* Westgate Resorts hit hard during recession
* Hiring 1,500 new employees, issuing securitized debt this
* "We're the most profitable we've ever been"
* Some of the 8 kids may be off to college when mansion
By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Fla., July 30 David Siegel, owner of
the largest privately held time-share company in the world, says
he is rebounding from the recession so well that he is
restarting construction on an extravagant Florida home modeled
on the Palace of Versailles outside Paris.
His company, Westgate Resorts, this year is also hiring
1,500 new employees, closing on $450 million in mortgage-backed
securities in the first such transactions since 2007, and
fending off banks that he says "are throwing money at us now."
"We're the most profitable we've ever been," Siegel told
Reuters, projecting nearly $500 million in gross sales this year
and expecting to be debt-free within two and a half years.
That is not the epilogue viewers of the movie, "The Queen of
Versailles," now screening in independent movie theaters around
the country might expect.
The documentary film chronicles the outsized lives of Siegel
and his flamboyant wife Jacqueline as they tapped the
pre-recession gusher of money from Westgate time-share sales to
build what would have been the largest privately owned home in
America, a 90,000 square-foot (8,360-sq-metre) indulgence just
outside of Orlando patterned after the French Palace of
The film ends with Siegel halting construction on the shell
of the mansion to marshal all available resources to protect his
Viewers watch the lights go out in 2011 on the Westgate name
atop the 52-story Planet Hollywood Towers on the Las Vegas
Strip, as Siegel, hamstrung by the credit crunch and banks'
unwillingness to finance sales, loses his biggest project and
millions of dollars he personally invested.
Presenting the documentary as an "allegory of the
overreaching of America," director Lauren Greenfield won the
directing award for U.S. documentaries at the 2012 Sundance Film
Festival showcase for independent films.
Siegel, 77, contends the film inaccurately depicted his
company as failing, and that sensational parts of the film, such
as his 46-year-old wife, Jacqueline, taking their kids through a
drive-through restaurant in a limousine, were staged. The
family, he said, does not own a limo.
On the eve of the film's premiere at Sundance, Siegel filed
a defamation lawsuit over the portrayal of his business which
continues to wind its way through federal court.
Now that film is being seen by a wider audience, the Siegels
have brought in a public relations crisis team, made themselves
available for media interviews and opened their lives to more
scrutiny, including their current 26,000-square-foot
(2,415-sq-metre) home in the tony Isleworth gated community,
best known as the scene of Tiger Woods' 2009 car crash just
before his divorce.
"LEAN AND MEAN"
As a private company, Westgate's financial figures are not
publicly available. However, for the past three years, Westgate
has ranked within the top 50 private companies in Florida by
revenue, as assessed by Florida Trend magazine.
"I'll be the first to admit in 2008, we were fat," said
Siegel who said gross revenue topped $1 billion that year. "We
had departments that were maybe out of control. I was making so
much money I didn't care. I didn't know what to do with the
money. That's why I was building this big home."
Then came the crash, and Siegel cut payroll at Westgate from
12,000 people to 5,000, drastically reducing overhead costs. He
said the company also became choosier about the potential buyers
As a result, Siegel said, the sales force now closes deals
with 25 percent of the potential buyers it engages, compared
with a typical time-share closing rate of 10 percent to 15
percent, increasing net profit on the deals.
"We got lean and mean. We're basically doing what the whole
country should be doing. We're living within our means. The
company today is more profitable than it was back in its heyday
of 2008 in terms of actual profit. We're more profitable today
than we have been in our history," Siegel said of his
His next big project, Siegel said, is coming up with a
financing scheme to restart construction later this year of a
Westgate resort in the Anaheim Garden Walk Mall adjacent to
Disneyland, a project which also stalled after the credit bust.
Jacqueline Siegel, a former Mrs. Florida who now owns the
pageant franchise, accomplished her own version of recessionary
budgeting, paring housekeeping staff from 15 to one and
enlisting the five nannies for the family's eight children, who
are aged 5 to 18, to help with chores in their spare time.
While her husband worries over the depiction of his company
in the film, Jacqueline liked the limelight, and said she has
heard from the people behind the "Supernanny" reality show and
other producers about possible future projects.
"I like the camera and doing projects. I don't know if it's
my five minutes of fame, or it's going to develop into a
mini-career," she said.
Meanwhile, the Siegels are in the process of getting
building permits to restart construction on their Versailles.
Siegel said he took out enough money through a refinancing
to finish the facade over the next year, as a gesture to the
neighbors and to make the house more appealing to buyers.
But when the house is finally finished, some of the children
will be heading off to college, making features like a
full-sized roller rink, two-lane bowling alley and three
swimming pools, less desirable.
The asking price? Only $100 million completed or $75 million