House brand

Bill Cecil turns Biltmore into a luxury marque that keeps money pouring through the door.

By Tim Gray

It began as a rich man's folly — a French Renaissance chateau in North Carolina’s hillbilly highlands. George Vanderbilt, grandson of steamship and railroad magnate Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, nearly exhausted his share of the family fortune by buying 125,000 acres and building the 250-room mansion. He hired Frederick Law Olmsted, father of Central Park, to plan the grounds and gardens and festooned the walls with paintings by Renoir and John Singer Sargent. When he died in 1914 after an appendectomy, Biltmore had just about broken his bank account but remained unfinished.

In 1960, when William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil alighted in Asheville from a job with a New York bank, the rundown mansion was losing $250,000 a year, and though the family had opened it to the public three decades before, it was attracting only a trickle of visitors. But the cocksure heir was intent on making the place pay. His motto became: “Make a profit, and you can preserve it.” Nearly 50 years later, Cecil, who’s now 79 and retired, can afford to be smug about defying his doubters. Biltmore Estate is, arguably, North Carolina’s highest-profile hospitality business, annually attracting more than a million visitors. Only Pinehurst Resort rivals its national recognition.

Cecil (pronounced Sess-ul, in the English fashion) gets credit for turning the money pit into a moneymaker. But in many ways, his understated son, the current president and CEO of The Biltmore Co., has proved the better manager. Under his leadership, it has become a more diverse and sturdy enterprise. While the house is still the magnet for guests, it has become the gateway to a group of hospitality and retail ventures that together gross more than $130 million a year and employ about 1,700 people, three times as many as when his father retired in 1995. The family business is growing steadily, jumping to 77th place on Grant Thornton’s North Carolina 100, the annual ranking of closely held companies. The winery sells more than a million bottles a year. The four-star inn is so popular there is talk of expansion. Five restaurants serve steaks and salads from cattle and produce raised on the estate. Shops, tucked here and there, peddle everything from stemware to sweatshirts. This summer, the winery’s store even carried Biltmore-branded cheese-ball mix, presumably so visitors have something to serve with their estate-bottled chardonnay.

After its rickety start, Biltmore Estate has become such a success that the Cecils’ challenge these days is no longer preserving the house — plenty of cash gushes in for that — but rather protecting its 19th century class without succumbing to 21st century crass, to keep dreaming up ways to market its charm without selling its soul. The two Cecils, in some ways, personify that tension. The father, house-proud and headstrong, always has been a preservationist first. His son seems interested in parlaying his patrimony into profit. That he has been able to do so without alienating his sometimes-prickly papa is a tribute to his tact. After all, he’s the grandson of a diplomat.

Bill — that’s what folks at Biltmore call him; his father is Mr. Cecil or Mr. C — stands beside the conference table in his office and holds aloft, between thumb and forefinger, a pawn modeled after a Chinese warrior. He has picked it up from a board that sits in his corner office in downtown Asheville. “This is an exact plastic replica of one from Napoleon’s chess set at the house. A company called Oriental Accent made this under license. They came in and took curatorial photographs of every piece of the set.” Napoleon’s chessmen were carved from ivory; Oriental Accents’ are molded from plastic.

Bill, 49, is riffing about Biltmore’s most promising path for growth — licensing. The mansion can’t be replicated, and on busy days, it’s full 10 hours straight. If you try to squeeze in more than 720 people an hour, crowds jam up on the stairways, he says, and customer satisfaction plummets. But Napoleon’s chess sets and Vanderbilt-inspired linens and cutlery — Biltmore has licensed all of them — can be cranked out by the thousands and sold far from Asheville. A retailer recently submitted a request to carry Biltmore furnishings in its 30 stores in South Korea.

This is the sort of thing that excites him. Where Mr. C likes to tell of the tough early days and decry his detractors, particularly the professional curators he regards as prissy scolds, Bill has an accountant’s affection for figures and an engineer’s obsession with systems and flows. Ask about his family or hobbies, and the responses come punctu-ated by long pauses. But inquire about the business, and information gushes. “We get 9.4 or 9.6, on a 10-point scale, on our customer-satisfaction surveys. I get weekly reports. I’d like to get them daily like they do at [Orlando’s] Discovery Cove, where they’re on the CEO’s desk every morning at 9 a.m.” Ask about Biltmore’s new shuttle buses, he’ll wax on about average wait times and the trickiness of creating a schedule because departing guests lose patience much quicker than arriving ones do. He takes seriously the adage that you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

His first passion was sports, not business. After private high school in Asheville, he left for the University of Colorado, where he majored in geography and skied on the downhill team, cracking the top of the U.S. competitive ranks. “I was sixth a couple of times. I was in the top 10 quite often.” Graduating in 1981, he considered trying to break into the tougher European tour, but the pull of home proved stronger. He also must have felt pressure to get on with his life. His father isn’t shy about sharing opinions, and to him, sports were frivolity. “He was relatively discouraging of any kind of athletic endeavors,” Bill recalls. “He’s never understood them.” But through sports the younger man learned persistence —a trait that would prove useful in dealing with his dad.

Mr. C comes across as the kind of guy who wears a necktie to bed. Though born at Biltmore, which his mother had inherited, he re- tains some of the English accent he picked up in boarding school and the Royal Navy. (His father was a British diplomat, a descendant of Elizabeth I’s lord high treasurer.) A Harvard man, he’ll answer questions by disputing their premise and cut off conversation when it turns to topics he regards as impertinent. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly and seems to count just about everyone besides family and a few former colleagues among the morons. “Dad was more autocratic than Bill is,” says Dini Pickering, Bill’s sister and vice chair of the company’s board. “He had his vision and his people he trusted and relied on. Bill, he’s much more collaborative and welcomes people’s advice and ideas.” Mr. C kept a sign on his desk: Be Reasonable — Do It My Way.

His reign at Biltmore didn’t begin unchallenged. For nearly two decades after he returned to Asheville, he shared management of the estate with his older brother, George, who had focused on running what was then the estate’s only profitable enterprise, its dairy. By 1979, their differences prompted a split. George took Biltmore Farms and about 4,000 acres; his brother got the house and about 8,000 acres around it. (The rest of the original land had become Pisgah National Forest.) George eventually closed the dairy and, along with son Jack, went on to develop real estate.

Mr. C, for his part, excelled at marketing. “He’s the entrepreneur extraordinaire,” says Steve Miller, vice president for marketing and a 30-year employee. “Every day he’d have 10 new ideas.” He plowed money into advertising. An avid photographer, he had a darkroom at his nearby house and pressed photos that he shot on newspapers and magazines. He gloried in sprucing up the old mansion. A book on Biltmore, The Lady on the Hill, reads almost as if it were a rich man’s version of This Old House, the years marked by curatorial triumphs such as finishing the music room and restoring the library ceiling, not the usual business litany of swelling profits and swashbuckling deals.

Restoration required cash, and he didn’t shy from trying new ways to generate it. His grandfather had run a farm on the estate, wanting it to be self-supporting, and the thousands of acres, including bottomland along the French Broad River, gave room for agricultural dabbling. Mr. C tried growing cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, flowers and bedding plants and raising trout and freshwater prawns. The estate still maintains a herd of Angus cattle. None of his agricultural experiments worked that well until he had an epiphany sitting on the mansion’s back porch. “When you sat there and had a beautiful field in front of you and a Renaissance chateau behind, you thought, ‘What’s missing? A winery.’ With no more research than that, you said, ‘Why isn’t there a winery?’” It would become the father and son’s first big project together and a trial for both.

Bill had returned to Biltmore in 1982 and embarked on a rigorous, if informal, training program. Mr. C made him the scribe for departmental meetings. By keeping the minutes, he learned the people and the problems. His dad also tasked him with helping each department create a budget — the business hadn’t been big enough before to break down finances that way. If Biltmore was Bill’s business school, the winery became his final exam. “I made him clerk of the works,” Mr. C recalls with a chuckle. In effect, he became the owner’s representative — negotiating with the contractor, overseeing the work and monitoring the budget. He passed the test, bringing in the winery, which cost $9 million to build, on time and on budget in 1985.

While the construction went well, wine sales didn’t. Mr. C had figured that every guest would buy three bottles. Instead, every third guest bought one; sales, in other words, were about 10% of projections. He had predicated repayment of the loan on his optimistic estimate. Bill suggested selling mementos such as T-shirts and baseball caps in the wine shop as a way to fill the gap, even though that kind of retailing was something that his father, with his old-money upbringing, had resisted. Visitors, the younger man pointed out, wanted keepsakes. “We had people offering staffers $10 for their caps. But my father didn’t want to have any retail sales [besides wine] on the property. He thought that that would cheapen the experience.” T-shirts, especially, annoyed him.

“My brother-in-law came up with the term ‘crew shirt’ instead of T-shirt,” Bill says. “My father had said about T-shirts, ‘I’m not going to be in the business of selling underwear.’ But a crew shirt was something that people who crewed on a ship would wear and therefore OK. And it wasn’t lost on him that, at the beginning, we had to make $94,000 a month payments for the winery.” Miller suggested that retail goods be called “ancillary merchandise.” For Mr. C, the term put the grubby business of selling ball caps in its proper, secondary place.

That interaction between father and son set a pattern Bill continued to follow as he grew into his role as a businessman and, eventually, the boss. He would listen to others’ ideas, subtly enlist their aid and persist, gently, when he believed that his father was wrong.

“I think Bill was afraid of not measuring up to his father when he first took the job,” says a business associate who knows both well. “So he didn’t challenge him directly but solicited opinions and sought buy-in from others when he wanted to do things differently. In doing that, he found he had strengths of his own and could do things and relate to people in a way that his father couldn’t.” A friend calls him a regular guy, adding: “I think he works at being a regular guy.” How could he not — most guys don’t own houses with 43 bathrooms. (None of the family lives in the mansion.)

In 1995, as Biltmore celebrated its centennial, Mr. C surprised everyone, even his family, by announcing plans to retire. The winery had become profitable — these days it sells about a bottle per visitor and is the nation’s most-visited winemaking operation. His son had done enough of an apprenticeship. The white elephant had become a cash cow, with 500 employees. Bill and his sister initially were content for the estate to chug along. They worked to tweak the customer experience, which Bill likens to time travel because visitors immerse themselves in a long-gone way of life, but they didn’t make any radical changes.

In 1998, Biltmore announced plans to add a four-star hotel. “My father had done the marketing research on an inn back in 1967,” Bill says. “For one reason or another, we didn’t make time for it.” They sited the 213-room inn, which opened in 2001, to allow a view of the mansion but stay mostly hidden from visitors at the house. A more immediate success than the winery, it is 90% full at the height of the tourist season, Biltmore spokeswoman Andy Pearce says. Rates start at $299 a night, and it has broadened Biltmore’s market by attracting slightly younger and richer guests. A typical day guest is about 60 years old, while an inn guest averages about 50.

Bill is mulling adding more lodging, and in his usual wonky way, he’s surveying his customers to figure out how to proceed. “The inn has done well, and we don’t want to cannibalize that. We looked at cottages, but our guests told us that they didn’t like that at all. It tested very poorly.” He’s also studying adding a spa, which would complement the idea of Biltmore as a place to escape to and be pampered; that is, to be treated like a Vanderbilt. One amenity he probably won’t add is a golf course, though that, too, was something his father had pondered, hoping to develop the estate’s 3,000 acres on the other side of the French Broad. “When we test the concept against our current hotel guests, it doesn’t do very well. The population that comes up here for a romantic weekend, they don’t like it. They don’t want their spouse off playing golf.”

Cecil is alluding to an easily overlooked truth about Biltmore: Women are its target customers. He says that’s because they make most of the leisure-travel decisions. At least those that don’t involve Vegas or golf. A summer visit to the Bistro restaurant, which adjoins the winery, confirms the demographic. Women fill the place, outnumbering a relative handful of glum-looking guys. At lunchtime, men come as halves of couples, while women also are arrayed in groups of two, four and six in what appear to be combinations of friends and families. “We get a lot of multigenerational travel, sort of women’s weekends out with grandmother, daughter and grandkid,” Bill says.

What do these women primarily come for? Is it the house, the wine, the food, the inn or even the opportunity to tool around on Segway scooters, a recently added offering? It’s none of these, says Deborah Midanek, a Biltmore board member and president of Solon Group, a New York consultancy. “I think that Biltmore is selling class. That’s a provocative thing to say, but what is Biltmore? It’s a vision of a particular quality of life and time and interpreting that in today’s world and teaching people about a tradition of how to live with money.”

In a country without an aristocracy, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Carnegies offer models of sophistication and graceful living. Mr. C’s genius was seeing that, if he made the common folk welcome, they would come and pay to steep themselves in his family’s legacy for an afternoon. His son recognized that they wanted more. They longed to stay the night, maybe imagining themselves the guests of George Vanderbilt. He let them do that and take home a T-shirt — oops, a crew shirt — too. Now he’s bringing Biltmore to the masses. Coming soon, to a store near you.

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