Insurance exec survives Hollywood highs and economic lows

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Nine years ago, Brad Zeman was living the high life. Charged with reviving a historic 64-unit apartment building in Hollywood, Calif., he spent 11 months hobnobbing with the entertainment industry’s A-listers. Very quickly, he became the man to know on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, trying to convince the town’s jet set to lease the Hollywood Hillview Apartments, once home to silent-era film stars like Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

Zeman had already enjoyed a long career in sales, hotel management, and investing. At the Great Lakes Cos. in Madison (now Great Wolf), he oversaw the operation of 17 franchise hotels, including Great Wolf Lodge in the Dells, and was part of the team that decided to take the company public in 2004. That decision proved lucrative, and he later invested in businesses coast to coast, from a Manhattan bookstore to a soda company to hotels and other buildings.

Times were good.

“I used to work out at the Hollywood YMCA, and on my walk there, I’d see all these lost souls sleeping in cars, on the streets, in stairwells.” — Brad Zeman

So the chance to temporarily relocate to Hollywood was appealing. “I’d go to studio sites, talk to producers and directors, and try to get them to put their stars up in the building,” he said. Model Rachel Hunter, singer Joss Stone, and Kat Von D of Miami Ink became tenants.

“I’d have lunch every day, dinner, drinks, and [go to] parties. That was my job,” he said. “I’d kick the homeless people out of our stairwell and make sure the building didn’t get vandalized.”
And he’s embarrassed by all of it now.

Zeman is a Wisconsin native, a husband, and father to two young girls, and Hollywood was changing him. “I was living the LA lifestyle,” he admitted, “disrespecting others, driving aggressively. I was losing some Midwest ethics at that point.”

And he really missed his family.

“I used to work out at the Hollywood YMCA, and on my walk there, I’d see all these lost souls sleeping in cars, on the streets, in stairwells. There were condoms in the street and billboards all about sex. I stopped and asked the Lord to get me out. This place was so fake and superficial. And we glorify it when in reality we create nothing but lost humanity.”

In a restaurant on Father’s Day, the truth of what his life had become hit him hard. “I remember thinking, ‘Here I am, in this cesspool of nastiness.’”

He flew home that night.



Back in Wisconsin, he bought into Section 42 and Section 8 housing complexes with Silverstone Partners in Madison, and he loved it. “It was good for me to slow down and find a higher and better use of my time to help others,” he said.

Then, in 2008, most of his investments crashed. Those were dark days.

A year later, Steve Murphy of Murphy Insurance Group took a chance on him. “He allowed me to create a portfolio that would help and sustain my family,” Zeman said of his mentor.

Now, as COO and partner at B. Goll, Zeman & Dunn insurance agency, Zeman, 45, is more than content. “These days, my great release is going to church with my family, my faith, and devoting time to the Salvation Army. I can’t always give money like I used to, but I can give my time.” He will become chairman of the Salvation Army of Dane County next year.

The nonprofit is working to establish a unified campus in Madison, and Zeman is personally invested in helping the many homeless women who stay there night after night. “I’m so excited to see this project through,” he said. “It has to happen for these women. They live in a gymnasium every night and use common showers. That’s the last thing they need. They need pride.”

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine – your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.