Monument to an ego

Why is multimillionaire Scott Ginsburg building one of the world's most expensive restaurants in Dallas? Because he can.

Some doubt that Ginsburg's bold restaurant is workable, at least in a strictly financial sense. Dao says they project Voltaire's annual sales will be roughly $10 million, which would put it right at the top of the city's most successful restaurants such as Del Frisco's and Cool River Café -- quite a mark to strive for right out of the chute.

But Dallas restaurant consultant Matthew Mabel, who has known Ginsburg for years, says he wouldn't bet on Voltaire's breakaway success.

Judy Walgren
Former radio mogul Scott Ginsburg may not have any experience in the culinary arts, but he believes his new restaurant, Voltaire, will be a huge success because of his business acumen. His unlimited ability to throw money at any problem should also help.
Judy Walgren
Former radio mogul Scott Ginsburg may not have any experience in the culinary arts, but he believes his new restaurant, Voltaire, will be a huge success because of his business acumen. His unlimited ability to throw money at any problem should also help.

"Experience tells me that these are deals that longtime industry professionals would never touch," he says. "But sometimes the people that don't know better do them and they work. I wouldn't have picked that site and that concept and that budget in Dallas in 1999." Mabel says Ginsburg's concept is exactly the opposite of what conventional restaurant wisdom dictates. Sites framed by high-traffic thoroughfares are more suitable for moderately priced, high-volume venues. Destination restaurants like Voltaire, with its $50-$65 estimated per-person check average, are more appropriate for off-the-beaten path locales, which adds to the dining allure. "The most expensive restaurant in town doesn't need a 90,000 car count, because people will seek it out," Mabel adds.

Yet Ginsburg's move fits neatly into Voltaire's overriding philosophy, which is to question everything. "You don't have to come out of any specific industry to put together a great restaurant," he says. "You have to have a sense of what the right thing to do is."

And Ginsburg says his sense was honed through years of relentless air travel as he scoured the country assembling deals and acquisitions for his radio empire. Over 10 years of constant travel, he says, he became hypersensitive to space and service.

"I've spent so many years squished row-to-row, seat-to-seat...that I became quite claustrophobic," he says. "It just became 'what are you going to do and what are you going to spill on me this time?'" The experience made him realize the vitality of attractive, comfortable environments. But his life wasn't always such a jet-set rush.

Originally from Sioux City, Iowa, Ginsburg attended college in Washington, D.C., where he earned a B.A. and a law degree from Georgetown University before passing the D.C. bar. But Ginsburg says that he had no desire to practice law and that as soon as he got his license, he chucked it in the trash.

Instead, he immersed himself in the political and legislative process, working as an aid to former Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) and as staff director for two Senate subcommittees. The experience proved invaluable when Ginsburg sought to influence the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a bit of legislation he shrewdly exploited to pump up Evergreen's unprecedented growth rate.

Ginsburg picked up his first station in Miami in the early '80s and founded Statewide Broadcasting Inc. and later H & G Communications Inc., operating just a handful of radio stations.

In 1988, Ginsburg moved to Dallas because of DFW airport, and founded Evergreen Media Corp. with six stations. He built the company into a radio powerhouse by embarking on a vigorous national acquisition campaign. By 1996 Ginsburg had a portfolio of some 34 radio stations, giving his company a presence in every one of the country's top 10 markets.

But it was a brush with Tom Hicks that changed the course of his business life. In September 1997, Evergreen merged with Hicks' Chancellor Broadcasting in a $2.4 billion stock swap to create Chancellor Media, which quickly became the nation's largest radio broadcast company. The move put Hicks in the chairman's slot while Ginsburg assumed the role of president and chief executive officer.

Over the course of that year, Chancellor Media shares tripled in value, making it by far the best-performing stock in the radio industry. "I'll take my record and put it up against anybody else's," Ginsburg boasts. "We did lots of innovative work. And I had a unique talent to build the company and make it work."

Because the Telecom Act loosened radio ownership restrictions, Ginsburg was able to penetrate major radio markets by forming what he calls "clusters" -- groups of up to eight FM and AM stations in the same market that could streamline operations and maximize profits.

But by April 1998, a rift developed between Hicks and Ginsburg. Hicks wanted to dispense with Ginsburg's focus on major markets and diversify into television, billboards, and medium-market radio stations. So he yanked Ginsburg's CEO designation, promising him a significant role in the recast media company. Instead, Ginsburg took a walk, taking with him a severance package reportedly worth more than $59 million in cash, stock, and long-term consulting fees.

The stock market didn't take kindly to Ginsburg's exit, and it pounded Chancellor's stock immediately. It didn't help that the company was hit with a second-quarter 1998 loss after writing down Ginsburg's compensation package.

Chancellor (since renamed AMFM Inc.) never recaptured the Wall Street luster it had under Ginsburg. "[Hicks] didn't understand the foundation that I built," says Ginsburg, referring to his strategy of picking up groups of stations in major markets.

Ginsburg has parlayed his radio expertise into other ventures as well. Last year, he invested $11 million in Digital Generation Systems, a San Francisco-based digital network service provider, where he is chairman of the board. Ginsburg is also chairman and CEO of StarGuide Digital Network Inc., in which he acquired the controlling interest from televangelist Pat Robertson. Through this company, Ginsburg plans to exploit a technology that delivers live-action video from the Internet through digital subscriber lines.

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