Wayne Huizenga left his mark on South Florida
H. Wayne Huizenga’s father once offered his boy the kind of sage advice many parents give their children:
“You can’t make money working for somebody else.”
Huizenga, unlike many, listened. And learned.
As a result, Huizenga, who died Thursday at age 80 at his Fort Lauderdale home, became the only entrepreneur ever to launch three Fortune 500 companies: Waste Management, Blockbuster Entertainment and AutoNation. Huizenga had been battling cancer.
Huizenga was the father of both hockey and baseball in South Florida. He was the original owner of the Florida Marlins and Florida Panthers, both of which began play in 1993.
The Marlins would win the World Series in just their fifth season, sharing a multi-use stadium in Miami Gardens with the Dolphins, another of Huizenga’s prizes. The Fort Lauderdale businessman owned the football franchise from 1993 to the end of the 2008 season, and the longtime “Dolfan” kept a 5 percent interest in the team and stadium after selling to Stephen Ross.
“My heart does not want to do this, but my head says it’s the right thing at this time,” Huizenga told the Herald in February 2008 when he cut the deal. Even real-life Blake Carringtons, with a Forbes-stamped net worth of $2.6 billion in 2015, could be sentimental. His blue eyes welled with tears after his beloved Dolphins, struggling under his ownership, beat Baltimore for its only victory in a disastrous 1-15 season in 2007.
Huizenga was born four days after Christmas in 1937, in Evergreen Park, Illinois. His father, Gerrit, made his fortune in the construction business and moved his family to Fort Lauderdale in 1954. His grandfather, Harm, an immigrant to the United States in the early 1900s from the Netherlands, made his mark in garbage, starting with a horse and wagon to build a trash hauling service, Huizenga & Sons Scavenger Co., in suburban Chicago.
Huizenga pumped gas as a teen after his parents divorced, attended Pine Crest prep school in Fort Lauderdale, served briefly in the U.S. Army reserves in 1959, and in 1962, at 25, made his first real move toward becoming the Goliath of garbage upon which he’d build his fortune. He started the Southern Sanitation Service by borrowing $5,000 from his father and sweet-talking a rival trash hauler in Fort Lauderdale into selling him a used truck and a few accounts.
Huizenga would set out on his route at 2:30 a.m., pick up garbage and haul it to the dump. By midafternoon, he’d change into a dapper suit — appearances matter, he knew — and call on potential clients to boost his business.
Call it pluck or learn-as-you-go. “I didn’t know anything about the business,” he said in an interview in The New York Times Magazine. “I just worked hard and gave good service.”
Service industries would be the key to Huizenga’s professional growth. There were mistakes along the way. Huizenga, then in his early 20s, lost a civil case when a Pompano Beach man claimed he was roughed up by the young garbage man when he refused his services.
But by 1968, Huizenga built the one truck into a fleet of about 40 trucks and expanded his reach south as far as Key West. A distant relative, Dean Buntrock, who was running the company Harm Huizenga founded, suggested a merger with his company, Southern Sanitation. Huizenga signed on. Both became millionaires.
The resulting company, Waste Management, acquired nearly 150 local and regional garbage services and earned the distinction of being the largest waste disposal company in the United States, with revenue topping $1 billion by 1984, Entrepreneur magazine reported.
“As a founder of our company, he was greatly admired for his visionary spirit, entrepreneurial leadership and ‘roll up your sleeves’ work ethic,” said Jim Fish, president and chief executive officer of Waste Management.
“Wayne is a true legend at Waste Management, known for waking up at 2:30 in the morning to drive a truck and then knocking on doors in the afternoon to introduce himself to current and new customers. His legacy is a gift to us all,” Fish said.
Huizenga, worth $21 million, retired from the garbage business at 46, but sitting idle didn’t suit his nature. He bought up small local businesses, more than 100, including lawn-care services, hotels and the fast food chain Boston Market. His company, Huizenga Holdings, has interests in numerous private businesses, including Rybovich Yachting Integrity in West Palm Beach, run by his son Wayne Jr.
In 1987, as home video sales exploded following the release of Jane Fonda’s “Workout” series and the release of motion pictures on tape at affordable cost, Huizenga’s business savvy led him to develop Blockbuster. He saw Blockbuster as the McDonald’s of movie lovers.
The video rental company grew from a $7 million business of 19 stores to a $4 billion global company in 11 countries and 3,700 stores by its peak in 1994, when Blockbuster — now defunct as viewing habits changed toward streaming — sold to Viacom for $8.4 billion in stock.
Using his proceeds, Huizenga created AutoNation in 1996, the first domestic nationwide auto dealer of nearly 400 new car dealerships and 4,000 rental car locations worldwide. He had his third Fortune 500 company.
Huizenga, who stepped down as AutoNation chairman in 2002, so dominated Fort Lauderdale that a writer once said “a typical resident could pass an entire day using nothing but his services.”
Wayne Huizenga won the Horatio Alger Award, Ernst & Young’s 2004 U.S. Entrepreneur of the Year, Broward Sports Hall of Fame and Automotive Hall of Fame.
In 1999, Huizenga and second wife Marti’s donation of $4 million to Nova Southeastern University in Davie led the institution to name its business school the Huizenga School of Business and Entrepreneurship. Later, NSU erected a statue of Huizenga on a park bench on the campus, gazing over the College of Business.
“Wayne Huizenga was not only a consummate entrepreneur, but a humanitarian. And as trustee emeritus, he will always be loved by the NSU community,” said NSU President Dr. George Hanbury. “Wayne’s statue will be permanently sitting under a shade tree denoting the seeds of greatness he has planted throughout the university and our entire community.”
In 2000, Huizenga was inducted into the Broward Sports Hall of Fame, which had previously honored boxer Rocky Marciano, tennis champ Chris Evert and football star Brian Piccolo.
In 2006, Huizenga was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, joining names like Henry Ford, Lee Iacocca, Walter Chrysler and Thomas Edison. He had been chosen Ernst & Young’s World Entrepreneur of the Year for 2005.
Cultivating the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation is essential in business education today.
Wayne Huizenga on his reasons for donating $4 million to Nova Southeastern University in 1999.
Planes and pretzels
Huizenga conducted much of his business via his own 737 jet, tricked out with fine leather seats, sleeping quarters for 16, a full dining room for eight — where a steward served gourmet three-course meals with a choice of fine wines — a brass bathroom with shower fixtures and, initially, a gym. “Nobody ever used it, so we converted it” into a card room, he said in a Herald feature in 2007.
Such opulence wasn’t strictly for show, even if it made for a heck of a first impression when interviewing potential coaches or other business managers. “When you’re doing business and the other guy says, ‘The only time I can meet with you is tomorrow before breakfast,’ you have to be there, and commercial airlines aren’t going to get you there,” Huizenga explained.
A fierce competitor, Huizenga reportedly once took cover under the lip of a golf course sand trap in Ireland waiting for a rainstorm to pass so he could complete a game against quarterbacks Dan Marino and Damon Huard.
When major league spring training began soon after Huizenga bought the Marlins, he flew to the choice site for a final inspection in 1994: a new stadium in Melbourne, the Space Coast Stadium. The guy in suit and tie auditioning the pretzel vendors? Huizenga. Of course, he had his own ideas on texture and taste combinations — Parmesan versus cinnamon.
Three years later, the Marlins beat the Cleveland Indians in a riveting seventh game of the 1997 World Series, a back-and-forth contest that was not decided until the bottom of the 11th inning.
But a year after capturing the baseball title, Huizenga dismantled the team, shipping off high-priced veterans to pare payroll. The fire sale became a significant part of his legacy and planted the seeds of distrust among Marlins fans toward ownership that has only since blossomed.
Huizenga’s time with the Marlins was the shortest of his three franchises; he sold the ball club to John Henry a year after the World Series run.
Huizenga held onto the Florida Panthers a bit longer. The oft-overlooked franchise had its greatest success with Huizenga in charge, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996, when the team was swept by the Colorado Avalanche. The Panthers have not won a playoff series since.
Former Panthers president Bill Torrey had resigned from his job, the New York Islanders, when Huizenga invited him to attend a Dolphins game in 1991.
“There had been rumors of the league expanding,” Torrey said. “Wayne looked at me with those blue eyes and said, ‘What would you think about putting an NHL team in Florida?’ He was hopeful he could get necessary approvals to build an entertainment center — a baseball stadium at one end and a hockey arena at the other end. We knew Miami Arena long term was not up to NHL standards.
“We didn’t get the green light that [the NHL] was going to expand in 1993 until [very late]. We had 5 1/2 months to put a team on the ice and we didn’t have so much as a pencil. We didn’t have a building or practice rink or anything. There is only one man that could have orchestrated that [so quickly] — Wayne, in terms of what he gave us in encouragement and spirit and financial backing.”
Getting things done quickly was one of Huizenga’s many assets, Torrey said.
“I don’t know how many flights we took around the country to look at different arenas,” Torrey said. “Anything he saw that we liked, he made notes of and he put it into our building” in Sunrise (now the BB&T Center).
Torrey said Huizenga was “an unbelievable person to work for. He loved being involved in sports. He was more than an owner. He was involved but without interfering in any way. He was really excited about the sport, really took to the game in a big way. He got to know the players, really enjoyed being around the players.”
Making the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996 “brought him unbelievable joy, particularly for someone who didn’t play hockey or was raised in hockey,” Torrey said.
Former Panthers forward Scott Mellanby used his stick to kill a rat in the locker room that season, spawning a tradition of fans throwing toy rats on the ice after Panthers goals and victories during that playoff run. Fans, plus one. “Nobody enjoyed throwing rats more than him and Marti,” Torrey said of Huizenga.
Torrey was struck by Huizenga’s “generosity; he not only gave financially to so many different causes, but in spirit, they were a tremendous couple.”
Among his philanthropic activities, Huizenga, with his family, supported the American Heart Association, the Humane Society, the American Cancer Society, the Performing Arts Center Authority and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. In 1991, the couple kicked in $500,000 toward what would become the Marti and Wayne Huizenga Family Skywalk to connect a city garage to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
Also, Jack & Jill Nursery, Take Stock in Children, the Child Services Council, Kids in Distress and the Horatio Alger Association were beneficiaries of Huizenga’s philanthropy.
David Lawrence Jr., the retired Miami Herald publisher who chairs The Children’s Movement of Florida and who knew Huizenga for a quarter-century, spoke of his helping a wide range of causes in South Florida. “Yes, he was tough-minded, in some ways quite demanding, but he should be remembered as a man of great generosity.”
Huizenga also accomplished something he never could as Marlins owner: He helped persuade Broward County and the City of Sunrise to build a $185 million hockey arena on the edge of the Everglades that opened in 1998.
Huizenga mastered the art of corporate takeover. He applied that skill to professional sports.
He paid expansion fees of $95 million for the Marlins and $50 million for the Panthers — a fraction of what he sold them for years later.
When longtime Dolphins owner Joe Robbie died in 1990, he left his children a $50 million estate tax bill. They eventually decided to sell the franchise and what is now known as Hard Rock Stadium to Huizenga, who paid less than $200 million for everything when he took ownership in 1994.
Fifteen years later, he sold the team and the stadium to New York real estate developer Stephen Ross; Huizenga made just shy of a billion dollars in the deal.
But during his time as Dolphins owner, Huizenga never could match the success he experienced with his other two sports franchises. They advanced no further than the divisional round of the AFC playoffs during his tenure.
Plus the careers of two Dolphins icons — Don Shula and Dan Marino — ended under strained circumstances while Huizenga ran the team.
“I owned the Dolphins for 20 years, and every year, I’d say it was going to be better, and always something happens, whether it’s injuries or the quarterback doesn’t work out like he’s supposed to,” Huizenga told Bloomberg Business in 2010. “Every year has been a disappointment compared to expectations.”
Trash talk among frustrated fans erupted into a chorus of boos inside Huizenga’s own stadium. “This guy seems unable to see faults in people or their decisions,” a disgruntled fan wrote to the Herald in a 2004 email.
“I know I take the blame and I can live with that,” Huizenga responded in a 2004 story.
Still, the Dolphins remained one of the NFL’s signature franchises under Huizenga’s reign and reached the playoffs in his final season in 2008.
Said Mark Geddis, director of communications for the Marlins and Dolphins under Huizenga and who later worked for Huizenga Holdings:
“One thing I respect more than anything is whenever he saw an opportunity, he put together the best possible people to grow a business. Some people are intimidated by other strong and successful people, [but] he trusted the people he hired and gave them great resources.”
Geddis said when he left Huizenga Holdings to pursue “entrepreneurial” opportunities, Huizenga’s “pep talks, taking time to provide insight and guidance were invaluable.”
After divesting his holdings in sports franchises, Huizenga returned to his roots, so to speak, by investing in Swisher Hygiene, a cleaning-products company, as a non-executive chairman.
He never forgot his roots. “I started out driving a garbage truck,” he told the Herald in 2007 from inside his private jet.
Huizenga is survived by his children Wayne Jr., Ray, Scott and Pamela and 11 grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife Marti.