All business: Attorney had dealings with a Trump casino in Gary, Ind.

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

In high school, Steve Lemberg was a key member of the debate team, which won the state championship his senior year. The debate topic in the state finals, interestingly enough, would give Lemberg a taste of a legal career that stood ahead: “Resolved, that the jury system in the United States should be significantly changed.”

Lemberg and his debate partner took the affirmative stance, persuasively outlining reasons why the system was in need of reform, while effectively dissecting opposing arguments in favor of maintaining the status quo.

“Being part of that debate team was a tremendous educational experience that has benefitted me throughout my professional career,” said Lemberg, one of five members of the team who eventually became lawyers. “I made lifelong friends from that team, while also developing lifelong skills on how to craft arguments and persuade people.”

Among those he worked to persuade was a man named Trump, as in the former casino owner who now calls 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home as the 45th President of the United States. But more about that later.

Lemberg’s father was a solo practitioner handling personal injury cases and family law.

“He certainly influenced my desire to get a law degree,” Lemberg said. “He was a role model, as was my mother. She owned and operated an art gallery in Birmingham on Old Woodward for years and helped me develop an appreciation for the world of art.”

Yet, Lemberg also had a fascination for the fields of finance and business, interests he pursued while obtaining a BBA from the University of Michigan in 1975 as an accounting major. From there, he enrolled in the University of Michigan  Law School.

“I was most interested in tax law and spent my first summer of law school clerking for a law firm and then the second summer working for an accounting firm in its tax department,” Lemberg indicated.

After graduating, Lemberg began work for Coopers & Lybrand, then one of the top accounting firms in the world. While there, Lemberg became a partner and developed a client base that would lead to a series of business opportunities down the road.

In particular, he became CFO of Creative Concepts in Advertising, a Detroit area company that had built a nationwide sales force offering advertising specialty items.

“At the time, we were the third largest promotional products company in the country with plans to launch an IPO (Initial Public Offering) to raise capital for expansion purposes,” Lemberg related. “It was then that the number one company in that industry (HA-LO) approached us about buying us. It was a proposal that made great economic sense, so we joined forces with them in January 1997.”

Lemberg, who also is a CPA, stayed on with the new company after the merger, assuming the dual role of CFO and COO.

“We were growing organically, acquiring companies in Europe to expand our product base and our reach,” he said.

Several years later, Lemberg became an outside director of Detroiter Don Barden’s gaming company, Majestic Star Casino, which owned casino operations in Las Vegas, Colorado, Mississippi, and Gary, Ind.

“He was a client of mine at Coopers & Lybrand and eventually he brought me on as the number two person in his company with the goal of expanding his casino operations,” Lemberg said of Barden, whose holdings also included cable TV stations and various real estate ventures.

“It was a big job and involved the most travel of any job that I’ve had,” Lemberg said. “I was on the road three to four days a week and it became very challenging.”

It also was where he would cross business paths with another aggressive casino operator – Donald Trump, owner of a neighboring gambling facility in the steel town of Gary, located on the Indiana border and a short drive from the Chicago market.

“We wanted to acquire the Trump casino in Gary and that involved protracted negotiations with a lot of cat-and-mouse games,” Lemberg said of efforts to convince the Trump team to sell at a fair price. “To say it was complicated would be an understatement.”

Yet, sell Trump did, enabling Majestic to then look east to Pittsburgh, where another casino opportunity awaited.

“There was a casino license up for bid in Pennsylvania and fortunately we were the successful party,” said Lemberg, who over the years also advised Barden on a range of other business and personal financial matters.

In 2007, Lemberg became chief financial officer of Nelson Ventures, LLC, a real estate investment and development firm owned by another former client of his at Coopers & Lybrand, Linden Nelson.
While there, Lemberg helped the company begin exploring other business opportunities to further diversify its financial holdings.

The timing coincided with the launch of a film tax credit program by the state to attract movie productions in Michigan.

“At the time, the film incentive program promoted by Governor (Jennifer) Granholm was the most generous in the country and ignited a lot of interest from movie producers nationwide,” said Lemberg.

To accelerate the program, Michigan Motion Picture Studios was born on the site of a former General Motors facility in Pontiac with Lemberg as its CFO.

“I served as the financial architect of that project, and was deeply involved in the development of world class sound facilities on the property,” Lemberg said.

“It attracted a tremendous amount of interest from the film industry, highlighted by the production of Disney’s ‘Oz the Great and Powerful,’ where there were upward of 500 people working on the movie.”

The political winds then shifted under Republican Governor Rick Snyder, who eventually dismantled the film credit program, according to Lemberg.

“The program offered a world of promise on the job front, but it got caught up in the politics of the day and that brought it to a premature end,” he said.

But where there is an end dovetails with a beginning for Lemberg, who in 2013 became COO of the Potiker family investment company, another former client from his Coopers & Lybrand days.

“About a month into my tenure, we were approached by Entertainment Publications to become an investor as it went into Chapter 7 bankruptcy,” Lemberg said of the coupon book company based in Troy.

“Chapter 7, of course, is far different than Chapter 11 cases. In a sense, we were being asked to revive a patient who was on life support.”

With an infusion of cash from the Potiker family, which founded the company in 1962 before selling it in 1992, Entertainment Publications was reborn, this time with Lemberg as CEO from 2015-19.

“It was a very daunting challenge to get the company back on its feet, but Lowell Potiker (son of the company’s founders) had a vision to make it successful again and we were able to build it to a point where it became attractive to potential buyers,” Lemberg explained of the eventual sale in the fall of 2019.

“It was exciting to be part of an effort to transform a bankrupt company into a business that was financially viable again.”

Now, Lemberg continues in his role as COO of the Potiker owned HSP Group, while also serving as a director of College Choice Counseling, a growing educational consulting company founded by his wife, Barbara Connolly.

The couple, both lawyers, have four grown children: daughter Annie, a U-M alumna who is pursuing a master’s degree at the prestigious Ross School of Business; son Tom, a computer science grad from Harvard who is CEO of Curebase, a digital health care company that he founded in San Francisco; Joey, an Massachusetts Institute of Technolgy grad who is a software engineer for Google; and Sam, a Harvard alum who then graduated first in his class from Washington University School of Law in St. Louis and is an attorney with Honigman in Detroit.

The family footprint is concentrated in Southeastern Michigan as son Joey is in the process of buying a home in Royal Oak, a house that will serve as his office as Google mandates working remotely as the pandemic continues unabated.

“It will be great to have three of our four children in the area, especially as we deal with all of the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic,” said Lemberg.

“We take pride in being a tight-knit family that values learning.”


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