All business: Attorney's work has included a Trump casino deal


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. “I made lifelong friends from that team, while also developing lifelong skills on how to craft arguments and persuade people,” he says.

Among those he worked to persuade was a man named Trump, as in the former casino owner who now calls The White House home. But more about that later.

Lemberg had a fascination for finance and business, interests he pursued while obtaining a BBA from the University of MIchigan. From there, he enrolled in the U-M Law School, and after graduating began work for Coopers & Lybrand. He 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, 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, 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, he became an outside director of  Don Barden’s 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 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, Ind.

“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 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, 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 HSP Group, while also serving as a director of College Choice Counseling,  founded by his wife, lawyer Barbara Connolly.


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