Actor, Entrepreneur, Financial Pundit

Actor, Entrepreneur, Financial PunditWayne Rogers has found life in the Emerald Coast to be oh-so-sweetBy Scott Jackson

He cracks wise with the same affability and witty charm as his Trapper John McIntyre character on the 1970s “M*A*S*H” television series. He morphed from a successful actor into a keen financial maven and investor. Now a business contributor on Fox News Channel’s stock-investment program “Cashin’ In,” his focus is on investments and real estate. Wayne Rogers and his wife, Amy, fell in love with the emerald waters of Destin, which they have called home since 2001.

At the age of 76, Rogers’ lean, 6-foot, 3-inch frame moves briskly through business, acting and living on the Emerald Coast. His financial dealings are diverse, and his mind relentlessly pursues opportunities with exacting due diligence. He admits that his most satisfying business achievement is “my last one and my next one.” He is not afraid to speak his mind and feels that key parts of Florida’s political environment and economic community need to wake up if they are going to make Northwest Florida competitive for attracting business.

Early Years

The younger of two children, Rogers was born in Birmingham, Ala., on April 7, 1933. His father was an attorney who had served as a major in the U.S. Army and commanded an artillery battalion in World War I. His mother was a nurse. When asked who the most influential person was in his early years, he credits many, but primarily his entire neighborhood.

“Not so much one person,” Rogers said. “I was raised in a neighborhood of seven to eight homes where there was a commonality of people who had kids that were about our age, so everybody’s parents tended to look out for the kids in general.”

In the emotional aftermath of his father’s death in 1949, Rogers began struggling in school and was on a path to self-destruction.

“I was not making good grades in a public school,” he said. “I was drinking beer, playing football and chasing girls. I was prone to not studying.”

After enrolling at The Webb School, a private school in Tennessee with a no non-sense approach to learning, he put himself on track toward academic success.”

“This school taught the fundamentals — reading, writing and arithmetic — with strict discipline,” said Rogers, who now serves as a trustee for Webb. “If you missed, you got a whack on the hand with a stick. But that school got my head right, and I went from (making) Fs and Ds to all As. I am in debt to that school.”

The school, however, did not spawn his business acumen.

“No, it didn’t develop there, I had no interest in it,” he recalled. “What it did do is get me interested in reading and in books.”

Rogers later attended Princeton University and graduated in 1954 with a degree in history.

The Acting Bug

Although Rogers is commonly associated with his Trapper John character, an Army doctor in a mobile hospital unit during the Korean War, he actually served in the U.S. Navy as a navigator aboard the USS Denebola after graduation from Princeton. It was during a port call that Rogers caught the acting bug.

“There was something of a moment,” he remembered. “The ship was in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in 1955 and we were getting the barnacles scraped off the bottom as part of a rehab, and we were there for about two months.”

As was the case for many in the military, Rogers had acquaintances in nearly every port. While in Brooklyn, he called a friend — who happened to be a director — to invite him to dinner. Busy rehearsing a play, the friend invited Rogers to sit through a rehearsal and grab a bite afterward.

“So I went over about 5 o’clock, and I sat there in the theater and watched this process,” Rogers remembered. “That is what hooked me, the process — you use your mind, body, emotions and all at a very concentrated, high level. I think many people go into acting for all the wrong reasons, but fame and fortune are ephemeral at best.”

Rogers’ mother was not happy with his interest in acting.

“My mother was ready to disown me because I had my LSATs in to go to law school,” he said. “When I told her I was going to be an actor, that didn’t set too well.”

But Rogers’ interest and future in acting prevailed. He appeared on such television series as “The F.B.I.,” “Gunsmoke,” “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” and “The Fugitive,” and he had a small role in the 1967 movie “Cool Hand Luke.” He had other roles as well before becoming part of the “M*A*S*H” ensemble in 1972. Subsequently, he starred as the character Dr. Charley Michaels on the series “House Calls,” which ran from 1979 to 1982.

 Rogers still keeps up with the cast from “M*A*S*H.”

“Yes, I saw Alan Alda, we had dinner about three weeks ago in New York,” he said. “I see Loretta Swit (who played Hot Lips on the show) occasionally on the West Coast.”

Creativity and Reality

While Rogers enjoyed the acting profession, a couple of events early in his career galvanized him to take a more personal stake in his financial future. While creativity is an important virtue, it can run into the rigid resistance of the status quo.

“Being creative doesn’t necessarily mean you can survive,” Rogers said. “You can be creative in the business world, for example, and get shot down because your boss says, ‘This is the way we have always done it and this is the way we are going to continue to do it.’”

The same thing can happen in show business, as Rogers remembers from his early days of acting.

“It happened to me in one of the first television shows I ever did,” he recalls. “It was a Western, and I selected my wardrobe along with this little derby hat. The character was Jack Slade, a deputy sheriff, mid-30s. This hat had certain meaning to me and gave me an interior life that was not on the page.”

His director didn’t go for the hat.

“The director said to me, ‘What the hell is that?’

“‘It is a derby hat.’

“‘Well, you don’t look like a deputy sheriff.’

“‘Huh, really? What does a deputy sheriff look like?’

“‘Well, you know, you have a vest and a ten-gallon hat.’

“I replied, ‘Well you don’t look like a director — you don’t have on a safari jacket, riding boots, riding crop, bullhorn and dark glasses.’”

Rogers was later thankful that a cameraman put his arm around him and gave him a little advice.

“He told me, ‘Wayne, look: Hollywood has been here a long time, it will be here a long time after I’m gone and you’re gone — don’t try to change it.’ I said, ‘OK, I just don’t want it to change me.’ Therefore, I think that creativity is not always accepted in either business or the arts. At the same time, I think it is the essence of success in those areas.”

Another eye-opening event in his early acting years was the loss of a quarter-million dollars that a fellow actor and friend suffered at the hands of a dishonest business manager. Rogers realized that Hollywood’s massive paychecks were no guarantee against poverty. After doing a little research, he uncovered the stories of John Wayne, Jackie Coogan and Bud Abbott, all famous actors who had lost massive amounts of money to poor management.

During Rogers’ stint on “M*A*S*H” he befriended Lewis Wolff, a real estate developer and investor who ran Twentieth Century Fox’s realty and investment division. Wolff had an office near the set and would regularly meet with Rogers during his downtime. Their relationship spawned investment projects, including Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics and banking.

These events helped form Rogers’ business credo: Look for distressed businesses with the right partners and practice exhaustive due diligence. In a speech to the National Investor Relationship Institute conference in San Francisco in late 2009, Rogers said, “Some celebrities run into financial trouble because they make too much money too quickly and feel entitled. They let someone else perform their due diligence.”

Locally, Rogers has been involved in the Willow Creek Plantation development in Crestview to help build affordable housing designed with the military family in mind. Ever since his Navy days, Rogers has been keenly aware of the military’s capabilities and lifestyle, often keeping in touch with former Princeton classmate “Rummy” (Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. secretary of defense). However, in the wake of the imminent relocation of the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group from Fort Bragg, N.C., to Okaloosa County on a parcel of land owned by Eglin Air Force Base, Rogers was dumbfounded by some of the housing that was available in the area.

“My God, you have a lieutenant colonel living in an 800-square-foot box out there?” Rogers wondered. “Somebody should be building homes for the military that are affordable. Design a house for those people.”

Rogers set out to do just that with Willow Creek Plantation. By examining the unique nature of the military lifestyle, he made design changes to add a three-car garage that makes room for recreational vehicles and items such as personal watercraft, boats and ATVs. He also incorporated design changes to account for the 24-hour call to duty and nighttime alerts by redesigning bathrooms that would minimize disturbing other family members.

“I redesigned these houses specifically for that market,” Rogers said. “We expect to have in the next five years about 5,000 people.”

Rogers is frustrated with what he considers to be the inadequate economic support for projects provided by the state of Florida. He finds Florida’s Great Northwest, a regional organization in charge of promoting economic development in Northwest Florida, to be equally disappointing.

Proterra, a hybrid and electric bus manufacturer based in Golden, Colo., contacted Florida’s Great Northwest on Rogers’ recommendation while scouting a location in which to build thousands of eco-friendly buses. They received little assistance from the group, according to Rogers. When an aerospace company wanted to relocate from South Florida, Rogers said the group was again ineffectual.

“The county said the company would have to pave the airport road,” he said. “Are you out of your mind? Alabama is giving us tax incentives and more, and you are asking us to pay? So they moved to Alabama.”

Florida’s Great Northwest President Al Wenstrand denied that the organization asked the company to pave the road but otherwise declined to comment on Rogers’ accusations.

On Our Nation’s Economic Woes

A self-described free market thinker regarding wealth distribution, Rogers believes a free market is going to be determined by the worth of the people themselves, not by the government. He blames the country’s present economic problems on a singular misstep a decade ago.

“The financial crisis that caused this recession emanated from the cancellation of the Glass-Stiegel Act enacted in 1933,” Rogers said. “This created the FDIC, SEC, and separated commercial banks from investment banks. That law served us very well for 66 years until 1999, when Congress, in its infinite stupidity, saw fit to do away with it under pressure from major money-center banks.

“So instead of being in the commercial banking business, they got into the trading and underwriting of stocks and bonds, trading securities, issuing derivatives, guaranteeing default swaps, insurance — ancillary businesses that had nothing to do with their core business. Had we not canceled the Glass-Stiegel Act, we would not have this crisis.”

Bureaucracy Hinders Competition

Rogers believes competition, rather than government intervention, is the natural regulator of business.

“What you have is a growth of the government bureaucracy because that is the only way they know how to ‘take care’ of these problems,” he said. “If you’ve got competition, the customer is well-served, price equilibrium will come together at a certain point, at the lowest possible point that best serves the public.”

In addition, Rogers does not buy the “too big to fail” rationale for bailout of the major banks.

“They should let them fail,” he said. “If they had been in the business of taking deposits and making loans instead of these ancillary businesses, the FDIC would have been the one to bail them out, and that is not taxpayer money. The FDIC’s funds come from assessments on member banks, so the banks have to take care of themselves. That is not true of the approximately 60 major money-center banks the taxpayer is presently bailing out.”

Rogers also faults the loss of intimacy between banks and their customers.

“The old community bank, the banker and the people knew each other,” he said. “Most of the bankers here know the people, and the people know the banker. However, in a big bank, nobody knows anybody; you are doing business as a cipher with a computer. Consequently, the whole idea of lending based on character went out the window.”

Day to Day

Rogers and his wife spend about half their time at their Destin penthouse, splitting the rest of the year between Los Angeles and New York. Their four grandchildren, ranging in age from 2 to 10, visit when they can. In the meantime, their two Yorkshire terriers, Capo and Bandit, whom Rogers calls the “two terrorists,” jealously protect them (as this writer discovered when he got his finger nipped during the interview.)

When not working in his home office, Rogers takes time to enjoy the area’s amenities.

“I play golf primarily,” Rogers said. “When the weather is right, I will swim three or four days a week. I love the Gulf. I have a wet suit and just swim right up the beach.”

Rogers met his wife, Amy, while he was substituting for David Hartman on “Good Morning America.” She was the show’s producer. It was, however, a shaky start.

“We were not friendly and didn’t get along at first,” Rogers said. “It took a while.”

Amy parlays her 11 years of television producing to help their business interests.

“Her background is television, and she is now producing a reality-based show about our wedding company titled ‘Say Yes to the Dress,’ ” Rogers said. “The show is about how a girl goes about buying a wedding dress and runs (on cable network TLC) every Friday.”

Wayne and Amy also are involved in the Children’s Advocacy Center. Amy is on the board, while Wayne acts as live auctioneer every year during the center’s Golf Classic Gala.

The Long Way Home

The couple did not discover Northwest Florida through Wayne Rogers’ characteristic due diligence. They had run out of locations after exhaustively exploring the rest of the state.

“I told Amy, ‘Look, kid, we are running out of real estate, we are getting up in the Panhandle,’” he said.

“We started at the Jacksonville Beach area, Ponte Vedra, and over a period of two years worked our way down the east coast, down the tip,” Rogers said. “At every place there was something wrong for her. She said, ‘I don’t want to be around Miami, it’s too crowded. I don’t want to be in Palm Beach, you will be on the chicken and pea circuit every night.’ We got to Key Largo; she says, ‘There’s no beach.’”

While the Keys did capture Amy’s interest, it was too far away from an airport for Wayne’s hefty travel schedule. On Captiva and Sanibel islands, they were driven away by the “no-see-ums” that devoured them on the tennis courts.

They later found themselves on the west coast of the state at Longboat Key, but again, it wasn’t a good fit.

“We were in a restaurant one night and some people came in and they were all on walkers,” Rogers recalled. “Amy said, ‘This is not for us either. This is where old people go to visit their parents — that’s not the way I want to live.’

“Then she saw the beach and water here in Destin. She said, ‘This is it.’ From our place, we could see 30 feet down into these beautiful waters. We found home.”