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Financier and philanthropist Bill Edwards amps up entertainment empire


Upstairs, where he oversees 880 employees who aggressively hawk mortgages across the country, Bill Edwards makes money. Downstairs, where he has a state-of-the-art recording studio, he makes music.

"I'd rather be down here a lot more," the 66-year-old financier/impresario says before clamping his eyes shut and playing air drums while listening to a new artist out of California. "Why can't I make the kind of money down here that I make up there?"

Edwards, multimillionaire, chief executive of Mortgage Investors Corp., philanthropist and overgrown teenager, is poised to be among the biggest cultural forces in Tampa Bay. The St. Petersburg City Council just voted to award his music promotion company the job of managing the struggling Mahaffey Theater. Edwards already has plenty on his plate: a mortgage company that refinanced $4.1 billion worth of VA loans last year, the Big 3 Entertainment music production and distribution company, two Treasure Island hotels, the Garden Restaurant, and the Club at Treasure Island, which he bought out of bankruptcy and plans to enhance with 24 luxury suites, a bowling center and small movie theater. He partnered on a $1 million renovation of Jannus Landing in St. Petersburg and then pulled out days after it reopened last year.

"He doesn't win every time, but he swings that bat more than anyone I know,'' said an admiring Cedric Harris, who worked for Edwards' mortgage company for five years.

Financially, Edwards has gone platinum many times over. As a record producer he hasn't fared as well.

He says he started in the mortgage business in 1993 with $30,000 borrowed on a 90-day note that he paid back in 45 days. Last year he closed the highest number of interest rate reduction VA loans in the country, 20,000, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

He grew up poor, one of six children of a New Bedford, Mass., taxi driver. The Vietnam vet who never went to college now owns an 8,400-square-foot house in Treasure Island and a Boeing jet that he flies to take in shows in Las Vegas or play in golf tournaments with Prince Albert II in Monte Carlo. Among the charities he supports are All Children's Hospital, which he has given $3.4 million. He also is the largest donor in history to Veterans Airlift Command, which transports wounded veterans and family members to hospitals.

Though he has worked with artists like Cheap Trick, Josh Groban, Christian rock band Stryper and Carnie Wilson, none has recorded a huge hit on his Big 3 label. He distributes Sen. Orrin Hatch's annual album of the Utah Republican crooning his favorite holiday songs. An American Idol runner-up is coming in to record soon.

"I don't make a fortune. Used to be we lost money, now we make money," Edwards said. "One of these days somebody's going to come in here and blow the whole thing out of the water."

In 2004, he offered the city $10 million for Mahaffey renovations in exchange for the rights to manage the theater for five years and keep all revenue. Before the city made a decision, he abruptly rescinded the offer. Edwards still donated $2 million to Mahaffey.

The St. Petersburg Times later revealed that he was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession in Greece, accused of shipping the drug from his St. Petersburg business to the yacht he was vacationing on. Edwards told officers that the marijuana relieved back pain caused by a war injury. His conviction was thrown out on appeal.

"It was a matter of being insulted. It was an emotional thing," Edwards said when asked recently about why he backed out of the potential deal.

Edwards plans to book more expensive acts with bigger draws. He says he'll have the help of Joe Jimenez, managing director of the Edwards Group, whom he recruited from MGM Grand at Foxwoods and was previously at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

"We know the agents for the bigger acts, the people that bring in the bigger crowd," Jimenez said. "There are so many acts that fit perfectly in that 2,000-seat arena."

The pair also want to package Mahaffey shows with hotels, museums and restaurants. Say Gladys Knight plays the Mahaffey at 8 p.m. That ticket could be combined with dinner at Bella Brava, then a night at the Vinoy.

"We're not selling a two-hour show within four walls. We're selling a six-hour show for all of downtown," Edwards said.

"Edwards has the ability to bring the theater to a new vibrancy level with different types of acts and shows," said former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker.

The lineup the company secured for the Taste of Pinellas at Vinoy Park is impressive, headlined by retro rocker Chris Isaac, country singer Josh Turner and blues legends Bonnie Raitt and Buddy Guy.

Last year he partnered with Jeff Knight on the renovation of Jannus Landing. Within days of the reopening of Jannus Live, Knight bought out Edwards' share.

"My part was going to be to do the entertainment there. We had a difference of opinion on what entertainment I liked vs. what (he) wanted," Edwards said. "We parted friends."

Knight declined to comment for this article.

Last summer, Edwards' production of Sgt. Pepper Live at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel, featuring Cheap Trick performing the beloved Beatles album, was well reviewed. For 38 shows, the band played with showgirls, cascading papier-mache hearts and a full orchestra.

He met his current wife, Joey, 36, through his music business. Several years back, someone sent him a CD with four cuts from an aspiring country singer in California who wrote her own lyrics.

"I signed her up before I ever met her and then I met her and she was gorgeous," he gushed. "Six years later we were married, and two years after that we had a baby."

The baby was born in January, on Edwards' 66th birthday. He also has four grown children.

"I'm not 66, I'm 30," he said, taking off his leather blazer and flexing his arms. "Check out these guns." To two 20-something Big 3 employees, he's far from a senior citizen boss.

"When you're in Vegas with Bill, you get front-row tickets to a sold-out show," said music producer Jason Pennock. "We sat in front of Tiger Woods at one of the fights. We were so close we were getting sprayed by the blood."

Then there was that time they were in Monte Carlo for a golf tournament with Prince Albert II and Kevin Costner and grew tired of the French food. Edwards had the jet fly them to the nearest town with a McDonald's. A delivery truck was waiting at the airport with Big Macs and fries for everyone.

Money man

On an average day the employees in Mortgage Investors Corp.'s outgoing-call center book 300 appointments for loan officers to visit veterans in their homes. About 75 percent of those result in a refinanced VA loan.

A POW-MIA flag hangs in the call center. Being a veteran is an asset to the business and part of who Edwards is. Yet he also has tried to distance himself from his time in the Marines to the extent of legally changing his name.

He entered the Marine Corps as Edward Francis Sylvia III. While stationed near Honolulu he rushed into burning staff quarters and rescued three children and their father, then received a spot promotion to lance corporal. Shortly after he was sent to Vietnam, where he survived without a scratch until he was two weeks from going home.

He tripped a mine while on a mission. "Then in the middle of all this there was a sniper somewhere in a tree who shot me in the leg," he recounted 45 years later. A medical unit did surgery, but doctors wanted to amputate his leg when he returned to the United States. He refused and spent 19 months in hospitals.

"They gave me the story that I would never walk again, and I'm still dancing," he said, throwing in a little soft shoe.

Perhaps the emotional wounds were even worse. He returned to Massachusetts and got married but was still haunted by the war and other issues. After his marriage ended he moved to Detroit and changed his name to William Larry Edwards.

"In the early '70s I changed my name, which many people do. It wasn't a big secret. It was a personal issue as far as I'm concerned," he said when asked by the Times about his previous name. "There are a lot of cool things I did in the military to make me a hero that got me decorated. But it was a really tough situation to be in the Marine Corps. The further I got away from the Marine Corps and Vietnam, the better for me."

Being a veteran is key to the success of his business, he said, and he mentions it in much of the advertising. He calls the script he personally wrote for telemarketers "the book." They are not to veer from it. It's based on sales principles he has culled from 20 years along with "understanding, firsthand, veterans, how they think, speak, analyze and relate to people."

Edwards' flair for the dramatic shows up in his mortgage business. The employee who books the most appointments in a day may get 30 seconds in the glass booth grabbing money blown around with a fan. The first one to book 20 appointments on any day might get to spin something akin to the Wheel of Fortune for a chance to win $5 to $100.

Some say his company's tactics are too aggressive. In the past three years, 252 people filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau. About 20 have posted negative comments on in the past two years. Seven complaints have been filed with the Florida Office of Financial Regulation in the same amount of time. The majority say that telemarketers call repeatedly or that loan officers who visit their homes are very pushy. Some attest that closing costs end up being a lot more than they expected and monthly savings aren't as great as they were initially told.

The Office of Financial Regulation found no violations when it investigated complaints or during five examinations of MIC from 1998 to 2010. According to the Better Business Bureau, MIC is approachable and works to correct problems. Comparatively, a couple of other large companies it monitors in the area, Rooms to Go and HSN, received 1,491 and 459 complaints in the past two years.

"We do our best to avoid causing complaints, but we make thousands of calls a day and we can't avoid a small percentage from filing complaints, which we respond to as quickly as possible," Edwards said.

MIC's website promises veterans their loans will close in eight to 10 days. No appraisal, income verification or debt-to-income ratio is required. "Less than perfect credit" isn't a deal breaker.

The scenario seems ripe for some homeowners to breeze into a refinanced loan they may not be able to handle.

"It doesn't matter how much their house is worth if they can make the payments. The VA has already guaranteed it," Edwards said. "They have to be current. If they've never been late and I can save them $300 a month, that's not a risk. The one thing we check is credit. Their credit has to be good."

In 2008, the Department of Housing and Urban Development investigated 22 MIC loans and found that the company failed to do due diligence and refinanced loans to borrowers whose mortgages were delinquent at the time of refinancing. MIC didn't admit wrongdoing but paid the FHA $78,500.

All the paperwork for appointments, loan applications and closings are processed at MIC's 90,000-square-foot Central Avenue headquarters, which was the first headquarters for Raymond James Financial. Edwards bought the adjacent small apartment building because he wanted to own the whole block. There are two generators on hand to prevent any delay in loan closing and moneymaking should the power go out.

As for those apartment dwellers, "They don't make me enough money for me to give them a generator," he joked.

Cedric Harris earned his first $1 million at age 27 as MIC's marketing president. He credits Edwards for changing his life.

"He's the type of guy who can make decisions and stick to his decisions and keep it moving," said Harris, now an Internet marketer and public speaker. "He doesn't sit around and let it marinate all the time."


Edwards loves his adopted town of Treasure Island. He ponied up $50,000 to $100,000 (he can't remember exactly how much) for it to have its own chamber of commerce, separate from the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce. "Our tourism is down. Our hotels on the beach, we can't knock them down and we can't build them up bigger. We try to hold them together with glue or whatever else we have," he said.

Edwards is pushing for more events like volleyball tournaments and street festivals to draw tourists. Edwards says the shows, weddings and events at his club are a shot in the arm for other businesses. He cited how comedian Richard Lewis is playing the club in July and just called to talk about renting a boat.

Did Edwards warn him to expect some extremely hot outings on that boat in July?

"I told him it will be 73 degrees and sunny," he said with a laugh. "I tell everybody it's 73 degrees here."

Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at [email protected] News researchers Natalie Watson, John Martin and Carolyn Edds and Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.

Bill Edwards

Age: 66

Home: Treasure Island

Education: High school in Massachusetts followed by "the University of the Marines."

Family: Wife, Joey, one newborn daughter. Three children from first marriage. Stepson from second marriage. Three grandchildren.

Business holdings: Mortgage Investors Corp.; the Edwards Group, which includes Big 3 Entertainment; Bill Edwards Presents; the Club at Treasure Island; Crystal Palms hotel; the Algiers at Treasure Island; the Garden Restaurant; and more than 150,000 square feet of retail and office space in Pinellas County.

Charities: The Edwards Family Foundation, All Children's Hospital, the Veterans Airlift Command, Boys and Girls Club of St. Petersburg.

Financier and philanthropist Bill Edwards amps up entertainment empire 04/18/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 18, 2011 4:07pm]
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