Real Estate Mogul Reaches
For The Stars
The Wall Street Journal

LAS VEGAS - In 1947, Robert T. Bigelow's grandparents were driving through the desert near Las Vegas when a glowing red ball hurtled menacingly toward their car before making a sharp turn and disappearing.
Mr. Bigelow began quietly funding UFO research in 1990, and says he has already pumped as much as $10 million into the effort.
That was the story that his grandparents, Tom and Delta Thebo, told Mr. Bigelow when he was a child. And he's sticking to it.
Over the past several decades, Mr. Bigelow has quietly become one of the world's leading financiers of UFO research. When a Utah rancher found a strangely mutilated cow last year, a Bigelow-funded veterinarian rushed to the scene, and Mr. Bigelow's team eventually published a 45-page report titled, "Investigation of the unexplained death of a cow in northeast Utah, Oct. 16, 1998. He or his researchers have cataloged hundreds of claimed unidentified flying object sightings and alleged alien abductions. Now he wants to build a hotel in outer space, and says he is prepared to spend as much as $500 million over the next 15 years to make it happen.
"It's going to cost a lot of money, he says. "So you,d better offer something stupendous.
His plans might seem laughable " and indeed, some people do chuckle at Robert Bigelow. That's all right with him. The truth is out there, and he has several hundred million dollars to spend pursuing it.
With little fanfare, Mr. Bigelow has built an impressive fortune, employing tactics that are almost as unusual as some of the things he intends to use it for. The heart of Mr. Bigelow's realm is 14,000 hotel and apartment rooms, mostly in Las Vegas. He is the king of the temporary stay: His properties rent by the week, and they target casino workers who pay their rent in cold cash.
Mr. Bigelow, 55 years old, values his real-estate empire at $900 million. Other estimates range from $600 million to $750 million, but no one doubts he is supremely rich. This year, Mr. Bigelow says, his hotels and apartments will generate between $35 million and $40 million in profits. He distrusts computers, and until a few weeks ago, his employees wrote 10,000 checks by hand each month to pay workers and suppliers. He is contemptuous of consultants and marketing studies, and makes the final call on where to build his hotels by driving around prospective sites in his car until he's convinced he has the right spot.
Other alleged techniques appear less quaint. Last year, he paid $1.8 million to settle a lawsuit by tenants who charged they were illegally locked out of their apartments after they were late on their rent. In another case, the Nevada Supreme Court said it found "strong evidence that Mr. Bigelow's operations "engaged in racially discriminating practices.
Mr. Bigelow emphatically denies that, and says his managers are supposed to follow proper eviction procedures. In any event, legal setbacks haven't slowed him down. Mr. Bigelow is opening a new hotel every month under his Budget Suites of America flag, and plans to build 25,000 rooms over the next five years. His biggest push is in the Dallas area, where he plans to open 10,500 rooms by 2004 " equivalent to 14% of all the rooms now in that market.
"I have a huge concern how the American people are going to react to the first contact. How many people are going to go to the gun shop? How many are not going to go to work? - Robert Bigelow
Some people think that plan is just as out there as Mr. Bigelow's UFO theories. "They,re out of their minds if they think they can build that number of units in Dallas and make it work, says J. Peter Kline, chief executive of Dallas-based Bristol Hotels & Resorts Inc.
Mr. Bigelow says naysayers don't understand his strategy. By targeting the hybrid niche of extended stay, he draws customers from both the hotel and apartment markets. "We,re the Toyota of extended stay, he says. "We are the kick " a company that is going to push the General Motors and Chryslers aside. That's why [rivals] are afraid of us.
Mr. Bigelow has long followed a different drummer. His 20-year-old Las Vegas headquarters looks like a giant Tudor house. There's a meandering stream out back. Inside, cats named Taxes and Writeoff prowl the halls, occasionally knocking over things in Mr. Bigelow's office. He used to have a cat named Mortgage, but Mortgage died. Visitors wait on wooden park benches in the lobby.
On a recent day, Mr. Bigelow sits at a desk in his inner sanctum with a headset on, fielding a steady stream of calls. Wiry and perpetually tieless, he looks like a radio talk-show host. "My position is if it costs us a deal, it costs us a deal, he declares over his headset to one broker. He is surrounded by a curious collection of personal stuff: a jukebox, a crystal sailing ship, countless family photos. Later, he details his business theories on a white board while a cat patrols behind his desk. "If I were to retire right now, I could still do the $500 million for the space hotel, he concludes.
His employees say he's a tough boss. After a meeting with Mr. Bigelow, top executives can "come out sweating bullets, says Gary Gumm, a former Bigelow vice president. Two years ago, three of Mr. Bigelow's four top executives " Mr. Gumm wasn't among them " quit within a span of days. "One individual blew up and said I was pushing him too much, Mr. Bigelow recalls. "He just had a threshold that he wasn't able to go where the company was going.
But Mr. Bigelow also holds a monthly luncheon where he raffles off ten $100 bills to employees. And he shuts down the entire company every year on July 30, the birthday of his son, Rod Lee, who died in 1992. Police records show Rod Lee died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound; Mr. Bigelow describes it as an accident.
Mr. Bigelow began quietly funding UFO research in 1990, and says he has already pumped as much as $10 million into the effort. For many years, he wouldn't talk publicly about his role, and it was known only to hard-core "ufologists.
He had been fascinated by UFOs since he was eight, when his grandparents first told him of that red fireball in the desert. Three years later, his grandparents, this time accompanied by Mr. Bigelow's aunt, spotted a huge glittering cigar-shaped object hovering over a nearby mountain.
Mr. Bigelow himself has never had a close encounter. "I,ve talked to hundreds of people who have had phenomenal sightings, he says. "But I,ll be damned if I can find one.
Nonetheless, he frets that the U.S. government has done nothing to prepare the American people for encounters with extraterrestrial life, and he has paid for a Roper poll on the subject. "I think it's irresponsible and a lack of leadership, he declares as he blasts down the highway in his burgundy Mercedes, seatbelt unbuckled, as always. "I have a huge concern how the American people are going to react to the first contact. How many people are going to go to the gun shop? How many are not going to go to work?
Mr. Bigelow might never have been in position to finance UFO scholarship if he had been a better science student. He put aside his dream of outer-space research, studied business in college and plunged into real estate in the late 1960s. (His father was a Las Vegas real-estate broker.) Mr. Bigelow quickly made a crucial discovery: "I learned right away that this was a city where people lived on their tips, and I could make more money if I rented by the week, he says.
By 1970, Mr. Bigelow owned about 100 apartment units in Las Vegas. He kept building and buying apartment complexes until the late 1980s, then switched to extended-stay hotels. To Mr. Bigelow, the extended-stay hotel had the advantages of an apartment complex without the restrictive eviction laws that complicate bouncing deadbeat tenants. In apartments, he says, "we were stuck all the time with people who had paid only a week's rent, and it would take us another 10 days to two weeks to get them out.
In fact, Mr. Bigelow's company has gotten into some hot water over how it gets people out of its apartments. In 1992, a state court jury in Las Vegas ordered Bigelow Holding Co. to pay $62,500 in punitive damages to two former employees who alleged that they were fired and evicted from their company-owned apartments in the Rhett Butler complex after protesting against a rental policy that discriminated against blacks. The Nevada Supreme Court agreed that the employees had been wrongfully evicted, but upheld their firing and overturned the punitive damages. Still, the court held that there was "strong evidence of discriminatory practices at Bigelow.
That charge infuriates Mr. Bigelow. "How is that possible when a third of the people in that complex were blacks? he says.
In 1993, Nevada Legal Services, an advocacy group, sued Mr. Bigelow, his wife " who jointly owns many of the Bigelow assets " and the holding company on behalf of tenants who said they had been locked out of their apartments without the five-day notice required by state law. Barbara Buckley, a Nevada Legal Services attorney, says the company had employees called "doorknockers whose job was to hound tenants into paying.
One plaintiff in the class-action suit, Lee Turner, alleged that he came home on New Year's Eve 1992 from an out-of-town trip with his wife and young son to find they had been locked out of their $124-a-week downtown apartment. They were two days behind in their rent, he alleged. Later, Mr. Turner learned that most of his possessions in the apartment had disappeared.
Mr. Bigelow "wants to spend $500 million on a commercial trip to the moon, yet he treats people on earth as if they don't matter, Mr. Turner says today.
Mr. Turner got $30,000 of the $1.8 million Mr. Bigelow agreed to pay to settle the suit last year. "I don't say there weren't abuses by irresponsible managers, Mr. Bigelow says. But if "they did something unfair, much less illegal, it wasn't sanctioned by me, much less by my company.
After switching to building hotels, Mr. Bigelow took an unconventional approach. Other extended-stay hotels generally have about 100 units, but Mr. Bigelow built sprawling three-story hotels with as many as 800 units that looked like apartment complexes. He equipped his rooms with separate bedrooms, full-size refrigerators and ovens to entice long-term guests. Mr. Bigelow charges about $179 a week for units up to 50% larger than those rivals offer at similar prices; he says his occupancy rates typically run more than 90%, far above industry norms.
Two years ago, Mr. Bigelow began building his first hotels outside Las Vegas, focusing on Phoenix and Dallas. Some experts believe Mr. Bigelow is asking for trouble because neither city has as large a transient population as Las Vegas. But Mr. Bigelow says the casinos depress room prices in Las Vegas, and he figures he,ll actually do better in other cities. Mr. Bigelow is planning an arrow-shaped headquarters outside Las Vegas for Bigelow Aerospace. It will look like a giant spaceship, with pod-like pillars.
If he's right, it will mean more resources for UFO investigation. Before he began bankrolling UFO study, Mr. Bigelow says, he prepared himself by reading 60 books, scouring used-book sales for UFO literature from the 1950s and 1960s. Starting in the late 1980s, he personally interviewed about 200 people who reported encountering UFOs. Eventually, he built a network of scientists, ranchers and law-enforcement officials who give him tips on UFO sightings and animal mutilations.
"They may say Bigelow is nuts, says John Paternoster, the district attorney for a remote three-county area in northeastern New Mexico that has a history of unexplained cow mutilations. "But I say he's filled a void by providing resources to get to the bottom of all this.
The 1992 death of Mr. Bigelow's son may have increased his interest in the great beyond. A few years later, Mr. Bigelow and his wife, Diane, donated $3.7 million to establish the Bigelow Chair in Consciousness Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It is a rotating chair that goes to prominent life-after-death researchers. Mr. Bigelow says his wife, who declined to comment for this story, shares his convictions about extraterrestrial life, but doesn't have his zeal for the hunt. "She's a believer, Mr. Bigelow says. "She just says: So what?,
In 1995, Mr. Bigelow got word of a strange cow mutilation in Canada, and hopped on his corporate jet to investigate. Upon arriving, he learned that another cow had been mutilated that day.
"We were elated, he recalls, "because this one was even more fresh for a necropsy. Mr. Bigelow and a local vet took samples, but he says that a laboratory later destroyed them " accidentally, the lab said.
Mr. Bigelow was furious. The affair helped lead him to found the National Institute for Discovery Science that year in Las Vegas. The nonprofit group, completely funded by Mr. Bigelow, employs a veterinarian, an astrophysicist and a molecular biologist, as well as several field scouts who report promising sightings.
They sprang into action when a rancher in Utah's Uintah Basin went public in 1996 with tales of strange lights and UFOs on his property. Mr. Bigelow quickly bought the ranch for $200,000 and stationed people there. He sometimes accompanies his UFO scouts on spotting missions and usually jokes about his abysmal track record. "Now that I,m here, they won't come, he tells his team.
Still, Mr. Bigelow has little doubt that we are not alone. "Either I,m totally bonkers and they,re all yellow balloons, he says, "or there's something to it.
By this year, Mr. Bigelow reckoned he had made enough money to pursue another longtime dream: space travel. One of his first calls was to Greg Bennett, a former Boeing Co. engineer who worked on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's space-station project. Mr. Bennett is founder of the Artemus Society, which aims to put a colony on the moon. But when Mr. Bigelow sketched out his idea for a hotel circling the moon, Mr. Bennett says he realized "that made mincemeat of all our plans.
Mr. Bennett joined Bigelow Aerospace, which Mr. Bigelow set up to pursue the space hotel, in April. Between Mr. Bennett and the people he has hired " including a veteran of the Soviet space program " Bigelow Aerospace has 12 employees. Mr. Bigelow is planning an arrow-shaped headquarters outside Las Vegas for Bigelow Aerospace. It will look like a giant spaceship, with pod-like pillars. Construction is supposed to start next year.
To make the hotel feasible, Mr. Bigelow calculates that launch costs will have to drop from about $2,000 a pound today to just $550 a pound. "It's going to hinge on whether over the next 15 years the launch industry can gets its act together, Mr. Bigelow says.
That's a big if, but it hasn't stopped Mr. Bigelow from planning how he would wow people with the hotel. He says the hotel would operate at 40% of normal gravity so guests could still do most of the things they do on earth. He recently drafted a "rough outline for a spaceship cruise: "First day " identification of your cabin - orientation to the ship - adjust - eat - people would arrive as others are leaving - music - dancing - departure ceremony.
Although Bigelow Aerospace was formed as a profit-making corporation, Mr. Bigelow admits that its chances of making money are slim. So why plow so much money into it? Mr. Bigelow leans forward from his desk. "Haven't you ever had a dream? he demands.
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