From The Blog

A Commitment to Kiawah: Resort Owner, Bill Goodwin

The Goodwin family owns Kiawah Island Golf Resort, including Night Heron Park, the Sanctuary Hotel, the conference center and other commercial facilities at East Beach, the Straw Market, the oceanfront site of the original Kiawah Island Inn, two tennis centers, and four golf courses including the Ocean Course, site of the 2012 PGA Championship. Although their umbrella corporation, The Riverstone Group, owns multiple companies and 5-star hotels and resorts, his family’s strongest commitment is to Kiawah. “All our family members want to keep it forever,” Bill Goodwin says.

Bill has built a significant investment portfolio gradually over four decades. He earned his reputation as a successful businessman by adhering throughout his life to his principles of hard work, integrity, fair business dealings and by avoiding debt. Now at age 71, Bill has begun to turn his business interests over to his children while remaining available to assist in both policy making and day-to-day affairs. “They are in charge of the various companies, have proven to be capable managers, and are ready for me to move on,” he remarks. “I help when I can, and try to teach when asked. I think they are doing very well.”

Pulling back from business does not mean that Bill will lead a quiet life. “I am always busy, with business, civic endeavors, playing golf, spending time with my seven grandchildren, and enjoying the other things that my wife Alice and I like to do together. We are fortunate to have various groups of friends that we’ve traveled with over the years for golf and, more recently, for biking trips in Europe. We’re going soon to South Africa.” Alice and Bill also have several philanthropic interests, particularly cancer research and education.

Although Bill has led a full life raising his family, creating a corporate empire, and supporting philanthropic interests, his dedication to excellence extends beyond his personal and corporate life. Asked what he would do if he had another adult life to live, he says, “I’ve had a great life and I have no regrets. I live life to the fullest and keep the scorecard clean. But if I could, I would improve education of the under privileged. Through education, I would hope we could help shrink the disparity between the poor and the wealthy. A growing segment of the population isn’t productive, and it’s a worldwide problem. I have tried to do what I can for our local school system, but we need a much wider effort. I would create a system to house disadvantaged children and teach them from a young age.”

Bill spent most of his childhood in southern Virginia, where he says he “led a country life, played a lot of sports, had fun dating girls and otherwise practiced being a normal kid.” He earned a degree in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech. “I knew I probably wouldn’t practice engineering,” he says, “but I chose it because math was my strong suit.” He financed his education mostly himself, graduating debt-free by waiting tables and other odd jobs, and as a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), which he enrolled in partly for the monthly stipend.

After a ROTC stint in Germany, where he stoked his love of golf playing at the local officers club, Bill earned his MBA from the University of Virginia. “I thought I would go to law school,” he says, “but some lawyer friends talked me out of it.” He met his wife of 45 years, Alice, at the end of his first year of business school and they married 18 months later. After graduation he accepted an offer from IBM and moved to Richmond, VA, where he still lives today.

Bill’s father had started a small business–selling international farm equipment–when Bill was a child, and he intended to do the same, although he did not expect to work for his father. After about five years with IBM, he was ready to strike out on his own. “We had been married almost five years and had two of our five children with a third on the way. We had saved $6,000, and my wife gave me six months,” he recalls. “I had three ideas, one of which was a computer leasing company.” Thus Commonwealth Computer Advisors was born.

The success of that initial venture, now known as CCA Financial, enabled Bill to expand into other businesses. Bill has acquired and sometimes sold several other companies, often dealing with premium products, and he created a parent company, The Riverstone Group – so named by Alice after the exterior of a building she admired – to house them. Among its holdings, in addition to the Kiawah Resort, are Sea Pines; 5-star hotels, including the Sanctuary, the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond and the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville; and a recently-purchased resort near Charlottesville, VA, Keswick Hall, with the luxury community’s golf club, utility company and some homesites.

Kiawah was Bill’s first foray into high-end hospitality. He and Alice have had a home in Sea Pines, at Hilton Head, since the mid 1970’s and had tried unsuccessfully to buy Sea Pines. Bill tells the story of the Kiawah purchase:

“I went with a Sea Pines golf group to play the Ocean Course when it first opened. I had a recent MBA graduate working for me whose job it was to pursue business deals. He learned that Kiawah’s bankrupt owner, Landmark, would have to auction off five properties, one of which was Kiawah. We qualified to bid on them and went to Dallas for the auction. All the bidders were big wheels, about 15 of them. Buddy Darby was there, although I didn’t know him then. He was with Morgan Stanley, who he hoped would buy Kiawah.”

“About a week earlier, my wife and I had attended a Sotheby’s auction where she had found three antique tables she liked. Her bids on the first two were unsuccessful, so when the third table came up, she put her paddle in the air and didn’t take it down until the auctioneer assured her that she had bought the table. It was prophetic. In Dallas for the Landmark auction, my young MBA assistant and I feigned bids on the first few properties, and then I went to the bathroom. When I returned, I learned that we had bought Kiawah because he had raised his paddle and not taken it down until he won. He didn’t even know what he had paid!”

“But that wasn’t the end. I learned to my surprise that they were next going to auction the five properties as a group, to maximize the potential proceeds of the sale. People from KKR (Kohlberg Kravis Roberts) introduced themselves to me and said they were planning to buy the whole package. But they didn’t want me to bid against them and offered to sell me Kiawah for the price I had just agreed to if I would refrain from bidding. They didn’t know we would not have bid for the package; they didn’t even know who we were. They just knew that we didn’t take down our paddle.”

Bill’s commitment to Kiawah is unwavering. His negotiations with the town during the recent development agreement still rankle. “I’m not a negotiator,” he says. “I don’t start high and work down. I make a fair offer and I don’t vary much. I based what I thought was fair on the 2005 agreement with the developer. I would have liked to get approval for a Night Heron plan that would improve the island experience for everyone – as the Sanctuary has done. The Sanctuary was a personal project for Alice and me. We were personally involved in the selection of every piece of fabric and furniture. We built a room before we built the building, to see what it would look like.”

A lifelong aversion to debt makes Bill cautious about future development on Kiawah. He will not move until he thinks the economy can support what he builds. “I’m not big on debt,” he opines. “People get into trouble with debt. We never had any debt on the Sanctuary or any of the other Kiawah assets.” He would like to build a boutique inn at West Beach, but is disturbed by reports of a chain hotel coming to Freshfields, as he does not think the island community can support two more hotels.

Bill thinks the condominium development he once envisioned is not feasible today, and that a new inn could rejuvenate all of West Beach. He would build “a small cottage-type hotel in keeping with the spirit of West Beach.” “If we were to create a well designed core, each ring around it would begin to improve itself – properties would be improved when they turned over and old homes would be renovated – and over a decade we would see a resurgence in West Beach.”

However, it is unlikely to be Bill overseeing the resurgence. The economy is not right to begin yet, and in the next few years, he expects to turn over the management of Kiawah to his children. He is not sure of the logistics because all the family members want to be involved. “We have board meetings five times a year and there’s lots of discussion about Kiawah. Three of my kids, which includes my son-in-law who I think of as one of my children, are on the board and they’re very vocal. Everyone’s intent is to make something better – that’s true of all the companies we own. We reinvest the profits in our companies to make them better.”

The upcoming PGA Championship could provide the boost that Kiawah needs to spur resort development. Bill is pleased with the preparations and the prospects, and thinks that the only potential serious problem areas are a weather event or transportation disaster. He has praise for everyone: Roger Warren, the team working on the event, Pete Dye – the architect of the course – the Kiawah community volunteers, the town and the state. “The Ocean Course is an outstanding venue deserving of a major tournament. Everyone has pitched in to make the event exceptional.”