Local Obituaries

TracFone CEO, Cushman School supporter F.J. Pollak dies at 53

Pay-as-you-go wireless masterminds F.J. Pollak, president and CEO (left) and David Topp, chairman, are pictured together at the West Miami-Dade office of Topp Telecom, Inc. in June 1998. The company developed TracFone, now a subsidiary of América Móvil, and currently one of the country’s top wireless providers.
Pay-as-you-go wireless masterminds F.J. Pollak, president and CEO (left) and David Topp, chairman, are pictured together at the West Miami-Dade office of Topp Telecom, Inc. in June 1998. The company developed TracFone, now a subsidiary of América Móvil, and currently one of the country’s top wireless providers. Miami Herald file

F.J. Pollak grew the Miami-based prepaid wireless company TracFone Wireless into a multibillion industry in the United States. More than 26 million subscribers nationwide use the TracFone no-contract phone plan. Three years ago, TracFone Wireless was awarded one of 14 government contracts for a project designed to provide high-speed internet access to low-income families.

But Pollak, who died of pancreatic cancer at Mount Sinai Medical Center on April 3, at age 53, after an 18-month battle, was also committed to The Cushman School. Three of his children with wife Abigail Pollak attend the private school in Miami’s Upper East Side neighborhood.

Pollak was vice chairman of Cushman’s board and a leading contributor to the school’s first capital campaign, Play to Learn. A performing arts and athletic center with rooftop soccer is the planned end result, with a groundbreaking planned for this summer, said Cushman’s Head of School Arvi Balseiro.

“From the day I met him he wanted to help the school. Education was a priority to him and the family,” said Balseiro. “He’s been involved every step of the way. He helped us establish new policies, helped bring his business sense to the school, chaired the Play to Learn campaign and was the driving force.”

In the boardroom, Balseiro says, Pollak was the type of man who garnered attention. “When he had something to say people would truly stop and listen deeply. He was thoughtful when he spoke. He was accurate. Highly respected.”

F.J. treated each person with the highest respect. He was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word.

The Cushman School’s head of school Arvi Balseiro on F.J. Pollak, CEO of TracFone Wireless.

Pollak designed strategy for the Play to Learn campaign’s marketing, advertising and fundraising efforts. “F.J. treated each person with the highest respect. He was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word,” Balseiro said.

His business savvy was ingrained from the time he was a teenager, Abigail Pollak said.

“He had his first business when he was 16. He always had an entrepreneurial mind. Just very smart,” she said.

Born Frederick John Pollak in Chicago, Pollak graduated from Rutgers University in New Jersey and moved to Miami in the 1980s.

His legacy in the wireless world, thanks to TracFone, began in 1996. At the time, Topp Telecom founder David Topp distributed wireless telephones in Latin America from his office in West Miami-Dade. He had licensed software that enabled a cellphone to function with a metering capability that disabled it after a prepaid number of minutes expired. Topp acquired 70,000 phones with the software.

But Topp was stuck. According to a Miami Herald business story in 1998, he underestimated the customer service requirements that were needed to sell prepaid phone service.

Enter Pollak. Topp decided to try to sell the phones in the United States and needed someone with Pollak’s savvy. Pollak, a former executive with Peoples Telephone, came in as chief executive officer and president, a position he held for 20 years. TracFone’s prepaid wireless phones and airtime cards for minutes was born.

“At that time, prepaid cellular was almost nonexistent in the marketplace,” Pollak told the Herald in 1998. That year, the company had $10 million in monthly revenue and 91,000 active subscribers. The company moved into a 40,000-square-foot office and warehouse west of Miami International Airport and quickly added a second call center in the summer of 1998, boasting 2,000 customer-service employees.

In 1999, TracFone became a subsidiary of Mexico’s América Móvil, a public company and leading provider of wireless services in Latin America. With Pollak remaining as CEO, TracFone operations remained in Miami. “We have taken a simplistic approach: Keep it simple and make it affordable,” Pollak told the Herald in 2001.

TracFone created brands like Straight Talk, Net10 Wireless, SafeLink and also acquired Simple Mobile, giving TracFone 4G service, mobile broadband and Blackberry service. Today, the company is one of the nation’s largest no-contract wireless service providers, with some 90,000 retailers carrying the product and about 26 million subscribers.

Abigail Pollak said that her husband’s passions also included golf at La Gorce Country Club, where he was a board member and chairman of the golf committee, and philanthropy. In 2012, the couple hosted President Obama at their Miami Beach home at a private fundraiser. Obama appointed Abigail, an attorney, to the Commission to Study the Potential Creation of a National Museum of the American Latino.

Pollak contributed to the Maestro Cares charity, which benefits homeless and neglected children in developing Latin American countries. At Maestro Cares’ third annual Changing Lives, Building Dreams Gala in February in New York City, Pollak was awarded the Corporate Social Responsibility Award. Fellow recipients were President Bill Clinton (Global Humanitarian Award) and Dominican singer Juan Luis Guerra (Community Hero Award).

In addition to his wife, Pollak is survived by his children Jonathan, Matthew, Abigail Marie, Emma and Megan, and his sister Marisa. Services were held.

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