Alberta Boom: Cowboy Heaven

Restaurateur and bar owner Paul Vickers grabbed Alberta's money-mad bull by the horns and made millions. Now he plans to ride it across Canada.

It's 2 p.m. on a Wednesday during the Calgary Stampede, and there's already a lineup outside Cowboys. Inside the 3,000-capacity dance club–a tent's been set up to accommodate the Stampede overflow–thousands of people move among the dance floor and six bar areas. At one, a girl in a bikini serves beer; a few feet away, a blond in a short skirt and cowboy boots, perched on a barrel, pours shots straight from the bottle into another girl's mouth. Welcome to cowboy heaven–which has its own cowboy god. Paul Vickers, blond-haired, blue-eyed and dressed in full cowboy attire, struts through the crowd, shaking hands as he makes his way through the tent to prepare for a photo shoot. As he corrals some of Cowboys' bustiest waitresses to join him, a dozen men gather around to watch, jaws open, drinks in hand; one riveted man grins as the girls pose. Does he know who the cowpoke in the middle is? “No,” he replies. “But whoever he is, he's a lucky guy.”

Luck might have something to do with it. But Vickers–president of Penny Lane Entertainment Group, an umbrella organization to 14 clubs and restaurants, as well as an adventure travel company called Bust Loose–is known for answering when opportunities knock. In Calgary, Vickers is a local celebrity. Everyone wants to shake his hand, and people inside the bar point him out to friends as he passes by. Pictures of him with Jean Chrétien, Wayne Gretzky, Bill Clinton, Mario Lemieux and others line the walls and shelves of his office. “I always said I wanted a beautiful wife, a beautiful car, a beautiful family and a beautiful house,” he says. “I have all those things. Sometimes I pinch myself–I have the best life in the world.” Having made his first million at 27, Vickers–who is now in his early 40s but won't confirm his age, saying he is the Dick Clark of his industry–plans to ride across the country on the tidal wave of Alberta money he's been earning.

As opportunities go, though, the annual Stampede has been a big one for Vickers. Its estimated economic impact on the city year-round is about $300 million. This year, it set an attendance record, drawing more than 1.2 million through its gates in only 10 days. A lot of those visitors come for the rodeo. But for many the Stampede is more about one hell of a hoedown, and two of Vickers' nightclubs in particular, Cowboys and Coyotes, are unofficial headquarters. Rob Laidlaw, a director of the Stampede, says Vickers is instrumental in creating a party atmosphere. “He brings a lot of fun to the city,” Laidlaw says. “It helps spread the Stampede enthusiasm amongst the whole city.”

At Cowboys, partying is serious business during the Stampede, when the club earns 20% of its annual revenue, and when his waitresses say they can make more than $10,000 in tips. Though Vickers is known for hiring beautiful girls who reel in the cash, he says getting ahead at his clubs really comes down to one thing. “We don't care whether you're green, brown, girl, boy. We don't care. Just do your job,” he says. “We just want to make money.”

Life wasn't always a party for Vickers. Born in Frankford, a small town in eastern Ontario, he grew up poor, the youngest of four kids to a single mom, Joyce. When he was 18, she shipped him to Fort McMurray, Alta., to stay with his brother and work for a summer. “I was being bad at home,” he explains. Vickers loved Alberta, and ended up spending a year working construction. But he wanted something more from life, so he enrolled in business administration at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. While in school, he started an import-export company, a swimwear store and a suntanning salon. He also worked part-time as a bouncer for a bar called Garfield's, near Edmonton's most popular bar strip, Whyte Avenue.

When the club changed owners, Vickers came up with the idea to name it Club Malibu and outfit the place with surfboards and other beach paraphernalia (he drew inspiration from his Californian girlfriend). Though having student loans and a struggling business on his hands meant he didn't have enough money to buy in at the time, the owners eventually made a deal with Vickers that if he met certain targets, he'd get a bonus and become a partner. The deal more than worked. Within a year, Vickers bumped sales at Club Malibu to $3 million, from $750,000. A year after that, he bought his second nightclub, Club Malibu: The Morgue, so named because it was once a funeral parlour. Many thought it was a bad idea, but Vickers saw the potential–and the bar was packed on its opening night in June 1993. “The biggest thing about Paul,” says Blaine Kulak, a Labatt manager and longtime friend, “is he takes risks and he's very creative.”

Vickers opened Cowboys in Edmonton in 1995, and another in Calgary a week before the 1996 Stampede. Everyone told Vickers not to open up downtown because cowboy bars don't belong alongside corporate head offices. Again, he didn't listen. Mike Joseph, vice-president of Penny Lane, says customers were lined up that Stampede every day at 11 a.m. “We didn't even know at the time how big the opportunity was,” adds Joseph. Now, Cowboys is surrounded by other Vickers businesses: Ceili's, an Irish pub, Zen8, a sushi restaurant, and the Chicago Chophouse, a steakhouse. Just down from Zen8, Vickers is building Belgo, a French restaurant. It's no coincidence his places are within moseying distance of one another. He calls his cluster a “power centre,” and says it's important for his various operations to be close to help each other out–and compete. It's also convenient. “I haven't eaten lunch at home in about 10 years,” he says.

With all the restaurants and bars he owns–Penny Lane also runs Tantra, an upscale Calgary lounge, and Skybar, a nightclub in Vancouver–you'd think Vickers would be quite the partier. In reality, he doesn't smoke and rarely drinks, savouring only a glass of wine with dinner. His attitude seems to be all business, as well. Every Tuesday, Vickers flies about six to eight managers to Calgary for a meeting to discuss challenges, successes and his newest focus, fanatical customer service. He wants customer service at a level that if you ask where the phone is, the busboy will walk you there and offer you his quarter–or, if the phone's already in use, he'll offer you his cellphone.

Vickers is also always working. Surveying the crowded tent at Cowboys, he says his first thought is how he can make the place better. “People buy into [this business] for girls, for drugs, for partying, for all the wrong reasons,” he says. “I said if I'm going to be in this business, it's going to be like IBM to me. I'm going to treat it very professionally.” (“Don't get me wrong,” he adds with a grin. “I'm no angel.” Another side of Vickers seems to emerge at about 1 a.m. in the Cowboys' VIP area, where he recruits friends to drink shots from a glass wedged between a bartender's breasts.)

In an industry defined by passing fads, Vickers says marketing has kept his bar businesses alive. His companies keep things exciting for customers, with promotions like the Ten Days of Burberry at Christmas (women can win $100,000 worth of goods) and Armani prizes for the guys. They also host a variety of events–everything from fashion shows to concerts. “It's all about the packaging,” says Vickers. Another key is Vickers' drive to run premium establishments, in every sense. When it comes to drinks, for instance, he doesn't believe in discounting. And it's not just the prices that are at a premium. Vickers says bar owners make a mistake when they let in customers they consider sub-par, just to fill the bar and sell drinks. He's very selective about who passes through his doors, even if it generates criticism: “We stick to our guns.”

On a Tuesday night, hungry Stampede-goers have come to spend their money at the Chophouse, packing the restaurant to its capacity of 350. Vickers and two of his right-hand men have come for dinner. “We've travelled a lot,” says Joseph, “and few places rival Calgary as far as the ability to throw a great party.” Vickers nods. “It's a cowboy Mardi Gras,” he says, as he sips a glass of red wine. A replica of New York's Charging Bull statue sits above the restaurant's front doors. It watches over Vickers and the rest of the crowd in the lounge, its nostrils flared, its tail in the air. For Wall Street traders, the statue is said to bring good luck; for Vickers, it might not be much different.

“I think the logical progression is that when country music comes back around,” he says, “we'll see a Cowboys in Ontario. We'll build castles, you know? An unbelievable Cowboys there–full of wood floors and beautiful girls.” Now the focus is on Belgo, and the next step will be opening a Chinese food restaurant called Wild Ginger. Once the restaurants are up and running in Calgary and Edmonton, he says, they'll expand–by next year, Vickers plans Penny Lane to have grown from 14 to 18 or 20 businesses. Within five years, he plans to build more power centres across the country. Vickers says his future is in the restaurant business, and his goal is to create exciting dining experiences. For now, though, he is content where he is. “Alberta is special–there's an entrepreneurial spirit,” he says, “a maverick attitude that you can succeed here. Not only can you make your own dollar, but you can keep most of it, too.”