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Marcus CEO: Wehrenberg ‘whispers’ to stay after theater deal

29 January 2017

(St. Louis Business Journal) 

“They have a really good grasp on the movie market,” said Eddie Vigil, Argent Capital Management portfolio manager. Argent bought stock in Marcus Corp. in September 2014. “This is a significant acquisition for them,” Vigil said.

January 24, 2017 (Steph Kukulijan)

When Marcus Theatres announced it acquired Wehrenberg Theatres in December, one of the first questions on every St. Lousian’s mind was “What will happen with the whispers?”

Wehrenberg highlights its 111-year history before every movie with a montage that ends with a voice whispering the Wehrenberg name three times. The quirky branding has become a piece of St. Louis culture.

“That’s the second question I’m asked,” Marcus Theatres President, Chairman and CEO Rolando Rodriguez told the Business Journal. “I’m always asked two questions — ‘Is the Wehrenberg name going to stay?’ Yes. ‘Is the whisper going to stay?’ Yes.”

Marcus Theatres, a division of Milwaukee-based Marcus Corp. (NYSE: MCS), which also runs a hospitality and lodging division, operated 688 screens — many in the Midwest — prior to the Wehrenberg acquisition that the company said grew its theater footprint 29 percent. Marcus Theatres bought Wehrenberg after a series of quiet discussions with Midge Krueger, wife of longtime Wehrenberg president and CEO Ronald Krueger who died in 2015. Cost of the acquisition was not disclosed, but Rodriguez said the company plans to invest millions of dollars into Wehrenberg’s 14 locations in Missouri, Illinois and Minnesota. Those theaters slated to be renovated first have been selected, which the company will announce at a later time. The company hasn’t ruled out adding more theaters to St. Louis, Rodriguez said.

Keeping the Wehrenberg name was written into the agreement, he said. The 84,000-square-foot Ronnie’s Plaza, appraised for $10.9 million, in south St. Louis County also was part of the deal, though Rodriguez said the company has no plans to make any changes to the retail center. Half of the 31 headquarters positions in Des Peres were cut.

“Wehrenberg has value and a brand identity and a lot of history in St. Louis,” Rodriguez said.

Since 2013, Marcus has spent more than $200 million in upgrades to its screens that included expanded food and beverage options and DreamLounger reclining seats.

“They have a really good grasp on the movie market,” said Eddie Vigil, Argent Capital Management portfolio manager. Argent bought stock in Marcus Corp. in September 2014. “This is a significant acquisition for them,” Vigil said.

Among the amenities coming to Wehrenberg theaters are Big Screen Bistro in-auditorium dining, Take Five Lounges that offer a full-service bar and expanded food options, and DreamLounger recliner seating. The recliners, Marcus Corp. reported in its 2015 annual report, are one of its most successful concepts despite auditoriums losing at least half of their original seating.

“We want to turn the two-hour movie-going experience into a three, three-and-a-half experience,” Rodriguez said.

Not just any experience either. Two weekends ago, Rodriguez and his wife saw “Hidden Figures” at a Marcus theater in Milwaukee. At the end of the film, which told the true story of three African American women’s work at NASA, about 80 people stood up and cheered.

“That’s an experience you can’t replicate at home,” he said.

Marcus Theatres is now the No. 4 theater chain in the country, and Rodriguez said its a brand that could succeed on the coasts and compete with national leaders AMC Entertainment Inc. and Regal Entertainment Group.

Vigil agrees. With the Take Five Lounges, Marcus is attempting to brand the dining experience out of the auditorium, which could differentiate the company from its competitors.

“The Wehrenberg acquisition is clearly a step toward national expansion. So many of the theaters were out of their area,” he said.