Power '06 - The Gambler: Steve Ellman

What does the Valley want? Just ask developer Steve Ellman, who’s finally found a buyer for his vision of Phoenix’s second city.


Published: Camelback, August/September, 2006



Steve Ellman knows how to get to your sweet spot. Talk to the premier Valley developer and former Coyotes co-owner for just a few minutes, and, faster than a Google AdWords match-up, Ellman can tailor an offer matching personal needs you weren’t even aware you revealed.

Take the time Ellman was looking to woo Paul McCartney to his then two-year-old Glendale Arena for a concert last November. After 40 years of continuous rock-god treatment, Sir Paul has become notoriously hard to impress, and Ellman’s young arena seemed a little too far removed from

Power '06

downtown to be considered for the legend's sole Phoenix stop.

But Ellman, a Paradise Valley resident, father of a 19-year-old daughter, and whose wife of 32 years, Kelly, is active in the fashion design department at the Phoenix Art Museum, hit McCartney up with an offer that cut straight to his pride as a father and fellow man-among-women.

Noting that McCartney’s daughter, Stella, was set to launch her own clothing line in H&M stores across North America the same month Macca was set to play Phoenix, Ellman said he’d pull the strings to get an exhibit of her fashions into the Phoenix Art Museum to coincide with the concert.

The result? Stella McCartney ended up passing on the exhibit offer. But dad bonded enough with Ellman to take his business to Glendale Arena, paving the way for other top draws like the Rolling Stones, Madonna, U2 and Bruce Springsteen to choose the west Valley venue as their Phoenix home over the more established downtown halls – and making it, in only its third year of operations, the 18th busiest concert facility in the world.

“The fact that I was talking to McCartney about his daughter, about doing a fashion exhibit for her, broke the ice. Okay? It broke the ice,” Ellman says in his typically energized voice. “You always try to offer something that takes it just out of the business realm and brings it into a personal level.”

With an address book on his Treo full of influential friends and partners, the 54-year-old land magician is uniquely positioned to offer major players just about any sweet perk to be had in the Valley.

To lure the Canadian rock band Nickelback to his arena, for example, Ellman offered the band members – who, Ellman discovered, were serious hockey buffs – a private pick-up game with a certain business partner of his by the name of Wayne Gretzky.

Luring Gretzky to the Valley in 2000 to take over coaching of the then-floundering Coyotes (Ellman has since sold his 25% ownership in the team) was a different matter. Ellman simply flew to Gretzky’s California home and spent twelve hours straight pestering The Great One to come on board. “It was grilling but good,” Gretzky later told the Arizona Republic. “Steven Ellman is a persistent man.”

Whether winning ’em over with perceptively heart-tugging offers or sheer bull-headed determination, Steve Ellman knows how to get a “yes” out of just about anybody – save for maybe Scottsdale voters and officials, who famously waffled over his costly, city-funded redevelopment plans for the dilapidated Los Arcos Mall until Ellman finally sold the land to ASU for $41.5 million and took his vision to Glendale.

There, with a revitalized Valley West Mall (now Northern Crossing) rescued from Los Arcos’ fate and the first phase of his billion-dollar Westgate project set to open this fall, Ellman is revered as the visionary gambler determined to turn their once-sleepy ’burb into the hot spot of the Southwest.

“What Steve is bringing to Glendale is the opportunity that we have been waiting for: to establish Glendale as more than a bedroom community,” says an excited Mayor Elaine Scruggs. “And we haven’t even seen everything yet that he’s seen. He has changed plans several times. And each time, it’s because he sees how he can make it better.”

In Scruggs and the city of Glendale, Ellman, who controls his empire of 54 businesses out of the surprisingly common-looking Ellman Companies offices on 40th Street and Camelback, has finally found an eager buyer for his vision of The Valley, 2.0.

Ellman describes Westgate, the 6.5 million square foot urban village centered around Glendale Arena and Cardinals Stadium, as a Century City-like sibling to Phoenix – “a destination that goes with the new lifestyle.” Its first phase, a colorful outdoor shopping and entertainment hub anchored by a lavish Bellagio-style water feature and towering Times Square-style billboards, is set to be open ’round the clock, and is already perched to steal New Years from Tempe Town Lake.

“We’re building something that will be alive,” Ellman says. “It’ll be a 24/7, 365 entertainment destination.”

Not everyone agrees that Ellman’s heading in the right direction. Westcor CEO David Contis, who worked with Ellman on the Los Arcos sale, insists the newest of his malls, in Goodyear, Gilbert and north Scottsdale, in addition to the renovations being made at Biltmore Fashion Square, are actually more in tune with cutting-edge retail trends.

Nevertheless, Contis gives props to Ellman’s bold foresight. “Steve sees things that a lot of people don’t,” he says.

Ellman boils down his visionary business sense to his Tae Kwon Do training, in which he holds a black belt.

“In martial arts, you don’t strike the target; you strike through the target,” he says. “And that’s what I apply to my business.”

There are some business leaders who’ve felt Ellman has jump-kicked through their goals to get to his own. And plenty of Scottsdale officials who are just glad Ellman found another city to build his out-sized Utopia in.

But to Ellman, who dropped out of ASU about 12 credits shy of getting his business degree when his first venture, the Pennysaver classified ad circular, began taking off (he eventually sold the franchise for a $5 million profit), a target is merely the convergence point at which everyone’s expectations are satisfied. He likes to aim a little beyond that.

“The real idea is to go through the target to get to something even better,” Ellman says, with a broad smile. “That’s when you have a success.”


Photos by Wes Johnson

image 1Steve Ellman at WestGate during construction: “In martial arts, you don’t strike the target; you strike through the target. And that’s what I apply to my business.”

Steve Ellman