Nothing pleases Phil Maloof more than the chance to host. On this Monday afternoon at his home in Las Vegas, he is thoroughly in his element.
Never met Phil? Let him bring you a drink. Are you Phil’s guest? Rapidly, you’re a buddy. And his friends? Well, friends are forever. Just listen to his kind interrogation.
“Do you want ice with that?”
“Is that the kind of sushi you like?”
“That’s some pretty good tuna, isn’t it?”
He peels off a hundred dollar bill and hands his business associate an expensive bottle of liquor. “Here you go,” he says. “Enjoy.”
It’s been that way for all of Maloof’s 46 years. Growing up in Albuquerque, Maloof’s was the house kids wanted to hang out at, where his mother Colleen maintained what Maloof calls the cleanest home you’ll ever see, the tastes and smells of her delicious New Mexican cuisine filling the house. Phil’s older brother Joe boils the family credo down to these words: “The Maloofs were put on this planet to take care of people and cater to them.”
Always in the center of things, Phil was quarterback of his high school football team. “My father thought sports was a good way to stay out of trouble,” he says. “All those clichés about sports and life lessons are true for me. Sports taught me a lot about discipline.”
But even if Maloof was the leader, it’s hard to imagine him cracking the whip in the huddle. More likely receivers were told they’d do better next time; linemen were apologized to, the sack Phil’s fault for holding the ball too long. Maloof is fond of motivational sayings. If you’re going through hell, keep going. Or another: When the snow melts, the stuff will show. Well, stuff isn’t exactly the right word. Or one he learned from a spiritual advisor named Father Tickle: Cut ties with negative people. Says Maloof, “How ‘bout this one?: Don’t try to be interesting. Be interested.” At which points he asks his guest three more questions. According to a Maloof business associate, “He never wants to think he’s better than anyone else. He’s just one of us.”
But once you witness Maloof’s world—right down to the sports connection—you see how tricky it is to always be a man of the people. Phil Maloof is the fourth and youngest brother of a family of considerable wealth. In May 2013, his brothers Joe and Gavin sold the Sacramento Kings for $535 million, the highest price ever for an NBA team.
Phil’s 7,000 square-foot Las Vegas home—dubbed “PhilaVilla”—occupies the entire 59th floor of the family-owned Palms Place hotel. There are large windows with a 360-degree view, a DJ booth, 30-foot fireplace, full gym, Jacuzzi for 20, outdoor movie theatre. PhilaVilla’s features are detailed in a four-color brochure offering the venue for rentals. Even a butler service is included. Given Phil’s manner, one suspects for the right price—or even just the right person—Phil himself would likely serve that role.
“Are you sure that’s the sushi you like?” Maloof asks his guest. “We can get more. Isn’t that salmon incredible?”
Maloof stands an inch shy of six feet, clad on this day in a button down white shirt with brown vertical stripes that accentuate his compact build. A new venture has kept him so busy he’s lost 15 pounds in the last year. Twenty-three TV screens line the walls of PhilaVilla, all with the sound off. CNN shows a fire. SportsCenter has NFL highlights. The Jetsons’ maid. Various Maloof assistants sit at the dining room table engaged in contemporary business as they eat and operate their smartphones.
Standing up, Maloof says, “Here, let me show you something that was a lot of fun.” Up on the wall of a PhilaVilla bedroom is a framed poster. At the top: “Alec Bradley Cigar Co.” Last summer Maloof partnered with the cigar firm at an annual industry trade convention in Las Vegas to create and host “Light Up the Night.” Cigars, tapas, cocktails—a festive time for Maloof and his circle.
“Alec Bradley cigars are superb,” says Maloof, lighting a Prensado as he returns to the table. Maloof smokes three on a weekday, four on weekends. Lately he’s also smitten with a Maloof family brand of cigar made by Alec Bradley founder Alan Rubin that’s due to be launched in 2014. “My personal blend,” says Maloof. “Chocolate, then vanilla, then chocolate, then brandy.”
When it comes to cigars, Maloof says he dabbled after college, “but that was mostly low-end stuff.” In more recent years, he’s acquired a keen cigar mentor, Greg Shahbazian, owner of Hollywood Smoke, a Santa Monica-based store whose landlord many years ago was über-cigar icon, Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Phil enjoys it,” says Shahbazian as his client puffs away. “He loves the chance to sit back and have a good talk and a good cigar with a friend. It’s a natural fit for someone as friendly as him. Being with him in a cigar store is like watching a kid in a candy store.”
But perhaps Maloof was destined to love cigars. While in junior high, he wrote a school paper on another cigar luminary, actor and comedian George Burns. “He was so funny, so clever,” says Maloof. “I’d love to smoke a cigar with him.” Most of all, though, Maloof admits to being a movement junkie. “I like to be in motion,” he says, “like to get going, doing things, meeting people.”
Lunch declared over, it’s time, in Maloof family parlance, to “put your big Converses down”—that is, hit the pavement for a round of business meetings. Then again, for Phil Maloof the line separating business from pleasure is nonexistent, his life a round-the-clock cavalcade of work and play, friends and colleagues, associates, customers and prospects, smoke, drink and eat—with one notable exception. Garlic is absolutely banned from the Maloof diet. “Salt, pepper and cinnamon are the only spices,” he says. “You go to hell if you eat garlic—can’t sell the next day.”
And rest assured: For all their wealth, for all their exposure to money and fame, each Maloof is at heart a salesman. The family’s latest venture—a fledgling product called Zing Vodka—has taken Phil and his brothers back to the family’s roots in the spirits business. In 1892 in New Mexico, Joe Maloof opened a general store. Just prior to World War II, the Maloof family started to distribute Coors Beer and in time, a wide range of other liquor brands. In the ’70s, Phil’s father George expanded into banking, hotels and, in 1978, the purchase of the Houston Rockets. George died of a heart attack two years later at the age of 57. Phil was 13. While his father and brothers infused him with a strong work ethic, a trio of uncles also left their mark.
First, his namesake. “Uncle Phil was sweet,” says Maloof. “He was the type of guy who sold by doing sweet things like shining the store owner’s car or doing other small favors. He became part of their family.” Then there was Billy. Movie-star handsome, resembling actor Clark Gable, Billy was always in command, often simply telling store owners what they would order—and that ideally they should take even more. Finally came a man Phil talks about more than any of his elders. Uncle Tom wore white shoes, a checkered tie and was, in Phil’s words, “old school, hardcore. He would sell it hard. I mean hard.” One day when Phil was 12, he accompanied Tom on a sales call. Naturally, he left his uncle alone. When it was over, Tom admonished his nephew. Phil, he scolded, couldn’t you at least say something positive about the product? Open your mouth, said Tom, that’s what it’s there for.
Zing Vodka originated in 2012 with Phil finding a bottle with a rare feature: It lit up from the inside. Says Phil, “So I brought the idea to my brother Gavin and he said, ‘What? Another vodka? Are you kidding?’ ” Knowing that sometimes the hardest sell is internal, Phil persisted. Though Gavin is listed as the Zing CEO, he says, “It’s Phil’s baby.” Mother Colleen got in on the act too. Her red velvet cake had long been a family favorite, so in time a vodka was made with a hint of that flavor. And while there’s also a premium vodka brand in the Zing family, it’s clear Red Velvet is the one Phil fancies.
For the afternoon rounds, he’s changed into Zing regalia of red polo shirt, black jeans and red-and-black Nikes. Others in the Zing team are dressed similarly as they enter Roy’s Liquor, a store in Las Vegas’ affluent Summerlin area that also houses $25,000 worth of cigars.
“Roy, Roy, how are you, my friend?” asks Phil as he pumps owner Roy Boulos’ hand. Once a month or so, Boulos and Phil sit down over a cigar. Says Boulos, “A Zing, a smoke, it’s very nice to spend time with Phil.”
Bottles of Red Velvet are lined up. Customers drop in. The brightly lit red bottle is unavoidable to anyone’s eye. “What’s that?” asks a blonde woman.
Says Phil, “This is something that all the good-looking people like yourself are drinking.” She tries it. Likes it. Buys it. Let history determine which uncle most shaped Phil’s style.
But while the face-to-face contact phase makes Maloof’s work life seem incredibly easy, there’s a whole other aspect to the business of spirits that’s quite labor-intensive. One afternoon in Los Angeles Maloof asked a liquor store owner if he could place a large Zing sign in his window. Sure, said the proprietor. Just remove the sign that’s already there. To scrape, clean and remove the sign took Phil and his colleague Lindsay Mann 12 hours over a three-day period. But once it was over, Zing stood front and center. Says Gavin, who along with Joe would personally call thousands of Sacramento Kings season-ticket holders each year, “We believe in hands-on engagement. It’s our only way.”
Off now with Phil, Mann and team Zing to La Casa, an elegant cigar lounge that this week also features a wide range of music—Latin jazz, soul and, this being Las Vegas, the songs of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin sung by actor David DeCosta (who starred as Sinatra in the play “Sandy Hackett’s Rat Pack Show”). Phil houses some of his cigars in La Casa’s 90 lockers. Still working on his Alec Bradley Prensado, Maloof checks in with La Casa general manager Jaxx Guevera. “He’s very generous,” says Guevera, “always sharing his vodka, always bringing in beautiful women.”
Two setbacks have also left their mark on Maloof. His childhood hero was Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, the Dallas Cowboy quarterback who, like Maloof, was exceptionally mobile, his lively feet earning him the nickname, “Roger the Dodger.” By age 10 Maloof had a quarterback coach, went on to attend Joe Namath Football Camp and spent hours honing his footwork and throwing motion. After commanding his high school team, Maloof hoped to start at New Mexico State but was beaten out for the spot by Phil Vinson, a bigger, stronger player. Turning defeat into opportunity—yes, another pet motivational saying—Maloof vowed to be the best possible backup. Admittedly indifferent to his schoolwork, Maloof devoutly studied the team’s playbook and did anything his coach asked.
After working in the family liquor business for several years, in 1994 Maloof entered politics and for six years Maloof was a New Mexico state Senator. Maloof is a Democrat, describing himself as liberal, proud of having brought a new community pool to his district and also drafting several criminal reform bills. In 1998 he ran for Congress, only to lose in a run-off election to Heather Wilson. “I really thought I could outwork anyone,” he says. “But she worked pretty hard too. That was tough, but you move on.” By 2000 he’d relocated to Las Vegas.
True to the family credo espoused by Joe, Phil and team Zing have commandeered two tables at Piero’s, an Italian restaurant so iconic and old school that several scenes from Martin Scorsese’s mob film Casino were shot there. Phil’s excited that he’ll have the chance to dine with his brothers. “Did you hear?” he asks. “Joe hit eight stores, went eight for eight.”
At a round table for 10, Phil sits, bracketed by two liquor wholesalers. Joe’s two seats to his left, Gavin across. Says Gavin, “We take our business personally. We hate to lose. We’re killers. Our dad taught us that when you go into an account, break some glass.” All the while he is smiling as Joe nods and laughs in agreement.
Joe praises his kid brother, adding that, “Phillip was the best athlete.” Phil demurs, then points to Gavin and says, “No, he was the best athlete.” Joe now offers a piece of his steak to Phil. “Just a little,” says Phil, “just a little.”
Each of the brothers glances at the four large TV screens hanging over the bar. “Enough of that,” says Phil, “back to my friends.”
The song “As Time Goes By” softly pipes it’s way through Piero’s speakers. “It’s still the same old story/A fight for love and glory/A case of do or die.” Piero’s owner Freddie Glusman drops by. Glusman’s the consummate Las Vegas insider, a resident for more than 50 years who was once married to actress Diahann Carroll and has likely always (well, mostly) struck the right balance between blarney and discretion. Glusman shakes hands with the Maloof party, ruffles Phil’s hair the way your favorite uncle would. “I’ve known this boy since he was this high,” says Glusman. Joe laughs. “Anyone want dessert?” asks Phil. Fifteen minutes later, Phil points his index finger in the air and makes a rapid circle motion. Team Zing rises and departs.
Smoking cigars with friends means a lot to Phil Maloof. But as much as he savors the company of others, his best times with cigars come strictly by himself. At the end of the day, deep in to the night, he’ll sit in front of the TV and, cigar in hand and mouth, begin the slow process of unraveling. “The cigar is a journey,” he says. “It puts you in another place, takes the edge off. It’s a real mellow feeling.”
And from that place on the couch, one day gone, the other still to come, Maloof lets himself savor his life and business, family and friends, past and present all together. But best of all, Maloof’s passion is for the future. William Shakespeare is the source for what might well be his favorite saying of them all: The golden age is before us, not behind us.
Oakland-based Joel Drucker is the author of the book Jimmy Connors Saved My Life.