Writing skills helped CFO make the case for arena

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Valerie Wilkinson, CPA

The ESG Companies, Virginia Beach

When Valerie Wilkinson’s boss asked her to help on a project four years ago, the chief financial officer of The ESG Cos. did not know the magnitude of the task she was taking on.

ESG, a Virginia Beach-based development company, was proposing to build a $300 million, 18,000-seat arena in its hometown. The developer of the privately owned arena is United States Management (USM), an affiliate of ESG.

“If they had told me day one everything that this would entail and everything we had to do, I would have been very daunted,” says Wilkinson, a CPA, who led all the financial aspects of the arena project. Instead, she approached the task as a series of challenges. “Every day you come in and tackle what’s in front of you.”

The arena is expected to host major concerts and sporting events. JPMorgan Chase is the lead lender on a $150 million loan for the project.

The city of Virginia Beach will provide the land and $77 million in infrastructure upgrades. The city also is contributing a portion of its hotel tax and revenues generated by the facility to help retire the arena debt. Construction will take two years.

Jay Wilks, who has worked with ESG on the project, says it is the most complicated deal he has seen. “Valerie was instrumental in getting us this far along, and we are almost at the point where we can start construction,” says Wilks, an attorney with  Wilks, Alper, Harwood and McIntyre PC in Virginia Beach.  “We wouldn’t be at this point if it wasn’t for Valerie.”

Wilkinson displayed patience, poise and perseverance throughout the project, he adds. “She didn’t get frustrated. She kept her eye on the desired end result.”

A Maryland native who earned an accounting degree with highest honors from Pennsylvania State University, Wilkinson began working for ESG in 1987. The author of a number of works of fiction, she took a leave in 2011 to get a master’s degree in creative writing at Old Dominion University. Wilkinson returned to ESG in 2013.

“From a skill set perspective, Valerie’s writing skills are something you don’t see in a CPA,” says Andrea Kilmer, the chief executive officer of ESG, who also is a CPA. “She can take something that is very complicated and reduce it down to something that is simple. She has such attention to detail, but she doesn’t get so lost in the detail that she loses sight of the bigger picture.”

Wilkinson worked with industry experts and economists on the financial projections for the project. She also authored the public-private partnership bid proposal and led the effort in obtaining a loan commitment from a major U.S. bank.

Wilkinson believes that the arena will be game-changing for the area. “I knew it would bring excitement about the venue and innovation in the way it was structured financially,” she says.

Because private financing for such a project is so unusual, Wilkinson didn’t have a template to follow. “Usually a municipality or a team owns the arena, but ours is private ownership with certain public incentives,” she says.
Joel Rubin admires Wilkinson’s diligence. “She has been an integral part of why we are able to accomplish this groundbreaking, one-of-a-kind project,” says Rubin, who is president and CEO of Rubin Communications Group in Virginia Beach.

Wilkinson is not the first employee from ESG to win a Virginia CFO Award. In 2009, Kilmer won the award in the same category. Richmond-based Dominion Energy is the only other company with two winners since the awards began in 2006.

Wilkinson is pleased to follow in the footsteps of her CEO. “I’m very proud of this company for creating the type of opportunity that has allowed both of us to get this recognition,” Wilkinson says. “That says a lot about our company and our owner, Eddie Garcia.”

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