As a young man he was a driven entrepreneur, but as he inches toward retirement age, Windsor’s Rob Katzman would like to make some changes in his life, and that’s making him evaluate the road he’s taken for the past 40 years.
Katzman burst onto the business scene when he was 29 and soon became known, for better or worse, as an adult entertainment mogul. While Katzman was studying business and religious studies at the University of Windsor, he and his fellow student and boyhood friend Van Nifores noticed the strip club—Jason’s—was doing a roaring business. Wanting to cash in, they approached Katzman’s father with a proposition.
“My father owned a bar called The Beanery that was not very successful and I told him Van and I would like to go in there and make some changes” says Katzman. “We decided to bring in dancing girls and things really took off. I bought Lee’s Imperial House and purchased adult entertainment facilities in different cities in New Hampshire, Michigan and Florida for a short while and also in Toronto.
I also owned the Hi Way Tavern on Walker Road in Windsor which I bought in 1979 and sold in 1986.”
He was always looking for the next exciting challenge, always taking risks. At times, when he might have been better off hunkering down to squeeze maximum value from a company, he was on the move.
“I always admire those guys I see who have one business and work so hard at it and are so successful. I was always the person who wanted to grow, and then later to find out it was motivated by ego—a character flaw,” he says with some chagrin.
He may see it as a character flaw but there were also salient reasons why he took his business ventures very seriously. Unlike when he worked for Proctor and Gamble, where one’s competency is measured by HR and managers, in a small business, he said, you measure yourself with questions such as, “Am I pleasing my customers, my employees, my partners?” “Am I finding profits?” For Katzman, there wasn’t an option. He had to work hard.
But the frenetic pace he has maintained in his business life—and the high bar he strived to reach as an adult—was set from the time he started working as a paperboy for the Windsor Star and Globe and Mail newspapers.
“On snowy winter days I’d wake my mom and she would drive me around.
We had many great talks on those mornings. She was a very smart lady,” said Katzman. “At 15 I cut lawns; at 16 painted houses. When I turned 18, I worked temporary part-time at Chrysler. I was also friends with John McIver and his father, Bill, was president of Kelsey-Hayes and gave me jobs in the summer.”
At Kelsey-Hayes he learned a defining lesson from the immigrants who staffed the plant. He laughs now at the memory of how they helped shape the businessman he was to become.
Every day when the temperature soared to 86 degrees in the plant, people would head home to their air conditioning. Katzman wanted to join them, but he had to walk past a group of European men who did not see heat as a good enough reason to put down their tools.
“Those Europeans used to say to me ‘don’t be a weakling, work through the heat.’ I just knew they were right and what they did, it fit together with my mother’s feelings that you should work hard and feel good about working hard. I could never put down my gloves and leave. I wouldn’t be able to face them in the morning.”
He is also grateful to a high school teacher at Hugh Beaton Public School who told him discipline is about pushing yourself and finding the strength to move forward even when you don’t want to make the effort. Katzman was never without a job, always had a few bucks in his pocket, always had a clean car—which was important to him—and was always able to buy gifts for his parents and siblings on their birthdays.
His love and respect for his family growing up is evident but he concedes to having been a bit of a challenge. If there was an opportunity to do something he shouldn’t, he pursued it. If there was a “no trespassing” sign, he trespassed. He was always testing the edges and breaking the rules—something he agrees he has struggled with his whole life.
“It was a maturity issue, I guess. I loved to have fun, loved to drink beer and loved to laugh and tell stories. I always pursued happiness and fun and I still do to this day,” said Katzman. “I wasn’t given a lot of financial gifts; I was given much more important things. From my parents I received an overabundance of acceptance and trust. I grew up with values and felt guilty when I didn’t work hard. I wasn’t the brightest boy, but I felt God did give me talents of creativity and instinct. I’m an ideas person, a deal junkie.”
And, according to one of Katzman’s greatest friends, his creativity is the foundation of his success as a businessman. Barry Zekelman has known “Robbie” for more than 30 years as both a friend and, at times, working on business ventures together. They talk or see each other almost every day.
“He has always been a driven guy,” said Zekelman. “He’s creative, bright, meticulous, and pays a lot of attention to detail. That characteristic in business has enabled him to succeed. He has idea after idea and once he gets started he’s like a dog with a bone, making sure it is executed properly. He is exceptionally well read and I learn a lot from him. I have never met another person so intrigued by the people he talks to—he genuinely wants to know everything about you. He is an incredibly compassionate man and has given so much to his community, but you don’t hear about it because he does it quietly.”
Zekelman, an international businessman and owner of businesses such as Atlas Tube in Harrow, Ontario, and hardly a slouch himself, said he has many times told his friend he is too hard on himself and not to put so much pressure on himself.
Despite his busy life, Katzman found time to get married. While he and Ronna Warsh have been divorced for more than 30 years, they have maintained a close relationship in order to give their only son Sam a solid upbringing.
“We were not good together as husband and wife,” admits Katzman, “but she’s a very decent person and because of her leadership it was a pleasure to raise Sam together. She has an unbelievable husband, Dr. Morrie Kleinplatz, who also helped raise my son. I have been very lucky in that way.”
A great source of his strength comes from his second marriage 25 years ago to his wife Alissa. Coincidentally, their families knew each other—Katzman’s mother was a Registered Nurse and looked after Alissa’s grandfather, while Alissa’s mother was an interior designer who did work for his sister. One summer when Alissa was home from Ryerson University, where she was studying Hospitality and Tourism Management, her mother called and told Katzman her daughter was in her store. He couldn’t get there fast enough.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked. “I’d like to take you out.”
Alissa took a good look at him.
“He was really attractive, very masculine and strong, well spoken and had a great sense of humour,” she says, the memory still making her smile. “When we were first dating he lived in Windsor and I was going back to Toronto. He courted me like a princess. He’s unique, kind, passionate, sincere, intelligent and he has an idea a minute.”
They dated for six weeks, became engaged and married eight months later. Together, they have a son, Noah, now 20 and studying in Europe.
Through the years they have visited many parts of the world. While Katzman loved to travel—his favourite place is India—Alissa had to adjust to it. She said he had to drag her around kicking and screaming but now says she is so glad he did because it has been such a rewarding experience.
Katzman has many business interests in Canada and the U.S. Alissa has become involved in his retail sector in the Carolinas. Now that they both have busy lives, they have set aside time to devote solely to each other. Between 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. each morning, they have “coffee time” and it has become very important to them.
“We sit and talk about the kids, business, the news, his dog, retirement, goals,” said Alissa. “We argue about work ideas. We don’t rush. Rob used to be a one cupper; now he’s a two cupper. We really complement each other and we’re a really good match. I love him and I am in love with him. He is also my best friend.”
Alissa says they are different people learning how to approach each other based on respect and love. She laughs when describing their different approaches—when he gets into a heated discussion that goes too far, she gives him the silent treatment or speaks to him very softly. Things get settled and she said they have almost never gone to bed with unresolved issues. Her Rob, she says, is also an incurable romantic.
“Ours is a real love affair,” she says, and means it. “I have cards and letters he has written to me on my birthdays over 25 years. Love letters with unbelievable words that could surpass anything Nancy Reagan received from Ronnie. Every one of them is a gift.”
Her business involvement means she has to often be away for several days. Katzman laments those times when he is alone without her.
“When she’s here I follow her around like a cocker spaniel. I am almost useless when she’s gone and I miss her so much,” said Katzman with some sheepishness. “I’ll sit and watch Netflix for hours, I order food. I struggle to get showered and go to the office. I never thought of being so dependent on anyone, but I’ve become so dependent on her. I treasure those beautiful morning coffees with my wife. She is remarkable and demonstrates generosity in everything she does, whether dealing with me, our children, her parents, everyone.”
While Katzman’s life has certainly been successful, both personal and financial, no life is without challenges and he is at a point where he now takes time to reflect on aspects of life he might have done differently.
A lesson he was slow to learn from his parents, he says, was modesty and humility. Humility, he believes, is the cornerstone of a human being. Without it, he says, you lack the ingredients to really become a full person—you can’t have mercy and can’t fully enjoy anything because it’s never enough.
Looking back, he acknowledges that his unrelenting drive to work made him too quick to judge people who were not as work-obsessed as he was and it’s something he still fights in himself.
“I was too immature to understand that it wasn’t beneficial to anyone to be so judgmental and opinionated, and to believe that if you didn’t work hard, if you didn’t try hard, you’re not as complete as person as you should be,” said Katzman. “I’m just now changing the focus in my life. I spend more time thinking about what I am rather than what I have. You just get so much more satisfaction and pleasure from doing the right things for the people around you.”
Katzman has become more philosophical in examining his life and says he does have some regrets…especially from his younger years.
“I regret that I argued with my mother so much, but I believe that came from lacking strength of character to be truthful with myself and others,” said Katzman wistfully. “I think I devoted too much time to being manipulative rather than being truthful—not that I had the maturity to recognize that, but in retrospect, I think that was my most significant shortcoming. My truthfulness is mostly lacking in my relationship with myself and I change my mind more than I should, and I have lost a lot of money because of it. I am learning a lot from my son Sam, especially about approaching people with a generosity of spirit.”
Although he has always treated the adult entertainment part of his business with professionalism and it has brought him financial success, he says he has regrets about it.
“I could never have the freedom and pride to walk into a bank and get financing because my business was viewed in such a dim manner and I often was painted with the same brush. I was proud and it really hurt me. If I had to do my career over again I wouldn’t have ever gone into adult entertainment—notwithstanding the financial success I’ve enjoyed—because I was judged incorrectly and often unfairly.”
He didn’t want his son to become involved in the business because, he says, the last thing he wants is for his sons to suffer the things that were difficult in his career. However, he has tremendous respect for the professionalism, pride and value Sam brings to all aspects of the enterprise. They continue to provide education opportunities for their employees but Katzman says that part of his portfolio has caused him discomfort and shame. The tough businessman is not immune to the hurt that can come from value criticism.
“I’ve received ugly angry letters, and it hurts thinking about people reading this article and thinking dim of me. I’m a conservative thinker and although the letters have hurt me, I can’t help but be able to understand their position—mothers and God-fearing people. I really love God-fearing people, I see myself as one. I’ve had this huge conflict and I haven’t solved the problem, at least not yet.”
Whatever his angst may be about his involvement in the adult entertainment business, he is supported by his wife and friends who say they know how hard he works to run the business in a respectful and professional manner. Katzman says it’s important to them to be viewed by city leadership—both political and police—as being part of the solution and not the problem.
“We are careful not to stain Windsor. We keep our facilities in Windsor clean and legal and we just work hard to be viewed as responsible businesspeople,” said Katzman. “Nevertheless, you can’t help being judged in certain circles in a certain way and that is why, if I were given a second chance, I would never go into adult entertainment.”
While he may never retire, he does want to slow down. His days are long and being an ideas man and dreamer can also mean having a tendency to be a time waster, he says laughing. He wants to devote time to improving his golf game mainly because it’s something he shares with Sam. The time they spend on the course together is especially important to Katzman. He would like to spend more time reading, sit on more boards, become more active in community organizations and enjoy his new Goldendoodle.
One of his biggest personal challenges has been the roller-coaster relationship he has with his weight. He studied at the Culinary School of America and loves to cook.
“I don’t think I’m going to live a long time because I’m fat. I love to eat steak and all the stuff my wife doesn’t think I should. I’m like a kid. I hide food. A friend brought us a cake and I would go into the freezer to eat cake and worry if I heard my wife’s feet coming down the stairs. She won’t say anything about it, but I know how she thinks about it so I’m like a little child, still doing shit I shouldn’t do.”
That weakness has now led him to enter a medical weight-loss program, trying, he says with great humour, to not be powerless over a cookie. Alissa says his problem is never putting himself first and he has been lucky God gave him a strong body.
One of Katzman’s favourite topics is Windsor. He is also a U.S. resident and while he is grateful for the success he has had in that country, being a Canadian from Windsor has come to mean a great deal to him. He also says his adult life now revolves around themes.
“They are the quality of my relationships, exercising discipline and being closer to the best I can be. I never seem to be the best I can be, but I’m getting closer to it,” says Katzman. “I really believe in being a good husband. It takes a real man to be a good husband. I have to be a good father. And I have to be a good friend. I have to possess integrity. I still struggle with being as truthful as I could be. But I’m working on it—it’s a work in progress.”
Zekelman’s admiration and love for his old friend is so profound he wants Katzman’s words to be the last ever written about him.
“I told Robbie I want him to write my eulogy,” he says. “He is such an eloquent writer. He has a unique way of writing about people and he is so funny. He can make tears run down my face and I will remember those moments forever. He is a truly great guy."