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'At club, Binnie battled'



Last modified: Sunday, August 29, 2010
A fight with Bill Binnie cost Mark Galvin his view.

In the early 2000s, Galvin and his family built a home in a subdivision on the golf course of Wentworth By The Sea Country Club in Rye, which Binnie owns. When Galvin publicly opposed part of the country club's expansion plan, Binnie threatened to "shrub in" his home, according to court documents.

In a move that a judge called "spiteful," the Binnie-owned company that operates the country club planted 13 mature evergreen trees on golf course property, partially blocking the Galvin family's views of the 10th green and the marshes and ocean beyond.

That incident was part of the six years of litigation between Galvin and Binnie, with claims and counterclaims on both sides.

Binnie, now a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, said the case is not representative of his long career in business and investment. "If you have done, as I have, literally billions of dollars worth of transactions, been director of dozens of companies, and find that the majority of litigation against me has been directed by one attorney, I think that does not a pattern make," Binnie said.

But the Galvin case is one that neighbors of the country club point to when asked about their relationships with Binnie. Several neighbors and others who have tangled with Binnie told the Monitor that they were scared to talk about Binnie publicly out of fear that he would take them back to court or blackball their families from his country club - as he did with the Galvins.

"When you're a neighbor and a businessman, it's not a good mix," said Mike Bryan, who was among the Rye neighbors who negotiated an agreement with Binnie when Binnie started upgrading the club. "Most people are not the same person as a neighbor as they are in business."

Binnie's involvement with Wentworth By The Sea illustrates a man described by both friends and opponents as driven, tenacious and brilliant. Binnie is a self-made multimillionaire who was able to turn an old golf course into a vibrant country club and subdivision.

Friends and opponents say Binnie knows how to set goals, solve problems and push aside any obstacles, whether it's a sports injury that keeps him from competing or an individual who stands in the way of plans. His strong opinions and drive have fueled his successes in the business world, from a plastics company he built up and sold, to the country club. But those traits have also come into play in disputes between Binnie, his neighbors and colleagues.

"He's a very focused, very intense fellow that sometimes can be perceived as being adversarial," said Binnie's close friend, Bob Eberhart of Rye. "What you see is what you get. He's very honest, very direct, and will tell you what his opinion is."

Binnie, 52, grew up in New York, the son of Scottish immigrants. His father worked as a janitor; his mother was a waitress and a maid. He helped finance a Harvard education through scholarships and work as a mechanic.

After graduating from Harvard Business School, Binnie worked with Carlisle Capital, an investment company in Boston that turned around troubled businesses. He acquired its plastics division, took the company public, then sold it to Tyco. Binnie then returned to Carlisle Capital, became its president and principal shareholder, and moved the company to Portsmouth.

His story of self-made success is one he frequently repeats on the campaign trail, and it's a history his friends say they admire. "He came from very humble beginnings; everything he's done has been through his own intelligence, his own drive," Eberhart said.

 Country club clashes

Binnie moved to Rye 20 years ago and bought a house next door to the Wentworth By The Sea Country Club. In 1994, Binnie bought the club for just under $3 million.

When Binnie bought it, it was a "tired" facility with fewer than 100 members, said Peter Weeks, vice president in charge of real estate development. Today, Weeks and Binnie said the private club has more than 500 member families with 1,650 members. Binnie built new indoor and outdoor tennis courts, a paddle court and a new clubhouse. The club employs 100 people during the summer, fewer the rest of the year.

The town has assessed the property at $10.5 million. Weeks said Binnie does not take a salary.

Weeks said Binnie's energy and vision allowed him to build up the club. "He's a tough businessman, he's tenacious, he's got great energy," Weeks said.

But to achieve his vision for the club, Binnie had to deal with opposition from neighbors and others. Binnie said of his work on the country club, "Nothing has been such a fight in my life."

The first clashes came when Binnie laid out his plans to develop the club. Originally, Binnie wanted to build houses along Wentworth Road. Neighbors questioned numerous features of Binnie's plans - from its operating hours to its effect on their views. After a year of planning board meetings, contentious negotiations between attorneys and a short-lived petition to the court, the sides signed an agreement.

Since then, Bryan said, the neighbors have had some concerns about noise but generally have had little contact with Binnie. "We do our own thing. He does his own. We don't cross paths," Bryan said.

 Home buyers turned adversaries

But the early dispute was only the first of several. In 2000, two couples who bought land from Binnie, William and Cynthia Thalheimer and Jeffrey and Penelope Gilbert, sued Binnie and Harbour Links Estates, a Binnie subsidiary that sold them land in a subdivision Binnie created next to the golf course. They said Binnie broke a promise that three adjacent lots that Binnie had planned to keep for his children would not be developed for at least a dozen years.

Binnie then turned the case on the Gilberts and charged that they had begun building their home without obtaining final approval from a design committee.

The Thalheimer case settled. In the Gilbert case, a Rockingham County Superior Court judge found in favor of Binnie on the building lots. But the judge dismissed Binnie's claims about the Gilberts' home, finding that Binnie and Harbour Links only raised objections after they knew that the Gilberts opposed their plans to sell the lots.

The most contentious lawsuit was filed by Binnie and WBTSCC, the Binnie-owned company that operates the country club, against Mark and Jenny Galvin and their family. The case was in litigation for six years and landed at the state Supreme Court.

The Galvins bought a house lot from Binnie in 2000 and began designing their home. They then discovered that WBTSCC planned to build a parking lot behind the home - which encroached on their land. During the course of the litigation, which touched on a lot of issues, the Galvins accused the company of planting trees to block their view. The club rescinded the Galvins' membership.

A superior court judge dismissed most claims on both sides, but ordered WBTSCC to remove the trees and reinstate the Galvins' membership. (The Supreme Court reversed the membership order and affirmed the order regarding the trees.)

Attorney Ralph Woodman, who represented the Galvins, the Thalheimers and the group of abutters, described Binnie as a "tenacious opponent who hires good lawyers and fights tenaciously for their cause - which some people could interpret as trying to outspend the other side."

Asked about Binnie and the years of litigation, Galvin, who was recently reinstated to the club, chose his words carefully. "It's nice to know that as my five lovely children go back to school this year, they'll be able to enjoy some of the (country club's) amenities around our house - something they haven't been able to do since we first moved here five years ago," Galvin said.

Binnie said the litigation was due to the "complicated" lot where Galvin built his home. "He's a very focused guy, used to getting his way. Probably you can make the same argument that I am too," Binnie said.

Binnie said the lawsuits are not representative of his relationship with the neighborhood. "For everyone who has complaints, you have literally hundreds of people who feel the opposite," he said.

But several neighbors - and others who have dealt with Binnie - said they are scared to cross him. Galvin, the Gilberts and the Thalheimers all had their memberships in the country club rescinded for a time. The Gilberts declined to comment, and the Thalheimers did not return a call.

The wife of the attorney who represented the families against Binnie was invited to the golf course as a one-day guest of a member. The night before she was scheduled to play, the golf course supervisor uninvited her.

"The pro called her host, who was told Barbara Woodman is not allowed on our golf course," Ralph Woodman said.

Asked whether a person could be blackballed for speaking out about Binnie or the club, Weeks responded: "People are expected to act as ladies and gentleman as members, to act in the best interest of club. If there are times somebody would speak negatively about the club, it would affect other members, and that's not good for the club."

Binnie said the club has a simple rule. "If you're suing the institution, you can't be in the club until that litigation is resolved," he said.

 Take-charge temperament

Through his business success, Binnie has amassed vast personal wealth. He bought Carlisle Plastics in 1988, when Binnie said it was losing money, and increased its sales to nearly $500 million. Binnie spent millions in capital improvements. He acquired two other companies and merged them with Carlisle Plastics. By the end of 1995, the company employed 2,500 full-time employees, including 550 in Mexico, according to SEC filings. In 1996, Binnie sold it to Tyco for $130 million.

Though he has faced criticism for moving a factory to Mexico, Binnie says he never faced lawsuits from shareholders or lenders. "We were incredibly litigation free for a broad-based company," he said.

Binnie owns several investment and rental properties. In Portsmouth, he renovated the Old City Hall, with now houses the offices of Carlisle Capital and other companies. He built nearly 100,000 square feet of industrial space at Portsmouth Industrial Park on Heritage Avenue. He is a tenant at Pease Airport, where his company built an airport hangar to house its corporate aircraft. Binnie at one point owned two planes and learned to fly them himself, Eberhart said.

Through Carlisle Capital, Binnie manages and owns multiple properties and invests in companies, particularly startups and medical technology, he said.

Friends say Binnie is willing to share business advice - with friends and through his work on boards. "He has a really great ability to hone down on the essence of the problem," Eberhart said. "He's a great problem solver."

When his friend David Hartnett was trying to get funding for a small financial company, Binnie connected him to people in the financial community. "If I was ever in trouble, I would not hesitate to pick up the phone and call him," Hartnett said.

After Binnie's brother Tom died, Binnie took over his company, the Sturbridge Yankee Workshop in Maine. Binnie invested his own resources in the company and "has not taken a penny in compensation in the five years he's been involved," said campaign spokesman Gerry Nicholls. Tom Binnie's children own the company.

Friends said they know of people facing difficulties to whom Binnie gave money. Binnie said he doesn't brag about particular donations because he wants to set an example for his four children. He said he has funded homeless shelters, contributed to his children's schools, cancer organizations and other nonprofits.

"We have given hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to charities, some local, some not," Binnie said when asked about his largesse.

After his best friend George Jackson died of a brain aneurysm, Binnie helped found the George Jackson Academy in New York, which serves bright boys from disadvantaged families.

Brother Bryan Carty, the school's founder, said he raised the idea of the school at Jackson's funeral, and Binnie was one of Jackson's Harvard friends who offered to help. Carty said Binnie was an "incorporator," who signed a document creating the school as a corporate entity. Binnie contributed money and tried to find financial backers. (Ultimately, Carty said, most money came from the foundation community in New York, which Binnie was not involved with.)

Binnie stayed on the school's board for one year after the school opened. Carty said Binnie was intelligent, but because he was not from New York, he was unfamiliar with what it took to run a school and navigate the state's education system.

And Carty acknowledged that there was tension. "He's a man who's of strong opinions. He likes to get things done," Carty said. "He was used to being in charge. My style is very collaborative and very collegial."

In 2000, Binnie served on the investment committee of the board of trustees of Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth. Colleagues said Binnie tried to make the nonprofit run like a business. "He's a guy that has ideas, and pursues those ideas very forcefully," said former trustee Sumner Winebaum. "He's got an awful lot of sound and creative business sense."

Again, Binnie's strong opinions caused tensions. Several board members would not talk about Binnie publicly. "I didn't find him easy to work with," said Kenneth Barrett, who was board treasurer. "Bill is quite confident of his own abilities and does not always work well with others."

In his Senate campaign, Binnie has portrayed himself as a businessman skilled at creating jobs. But as the primary election draws closer, Binnie is seeing cracks appear in his image. He has faced negative advertising from Republican primary opponent Kelly Ayotte, as well as from outside groups, accusing him of being liberal. The Union Leader recently published a story citing evidence that Binnie had closed a California plant and moved jobs to Mexico.

In response, Binnie took out a full-page ad in the Union Leader to rebut the allegations. He has released his own negative ads attacking Ayotte. After party Chairman John Sununu called on all Republicans to run positive primary campaigns, Binnie said the call came too late. He was, he said, "ready to engage."