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Jeff Ruby: A lifetime of being a personal brand

01/03/2014 10:59 am ET | Updated Mar 05, 2014

"Oh-oh come take my hand
Riding out tonight to case the Promised Land"

-Bruce Springsteen

The Promised Land for New Jersey-born Jeff Ruby turned out to be Cincinnati. After a horrible childhood, the self-described "tough guy" found himself managing a Holiday Inn near Cincinnati around 1970 after graduating from Cornell University.

From there, Ruby created a nightlife in a city not known for it, established a series of high-profile restaurants and became his own personal brand.

An interesting guy with an interesting life, Ruby, with the help of author and journalist Robert Windeler, tells his own story in the new book, Not Counting Tomorrow: The Unlikely Life of Jeff Ruby.

Not Counting Tomorrow is not an easy book for me to review. My story as to how I met Jeff, when I was 11 and he was 22, as I watched him chase an armed gunman attempting to rob the Holiday Inn that he managed, is recounted in pages 102 and 103 of the book. Robert Windeler did an extensive interview with me in preparing background for the book, and not only do I know Jeff, I know at least half of the people mentioned in the book.

I try to be objective, but I see the world of Jeff Ruby through a narrow lens. It's also a world I have followed for over 40 years. Although I have not seen Jeff since he served as a pallbearer in my father's funeral in 1993, I've followed his career avidly.

I chose Jeff's Louisville restaurant as the place to propose to my wife. (The Huffington Post piece about the engagement remains one of my most widely read.)

After I surprised her and in a tender romantic moment asked her to marry me, she walked back towards the restroom, fell and dislocated her thumb on the slick floor. Her mind is tied to the pleasure of the engagement and the pain of a thumb that doesn't really work after two surgeries.

Somehow that is an analogy about Jeff Ruby. He can pleasurable or painful, often in the same few moments, but he is never going to be boring.

What strikes me about Jeff is that he understood the formula for becoming a personal brand. You can sum up his philosophy as follows:

1) Glamour attracts media, which create high profits. From day one, all of Ruby's places, including those affiliated with the less than glamorous Holiday Inn chain, were ground zero for celebrities, good looking women and men, and especially athletes. Some of Cincinnati's most famous athletes like Johnny Bench (who was best man in Ruby's wedding), Pete Rose, Chris Collingsworth and Boomer Esiason all were investors in his restaurants and usually frequent patrons. His places have always been the place to see and be seen. A little like bringing Toots Shor's or Studio 54 to Cincinnati.

2. His second philosophy is to be a very hands-on owner or manager. He took care of his celebrities, but he also pushed his staff and organizations to perfection. Ruby focuses on steak and his steakhouses are considered some of the best in the country. (They are the best I have ever eaten in.)

3. He is passionate about everything he does. That gets him into frequent fist fights and drawn out battles, but also inspired him to kick OJ Simpson out of one of his restaurants.

The other side of his passion is how he has mentored a generation of young people, especially young men with fathers, to be successful on their own.

Some of the most fascinating things in Not Counting Tomorrow are buried deep in the book.

Ruby told the story of how he offered to pay off Pete Rose's gambling debts, before his bookmaker turned Pete over to the authorities. Ruby was talked out of it by his attorney, but it would have changed baseball history if he had. Pete Rose would probably still be a major league manager and been in the Hall of Fame long ago.

Jeff also gives a harrowing account of his brush with death at the 1977 Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Northern Kentucky. I sat up all night with my father and the woman who became my stepmother Lynn McNay (who worked for Jeff as an assistant manager early in his career) as we waited for word as to whether Jeff had made it out. 165 people didn't and his story on how he did is one to read.

The book is obviously aimed at the Cincinnati market, where Jeff remains one of its best known personalities, but also has a niche for people in the restaurant business and beyond who want to learn from Jeff's model of building a personal brand.

A brand that can bring fame, fortune and a chance to tell OJ Simpson where to go.

Don McNay is a best-selling author and annuity consultant who splits time between New Orleans and Lexington, Kentucky. His book, Son of a Son of a Gambler: Winners, Losers and What to do When You Win the Lottery, has a chapter about Jeff Ruby. www.donmcnay.com