Corporex At a Glance

Owns and/or operates hotels in Kentucky (Embassy Suites Cincinnati RiverCenter, Cincinnati Marriott at RiverCenter), as well as Ohio (Embassy Suites Columbus/Dublin, Embassy Suites Cleveland/Rockside) and elsewhere across the country. In addition, the company owns or operates many Hiltons, Hampton Inns and Courtyards by Marriott at many major airports in Ohio and Kentucky

"” Owns Corporex Capital, the investment arm of the company, and Corporex Realty, the commercial real estate arm

"” Owns the Five Seasons Sports Country Clubs, with operations in Northern Kentucky, Cincinnati, Dayton, Cleveland, Chicago, and more.

Bill Butler is stepping to the stage. It's a chilly evening in mid-March, and the expansive Northern Kentucky Convention Center is teeming with Butler's employees, legions of them, plus selected VIPs and heavy-hitters: Bengals owner Mike Brown. WLW radio host Jim Scott. Cincinnati Post editor Mike Philipps. And more.

It's a heady night of celebration for the CEO and for Corporex, the company he founded exactly 40 years ago, and Butler is intent on throwing a birthday party unlike any other. A half-dozen open bars line the entrance to the elaborately decorated ballroom. Corporex logos are projected onto massive screens on the walls. Television cameras are everywhere. And, in the center of it all stands a giant 42-foot-high harp, or so-called "sonic sculpture," flown in as part of the evening's entertainment. Butler has imported the nationally acclaimed performance group MASS Ensemble in from Los Angeles just for the event. The scale of the entertainment matches the scale of the guest list, and the mood in the ballroom turns almost surreal.

Little surprise. Throughout his career, William P. Butler has always done everything on a scale that's larger-than-life.

Flash back to two weeks before the party. We're seated in the cavernous corporate boardroom on a top floor of the Corporex headquarters at RiverCenter, the immense office high-rise towers that are the largest office structures on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River. Anything of substance on the riverfront "” the government, the convention center, the business district "” sits in the shadow of Corporex. That visual imagery conveys a certain reality.

Butler, leaning back in his chair, pauses to contemplate the first question: How in the world did a 22-year-old kid with no cash in his wallet create, over the course of four decades, a company that owns and operates in excess of $1 billion in assets?

"I sometimes give talks to graduating classes at universities, and they always ask me one question: How did you get your start? And I always answer this way: I was like a bull in a shoot at the rodeo at the age of 22, and somebody opened the gate," Butler recalls.

"I had no money, no business plan, but [had] a lot of idealism and energy. I had a terrible need to succeed, and had an equally terrible fear of failure."

Corporex is greater Cincinnati's stealth corporation, often operating under the radar screen. The firm designs and develops first-class commercial properties, business parks, hotels and sports country clubs across the country, while quietly investing in a variety of financial instruments including equities, mortgages and interest-rate sensitive transactions. With headquarters in Northern Kentucky, Butler's enormous firm operates offices in Denver, Orlando and Boston.

Butler attributes his company's survival and success to a corporate philosophy of intensive management partnered with conservative borrowing. That, and his stated fear of failure.

"That fear has served me well over many extremes in our economy over the past 30 years, beginning with the oil embargo and out-of-control inflation and interest rates," he explains. "That's the economy we built this company in, an acute recession in '73 to '75 followed by spiraling inflation which led to 22 percent interest rates, followed by the S&L debacle and a credit crunch, a total cutoff of money by the banking industries in 1990-95."

Another thoughtful pause, then ... "That economic turbulence affected the real estate industry more than any other, because of our high levels of leverage, of debt."

Butler has always had the reputation of spending wisely and soundly. Which has the pundits wondering about his latest venture: Butler is taking a page from Citizen Kane, launching his own newspaper "” not exactly a guaranteed route to huge profits. "The Sunday Challenger venture is a logical extension of our core commitment as a corporate entity "” and also as individuals "” to do something to advance the community of Northern Kentucky," he says of the weekly he founded last summer.

Now that Gannett has purchased the two dozen Community Press papers that ring the I-275 suburbs on both sides of the river, the Sunday Challenger stands as about the only non-Gannett-controlled mainstream newspaper in Cincinnati. Gannett outright owns the Enquirer and controls the business and delivery operations of the afternoon Post through a Joint Operating Agreement (JOA). And when the JOA expires at the end of Dec. 31, 2007, few expect the Cincinnati or Kentucky Posts to survive another day.

"Our economic criteria is totally different than Gannett's," stipulates Butler. "In a sense, we will get paid in terms of the changes and progress that our community experiences over time. It really doesn't matter what the other newspapers do. Their mission is different than ours."

Later in the day, sitting in Challenger publisher Donald Then's office on the ground floor of the Corporex building, you get the sense "” indeed "” of a Great Plan here. The aggressive Challenger newspaper has just won 17 journalism awards from the Kentucky Press Association (including first place for general excellence), and that's with only three months worth of publications to enter in that contest for calendar year 2004. "Next week's issue will be our largest ever," Then says.

Butler himself weighs in on the newspaper "” its motto: "A Voice for Northern Kentucky "” with this: "The Sunday Challenger ... is dedicated to change, indeed a long-term process to inform, to educate."

And, we'd insert here, to anger. Yes, the weekly (and Butler himself) has its fair share of critics, business and political leaders who don't agree with some of Butler's visions for the region's future.

"Currently, for example, we are putting forth dialogue on the concept of merging the county governments with each other," Butler notes. "We have three county governments. We need one which is strong and can finance economic growth. We want someone in leadership to be courageous in the end; to stand up and to lead a referendum."

Who would lead such a unified SuperCounty government for Northern Kentucky? Some have boldly put forth the name Bill Butler, as it happens, but Butler himself suggests that his business is driving economic development and that it's business leadership, not political leadership, that has made the Northern Kentucky riverfront's retail thrive as the city of Cincinnati's riverfront languishes.

Back to the bigger picture: What about the destiny of Corporex itself?

"We're in the process of totally remaking this company. In two to three years, people will understand us with a completely different perception than they've known for the past 30 years. They've known us as a development and construction company. They will come to know us for our financial orientation.

"We intend to focus on a diverse front," Butler continues, "including our historical business of commercial real estate and also the Five Seasons sports country clubs, but with a heavy focus on that part of us which we refer to as Corporex Capital. We intend to form what I'd call partnership funds. These funds will range in size from $50 million to $200 million each."

The CEO says he intends to form alliances with younger entrepreneurial developers who need a capital partner. "We will have the advantage of not only being a capital provider, but being a true partner, with expertise in the development trade."

Corporex also plans to transform the Kentucky shoreline (again), building a 20-story glass tower called "The Ascent," designed by Daniel Libeskind (the architect designing the structure to be built on the site of the World Trade Center).

"Growth is what we are all about, stretching often, and creatively following unproven ideas. Corporex is not a place for the insecure at heart. This is a place for people who want a platform for challenge, opportunity to take on more responsibility more quickly, people who earn respect out of their deeds."

So the story ends as it began. Bill Butler is stepping to the stage. Be it the political stage, the media stage or the financial stage "” or a bit of all three "” is anybody's guess.