Rande Gerber is famous for being married to supermodel Cindy Crawford, but as a businessman he’s well known for his own achievement: helping change America’s nightlife. The New York native did it by inventing something relatively unknown in the late 1980s: the chic hotel lounge, a bar where one can drink in what seems like the comforts of home. A former commercial real estate broker who has done some modeling himself, Gerber’s first establishment was the Whiskey, which opened in 1991 at New York’s Paramount Hotel. The concept quickly took off, spreading to major cities throughout the United States and beyond. Today, Gerber Group is based in Malibu and owns and operates 30 bars, lounges and restaurants, including the Stone Rose Lounge and Whiskey Blue in Los Angeles. Additionally, the company has clubs in New York and six other U.S. cities, as well as Mexico, Chile and Spain. Soon the company will open a restaurant in Malibu, where Gerber lives in a beach house with Crawford and their two children. But the glamorous spotlight also entails some risks. A recent unsuccessful attempt to extort the couple with an innocent but unauthorized photo of their then-7-year-old daughter drew international headlines and the arrest in Germany of a man associated with their former nanny. And a sexual harassment complaint by a waitress drew a spirited defense from actor George Clooney, described as a close personal friend. The Business Journal caught up with Gerber in his posh office overlooking Malibu beach.
Question: How, exactly, does one become an international nightclub impresario? Where you a partier at school?
Answer: Not at all; I was kind of a quiet and laid-back kid. I knew everybody, but didn’t go to the big parties, just kind of stayed low and had a few good friends with whom I hung out and played lots of sports.
Q: What was your home life like?
A: I was brought up on the south shore of Long Island in a middle-class family. My dad was a salesman, working his way up to vice president of a company, then president, and then he owned his own jeans company. But the thing I remember most was that he was always home. He worked in the garment district, an hour and a half away, but he was there every night to put us to bed. Even after my parents split up when I was 13, dad would drive out to see us every day.
Q: Were you entrepreneurial?
A: Growing up, I’d worked in a sporting goods store, a yogurt shop and sold things at a flea market. (After college) I thought I needed to find something where I could work on commission and feel like an entrepreneur. I looked in a newspaper, saw some real estate opportunities, went on some interviews and someone hired me. The job was to go out, find customers who wanted to open stores or landlords willing to lease space and try to get them together. So I did a few deals and enjoyed it; it was hard work and I liked the fact that the only way I was going to make money was if I did a deal. I was in commercial real estate (brokering) for about four years.
Q: How does that translate into bars?
A: One of the people I represented at the time was the owner of the Paramount Hotel, the Morgan Hotel Group. He wanted someone to come in and open a restaurant at the hotel and I was bringing him different restaurant and bar owners who I thought might fit. I pretty much brought him everyone I knew in New York, but no one really turned him on. Then one day he came to me and said, “Why don’t you do it yourself?” I said, “Well, I don’t know anything about the bar business, but I do like to drink and have been to a few bars.” So I came up with a concept.
Q: Which was?
A: I decided that if I was going to do a bar, I wanted to design a place similar to how I entertained at home, which was to sit on nice, comfortable couches, light candles and play good music in a very casual atmosphere. At the time, if you went out it was either to an Irish pub, which was always fun but smelled like beer, or to an upscale place like the St. Regis. I wanted a nice comfortable lounge where people could go for a drink after work, go with their girlfriends or wives, or sit with a group of friends in an atmosphere conducive to conversation where everyone looked good because of the candlelight. My goal, really, was to kind of re-create my living room for the public. A few people thought I was crazy because, at the time, that didn’t really exist.
Q: How did you make it happen?
A: I put my money into it, called a couple of friends and said, “I’m going to open this bar. Do you want to lend me some money?” And they said, “Yeah, sure.” I think we put $200,000 together. I hired a designer and told him what I wanted. So we built the space, opened it and two days later it was packed with lines out the door. I knew a few people in New York, so word got around, but it was also just that the atmosphere I had created was something very new. It was a lounge, the first Whiskey. I really learned the business from being there seven days a week anywhere from 15 to 18 hours a day for the first two years. That was the start. Then we opened in Miami, and later in Los Angeles. Eventually I signed this deal with W to open bars in all their hotels.
Q: How did you meet Cindy Crawford?
A: At one of my bars in New York. Her agent, at the time, was a friend of mine and he was getting married. He invited her to the wedding at a time when her boyfriend was out of town, and invited me but without my girlfriend. So there we were, both going alone, and he said, “Hey, maybe you two should meet and come to the wedding together.” She came to my bar; we had a few drinks, got along and decided to go. We became friends and, a few years later, ended up getting together again and decided to get married.
Q: At one point, I understand you did some modeling?
A: Yes, mostly catalogs and magazines and stuff. I was walking down the street in New York City at 16 one day and a woman stopped me and said she was with Ford Modeling Agency and asked if I had any interest in modeling. So I went to meet with them at their offices. They got me a job in a few days and I was paid more in two days than I had made in a month doing other jobs.
Q: Not bad. How long did you keep it up?
A: I continued modeling through college. They would call me and say, “Hey, we have a job for a week in Greece, do you want to do it?” It wasn’t something I really wanted to do but I thought, hey, it’s a lot of money, and they would pay my way. So, though my dad was paying for school, modeling helped me through vacations and anything else I wanted to do without having to ask for money. After college I moved to Europe where I’d do a modeling job for a week and make enough money to travel for two months. I ended up spending two years traveling around Europe that way.
Q: By the way, why did you go all the way to Arizona for college?
A: I was ready to get away from New York and wanted to go to a college town. At the time, my older brother, Scott, was a freshman at the University of Arizona and I had gone to visit him there. I loved the fact that in Tucson everything was about college.
Q: When did you and Cindy move to Los Angeles?
A: About 10 years ago. I already had a bunch of places and had opened one in L.A. a few years before, the Whiskey at the Sunset Marquis Hotel. It was a huge success and I was living at the hotel at the time. I’d go back and forth to New York, but always kept a room at the hotel because too much was going on here – the beach, the mountains, the weather – and I just loved being in L.A. So I looked around and ended up buying a little house on the beach in Malibu. We also set up our headquarters here, though we still have offices in New York.
Q: What’s it like being married to a celebrity of that ilk?
A: Cindy is a small-town girl, so when you meet her you don’t see the celebrity. You don’t experience it until you go out in public with her. At the time we met, although she was a big model, we were at my bar where there weren’t any paparazzi around so our friendship really developed without all that craziness. Once we got together and the more we were in public, the more we had to deal with it.
Q: Has it ever been a problem?
A: They’re always invading your privacy, but at certain times you expect it. If you go the Ivy restaurant in Hollywood, for instance, you know you’re going to get your picture taken. You can’t control that. Other times, though, when you’re on the beach with your family or on vacation with friends or renting a house in the Bahamas and the chef is taking pictures of you – that is obviously annoying and difficult to deal with. It’s mostly about trying to protect the kids.
Q: Speaking of your kids, I know you recently had an unfortunate experience with someone who tried to extort you using a picture of your daughter tied to a chair.
A: It was an innocent picture taken while my daughter was playing a game with a nanny of ours. Whether she took it for illegal purposes I don’t know and, obviously, our daughter didn’t know. But it ended up in the hands of someone else who gave us a call saying, “I have a picture of your daughter and this is what I want. …” At first I tried to take care of it without anyone knowing, because I didn’t want the whole press thing. But then things got out of hand and it was obvious that he wanted more. We had to get the police involved, and then the FBI.
Q: There has been other publicity recently regarding a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against you by an employee. What’s that about?
A: Unfortunately when you’re in the position that I am – high profile with a little money – there are people who try to take advantage. This was a waitress who said she wasn’t getting good shifts where she worked because I had hit on her and she said no. It was obviously a false accusation; No. 1, do you think I know the work schedules at my places and personally plan the shifts? George Clooney was with me at the time, and he and I both said, “Hey, we’ll come out and take lie-detector tests with you and even do it on TV.” They wouldn’t do it. Now my attorneys are dealing with it and I haven’t heard anything in months.
Q: How do you know George Clooney?
A: He walked into one of my bars in New York and we became friends. George is a huge star, but we’ve known each other for years. He’s the same person now as he was then; he just does different roles and more people know him. My kids know him as Uncle George.
Q: Describe your typical day.
A: I wake about 6:45 a.m. with my beautiful wife next to me and sometimes kids who have quietly snuck in at night. Cindy or I drop them off at school at 8:15 a.m. and I arrive at the office around 10 a.m. to answer e-mails, return calls, go over marketing and PR strategies, review new music playlists and DJs, or go over current and future designs. At 3:30 p.m. I call the kids to see how their day was. Then I go through the stack of mail on my desk that has been there for days. About 5:30 p.m. I head home to hang out with the kids some more.
Q: Do you like what you do?
A: I love design. I love coming up with new concepts, ideas as far as marketing and anything creative, whether it’s designing a uniform, laying out a space or deciding what music we play. The biggest challenge is letting go. I take everything personally; it’s very difficult to let go of things, but you need to as you grow. You can’t choose the napkins for a place anymore because you got other things to worry about.
Q: Anything you don’t like?
A: Probably the constant pressure of being open somewhere in the world 24-7. So, although I’m not there, I’m always feeling the energy and pressure of business going on. I can be at dinner with my family at 9 p.m. or lying awake at 2 a.m. and get an emergency call or e-mail from one of the clubs.
Q: And now you are opening a place close to home with a partner.
A: Yes. All my friends who live here, as well as my family, have been saying please open a place for years. We have a few restaurants in Malibu, but nothing really for families. I finally (discovered) a concept, a restaurant in New York called Cafe Habana, which I think would be perfect for here. So I approached the owner, he came out a couple of times, loved the space and said let’s do it. We just started construction and are hoping to open in February or March. As for the future, we’re always being approached with new ideas; I could probably do eight places a year.
Q: Why do you think your business has continued to thrive even in such a challenging economic climate?
A: There’s an old saying that when times are good people drink, but when times are bad they drink even more.
Q: Do you ever reflect about how far you’ve come in life?
A: I feel extremely lucky and grateful that I have this life. My dad taught me values that can only be learned through example. I try every day to be the man he was and hope he is looking down at me with a smile on his face and a drink in his hand.
COMPANY: Gerber Group
BORN: 1962; New York
EDUCATION: B.A., television and film production, University of Arizona
CAREER TURNING POINT: Opening his second bar and realizing that its success was not a fluke
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: His father, Jordan Gerber; his wife, supermodel Cindy Crawford and two children; British industrialist Richard Branson, who he’s only met but finds “very inspirational”
PERSONAL: Lives in a Malibu beach house with his wife and their two children, an 8-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy; couple owns a second home in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
HOBBIES: Riding motorcycles, entertaining friends, playing basketball and tennis
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