Those who know of Bobby George likely link him to his bars and restaurants — TownHall, Barley House. That’d be understandable, considering he owns or has a majority position in 20 of them, some of which are wildly successful staples in their respective cities. But that impression ignores the 30 other businesses he’s tied to, and the 6 million square feet of land under his control.
It’s also easy to pin him to the restaurant scene because of his family. His father, Tony George, well-known in the Greater Cleveland area and throughout the state, has been an entrepreneur — restaurants and bars, famously — for as long as Bobby George has been alive. Seeing his father constantly working imparted a sense that this is how someone makes a living. It normalized endless working days.
“In my family, there was no work-life balance,” George says. “Everything was work. My father woke up, went to work, came home and went to bed. What I saw from my father, all he did was work. So that’s what I knew. That was what I felt my expectation was.”
But it wasn’t a mold to fit into. It was a bar to hurdle.
“As a competitive person, there was no way I was going to ever let my father outwork me,” he says. “So, I always put in that same amount, if not more, of work. And I did that in anything, whether it’s sports or whatever.”
That competitiveness helped George realize success in his earliest investments because it drove him to outwork his problems. Now, as founder and CEO of Ethos Capital, he’s applying those lessons learned to the pursuit of much bigger things.
‘I just didn’t know better’
Educated in finance and economics at Ohio University, George had offers to join well-known firms. But working an internship and a few 9-5s through school only bolstered the part of him that always wanted to own a business. His first opportunity to do so came after connecting with Jeff Faine, a first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2003, who he met through a mutual friend.
“We became friends,” George says. “He had just signed a nice deal. He had great business acumen and encouraged me to do something on my own, as opposed to going to work for a private equity group or a financial firm out of college.”
George and Faine went in together on a night club in Akron called Barley House.
Going into the restaurant/bar business might seem to be a very like-father-like-son-type moment. However, while his father’s involvement in the industry gave George knowledge of the business, his father was never an investor. Instead, it was the opportunity to realize his goal that launched him into that first venture.
A bit more than a year later, George and Faine sold the club. While he made good money from the deal, he says he almost went broke afterward when he parlayed the profits into four restaurants — most of them on his own, all of them in a year.
He partnered with Faine on a second Barley House, this one in Cleveland, the biggest success of those four investments (and one for which he’s still majority owner). The other restaurants stretched geographically across Northeast Ohio between Elyria and Painesville. But he under budgeted their costs, which put him in debt — vendors were carrying a lot of his money, and he had to withhold paychecks from some of his top employees for a few months. That year, he says, was the most stressful of his professional life.
“I went from thinking I had it all, hitting a home run, thinking things were going to be easier, to literally working seven days a week, working myself sick,” George says.
He dug himself out and the businesses ended up doing well. But what might be more valuable from those early endeavors are the lessons he learned. The investments were spread out in part because he didn’t want his places too close to each other, but also because he was chasing great prices. Looking back, he says, he’d rather take an average deal in terms of price but secure a great location.
“I just didn’t know better,” he says.
After that experience, George began adapting his approach and broadening his investment targets. He avoided debt, using the cash flow from his successful businesses to open others. He also started buying real estate both in Ohio and outside of the state, and doing some small developments. He bought shopping centers and multifamily units, and opened restaurants and bars outside Ohio.
George also started investing heavily in the marijuana industry. He’s been granted licenses in Ohio for marijuana retail, cultivation and processing businesses, and he owns shares in and leases properties to marijuana companies in Ohio and other states, investments he sees as cash-based, stable tenants.
His Cleveland institution
TownHall, the business probably most closely associated with George, is very much a part of who he is. It’s born of a practical, functional need that came about after he was diagnosed in 2006 with hemochromatosis. He dedicated resources to building a restaurant that he also could use as an office, one that sells the products that he could eat to help him feel good and stay healthy.
“At this point in my life, what’s more important than my health and feeling good?” George says. “And if I feel good, I’ll even perform better. So, I was very passionate about health and wellness.”
The restaurant, which opened in 2012, had the added benefit of being a successful investment. In the first year, TownHall did three times the sales he had forecast, and it has continued to do well since.
“We have something special here,” he says. “It became an institution in Cleveland really quick.”
Anise Nakhel, who owns Global Custom Furniture, did the design for TownHall (as well as many other properties George owns), which is one aspect of the business that’s helped it stand out and realize success.
“He treats my places like they’re his own,” George says.
After TownHall’s launch, George stayed aggressive. He bought a telecommunications business, became a partner in an insurance business and more. He tends to buy businesses that have a great leader already in place and then find ways to encourage that leader to remain with the business, for instance through an equity incentive program that includes performance benchmarks. He also has a core group of people so, as he opens a business, he can put someone from his team into it.
“When I start a business, I have a group of key people that I know who are going to be my lead on it,” he says. “And I may even participate in operating that business for a period of time.”
With an emphasis on cash flow, he began to buy out most of his partners, leaving only managing partners in place. He also began growing his team so that he could pick up the pace even more.
All in all, as many as 2,000 people work at the 50 companies for which George is the majority owner. For his restaurant businesses, he has three directors of operations who report directly to him, a CFO (who also helps with non-hospitality ventures), an assistant controller and a culinary director. And there are various managers and CEOs of businesses he’s running who he’ll hear from weekly regarding the state of the business they operate. In other ventures, he’s often working with partners and outside advisers.
George doesn’t have a board of advisers because he wants to make decisions on his own, though he may run an investment opportunity past a confidant. When he’s interested in a deal, he’ll bring on different firms to do quality of earnings reports and legal due diligence to get the information on which he’ll base his decision.
These businesses are generally organized under Ethos Capital, which has more or less consolidated other legal entities such as George Capital Partners and Corporate Management Group. (The latter is still the company that receives all of the management fees for George’s restaurant group.) Ethos Capital is essentially the public-facing entity for George’s many and broad business investments.
Not big enough
Recently, George has made a push into Columbus, in part because of its proximity to Cleveland.
“I figured we could grow like a mushroom,” he says.
His REBol restaurant had been performing well in Dublin, Ohio, since its 2018 launch. Putting a TownHall near it in the Short North area meant they could share resources. Now he’s opening Mandrake, an Asian-American Ultra Lounge, set open atop the 10th floor of the Moxy Hotel, the same hotel in which TownHall resides.
A second REBol is also in the works on the west side of Columbus, which will be combined with his second LYV The Wellness Space business (there is one in Cleveland near TownHall), which he’s branded as a biology upgrading center. The two will share a storefront and together serve as a wellness hub.
George is also focused on building his executive team so that he can pare back his involvement. He’s been the central hub on an increasingly spoked wheel as he’s built up his investment portfolio. While he acknowledges the approach got him to where he is today, he’s aiming to get to a place where he can really think big.
“I had to really grind it out last 15 years to get here,” he says. “People will say, ‘What do you mean? You’re already doing big things.’ But to me, it’s not big enough.”
The goal is that instead of running the companies he buys, he’ll offer only his experience and what he calls his unorthodox perspective, which he says has set him apart.
“I have a tough, gritty way of doing business,” he says. “I’m looking forward to watching it work on a big scale now.”