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Remembering Wayne Huizenga And His Impact On South Florida

Remembering Wayne Huizenga And His Impact On South Florida

by Bernard McCormick Jul 2018 Also on Digital Edition

The ads began in the late 1970s in Gold Coast magazine and what was then its Treasure Coast sister publication, Indian River Life. They were full-page, color and expensive. They looked like nothing else in the magazines. Among glossy pages for Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord and Taylor, Castro Convertibles, Mercedes Benz, luxury condos, expensive jewelry and cruise lines, were ads for a trash company. We all thought they were strange ads, rather wordy, and it is doubtful if many of our readers even read them. They were tastefully done—no pictures of garbage trucks; rather words about the company’s innovative leadership in its field worldwide. The only hint as to why they appeared at all was the address of a company called Waste Management in Fort Lauderdale.

Few made the connection at the time, but the man behind the ads had begun showing up on the social pages of South Florida publications. But not many people even knew who he was, much less how to pronounce his name. They did not realize that H. Wayne Huizenga was running up the corporate flag in his South Florida home base. He was Waste Management.

Waste Management ads seemed out of place in Gold Coast magazine in 1980.

It seems like ancient history, and a bit hard to believe almost 40 years later, but the name Waste Management, even though it had become a Fortune 500 Company, did not mean much locally until Huizenga launched another local company, which everybody seemed to know immediately. Blockbuster Entertainment, followed closely by an unprecedented entry into the sports world, made Huizenga the most prominent business figure in South Florida. Only then did people come to appreciate the remarkable history of a man who moved to South Florida as a teenager, attended Fort Lauderdale’s Pine Crest School, dropped out of college and started out as an entrepreneur with one trash truck, which he bought with borrowed money.

By the time of his death recently at age 80, the man had established a legend that has few parallels in the history of Florida. With Blockbuster, the name Huizenga became highly mobile. There was no Stuart Magazine at the time, but had there been, he and members of his family would have been known locally, especially when his business empire spread to the Treasure Coast. Going back to 1982, Huizenga began buying property along the St. Lucie River in Palm City. In 1996 he developed the land into what is now known as the Floridian Golf and Country Club.

The Huizengas began showing up at charity functions as Wayne’s philanthropic activity grew. They are shown in the mid-1970s at a Boys and Girls Club event.

“That was a real visionary move on his part,” says Bob Henninger, executive vice president of Huizenga Holdings. “He has since sold it (in 2010), but when he had it, it was very much for the community. He gave honorary memberships to friends and family, actually to people all over the world. From September through April, he and Marti were there almost every weekend. They had a lot of great friendships through the club. As with all the communities they were involved with, they were very active. They believed in giving back. And Wayne loved every minute of it.”

A more visible purchase, which is still in the family, is Sunset Bay Marina & Anchorage located on the broadest part of the St. Lucie River in the heart of downtown Stuart, within walking distance of the Roosevelt Bridge. Pam Huizenga Alexander, daughter of the entrepreneur, moved to Stuart 11 years ago to develop and operate the 198-slip facility.

By the time Blockbuster ads began running in the late 1980s, South Florida was familiar with the name Huizenga.

“Things had been set in motion, and we got involved in the final planning,” Alexander says, noting that the job is still evolving. “We’ve redone the ship store and now it’s going to be Gilbert’s Coffee Bar and Café. We have a local gal who’s an entrepreneur and she’s very excited.”

The marina is the site of one of the area’s top restaurants, the 220-seat Sailor’s Return. It opened in 2007 under the ownership of Bob Davis, who was already widely known as the creator of the Jolly Sailor (now a Duffy’s Sports Grill), a key element of the redevelopment of Osceola Street back in the early 1990s.

Wayne and Marti Huizenga were also the principal donors in supporting The Children’s Museum of the Treasure Coast in Riverside Park in Jensen Beach.

“We were struggling hard to get the museum off the ground,” says Tammy Calabria, executive director of The Children’s Museum of the Treasure Coast who is also a niece of the Huizengas. “Wayne and Marti gave us the first lead gift of $1 million, which led to $500,000 from the state and then other gifts. They launched the museum and later they donated another $250,000 for the interior wing of the museum. Their gifts totaled $2.5 million.”

Blockbuster’s first headquarters was in a distinctive Spanish-style building on Fort Lauderdale’s Las Olas Boulevard. It quickly outgrew the site and moved to a larger building in the heart of downtown.

In addition to building three Fortune 500 companies, all based in Florida, and owning three major South Florida sports franchises at the same time, Huizenga had expanded into real estate and other businesses, and established a reputation for philanthropy that has few equals. In its 2010 salute, marking Fort Lauderdale’s 100th anniversary, Gold Coast magazine put him on the cover and could think of only Henry Flagler for comparison to his broad influence on the state.

The Floridian Golf Club in Palm City was a Huizenga developlment and a favorite weekend escape for his family.

It took some time to realize it, but there were some interesting connections between Huizenga’s enterprises and our magazines. It begins way back in the 1950s. The company spokesman during the furious Blockbuster expansion, and a busy man he was, announcing new acquisitions and fending off Wall Street critics, was Wally Knief. He is the same man who gave me my first paying journalism work—as a high school kid covering school sports for a large Philadelphia weekly paper of which he was editor. And one of Huizenga’s top lieutenants at Blockbuster was Bob Guerin, who had occasionally written for Gold Coast magazine, before he ever heard of Wayne Huizenga.

The Children’s Museum is one of many charities supported by the Huizengas.

Bob Guerin writes movingly on page 27 of his days at Blockbuster’s first office. That classic building looks like it was built by the conquistadores, but actually dates only to 1979. And it happens to be the same building where Fred Ruffner housed what is now Gulfstream Media Group during his brief ownership in the early 1990s, just after Blockbuster moved on to larger quarters.

Daughter Pam Huizenga Alexander runs the Sunset Bay Marina in downtown Stuart. It is still owned by the family.

Dick Toplin was a casual acquaintance for almost 20 years, known as a top stockbroker, but what I did not know until later is that he was Huizenga’s broker who had helped take Waste Management public. He was a shareholder in Gulfstream Media Group when we reorganized in 1994. Other shareholders at the time were Jim Machen, a Boca Raton CPA who did accounting work for Huizenga, and Eric Peterson, an attorney in West Palm Beach who owned several Blockbuster stores. This reflects the strong local orientation of Huizenga’s various businesses. It is fair to say that many, if not most, of the more than 2,000 people who attended two memorial services for Huizenga in April were better off financially, and more than a few quite wealthy, because they either worked directly or indirectly for Huizenga, or invested in the man whose name they once mispronounced.

There is a story that after his last success with AutoNation, a friend told Huizenga he wanted to thank him for making him a millionaire. “I hope it’s not the first time,” he replied.

THE LAST DAY

by Robert A. Guerin Jr.

Bob Guerin wrote a fascinating account of going to work for Wayne Huizenga for our 2010 cover tribute when Fort Lauderdale recognized him as “Man of The Century.” Guerin had returned to Florida after working in Atlanta, where he had been president of Wells Fargo’s Armored Services Division. He returned to Fort Lauderdale rather than transfer to Texas. Back home, friends told him Wayne Huizenga was the man to work for. So in 1987 Guerin showed up at his office without an appointment and waited for hours until he finally got an audience. He talked his way into the job of senior vice president of national development and franchising for Blockbuster. He played a leading role in Blockbuster’s first major acquisition, Major Video, which at the time was larger than Blockbuster. He was later president and chief operating officer of Republic Security Services, a division of Republic Industries, another Huizenga company.

Now retired, he splits his time between a home in the Florida Keys and an apartment in Fort Lauderdale. He reflects on the day of his former boss’s death.

That Thursday was a bright, sunny day for taking Rocky for a walk. He was determined to walk to a favorite spot, a dog boutique on Las Olas Boulevard where he gets treats and baby talked to as much as is possible for a 200-pound German shepherd. But rather than return to our apartment, wewandered on down to 901 E. Las Olas, that classic Spanish-style building that is still one of the most beautiful on the street of “The Waves.”

I sat on the edge of the fountain in the shaded courtyard and wondered why I was here, where I hadn’t been for at least 25 years. I looked in the lobby, which is now a real estate office, and thought back to when I met a man who would not only change my life, but that of thousands, and like a sculptor, would reshape the face of South Florida and specifically Fort Lauderdale.

I looked in that corner office where H. Wayne Huizenga once put in 10 or more hours a day, six days a week. I looked at the conference room where strategy was ironed out for a company he had just acquired called Blockbuster. The same room where we often met with those seeking a franchise or expanded territory. Big names at the time came to meet and impress Wayne, names like O.J. Simpson (still doing Hertz commercials) who never got a franchise. Wayne had a nose for posers and fakers, and tolerated neither.

Looking out back at the parking lot, I could envision that big blue Mercedes parked under the tree in his regular spot. Knowing how Wayne appreciated a work ethic, everyone would try to get their cars parked before Wayne got there. Few could. One perplexed lieutenant trying to impress the boss was coming in at 7 a.m., even on the weekends. Exasperated, he asked, “Doesn’t that guy ever go home? He beats me every day.” Wayne had a great sense of humor and had left his car in the lot and gone out of town.

Wayne helped save downtown by refusing to leave when we outgrew 901 E. Las Olas. Instead, he had his great friend Terry Stiles gut out and rebuild the 11-story Mercedes Building into Blockbuster’s corporate world headquarters. Thus assuring the hundreds of existing and new employees would buy local real estate, and shop and dine in the revitalized downtown.

Wayne had incredible visions that could outrun everyone’s expectations. A couple of us had brought up the idea of Blockbuster sponsoring a NASCAR cup racer. We thought the demographics fit our Blockbuster Video card holder. The marketing pros, most with McDonalds backgrounds, argued that McDonalds never did any such advertising (they do now!), but we convinced Wayne to meet with Bill France, the founder of NASCAR. France flew into the Fort Lauderdale airport on a corporate jet and I took him and his son, on a Saturday, up to Wayne’s office on the 11th floor. After a few pleasantries, Wayne and “Big Bill,” as he was known, shut the door, leaving his son and me talk about the possibilities of a race car with our blue torn ticket logo.

I had great hopes for the ongoing meeting, but those hopes were smashed like a 10-car pileup at Daytona. France came out without the smile he went in with, told his son to call the pilot and told me to take him back to the airport. It was the longest ride I’d ever taken as Bill France was steaming. I had to ask what was wrong. “I’ll tell you what was wrong, Bob. I came down here at your request to discuss your sponsorship of a NASCAR racer. That was a false pretense because shortly after we  began talking, Wayne went from a car, then to a race and he ended up wanting to take over the entire sponsorship of the series. He wanted it to become the Blockbuster Cup. He even said we would have to drop the cigarette (Winston) sponsorship sooner rather than later.” (They did in 2003.) Needless to say I quickly got the Frances to their plane with no more pleasantries.

That was pure Wayne, taking a germ of an idea and envisioning it at its maximum potential. Those of us who worked with him got a world-class education in entrepreneurship such as is now offered at the H. Wayne Huizenga School of Business at Nova Southeastern University.

Still sitting by the fountain, I remembered watching the St. Patrick’s Day parade with Whitey Ford and others Wayne had invited to our 901 office. I thought of the humility and kindness he showed everyone in the building when he would hand out pizza at our annual Christmas party and pour cups of Moet White Star Champagne. He never lost that sense of humor. During one of our last visits, about six months ago, he greeted my wife with her favorite quip: “Mary, I told you, you could have done better!” We, and I say we as in hundreds of close friends, could not have done better than having Wayne for a boss, a mentor and an example of patriotism and philanthropy.

Rocky looked up at me, as much to say, “It’s time to move on; we’ve been sitting here too long.” On the way home I see some kids playing catch and I think these kids are now able to go with their dads to hear the crack of a bat at a major league game, or the slap of a puck at an NHL game, and the Dolphins are still in South Florida. It’s hard to walk anywhere in Fort Lauderdale without being reminded of the enormous contribution to our lives from Wayne. It is not without a deep sadness that I say goodbye. What force, other than Rocky, pulled me over to 901 E. Las Olas on the very day our good friend slipped from the bonds of his earthly existence? One can only guess. But those of you who met him will never forget him.