. The second day I would study all the seashells. The third day I would collect and sort out the seashells. By the fourth day, I would probably be bored."

He adds, "I've never run a $6-billion business. That's exciting, but meeting internal goals is going to be stressful."

Pace Finally Slowed

The tough 33 months it took to turn Wickes around was followed by a brief month and a half of quiet around the company's corporate headquarters in Santa Monica. Many of Wickes' executives took long-postponed vacations. Saturday meetings were suspended, and some office remodeling projects finally got under way.

But the pace has quickened with the expected conclusion of the G&W; deal. Executives are running on tight schedules and Saturday meetings have resumed. Sigoloff says it was "psychologically best" for Wickes to proceed with the acquisition in the first year out of bankruptcy. "I wanted to do a major change in the first fiscal year.

"For the first time we're in the luxurious position of determining how fast we can grow.. . . It's probably a strange change, but it is exciting." Sigoloff, who earned $957,265 in salary and bonuses last year, admits the internal pressures are "from me, and, unfortunately, I am a perfectionist."

Sigoloff appears to be creating the kind of atmosphere in which he thrives: complex, high energy, goal oriented and frenetic. "He has the ability in periods of great crisis to be the coolest, most controlled member of the team. He never gets excited when pressure is on him," says Bill Mallory, Wickes' chief financial officer.

"I like to keep track of a lot of things," Sigoloff says. "I very much enjoy winning. I do not enjoy losing. Winning means setting tough goals--(goals that are) tough enough to make but can always be exceeded."

Trained in physics and chemistry at UCLA, Sigoloff is said to have an uncanny ability to quickly absorb and analyze voluminous amounts of data and zero in on problems and solutions.

Comprehends Everything

"Start with the proposition that he is extremely intelligent," Kaufman says. "He is a very fast reader and he comprehends everything. He is one of the most organized persons I have met. . . . He is the kind of person who, if he had gone in a different direction, would have been a terrific five-star general in charge of different troops in different places. But that is not to say he is arbitrary or dictatorial."

Indeed, much of Sigoloff's success has been attributed to his ability to gather a loyal, able pack of professionals who have followed him from Republic, Daylin and Kaufman & Broad, where Sigoloff was vice chairman and chief operating officer before taking the helm at Wickes.

"A lot of Wickes' and Daylin's success was the chemistry of the people," Sigoloff says. "From that standpoint, what I've learned from Wickes is what a luxury that is." All except one of the 11 executive officers Sigoloff recruited for Wickes continue with the company. Chanin, now with Drexel Burnham, left Wickes last year. He and Sigoloff, who were social friends, have not spoken since Chanin left, and neither will comment on his departure.

By most accounts, Sigoloff is a disciplined and demanding manager with a hands-off management style. Once objectives are defined, he delegates responsibility and most decisions.

"You're only as good as the managers you develop," he says.

But he is clearly in charge, according to Richard Daniel, who represented Security Pacific National Bank, Wickes' lead banking creditor, during the reorganization. "He is a pro. He knows how to get done what needs to be done, and he will get it done. Nothing will stop him," says Daniel, who is now executive vice president at Crocker Bank.

Open Relationship

Sigoloff "always has time for you," Mallory, Wickes' chief financial officer, says. "The interaction is always an open relationship, and you just have the feeling he has patience with you and he gives you a great sense of trust and you respond. Because of that trust, you try harder to repay it."

Sigoloff typically holds only one weekly staff session, where he likes to serve food, particularly Pepperidge Farm cookies. When the meetings are held on Saturdays, he serves lox and bagels and a variety of other goodies.

The media has portrayed Sigoloff as a tough, no-nonsense executive. Mallory says that, before he had ever met Sigoloff, "the first written word about Sandy I read was a 1974 article in Business Week" that referred to his reputation as a "hatchet man." "I learned later that that was far from the truth."

At Daylin, Sigoloff earned the nickname "Ming the Merciless," after a villain in the Flash Gordon serial. When times got tough at Daylin, the executives adopted such nicknames to inject a little humor.

To this day, the Ming persona follows Sigoloff. One of the 15 Porsches in Sigoloff's collection bears the personal license plate, "Ming Tee." A small sign reading, "Ming Wing" marks the entry into Sigoloff's executive quarters.

"The Ming the Merciless has been overdone," observes Clyde Williams at Bristol-Myers, who was a member of the Wickes creditors committee. "It is unfortunate but true that, when someone comes into a situation like Sandy had, they have to make what are very unpleasant decisions."

Tries to Be Fair

Sigoloff says he never dresses down or disagrees with one of his executives in public, so he won't appear unfair and to help squelch the office grapevine.

He has a compassionate side, too. When Wickes closed down its troublesome Chicago-based Aldens Inc. mail-order unit, Sigoloff insisted that all employees be given severance pay for up to six months. In the midst of the retrenchment, Aldens' 42-year-old president died of stomach cancer. Sigoloff personally made sure the executive's family was helped in relocating and settling all insurance matters.

Sigoloff believes that family concerns should come before business. "A guy worrying about his family can't make a good decision."

When the Wickes management team was working 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, Sigoloff organized the "Wickes widows," headed by his wife of 33 years, Betty. "I felt the success of Wickes depended on the ability of the guys who were married to have a normal home life. The heroines were the Wickes widows. They made it possible. They adjusted eating schedules and activities for the kids."

The wives also participated in comparative shopping projects at Wickes' competitors. But when Wickes emerged from its reorganization, they "put their foot down," Sigoloff says. "No more than two staff meetings (a month) and preferably one, no weekend calls. I honestly followed through on the Saturdays. I was really good about it until the acquisition."

Tough on Family Life

As for himself, Sigoloff says, "Wickes really demanded a great measure of my creativity. It was almost overload. It also was tough on my family life."

Through it all, Sigoloff visited his mother, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, three times a week. He also lunched frequently with his ailing father. Both parents died during the reorganization.

Those were the only occasions Sigoloff took time off, according to Chanin at Drexel Burnham. "I could never have stood up under that kind of emotional pressure without blinking an eye like he did. He was extraordinarily well disciplined, but he suffered."

"I took a couple of days off," Sigoloff said as tears welled up in his eyes. "It was very difficult. Those scars don't show."

Now that Wickes is operating as a normal company, Sigoloff drives one of his Porsches or a Mercedes to the office. During the reorganization, he would drive a Honda. "I never wanted anybody to confuse my assets and the company's," he explains. "I didn't want anybody to think poor, ailing Wickes bought off Sigoloff with a Porsche."

So what's the "toughest retailer in America" really like? "I'm a very private person, close to my family, though I'm tough on my kids. When I leave the office, I go to another world. I'm in shorts fixing water sprinklers and scrubbing bird droppings from patio furniture. I listen to my kids' problems and spend time with my wife," Sigoloff says.

Runs at Sunrise

On a typical day, he is running at sunrise in his Encino neighborhood, either with his German shepherd Sheba or his Irish Wheaton terrier Paddy. "This is the most enjoyable time of the day unless I'm attacked by a dog," says Sigoloff, who has had to fend off the same Doberman pinscher twice.

He has breakfast with Betty, then checks in early with his secretary. "With a car phone, I'm deadly," he says.

On his own time, Sigoloff works on his Porsche collection. He says the fun in the collection is in searching for the parts. "It's like putting together a 100-piece black and white puzzle. If you understand that, you understand me." His other hobbies include photography and collecting antique clocks because "I'm a time watcher."

The Sigoloff family, which includes three children aged 24 to 28, usually gathers once a week on Friday nights or Sundays at the family's spacious, white Colonial-style home. The eldest, Steve, is making a career change from real estate into photography and attends Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. John is attending UCLA, where he is working on a double master's in business and engineering. Daughter Laurie, the youngest, is working at a bank and studying for a master's in business administration.

Sigoloff says he tries to have an occasional breakfast or lunch with each of them. "I don't baby my kids," he says. Instead, he expects them to find their niche and "excel at whatever they do." He says he tells them that "just because I'm successful in what I do you can't use me as a crutch."

'Too Hard on Kids'

"Betty says I'm too hard on the kids." She also is a very private person and declined an interview request. Sigoloff says when it comes to shopping at a Builders Emporium, "Betty will go with me, but she won't be seen with me. We meet at the checkout stand."

Sigoloff usually cannot go into a Builders store these days without being recognized. Sales have risen sharply since he took to the tube, and customers call him with ideas, complaints and suggestions. "I always knew we needed a professional spokesman to carry the market. Customer surveys showed they wanted someone with authority."

He says the ad campaign is "exciting for a totally different reason: The consuming public gave Wickes a second try."

Mallory, the chief financial officer, says that, during the bankruptcy, "those commercials were of more value to the company inside than outside. It let everybody focus on Sandy. It was like in an army, the guy out in front with the flag. You identified with him."

When asked whether he might be tempted to try another turnaround, Sigoloff responded, "Would I do it again? Would Betty let me do it again? There is a big difference. Betty has waited in line for her time, and she wants more predictability and time to travel and spend time together. Her position on another killer job? I think she would put her foot down. I think she would be right."

But he admits he might be tempted by a troubled company with $7 billion to $10 billion in sales. "Is there a limit to the size of a business regeneration?" he asks with a grin. "I would be scientifically curious to see if it can be done."

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