Construction people, engineers, environmental consultants, accountants, attorneys and all kinds of professional, small business people.
He’s made an entire business of knowing people, knowing people who know people, and knowing what some people are looking for in other people. When governmental agencies and big businesses around the Tampa Bay area need to get a job done by a small, minority or disadvantaged business they often turn to Huggins’ 10-year-old Tampa consulting company, Ariel Business Group.
That’s what Skanska USA Building did.
When Skanska was preparing to bid on the design and construction of Tampa International Airport’s new outbound baggage handling system and security enhancements project in 2002, the general contractor knew that the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority required that a percentage of work on the system would be done by disadvantaged business enterprises – DBEs, in its bureaucratic lingo. (Other agencies and private companies may call them SBEs, for small business enterprises.)
“We understand that there’s more to dealing with a public entity than just building,” says Skanska Senior Vice President Jim Clemens. “You can’t follow a scorched earth policy in the local market. And there is a responsibility we have to support and understand the needs of the community. The taxpayers of this region have funded these projects. The taxpayer base is a reflection of those people in the community and therein lays the responsibility for an open-minded construction manager to ensure the work we do responds to the needs of the community. The original goal of the airport was 15 percent for this project. And we said, ‘We understand what you want to achieve.’ And we committed to a 20 percent goal right out of the chute. And we even beat that.”
Large government agencies maintain a list of certified DBEs in their area. The City of Tampa, for example, has a list of minority or disadvantaged businesses, as does the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. The challenge for many general contractors who may not be based locally is that they are provided with a quantitative list of names and phone numbers but no qualitative information about each outfit’s capacity. Ariel Business Group – and similar consultants – adds value by providing missing background on firms they have worked with and their capabilities for tackling a particular task. Beyond that, they have often worked with additional firms that may not be on an agency’s list but that can perform a needed service.
“The outbound baggage project was a highly visible project, one that a number of firms were going after,” Huggins says. “I had a meeting with Frank Fralick, who was then the president of Skanska locally (and is now executive vice president of Manhattan Construction Company in Tampa). We talked about his desire and interest in pursuing this project and having a strong diversity of firms. He recognized the commitment of the Aviation Authority and he made a commitment to having a diverse team on this project.”
Huggins says Fralick made a decision to “do it the right way.
“There are companies that really believe they can get around the SBE requirement by filling out some paperwork and not achieving the intent of the program, which is why it was installed in the first place, to create opportunities where opportunities didn’t previously exist. Frank took the higher road.”
When Skanska won the baggage contract in mid-2002, Huggins and Ariel were immediately added to its team for the purpose of assigning $26 million (of the $130 million total budget) in subcontracting work. Individual contracts over the next three years ranged from $30,000 to $1 million. The baggage system was a design-build project that encompassed design, installation and construction.
“It wasn’t just bricks and mortar, either,” Clemens says. “It was high tech, very demanding. Our work couldn’t negatively impact aviation at Tampa International. It takes a special contractor. It’s like trying to build a new operating room at a hospital while there is an operation going on next door.” What’s interesting is that Skanska USA Building has an office and presence in Tampa, unlike some contractors that may bid a project here but be based elsewhere.
“Do we turn to Ariel and a Thomas Huggins because we don’t know where to turn without them? No,” Clemens says. “We turn to them because they provide instant credibility in their community. They provide, in a real-time manner, which subs are capable – and which are not. Which are over capacitized and which are not. They bring a lot more to the table than a list of names. They understand the market and the firms available. Skanska knew of all these subcontractors before. Could we have done it without Thomas? Probably. But it would have made the job more difficult. He provides a service not unlike your insurance agent or attorney. He brings an expertise in an aspect of the market that we can’t provide on a full-time basis.”
Ariel started the process with a serious of informational meetings that introduced almost 40 minority and disadvantaged small business to Skanska and the dimensions of the project. Many had not worked for the airport or Skanska before. Clemens went through the project and provided background on Skanska and the scope and magnitude of the system. He also explained how, as a team, Skanska and Ariel intended to meet and exceed the Aviation Authority’s participation guidelines. (Not all the DBE firms went through this process but many did.)
Ariel had a continuing responsibility to the project from pre-start until closeout.
“We try to be proactive as opposed to reactive,” Huggins says. “We recognize the challenge of the larger firms. They inherently have budget issues and scheduling conflicts. We’re real cognizant of those issues. As we work with the disadvantaged companies, we want to be sure the DBE firms have the capacity to do their portion of the work. Being proactive, we want to ensure that we’ve covered the areas that potentially may be of concern: Can the company perform? Is there a need for performance bonding? Payment assistance? Our goal is to get the participating firms to look at (using DBE companies) as a process, not a project. They should be incorporated in the process of doing business.
“We not only are matching firms with capability,” he continues, “but we also are there to anticipate any conflicts, mediate any issues and alleviate problems. The goal is, get the project done, so everybody makes money and everybody walks away happy. This is business driven. The contractors are in it to make money. The subs are in it to make money. It’s only good in the end if everybody is happy. And that’s difficult to achieve in the construction business.”
Construction, as anyone who has ever hired a contractor for something as simple as a home renovation or as complicated as building an office tower, is a tough business. An awfully tough business.
“It’s a dog-eat-dog business,” says Huggins. “My passion for the subcontractors trying to enter it is you can be a great tradesman but you have to understand the business – the administration, the financial, the management aspect. All those components are critical in escalating your business. They’re critical to your overall success.”
The challenge for Huggins and his DBE network is in constantly upgrading not just their trade skills but also their industry savvy in ways that make them indispensable beyond earning set-aside project budgets.
“The majority of the minority subcontractor firms that worked on the airport project liked working for the contractor because of the relationships that developed,” Huggins says. “They were not easy contractors but they were fair; the contractors I talked to felt that. Skanska demanded performance; they demanded the best out of the subs. The subs respected them not only for being demanding but also being fair and respecting them.”
Clemens says the feeling was truly mutual.
“We got enthusiastic subcontractors that wanted to work, wanted to learn,” he says. “Because of that we achieved an even greater percentage than the goals for using disadvantaged businesses. We grew as a family on that project. All the ethnic and race divides withered away. Thomas and his leadership allowed that to occur.”
Skanska subsequently used some of the subs that Huggins introduced it to on other public – and private – projects in Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami-Dade.
The bottom line, of course, is the impact the DBEs have on the general contractor’s ability to profit from a job. But Clemens insists the equation isn’t that simple.
“Beyond the bottom line, we are helping to grow and cultivate in the Tampa Bay area a group of new and rising stars in the construction field,” he says. “We may not see immediate effects in economic aspects, but the market and community sees the creation of jobs and the stability of the competitive marketplace being improved. It isn’t all ‘Great Society’ stuff. It creates more qualified subcontractors, not just more qualified disadvantaged minority subs. These are newly confident people available to the airport five years out. The next group of subs will be stronger and better positioned as a result of these programs.
“My mission statement is to satisfy my customer,” Clemens continues. “My client is the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. Their interest is that the tax dollars that they use to fund projects provides a benefit that transcends back to the community at some level. That is my job. Yes, we’re in business and business is capitalistic and there is a profit motive involved. But at the end of the day, the way I’m graded is on the level of client satisfaction that I bring. And I need to meet, at the most basic aspects, the goals my customer establishes for disadvantaged participation. I have it in a contract. For me to be profitable and not meet those goals, they won’t have me back.”
So what did the companies Huggins recommended do?
“A little bit of everything,” according to Clemens. “We had contractors that installed the baggage conveyor systems. We had electricians, welders, plumbers, excavators and underground utility providers. It wasn’t a bunch of guys who pushed brooms and threw out the garbage.”
And not only was the baggage system completed on time in April 2005 and work well, it won a major industry award. The National Construction Management Association of America gave Skanska its 2005 Project Achievement Award in the category of “Public Project with a Construction Value Greater than $100 million.”
“It’s a fantastic honor,” Clemens says.
• • •
Thomas Huggins gets high marks from everyone with whom the Maddux Business Report spoke. Huggins, 45, is a past-chairman of the Tampa Urban League and current chairman of the Hillsborough Community College Board of Directors, having been appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999.
He truly is a people person.
“He’s just a real easygoing guy,” says Mary Hall, legal affairs director for the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority, another Ariel client. “And he’s got a good team. In all this time, I’ve never seen him not have a suggestion or a solution. He’s a good team player.”
That view is echoed by Skanska’s Jim Clemens.
“Our relationship has grown to be very friendly,” Clemens says. “We went from working associates to friends. He’s a great guy, hard working, whose career reflects his personality and work ethic, which is refreshing in the construction business. He has a very high threshold for dealing with difficult situations.”
But what is Huggins actually like as a man?
He’s been married for almost 20 years to his wife, Belinda, with whom he has two sons and two daughters. The oldest son plays football at The Citadel.
“Thomas is a pretty good guy,” says his friend of six years, Rea Remedial Solutions, Inc. President Kevin Simmons. “When I started my business – I used to work for Westinghouse and decided to open my own environmental firm – I met Thomas. Our firm was getting qualified to work for DOT through its bonding program and Thomas was running that program through Florida A&M University. I took the certification course through Ariel in St. Petersburg and Thomas taught the class. After I got certified by DOT, I came back and taught some classes for him. He gave me the old pitch about giving back. Thomas is good about being sure that those people who get help getting a leg up help the next guy.”
Simmons, who is African-American and the majority owner of his Valrico-based environment construction and engineering and assessment firm, has since worked on two projects referred by Ariel at Tampa International Airport, one for Skanska and one for Beck. He is currently working on another Ariel arranged assignment, the Selmon Crosstown Expressway expansion.
“Thomas has been a real proponent for minority business,” according to Simmons. “He’s done a real service in terms of helping small and disadvantaged businesses establish themselves through the cities, counties and state. He has a heartfelt view of helping and it comes out. He has made some introductions for us. By being the liaison for Beck and Skanska, it’s his job to understand the capabilities of those businesses. Once he knew what we could do and what they need, he was instrumental in getting us that introduction. “
Okay, okay, he’s a great humanitarian. But what’s he like?
“To be honest with you, Thomas is kind of a dry guy,” says Simmons. “There’s no wild side, no wild story to be related. He’s very into politics; he’s an African-American Republican. And he’s proud of being able to say it. A lot of African-American Republicans keep that to themselves.”
• • •
Like a lot of successful businesspeople in the bay area, Thomas Huggins relocated to Tampa from somewhere else; in his case, it was Charleston. Huggins, who is originally from Green Cove Springs, Florida, received a degree in business and finance from the College of Charleston, SC, where he also played basketball.
Arriving here, he spent his first days working in the payroll accounting department of Hardaway Construction during its construction of the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Nights he worked for the St. Petersburg Times in it printing plant, folding and processing newspapers.
In 1983, Huggins was hired by Community Federal Savings & Loan, the only African-American, multicultural bank in the city at the time. From there, he worked for consulting firms such as Boone, Young & Associates and Laventhol & Horwath doing small business consulting. At each firm he worked with the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“During that time, we worked a lot with small businesses, particularly construction companies, on major projects in the area,” Huggins says. “We worked on diversity issues, primarily business related, and minority business development programs. We were versed in the procurement and contracting arena and some of the challenges minority businesses were facing at the time.”
Huggins’ responsibilities included assisting small businesses with financing, developing business plans, and obtaining financing through the Small Business Administration and local banks. “We were identifying contracting opportunities for small businesses with the government and private sector. We educated them on the procurement systems and entering the construction arena. At the time, I managed a five-person staff that provided those services,” he says.
Fees at both consulting firms paid by small business clients were offset by the Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency. The idea was giving small, disadvantaged and minority businesses a better opportunity to compete for both jobs and access. “DOC’s goal was to have an avenue where minority business would receive technical assistance to promote business development,” Huggins says. “They wanted them to get the same assistance offered to mainstream firms through CPA firms. That is otherwise prohibitive to small business, so the DOC contracted with firms to provide that assistance at a subsidized rate. So instead of $200 an hour, the firms that came in might pay $100 or $75 an hour.”
As it turned out, the DOC indirectly subsidized Thomas Huggins’ future as well.
“I gained a tremendous amount of experience,” he says.
No surprise then that when Boone closed its Tampa office in 1996, Huggins went out on his own and hung a shingle as the head of Ariel Business Group.
“I felt that there was a niche, a void, in the area as it relates to the emerging business market,” he says. “Businesses that are under $2 million in revenue needed managerial and organizational assistance, all the way down to individuals that were micro-businesses in needed of assistance in starting a business.
“And,” he says, laughing, “I needed a job.”
Huggins felt it was the right track for him; when Boone shut down, he didn’t apply for any other jobs with existing firms. “This was the direction that I was led to go,” he says. “Being a spiritual man, this is where my prayer was. I asked for direction and guidance from God and this was the direction that he led me.”
Seems logical. But when you say you’re a “consultant,” there are a lot of consultants that do a lot of things. To provide some credibility early on,
Huggins’ goal was not just be another consultant working from home, going from one client to another.
“I wanted to develop a business,” he says. In the early days, Ariel consisted of Huggins and a part-time administrative support person. Today, he still runs a lean operation, helped by a vast computer database and a staff of five, including Melanie Mitchell, who was the project manager on the airport and expressway jobs.
“Relationships are important,” Huggins says. “The real issue for us is understanding the needs of the client, understanding the individual finance-making industry and what their likes and dislikes.”
Over time, Huggins broke Ariel up into three service areas:
• Management, advisory and program administration services;
• Corporate and diversity training to senior level management and governmental agencies – “We’ve not only worked for government agencies,” Huggins says, “but they’ve asked for our help on the public policy side to develop minority policies”;
• Work with individual firms to do contract compliance and small business outreach on construction related projects.
“On the emerging business side,” Huggins says, “we still work with individual small businesses with revenues below $1 million that seek assistance in procurement and understanding the government bureaucracy, as well as individuals seeking financing.”
Ariel’s annual revenues are in the “mid six figures” according to Huggins. He bills clients by the hour for services rendered, using the same time-tested approach as lawyers and accountants. The amount is not, he emphasizes, based on the DBE budget for a project. And Ariel does not charge the SBE firms it introduces to its clients. “That’s considered double-dipping and I wouldn’t do that,” Huggins says.
His goal, he says, is to see his small business clients outgrow him.
• • •
The Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority – the government agency that operates the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway and the Veterans Expressway – hired Ariel Business Group as its official small business enterprise authority for construction of the new $400 million expansion of the existing Selmon Expressway. It was one of several consulting firms that responded to an RFP for an SBE consultant.
“We were centered on getting as much of the construction work distributed to small businesses as possible,” explains the Authority’s legal affairs director Mary Hall. “We’re a small agency. We couldn’t by any stretch license or register or maintain an independent contractor list the way city or county do. Our board decided that if a company is on the list on any governmental agency in a seven-county area they could be on our database. Ariel was hired to try to get the word out that these jobs are available through the authority and they’ve been pretty successful.”
As it did with the airport project, Ariel participates in weekly expressway construction meetings with the major contractors to keep abreast of performance and evolving needs.
“The firms say, ‘Over the next two weeks we’re working on whatever.’ Then Ariel goes back to their database and tells companies what is coming up this week,” Hall says. “The small companies wouldn’t have known about us because we’re not typically in the construction business. They can’t bid these huge jobs; they have to be subs.”
Ariel impresses its clients on both ends by staying involved in the process.
“Sometimes they come up with issues we don’t hear about, such as delays in payment,” Hall says. “They act as the SBE’s representative and they get through some sticky issues that always resolve satisfactorily. One time, for example, there was a delay in payment to a sub. That’s a hardship. Once the general contractor confirmed the work was satisfactory, we expedited payment to the sub based on Ariel’s intervention. They work closely with our project accountant. That’s how they track the SBE participation. We have a reporting system that involves everyone.”
The Expressway Authority requires any contractor with which it does business to follow its SBE policy. “Whenever they have any work effort, they’re encouraged to look for SBE firms. Our construction policy requires that the contractor have a similar policy to ours; most of them already do,” Hall says. “We don’t just say it and let it sit on the shelf. We require they participate.”
• • •
There’s something different about Thomas Huggins from other small business enterprise consultants that Jonathan Graham has worked with before.
“He’s professional,” says the Graham, of Horus Construction Services in St. Petersburg. “I’ve dealt with Thomas for about four years. We had an opportunity through him with the Hillsborough County school district. We also worked with him on a Palm Beach contract.”
The mark of an effective SBE consultant is that the agency or company that hires him or her has the power to enforce participation.
“If they’re just there as a show – ‘We, as a corporation, do outreach but the construction managers do what they want,’ there’s no value,” Graham says. “But if they want to take the advice of the consultant, such as Thomas, it’s a good thing. But we’ve found people want to work with people they know. Big companies know majority subcontractors. They don’t know minority contractors. People put up a front, ‘We’d like to work with minority contractors’ but they don’t know them and don’t take chance to get to know them.”
Kevin Simmons says that when it comes to opening his network, recognizing or seizing opportunity, Thomas Huggins doesn’t see people of color, sex or ethnicity, just opportunity.
“He’s been a real incubator for getting women-owned or (non-disadvantaged) small businesses started. He’ll say, ‘Here’s a good accountant.’ Or they say. ‘Thomas Huggins from Ariel said to see you.’ Or Thomas will call in advance and say, ‘This guy is coming to see you; he needs help.’ It’s a nice little network.
(UPDATE: This story, originally written in May 2009 and published in the Maddux Business Report in July 2009, became worth posting online for the first time when the Tampa Bay Times reported on August 28, 2015 that Dalian Wanda Group of China paid roughly $900 million to acquire the Tampa-based company.)
Ben Fertic was 14 the first time he ever heard of a triathlon. He and his brother, Cole, who is six years his senior, were watching ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” coverage of the running, biking and swimming event in Hawaii and it changed their lives.
“I was watching Julie Moss cross the finish line and we knew we wanted to do that race,” Fertic says.
Two years later, Cole led the way, running his first triathlon in 1984. Not that it was easy; Ben’s older brother was electrocuted as a teen and lost his right arm and right leg.
“When he did it, which was at that time unheard of, he was like, ‘Why don’t you do one? If I can do one, you should go do one.’” Fertic recalls.
He couldn’t resist the challenge and the CEO of Tampa-based World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) has been racing ever since. He’s also the guy who now negotiates and signs the company’s TV contracts, which includes the Ford Ironman World Championship held every October on Hawaii’s Big Island, plus three additional televised events on NBC and even more on the Vs. cable network. (There is also a live, 18-hour webcast of the Hawaii championship.)
There are more than two-dozen officially sanctioned, qualifying Ironman events held around the world, from Monaco to San Francisco and China to Lake Placid. Every November, Clearwater is host to the Foster Grant Ironman World Championship70.3 (a shortened version of the Hawaii triathlon) and St. Petersburg hosted its first IronKids National Triathlon Series event in June 2009.
The Ironman triathlon’s biggest competition, Fertic says, isn’t other triathlon organizers but televised football, baseball, basketball, hockey, tennis and golf. He’s competing for sponsorships and eyeballs.
• • •
For almost two decades, WTC was part of the Dr. James Gills business empire in Tarpon Springs. Gills first rose to fame and fortune thanks to the revolutionary cataract surgery techniques he pioneered at St. Luke’s Cataract & Laser Institute. With that foundation, he became a land baron in North Pinellas/South Pasco, where he developed the sprawling community known as Trinity. And in 1990, Gills acquired ownership of the original race, which takes its name from three back-to-back endurance events, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run. He named the company the World Triathlon Corporation and created a charitable arm, The Ironman Foundation. If it seems an odd fit, it wasn’t; Gills was a triathlete himself who ran the race many times before buying the company. And once he owned it, the ophthalmologist became the world’s biggest promoter of the nascent competition.
In the mid-90s, Gills’ son, Pit, was in medical school, on his path to eventually working alongside his dad at St. Luke’s. His wife Joy met Dara Fertic at the retail store where they both worked. The Fertics often entertained Joy when Pit was at school or studying. Ben—a University of Florida trained engineer—and Pit discovered a shared love of triathlon and began training together with both racing in the 1996 Ironman. It was the start of a friendship that endures to this day.
The business relationship began when the Gills were unhappy with the results of outsourcing the IT and website work for the triathlon company. “I told everyone, ‘I have this friend, a really sharp guy.’ He revamped our web site and it was the beginning of the site really growing.”
Fertic’s performance on that assignment grew into a new one: design an ambitious new business plan for WTC.
“He did a nice job,” Pit Gills says, “and we promoted him to president. Ben has got an engineer’s mind, so whenever he has a problem, whatever it is, he’s going to find a solution to fix it. That’s the way he’ll be till the day he dies. Ben’s engineer personality combined with his love of triathlon makes a perfect match.”
Last year, the Gills gave Fertic permission to find a buyer and ultimately negotiate the sale of WTC to a private investment firm, Providence Equity of Rhode Island.
“Selling the company was a little rough but it was the right thing to do for the company and for us,” Pit Gills says. “They’ll be able to grow it more than we could. We had it for 20 years and grew it quite a bit. I think the group that has it now will do a good job with it. It was hard to let go. But it was the right timing and it will be the best thing for the company as a whole to go to the next level.
“Ben lives two blocks down from my wife and I,” Pit adds. “Our kids are close friends and he’s one of the guys on my speed dial. I joke with him that this will be a lot easier on our friendship. I was upstairs almost everyday, managing.” The changes in the business’s size and complexity have already been dramatic. In Tarpon Springs, as part of the Gills empire, WTC occupied 3,500 square feet and had 27 employees. (Five years ago, it had six fulltime employees.) Now operating from the scenic top floor of the Island Center building on Rocky Point, the company leases 10,000 square feet and employs 40 on site and 100 worldwide.
“Within the next few years, it wouldn’t surprise me if we hit 150 worldwide,” Fertic says.
Clearly, WTC has already benefited from the sale.
“There are always certain times in your business where you just have to sit down and say, ‘Are we going to invest the money to get it to the next level?’ That always involves risk,” Fertic says. “Providence Equity is one of the largest funds in the world. They were willing to take the bull by the horns and take it to the next level. As much as Dr. Gills and his family loved Ironman, it’s one of those things where, if you love it so much, you have to set it free.”
The Gills were not actively looking to sell WTC, which had been profitable for the last 10 years.
“In the last two years, equity companies were just continually calling because Ironman was becoming much better known and it was privately held by family,” Fertic says. “That’s kind of a fishing ground for private equity firms. They go looking for that opportunity and we were on a lot of people’s radar as a potential opportunity. My thesis was, let’s form a group that can bring products to market with our brand name, and we’ll build this as a separate entity. That’s the road we were heading down to get the dialogue started. It wasn’t necessarily about selling the company. Providence was the right partner and we put together a proposal for how to grow it, and the Gills liked it.”
The sale price was not disclosed and neither the Gills family or Providence Equity will disclose WTC’s annual sales. “Dr. Jim Gills absolutely created the market,” Fertic says. “I think that it takes somebody that’s passionate, even when it’s not a profitable entity, and he was willing to take the risk. It shows an amazing amount of commitment, and it took somebody special to do that. Because certainly when he bought the company, it was not profitable. Its value increased over time, but there was a lot of heartache there and a lot of work.”
• • •
The World Triathlon Corporation is best known for its “Ironman” events and brand. It’s largest revenue streams come from sponsorships (Ford, Timex, Foster Grant, PowerBar and Gatorade, to name a few) and from products and product licensing fees (an Ironman Timex watch, Ironman sunglasses, IronKids Gummies multivitamins), endorsements and media and broadcast revenues.
Event entry fees—and there are 120,000 worldwide participants in the three branded Ironman competitions: Ironman, Iron Girl and the newly acquired from Sara Lee Corporation IronKids—make up a portion of revenues, but not the largest by any means. There are only so many people out there who will do an Ironman, but there are so many more that will watch.
And even those who watch will buy merchandise with the Ironman name. One of the growth strategies Fertic engineered with the financial strength of WTC’s new owner is more Ironman products but many now produced and sold directly by WTC, rather than middlemen.
Two years ago, WTC licensed all of its merchandise sold at all of its venues. Not any more. “We took over all of our own merchandise,” Fertic says. “We do all of our own designs. And we’re taking over all the risk, too. I wouldn’t say it’s that much more profitable, but I know that our level of service and the quality of the product are ten times what it was. We are able to provide a much higher quality product and still maintain our margin from the event. Our athletes are getting something that’s of so much greater value. We’ve focused on that. People look forward to coming to the merchandising stand to buy stuff that they could either train in or that looked really good and they knew the stitching wasn’t going to fall out of it two weeks later. And that was the other thing about our brand–we didn’t want anything to associate with our brand that was going to fall apart in three months.”
There are exceptions. Timex still licenses the rights to produce its Ironman watches. The arrangement is acceptable to WTC because Timex, despite its lower price points, is known for making “indestructible” products, according to Fertic. “That’s why they are such a great partner for our brand; it’s an endurance product that fits us perfectly.”
Another development in WTC’s evolution under Providence Equity was its purchase, on Jan. 1, of a Boulder, Colorado, licensee that previously fulfilled product orders and operated some Ironman events independently for WTC. Providence bought the company and made it the headquarters for WTC’s new merchandising group.
• • •
The Boulder acquisition brought up a natural issue to Fertic from WTC’s new owners: You’re no longer tied to Florida; where should the company be located? Tarpon Springs? Boulder? New York? Somewhere else?
“I could have literally, from a strategic business perspective, picked any place, and we would have moved,” says Fertic, who has been married to his wife Dara (herself a triathlete and marathon runner) for 14 years and is raising three children in Clearwater. “But we built roots within the community, from our professional lives and obviously our personal lives. I’ve lived internationally, and I’ve lived all throughout the U.S. and a lot in the Southeast. This is an amazing place. From the cost of living and a lot of other things, it’s got a tremendous amount of strategic advantages from that perspective.”
Among those is the time zone convenience that Florida offers.
“We do a lot of business in Europe, it’s one of our biggest markets, so an East Coast location is probably the best because of all the time changes we have to deal with. Germany is six hours ahead of us, so all those calls basically have to happen at 6:00 in the morning, which is noon in Germany.
“Combine that,” he continues, “with the saltwater and the incredible convenience of the airport and everything else, and this is just a complete natural fit.”
• • •
The IronKids program is deviously brilliant in its simplicity and likely to explode the sport around the globe for generations to come. Just as watching the Ironman competition on television 27 years ago piqued the interest of young Ben Fertic, it continues to inspire athletic boys and girls.
There are age-appropriate IronKid distances, for example, a 25- or 50-yard swim, a 3-mile bike, and a one- to two-mile run. The events are completely tailored for 6- to 15-year-old.
“Our Ironman events are 18 and up, so we never really reached into the kid market,” Fertic says. “We knew through our television and media that we were having an influence on kids in triathlon as far as them aspiring to be an Ironman or to compete in that event, so it’s a natural fit for us to go into the market.”
Think of the opportunity! IronKids workout gear! IronKids bikes! IronKids swimsuits! IronKids Timex watches! That’s not cynicism. Marketers are always selling to kids. Would you rather see them buy into physical activity or stationary videogames and computer programming?
“We pick up the paper every other day and see the obesity epidemic and the obesity trends in the United States and what percentage of the kids are obese,” Fertic says. “We have this healthy lifestyle platform, and we can make an impact, we can make a difference. Ours is a lifestyle that you can do forever.”
WTC isn’t going to just rely on word of mouth, either; Fertic foresees IronKids programs breaking out in schools and recreation programs around the world much like soccer programs, Little League baseball and Pop Warner football. And unlike those three, the IronKids program feeds into adult events that participants can run into their 80s.
“A lot of kids play football, but when they hit 21, unless they go to college or the pros, they’re done,” Fertic says. Triathlon is something you grow up with. That’s what our team and I started to focus on. I have three very young girls, and they play softball and soccer, and they also race triathlon, and they are sports enthusiasts. Our goal is that when somebody is in eighth grade and saying, ‘I want to be on a team,’ one day triathlon will be somewhere in that mix.”
He expects IronKids to be a big factor for the company and young participants in three to four years because that’s how long it took the Iron Girl events to take wing. There could be as many as 10 official IronKids events this year.
There are a couple schools in the country that have triathlon teams, but you could probably count them on one hand. Back when Fertic was a University of Florida engineering student in the late 1980s, he was part of the school’s triathlon team. Him and two other guys.
Is it any wonder that Provident Equity bought Fertic’s vision?
Currently, the average age for Ironman participants is 41—an age considered over the hill in every major sport with the possible exception of baseball pitchers—and that number is skewed because WTC doesn’t allow anybody under 18 to enter. But the true development of this sport will come from the youth and exposing people to the brand and the lifestyle.
• • •
Boos Development Group of Clearwater has been a sponsor of the 70.3 Half Ironman event in Clearwater for the last three years and company president, COO and triathlete Rob Boos calls Fertic a close friend.
“Ben can drill down into the details and still fly at 30,000 feet,” according to Boos. “He’s done a great job leading the company to growth over the last five or six years he’s been in charge. His ability to have balance in his life is incredible. His intensity in work is the same as the intensity of how important his family to him.”
Like Jim Gills, the man who hired him, Fertic, 40, is in it for the passion. Getting well compensated is just the gravy. “There’s a saying that goes, ‘If you love what you do, then you’ll never work a day in your life.’ And this is a passion for me. There are a couple of things in my life that have been passions. One of them is racing triathlons. When you have something that you’re really passionate about and you get to work in that space, you just feel incredibly blessed and lucky that that happens. I’ve surrounded myself with people that are equally passionate. We’re kind of all rowing in the same direction, and we love the sport. We love Ironman, we love the sport of triathlon.”
Mom and Dad must wonder what happened to the UF engineering degree in which they invested, right?
“This is the question that people ask me all the time,” Fertic says. “Even to me, it’s hard to understand. My first four or five years out of college, I worked for a Fortune 100 company in engineering, McDermott International. I was in the power generation group.
“I was the lead engineer, building projects and running large-scale projects. I lived in Venezuela for a year. I lived in Thailand. I traveled all over. There were two skill sets that I learned that McDermott taught me. One was running large-scale projects with a lot of vendors on tight time schedules, which is what we do here. And the other thing is the international aspect, because we’re very international. I’ve had three calls today, one to Switzerland and two to Germany with German clients, and you have to appreciate how other cultures approach business, how they react to contracts and what their methodologies are. We have a race in Malaysia. We have sponsors in Malaysia. Somebody from Malaysia is going to approach something very, very differently than someone from New Zealand or someone from Germany. I lived in these other cultures. My eyes were opened to the fact that not everyone conducts business the way that business is conducted here in the States.
“Yeah, my parents wonder what happened to me, absolutely. They still don’t understand it. To this day, they are like, ‘What do you do?’ But engineers, ultimately, are problem-solvers, and that’s really what business is about.”
And Fertic still races in Ironman events.
“I’ll do them past 80,” he says. “It’s the fountain of youth.”
(This interview with Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman was recorded in March 1991 for the Maddux Report.)
Sandy Freedman’s fingerprints are all over her city. In typical big city fashion, nothing of any significance happens in Tampa these days without the mayor’s nod of approval or hands-on contribution. It’s evident in the Tampa Convention Center — for which she had final approval of details down to the color scheme — and the arrival of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey franchise, which she personally rallied the National Hockey League Board of Governors to award. She participated in the city’s successful efforts to lure Salomon Brothers to Tampa and pushed the coming Florida Aquarium from dream to reality.
The mayor — who won re-election in February with the support of a crushing 73 percent of the electorate — made a reputation for herself during his first term as what she calls a “facilitator,” someone with a knack for bringing parties to the table to work out their differences. It was her influence that broke down years of mistrust between Tampa and St. Petersburg and set the stage for such infant trans-bay organizations as the Tampa Bay Partnership and the Tampa Bay Congress of Chambers of Commerce. She went to St. Petersburg to meet with the National League Expansion Committee in February and express the entire Tampa Bay area’s support for a baseball franchise in the Florida Suncoast Dome.
She says her early days in the office were awkward as city staff and business leaders struggled to adapt to not just Tampa’s first woman chief executive but to a mayor decidedly different in style and execution from her predecessor, Bob Martinez.
Still, however, she is a lioness searching for a voice, as her quiet asmidst the racial storm of the cancelled Gasparilla invasion and parade demonstrated. It was the perfect episode for the mayor of harmony to take a stand and be heard, yet she was largely silent, preferring to stay in the background.
Freedman talked with the Maddux Report for an hour in her city hall office in April, the day after she was sworn in for her second term.
MADDUX REPORT: You were re-elected by a landslide, probably making you the most powerful woman in Florida …
SANDY FREEDMAN: I never think about that. I hope I’m a good role-model for women. That’s the only way that comes into mind. It does say that women can be in executive positions, not just legislative position, that woman can lead and do well and have the support of the public as they’re doing it.
MR: What does it mean for Tampa that you did so well, that you established clearly that you are the mayor of all of Tampa?
SF: What it says is that people like the direction the city is in now, the direction we’ve taken these last four years and they want to continue along that course.
MR: What message did your victory sent to the citizens of Tampa and the city council in terms of your mandate and your ability to govern.
SF: One of the things I was interested in was winning big. Because there were an awful lot of things that I started and I wanted to continue. I think the margin lets everybody know that the public is supportive of those things and they want to keep ’em going, whether it’s the housing program or economic development. I hope they’re going to remember that as we move into new areas and that the public widely supported me. I might REMIND ’em on occasion. (She laughs.)
MR: You’re widely thought to be someone who’s low-key, a behind the scenes person, not a grab-’em-by-the-lapels mayor — almost a contradiction in a ‘strong mayor’ form of government.
SF: When you’re my size you can’t grab people by the lapels. (She laughs.) Kick ’em in the shins, maybe.
MR: What tops your agenda for the next four years?
SF: We will contine working on reducing crime in creative ways. It’s not just hiring more cops. The housing programs, which, of all the things I’ve done, I’m most proud of them. They’re really helping people. We’re going to continue them and fine-tune. We’re doing one pilot project, rebuilding and revitalizing, in effect, an entire neighborhood. If we make that one work, we’ll be able to take that model to other neighborhoods. I’m confident we’re going to get a convention hotel, but on terms the city can afford and handle, as opposed to someone else’s terms.
Hopefully some of the things that are the hardest to do — race relations, the arts — will be in better shape.
MR: How would you describe your style of governing?
SF: It’s a different style than this community is used to. And I think that’s why it’s was hard early on for some people to understand, even for some of the staff members. It was very different from the way Bob Martinez dealt.
I work in a very open way. People are in and out all day. It’s not a closed, inner circle and then another circle, as might have been the case in the past. Everybody has access to this office. It’s a very democratic kind of thing. Everybody shares their ideas, free-for-all. We don’t sit around a conference table; I’m not comfortable there. We kick around ideas and then I say okay, this is the way we’re going to do it. And everybody gets behind it.
I think it works. The people who work with me — I don’t think they’re scared out of me. They know I can be tough and I can be a taskmaster, but I don’t ask of them anything I don’t ask of myself.
It’s low-key, behind-the-scenes much of the time, non-traditional, maybe. There’s a lot of team building. We do some things out of the office, we socialize together. We spend more time together than we do with our families so we better like each other. There’s a lot of humor, a lot of laughter, a lot of kidding. There’s a great deal of camaraderie.
I get around a lot to the departments. If I need information, instead of asking them to come here, I go there. It helps for people to see me, to know I care about what they do. I probably know more people by name than any other mayor ever has. I like people. Maybe that’s the difference.
MR: You have been given credit for a number of things that have happened during the last four years — hockey, Salomon Brothers, the convention center, the Florida Aquarium. What do you think your contribution to these things has been?
SF: Often times I’m a facilitator. I take pride and some degree of credit in getting the convention center done on time and on budget. Every Wednesday morning I got a report on progress from the moment that project began to insure it came in on time and on budget. My credibility and the fortune of the city was at stake and I wasn’t going to let it get away from me.
Hockey, that was one of those once-in-a-lifetime kind of things. I’ve been given a lot of credit, but I think I just said, ‘Let’s pick up the pieces. You get the private financing and I’ll go down (to the NHL Board of Governors meetings at The Breakers in Palm Beach) and make the pitch for you.’ But I think they wanted to give Phil Esposito a franchise. There was an electricity when he walked in the room that is a very rare thing to see.
MR: There was a great picture of you holding a hockey stick over your head after the team was awarded …
SF: I hated that picture. Everybody else loved it. I guess it was because it was very different for me.
Women who started in politics a long time ago came along at a time when there were very few women involved in politics, when we really had to be smarter, be better, do more homework. At least we thought we did. We were held up to a microscope, much more so than the men who were elected. As a result of that, a lot of us developed what appears to be a level of intensity, much more thoughtful, less humorous, less frivolous. That has kind of carried over with me. That’s why it’s still hard for me to see myself with a hockey stick.
MR: What did Salomon Brothers ask of the city that the city could — and could not — deliver?
SF: They asked very little, quite honestly.
I think they knew the answers but in the early stages had to have discussions as to whether they could have tax incentives, tax abatements, the normal questions that everybody asks. I think they had well-researched this area and knew what the Florida Constitution allowed and also what it prohibited. They really didn’t ask much. They were very receptive to the few offers we made — the partnership school concept, which I took to them very late. They were very very enamored with the concept and they are going to be implementing it in conjunction with the Hillsborough County school system. We certainly offered to help facilitiate the process through permitting. Not to give them anything, but to help make sure that things move as quickly as possible. We’ve done that for others and will continue to do that.
I think they were most especially interested in the feel for the community, the receptivity to the top people who came down. They were interested in housing, the arts.
MR: Was there anything Salomon Brothers wanted that you just couldn’t give them?
SF: I don’t recall anything that ever came up that they said, ‘We have to have this,’ and we had to say no, we can’t provide it for you.
MR: You have maintained a very strong hand in negotiations for a convention center hotel, turning back some well-known, would-be developers. What were they asking for that the city can’t or won’t deliver?
SF: They’re asking more than we’re able to deliver or even want to deliver. I don’t think the city of Tampa — as interested as we are in getting a convention hotel in close proximity to the facility — should be in the convention hotel business. And some of the requests made of us have been to, in effect, own a piece of the rock. Not to own it, but we would have to put so much in, that in effect, we would be kinda partners even though we wouldn’t own it. I don’t want to do that, I don’t think the public wants that. There are certain things we can work with and they’ve been widely reported, from the parking situation — we’ve got a couple little parcels down there that might be part of the deal — and there’s a little bit of tax increment financing money, maybe some help with the meeting rooms. But owning half a hotel, in effect, is not what we’re going to do.
MR: Is there anything in particular holding up the process right now?
SF: I think the economy certainly hasn’t been in our favor. Land prices down there have been very, very high, although they seem to be coming down a little bit, which may help facilitate the deal.
I’m pretty confident that in the not too distant future we’re going to see something happen down there. I don’t have anything to announce — but there’s more interest in the last couple months than there was in the six months prior to that.
MR: You have made a mini-career of bringing together disparate groups and telling them to meet, talk among themselves and work together.
SF: I’m glad that I’ve been able to fill the facilitator’s role. It will mean more to me if those things become long-lasting. That’s one of the reasons why the way I operate is different. Some people say I should stand here, pound the desk and say, ‘THIS IS THE WAY IT’S GONNA BE!’ I don’t view that behavior as being for long-term progress. I think the community has to come together. I see my role as bringing those forces together for the long-term interest.
MR: Will Bob Ulrich’s decision to step aside as mayor of St. Petersburg interrupt the mood of cooperation across the bay?
SF: No. I think it’ll continue. David Fischer and his wife were at my swearing-in ceremony. Bob Ulrich was also there. That never would have happened four or five years ago.
I don’t know David Fischer at all, but I know of him and I’m real comfortable with him.
MR: Would you favor a Tampa BAY Sports Authority if a Major League Baseball team is awarded to St. Petersburg? What about a Tampa Bay United Way for the arts?
SF: I’m not sure I favor a Tampa Bay Sports Authority or a Tampa Bay United Way for the arts.
As much as I support regionalism, there are always going to be times — and there should be times — when we maintain our separate identities. Yes, we should work together on sports, but no, I don’t think we ought to have a Tampa Bay Sports Authority.
MR: How would you describe your relationship with the business community?
SF: I think I have a good relationship with the business community. There were times early on that maybe it wasn’t as good as it is now, but I think that was because I was somewhat unknown to them as a chief executive. My style is very different. I don’t just call a half-dozen people for advice. I call a LOT of people. And so I think there might have been some people who thought they were cut off.
I’m very supportive of good, sound economic development.
MR: Do you consider yourself and your administration pro-business?
SF: I think we’ve demonstrated that we are.
MR: What do you think of the Hillsborough County Commission’s proposal to establish its own economic development commission?
SF: I think it’s a mistake.
Government does some things very well and some things we don’t do very well. I think we need to acknowledge that. I don’t think this is an area government could do really well. We can help facilitate economic development, clearly, by our actions as well as our resources. But I think the Committee of One Hundred has done quite well; I think they can do better. There’s been a fragmentation of economic development with the proliferation of University North, the Parkway Association, Ybor City, downtown, Westshore — which hasn’t necessarily accrued to the benefit of the overall economic picture.
Personally I would hope there would be some pulling in of all of those in more of an umbrella effort, so that those resources that are expended in all of those areas might be more efficiently administered. But I don’t think it ought to be done by government.
MR: So you don’t favor the creation of another EDC.
SF: Absolutely not.
One of the frustrations (of the county commission) — and I have felt it myself — is as a public official you’re expected to know everything. And yet there’s an arena in which you can’t know everything. There’s a confidentiality when you’re dealing with corpprate relocations. Even as the mayor, I don’t know all the people or groups that we’re wooing. And I shouldn’t.
MR: There was probably one election issue that no one was happy with you about and that was your handling of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. You were uncharacteristically silent about the Krewe’s unwillingness to take in blacks, women and minorities, seemingly unwilling to take sides, unwilling to alienate the black coalition or the white power brokers who make up the Krewe. In the meantime, as the sports world prepared to come to town for Super Bowl XXV, Tampa’s national image took a beating in the press. Was it a mistake to not be more outspoken?
SF: I don’t know that I was silent. I said the city wouldn’t participate any longer (in the Gasparilla parade) with our services, the policemen, clean-up and everything else.
I’ve thought that one through dozens, hundreds of times probably by now. What could I have done differently, what would have been better? And I haven’t figured it out yet. I worked from day one behind the scenes, trying to bring the parties together, trying to get the Krewe to integrate, trying to make order rise from chaos and (Tampa received) a black eye, a nationwide black eye. But I don’t know what could have done differently.
MR: Did you not get a sense that people on both sides were waiting for you to come out on one side or the other?
SF: Yeah, yeah. But either way was a losing proposition. I think it was handled poorly all the way around from a public relations standpoint. I tried very hard to get that moderation between all the folks that were involved. I’m not sure that I could have handled it any better; perhaps if others had reduced the rhetoric and maybe belayed their actions … It was a painful thing. But sometimes, no pain, no gain. We’re gonna be a stronger community as a result of it.
MR: Will Gasparilla return to the city?
SF: We’ll have to wait and see.
MR: And if it does, will the city be involved with the Krewe?
SF: If the Krewe wants to put on a parade with the support of the city, then it’s going to have to be an inclusive organization.
MR: Cecil Edge said your fingerprints are on every downtown building built in the last four years and every building that will rise for the next four years. (The mayor laughs.) Do you have a clear vision for downtown?
SF: I think I have a pretty good vision for downtown. We put together the downtown plan to help articulate that vision. That’s to give everybody guidelines, to put everybody on a level playing field.
I have a vision. I’d like to see the waterfront very people-oriented. I would not like to see it walled-in with high-rise buildings where you couldn’t see the water or there was no green space. I think we have had the last of our buildings that is going to be concrete and steel, sidewalk to sidewalk. I hope we have. I think there’s going to be public art in downtown. I hope we will attract more retail and housing. Those are tricky, very tough. I hope the architecture will be architecture people will view in and of itself. Good architecture doesn’t cost more money.
MR: What will drive the Tampa Bay market in the next decade?
SF: I think we’re learning that we’ve got to have more homegrown. The SRI study proves that to be a reality. There aren’t that many corporate relocations out there. The real value-added is going to come from within and it should. We ought to have an environment that can nurture that.
MR: Your predecessor used this office to leap first into the governor’s mansion and now the president’s cabinet. What’s ahead for you?
SF: I get asked that question at least once a day. I don’t know what’s ahead. My schooling, my degree, was in local government. I get a great deal of reward and personal satisfaction from what I do. It’s probably a good thing that I can only serve two terms. But who knows? Maybe if there wasn’t a charter revision, maybe I’d want to keep on going. There’s a lot to do in this community and a lot I’d like to be involved with.
Happy Birthday to one of my most famous collaborators, Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot and co-author of ‘Built From Scratch: How a Couple of Regular Guys Grew The Home Depot from Nothing to $30 Billion.”
(Originally published in Gallery Magazine, Spring 1994)
Vince Lombardi never met a sports agent he liked. Or one with whom he’d negotiate a deal.
According to legend, when a popular Green Bay Packers player showed up in Lombardi’s office with an agent to renegotiate his contract, the coach looked the outsider up and down. “Who’s this?” he asked.
“My agent,” said the player.
Lombardi disappeared into an adjacent room and was gone for about 30 minutes. When he returned, the puzzled player and his agent said they were ready to get started.
“We have nothing to talk about,” Lombardi said. “You’ve been traded to Washington.”
Agents and players in all four major team sports have changed dramatically since Lombardi’s day. The collapse of the reserve clause and rise of television, unions, collective bargaining agreements, collusion, salary arbitration and free agency have forever changed the leverage of athletes dealing with management.
Prior to free agency and salary arbitration, there were no real agents in baseball except for a superstar using a manager for his speaking engagement or endorsements. The reserve clause in baseball bound a player in perpetuity to a club. If an agent said he wanted $80,000 instead of $30,000, management said, “He can shovel coal! I control his destiny.” But when free agency and arbitration came into the picture, players needed somebody to prepare their case and negotiate. Free agency became a cumbersome process for players. They’d have to call around, make appointments, play one team against each other. Agents came on the scene and intervened almost overnight.
In the National Football League, it wasn’t until the collective bargaining agreement of 1975 that the right of representation was guaranteed.
“Up until then,” says Berkeley, Ca.-based agent Leigh Steinberg, “it was the Wild, Wild West.”
Steinberg, who represents more NFL quarterbacks – 23 – than anyone else and who negotiated five football deals in 1993 alone worth $80 million, leads the life other agents dream about. For one thing, he’s made quite a handsome living by consistently signing the best pigskin talent straight out of college. For another, he’s almost as famous as some of his players.
He’s not the only agent whose reputation made him a recognized name in sports household. Others include David Falk (Michael Jordan’s man), Jim Neader (Dwight Gooden) and the late Bob Woolf (Larry Bird). But despite their renown and success, there’s debate over the impact they’ve had on the games themselves, good or bad.
“I think they’ve had an enormous effect,” says Orlando Magic General Manager Pat Williams. “Over the last 20 years, they became the comparable businessmen to the owners on the other side of the table. It’s not the players – the agents control everything that happens on the other side of the table. Their job is to drive the toughest bargain they can.”
NFL Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw steered his players union through the legal morass of the reserve system during the late ’80s and into the promised land of free agency. But he doesn’t rank agents on his list of the high and mighty in sports.
“Their power and influence is in their clients,” Upshaw says. “And they can’t operate unless we say so. No agent ever obtained free agency. The union did. And no agent can make a player better than he is.”
Early on, the agent field was full of unaccredited shysters, eager to scam a few thousand bucks off unsuspecting, uneducated, athletically gifted youngsters. Today, player representation is a higher art, characterized by stable, recognizable faces and typically controlled and certified by the player unions. In the NFL, in fact, clubs are restricted by the new collective bargaining agreement from negotiating with any agent who has not been certified by the NFL Players Association.
Of the four major leagues – NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball – only the latter has yet to require agent certification. No doubt it’s coming.
“I am not anti-agent,” Pat Williams says. “The good ones are good for the game. They know what they’re doing, they know the industry. They’re doing what they have to do. Could the player do it alone? No.” o o o
Twenty years ago, average player salaries in sports were stuck in the low five figures. The concept of New England Patriots QB Drew Bledsoe signing a $4.5 million bonus the day he joined the Patriots didn’t exist. The dynamics were different. And agents were luxuries.
Now sports dollars are so big, the contracts so complicated, agents have become necessities. “Dealing with the type of money we’re dealing with today, you definitely need one,” says Upshaw, who never had an agent during his playing days. Today, in fact, most general managers would rather negotiate with an agent than a player. Athletes who represent themselves get emotionally involved in the process, which can be disruptive for all concerned. It’s not the best thing for a player’s ego to hear he’s not the best at his position anymore or that the team doesn’t need him anymore.
“I have not dealt with a player in 25 years and I’m grateful,” Williams says. “They wouldn’t know what to do. You couldn’t get a deal done. They’ve got to have a rep. And after a player signs, they need someone to help with taxes and finances. That’s very important. If their finances are messed up, their head is messed up. If the player has someone taking care of that, it’s a plus.”
In the early 1960s Los Angeles Dodgers pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale decided to negotiate as a team, demanding $120,000 each under the direction of agent Bill Hayes. They want comparable pay, which the Dodgers didn’t like. Drysdale was great, but Koufax was greater, and the greater attraction; he was the one who put asses in the stands. In the end, Koufax got more than Drysdale, but they both earned more than Los Angeles would have paid otherwise.
Hayes was the first agent taken seriously by baseball. “It was the first union in baseball, but it was only two players,” says Andy Zimbalist, Smith College economist and author of Baseball and Billions.
Koufax and Drysdale’s strategy worked well for their day, but imagine them, or Mantle, Mays, Ruth, Tittle, Cousy, Russell or Howe with proper representation under modern free agency. Those guys were little more than chattel under the old system and were paid as such. They were owned in perpetuity by their teams. Fans today complain about players hop scotching from team to team, lacking franchise loyalty, but barely two generations ago, athletes had little to no control over their career destinies. If they played the game, they danced the owners’ tune.
Why do players make so much money now?
“The agents facilitated it but you have to give a lot of credit to the player associations,” says St. Petersburg, Fl.-based agent Jim Neader. “Before them, the owners had the leverage. They could pay you or not pay you. It’s like the Ralph Kiner thing. He hit 50 home runs and the Pirates wanted him to take a pay cut because they could finish last with or without him.”
Free agency has meant the gradual control of player destinies shifting from teams to the athletes themselves. And that, in turn, has increased competition for their services, creating opportunities for the agents to answer the question: How high is up?
“We wondered how high was up when we heard of the first $1 million contracts,” says CBS-TV college basketball analyst Billy Packer. “Now there are $20 million contracts. Now we have a rookie in the NBA signing for $70 million.”
Television dollars pushed those figures into the stratosphere. NFL teams, for example, jumped from earning $2 million annually, each, on national TV contracts, to $19 million each in 1989 and $40 million each in 1993, according to Steinberg. “That’s an expansion of 20 times in 20 years,” he says. “The percentage of the gross dollars in football that the players get – in 1982, it was 55 percent. To trigger the salary cap this year, the figure was 67 percent. That changes the whole face of what goes on.”
Agents negotiate bigger and better deals, taking approximately 5 percent off the top for their trouble. They also safeguard their guys, insulating them from the negative posturing management sometimes takes. Oral agreements still happen; high-tech negotiations via telephone, fax, pager, modem and satellite are becoming rote. “We finished (Dallas Cowboys QB) Troy Aikman’s first negotiation with Jerry Jones over a big-screen television set with them on a link-up in Dallas,” Steinberg says.
Many factors influence the success of an agent in getting the highest salary, signing bonus and incentives for a client. Two of the most significant are the unions’ relatively recent ability to disclose player salaries and the creeping impact of salary caps.
Salary caps changed the game just as things starting getting out of hand. Instead of simply seeking the separation of the owner from his wallet, players are finding themselves competing with teammates for a finite piece of a juicy pie. To sign a new impact player, general managers are asking current players for givebacks and concessions so as not to exceed the cap. They pose this question: Do you want to win or just get rich? In the ultra-competitive world of sports, there can be only one answer. It may not be what the players union had in mind, but it’s definitely happening.
“The cap is an artificial formula. It’s just a way of valuing contracts,” Steinberg says. “I put three ‘disappearing years’ in Drew Bledsoe’s contract. He signed a 6-year contract and got a $4.5 million bonus to sign. The Patriots only had so much room under the cap. In order for Drew to get $4.5 million, we need enough years for the ‘vision’ of it to be $7 million. If, at the end of three years, he’s played 50 percent of the plays, the last three years go away. We used the salary cap to give him the advantage of a huge bonus plus the advantage of getting out of his contract early. That’s because bonuses count differently against the salary cap than salary does. Under the cap, he gets $750,000 a year.”
Confused? Get in line.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand the caps,” Pat Williams says. “We spend a lot of time on education, explaining what can and can’t be done.” o o o
Pat Williams has negotiated contracts with two of the NBA’s biggest stars, Shaquille O’Neal (Orlando Magic) and Julius “Dr. J” Erving (Philadelphia 76ers). The situations – and the agents – were generations apart.
Dr. J’s agent, Irwin Weiner, a colorful, flamboyant, archetypal agent thrived in the old smoke-filled rooms of yore. And when the 76ers acquired Erving from the New Jersey Nets, Weiner had his tiger by the tail.
“We bought Julius from the Nets for $3 million,” Williams recalls. “Part of the deal was that we had to get him signed.
“The numbers were huge,” he says. “That was the biggest deal cut to that point: $3 million to buy him, $3 million to sign him, $500,000 a year for six years. It was unprecedented.”
Fitz Eugene Dixon, Jr. had just purchased the 76ers and was not yet well versed in the sport, according to Williams, then the team’s general manager. Here’s the conversation they had about Dr. J:
WILLIAMS: “Fitz, Julius Erving is available.”
DIXON: “Who’s he?”
“He’s the Babe Ruth of baseball.”
“How much will it cost to get him?”
“Six million dollars.”
“Pat, are you recommending this deal?”
Williams gulped hard.
“Yes sir, I am.”
“Then go get it done.”
Fast-forward to 1992. The Orlando Magic won first pick in the draft and opted for Louisiana State University center The Shaq, clearly the man of the moment, a player who could transform the expansion franchise into a playoff contender.
“We knew it was going to be a tough signing. And it was,” Williams says. “Fortunately, his people were perceptive to know of our cap situation. But that was a very tough, intense signing.”
Leonard Armato represented Shaq. It was the first time he ever did business with Williams, but not the last. A year later, when the Magic miraculously won the top pick for the second consecutive year and chose Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, he was represented by Armato. o o o
Over a 16-year NFL career spanning three careers, Gene Upshaw’s timing always seemed slightly off. He was drafted in 1967 (first round, 16th overall), just after the merger of the NFL and the old AFL. There was no competition left for his services following the draft; he could either take the Oakland Raiders offer or leave it.
“Then, the year the WFL came along, I was already under contract,” he says. “And by the time the USFL came along, I was too old.”
But Upshaw, whose fame as a player has been eclipsed by his legendary stubbornness and success as executive director of the NFL Players Association, isn’t really griping about his compensation as a player. Upshaw felt that for the time, Raiders owner Al Davis treated him and his teammates fairly.
“I would negotiate my contract and Art Shell’s contract at the same time. I always figured whatever I was making, he should make,” Upshaw says. “Al Davis never let you get to the end of a contract anyway. He’d always bring you in and pay you more money. He believed in seniority. When I got there, nobody was going to make more money than Jim Otto. Later, no one made more money than me and Shell. And if Davis drafted somebody he had to pay more money to, he’d bring us up.”
When the opportunity to sign Ted Hendricks presented itself, Davis went to his players and warned that landing Hendricks would upset the team’s salary scale. “If that will improve the team, go ahead,” the players told the owner.
Another mark of how things change: Davis would only negotiate a player’s base salary. Upshaw says the man didn’t believe in incentive clauses.
“He said, ‘I expect you to do well. I expect you to go to the Pro Bowl. That’s what I’m paying you for,'” Upshaw recalls.
END, PART ONE
Part Two: War Stories
No two sports agents have exactly the same relationship with their clients. Some do straight contract negotiations and nothing more. Some handle client investments, everything from stocks, bonds and insurance to opening eponymous restaurants and sports bars. Some develop endorsement deals and give ongoing career advice. And some become more like family.
“Sitting with Troy Aikman the night of the San Francisco playoff game, when he’s been knocked senseless and doesn’t know where he is, doesn’t fit in any of these categories,” says Berkeley, Ca.-based agent Leigh Steinberg.
Another Steinberg QB snapshot from the 1993-94 NFL season: Jeff George’s tempestuous holdout from the Indianapolis Colts.
“Publicly, I had to defend my client,” Steinberg says. “Privately, I don’t ever think that sitting out a contract that’s already been negotiated is ever a good decision in a short career. In conflict resolution, my least favorite decision is having a player sit out of camp. When Jeff didn’t report to camp, the team said, ‘We don’t know where he is.’ That created a Howard Hughes flakiness that wasn’t there. Jeff was in the midst of a 6-year contract, of which he played three years. But it wasn’t about redoing the contract. He wanted to be traded.”
George eventually reported, enjoyed a fair season, and was traded to the Falcons in the post-season.
St. Petersburg, Fl.-based agent Jim Neader also provides a very personal service with no secretaries, no associates, no gophers. “I’m involved in every facet – management, taxes, travel,” he explains. “If the air conditioning unit goes out in my guy’s condo, I make sure it gets fixed. I prefer doing it all myself. I think it’s good for the clients; they only work with one guy.”
When Neader’s most high profile clients, New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden and his nephew, Florida Marlins right fielder Gary Sheffield, scrapped with the law, or during Gooden’s drug treatment, Neader was on the scene, acting as spokesman, protecting his clients’ interests. Damage control is a never-ending job with multi-million-dollar performance and endorsement deals flapping in the breeze. “Everybody has to deal with adversity. Their problems appeared to be worse than they were,” Neader says. “Gary’s weren’t that bad. And Dwight – he’s really an exemplary citizen now.” o o o
In 1983, the average NFL salary was $100,000. In 1993, it was $750,000. Those numbers draw a lot of wannabes to the agenting business. But it’s very hard making a full-time living as a football agent. Expenses for newcomers are exorbitant; the odds of wooing and winning the rare athlete who will make a roster and survive the minimum three years it takes an agent to turn a profit, remote. It’s a good sideline though, for attorneys, accountants and professional managers, and it’s exciting for anyone lucky enough to score even one pro client.
Agent fees, however, are dropping. The reasons are simple: first, the players unions demand it; and second, competition for players is fierce.
“We urge players to negotiate commissions,” says Michael Duberstein, director of research for the NFL Players Association. “The problem is that they’re recruited by agents. They’re in the mode – recruited by high schools, by colleges – they don’t realize sports after college is a business. They think it’s a privilege to be recruited.”
Unscrupulous agents once pulled up to 12 percent from unwary athletes. In the 1980s, the top rate in the NFL was down to 5 percent; it’s now creeping to an average of 4 percent according to Duberstein and others.
“In basketball,” says Gary Woolf, president of Bob Woolf Associates, “there’s a maximum of 4 percent, and that’s going down. Players are being represented for 2 or 3 percent. There’s a downward spiral. But the money is greater, so there’s a good reason for that.”
“The vast bulk of players just won’t want to spend that 5 percent anymore,” says Andy Zimbalist, Smith College economist and author of Baseball and Billions. “There will be people who will be able to crack the major league level by offer 2 and 3 percent fees. The area of agency is ripe for a lot of competition.” o o o
The agents whose names every sports fan knows – Steinberg, Neader and David Falk (Michael Jordan) – don’t hang around the schools any more looking for the next phenom. But that doesn’t stop the top talent from finding them: Steinberg alone represented four of the NFL’s No. 1 draft picks from 1989-93 (Aikman, Jeff George, Russell Maryland and Bledsoe).
When the annual college drafts roll around, it’s not just the student-athlete and his father in the hunt for representation. He’s helped by uncles, coaches, lawyers and alumni. “You’re not just meeting Drew Bledsoe,” Steinberg says. “He had a screening process with Oklahoma lawyers who grilled us for hours.”
One of Steinberg’s latest clients, Ohio State defensive lineman Dan Wilkinson, knew enough about the agent process before the draft to call several lawyers and make “who’s who” inquiries with the NFL Players Association – “things that were not the norm when I began,” Steinberg says.
Michael Duberstein’s NFLPA research department takes responsibility for certifying and regulating 800 player agents (only 300 of whom actually have active clients) and reading every NFL contract. His department also meets with college players each year, preparing them for representation by professional agents. He says today’s agents are generally consistent in the quality of work they provide, in part because of the association’s guidelines:
o Agents must be certified to represent NFL players
o Agents must have a college degree or equivalent work experience
o Agents must have a working knowledge of the NFL collective bargaining agreement
o Agents must use a standard contract, provided by the NFLPA, to form agreements with players
“I wish certification were stricter,” Gary Woolf says. “We need a high level of ethics and code. If they can’t meet that, they don’t belong in the industry.”
Agents don’t have to be lawyers – although many are – because the various players unions and/or management typically use standard employment contracts. No agent writes an NFL contract; the league uses the same contract for every player. The agent fills in the annual salary and incentives. Even incentives have been standardized.
“The role of the college player should fall in two areas: finish school and make a pro roster,” Duberstein says. “The agents’ job is to get a contract.”
“We start the process at the combine,” says NFL Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw. “From that point on, cradle to grave, we try to help the players any way we can.”
Duberstein stresses that a kid just out of school must be comfortable with his agent and trust his judgment implicitly. Because if a negotiation with a team begins to sour, the team will inevitably try an end run around the agent, warning the family that if their collegiate all-star doesn’t accept the team’s latest offer, he’ll be pumping gas come opening day. o o o
Some men become athletes. Some know, by their teens, that dream won’t become real, so they turn their love of sports into coaching, management, broadcasting, sports writing – and agenting. The latter may be the least profitable path. Start-up expenses mount and only a small percentage of blue-chippers make it into the pros. For the agents on top of the pyramid, however, it’s champagne and caviar.
Leigh Steinberg celebrated his 20th NFL draft as an agent in 1994. He met his first client, first-round, No. 1 draft pick Steve Bartkowski, as an undergraduate dorm counselor while in law school. The timing couldn’t be better; the nascent World Football League was competing with the NFL, running up salaries for the first time in years.
“We got lucky and Bart got the largest rookie contract in NFL history,” Steinberg says. “It eclipsed Namath and Simpson, $400,000 for six years. His bonus was $250,000. His salary was $40,000.” o o o
Jim Neader became an agent when his pro hockey career crashed the boards during Minnesota North Stars pre-season camp in 1978. The Stars were staying in the same hotel as the Minnesota Vikings. Of the football players Neader met, he struck up a particularly good rapport with Paul Harris. Neader, holder of a masters degree in business, was already thinking about a new career.
“I could see I wasn’t going to make it,” Neader recalls. “I told (Harris), ‘If I get cut and you need an agent . . . ‘ Three weeks later, he got cut. He hired me and we got him on an NFL team, the Bucs.”
Neader’s stable grew slowly, focusing on football and baseball players close to his home in the Tampa Bay area. His second client was Guy Hoffman, a one-time pitcher for the Chicago White Sox and a Bradley University fraternity brother of Neader’s. Next came Lloyd Moseby, the Toronto Blue Jays No. 1 draft pick in 1978, followed by Neader’s most notable and notorious client, New York Mets ace Dwight Gooden.
“I followed his career at Hillsborough High School,” Neader says. “I didn’t say a word to him until his senior high school season was over. Then I met with him and his dad.” Gooden signed on with Neader in time for the June 1982 draft and they’ve been together ever since. “I believe in him and he believes in me,” Neader says.
Neader hasn’t hung around the schools in more than eight years and he’s very selective about taking on new clients. He almost took on a new football player a few years ago, but the feeding frenzy of would-be agents/sharks ended that deal before it happened.
“There was a prospect my brother knew from high school. Good player, small town setting. I heard the guy was a potential draft pick. My brother talked to him, said, ‘After the season, talk to Jim.’ The season ends and my brother schedules a meeting. The week of the meeting, the guy cancels. He was deluged. Eighty inquiries, 20 visits. Some major agents, from all around the country. Five years ago, it would have been different for him. I don’t think the outcome would have changed. I never met the guy; he never got drafted. Signed a free agent contract; never played in the NFL.” o o o
The late Bob Woolf may well have been the most successful, best-known and beloved sports agent of all time. His sports clients included Larry Bird, Carl Yastrzemski, Joe Montana, Julius Erving and Vinny Testaverde; his entertainment clients included Larry King, Gene Shalit and New Kids on the Block. He negotiated big deals with Donald Trump, Ted Turner, Roone Arledge and Red Auerbach. He even wrote a well-received book on negotiating, Friendly Persuasion (Berkeley).
Woolf’s first client was former Boston Red Sox pitcher Earl Wilson. Wilson wasn’t allowed to bring anyone else into his negotiating sessions, however – not his wife, not his best friend, and certainly not Woolf. If he had a question, he had to excuse himself from the table, walk down the hall and call Woolf from a pay phone.
Times have certainly changed. And while Woolf is gone, his Boston sports management firm, Bob Woolf Associates, continues under the aegis of his son, Gary, 28. Although Gary did his first professional contract more than a decade ago while an undergraduate at Harvard and was perhaps the youngest agent in sports at the time, he hasn’t exactly followed in dad’s footsteps. He’s a behind-the-scenes player at the firm, which also employs his mother and sisters.
“With the passing of my father, people wondered which direction the company would go,” Woolf says. “But we had already been planning a new direction because my father had been planning to step back. In some ways we’ve become a better company. When my father was here, he was the most important person in the company. We don’t have another Bob Woolf. Now we have other agent who have stepped up, agents who are maturing into bigger roles.”
Woolf says representation can be very gratifying.
“In two or three years, a young athlete will make decisions affecting the rest of his life,” he says. “We’re involved in guiding them through every aspect of their career. We’re a main resource for all the life decisions they make. It’s a tremendous opportunity to influence people’s lives and guide them through a rocky transition.”
Imagine these kids coming out of college, many of whom have never touched wealth of any kind, kids whose lives have always been directed by parents, guidance counselors and coach, and who are suddenly transported a thousand miles from home and given a million bucks. They look to agents for help and direction.
Their careers may take off, but when they are injured, when they’re in the hospital, when they go through operations and rehab, agents live through all that with them, according to Randy Vataha, the agent responsible for football at Bob Woolf Associates. “It’s all part of their career, what they look to you for help,” he says. “You have to pump them up.”
Through his father’s eyes, Woolf saw professional athletes rise from modest salaries in the 1960s through the promise of free agency, new leagues and rising salaries in the ’70s. The ’80s brought the specter of salary caps and personal services contracts. And as that decade gave way to this one, athletes gained greater economic savvy and control, first in basketball, then football, and now in baseball.
“The players can appreciate much more for their work,” Woolf says. “Both sides are partners. Management is still making money and the players are also doing well.”
Woolf thinks the trend worth watching in representation involves corporations such as Nike, which now represents athletes in addition to using them for product endorsement purposes. “There’s a lot of integration occurring,” he says. “Corporations are integrating with the agency process, handling the players’ careers. The role of the agent is at an impasse because the players associations are so strong. There’s a tug-o-war. Who represents the client? Is it the players association or the representative?” o o o
Contract negotiating during the early phases of the sports agent/free agency era wasn’t too complicated other than keeping track of the zeroes. In the old days, the player or his agent said, “I want this,” and the team said, “You can’t have it.”
“Negotiating is a lot of fun. It’s a challenge,” Randy Vataha says. “You don’t just go in and say, ‘My player wants a million,’ management offers $500,000 and you settle at $750,000. There’s all kinds of issues in terms of timing so the contract expires at the best time. Issues to be considered include when collective bargaining expires and when something new might come up. One player went from $450,000 to $2.4 million in one year because we got him in the last year before there was a salary cap.”
Computer runs, in-depth statistics and analysis are the agent’s stock in trade when they face off with management.
Half the ammunition agents use comes from salary comparisons within the athlete’s league. That information is typically provided by the players unions. The NFLPA, for example, began supplying salary data to agents in 1983, in exchange for the agents funneling their latest deals back to the union.
“Until the beginning of 1982, no player in the NFL had any idea what any other player was making,” Michael Duberstein says. “Nor did any agent know what salary trends were or did they have a glimpse at comprehensive salaries.”
Duberstein says that in football, once adequate salary reporting was available on both sides of the negotiating table, salaries accelerated and inequities in player compensation from team to team were eliminated.
“The role of the agent can be two-fold,” Duberstein says. “There can be a very passive role, essentially saying, ‘No, no, no – yes!’ knowing when to say yes. Or they can be a proactive agent, taking that information and coming up with creative ways to bend rules and get a contract.”
The other half of a negotiator’s ammo comes from the ingenious compilation of a player’s on-the-field stats.
“We have a research staff who are given a simple task: go find any statistical pattern that presents our players in a positive light,” Steinberg says. “Their job is to produce the most amazing statistical categories possible to buttress our salary demands.”
Steinberg’s staff produced this gem during a salary arbitration: Wade Wilson was the first quarterback in history to throw 6-plus yards per attempt and make the Pro Bowl in the same season. “That’s a not a statistic published in The Sporting News,” Steinberg says, chuckling.
There are other ways Steinberg uses stats. In negotiating Drew Bledsoe’s deal, he started with the assumption there is always a premium paid the first quarterback picked in the annual college draft, and an even bigger premium when the first player picked overall is a quarterback. Next, he pointed to the impact another client, Troy Aikman, had just had in winning the Super Bowl for Dallas.
For client Thurman Thomas, the Buffalo Bills star running back, he provides analysis of what happens every time Thomas touches the ball, how he consistently makes things happen.
“We put together statistics, bar graphs and colors that jump off the page,” Steinberg says. “At times we’ll make a compelling audio/visual presentation. We can also anticipate the arguments a team will make and refute them. Of course, the methodology has to be sound or the results can be questioned.” o o o
For all his success in negotiating some of the biggest deals in sports, Leigh Steinberg is worried about the future of his men and the games they play.
Athletes, he says, must understand the fleeting nature of their careers and build other skills toward the day they can no longer throw a long bomb or hit a ball out of the park. “The big mistake for an agent is to simply classify a player as a function of his bank book,” Steinberg says. “The only certainty I have, in every athlete I represent, is that at a young age, he is going to have to transition into another line of work.”
As for fans, he says agents must be reminded that sports is fantasy.
“Sports exist as an entertainment industry,” Steinberg says. “It’s not like putting bread on the table. It’s a discretionary expenditure. To the degree we keep feeding fans stories of free agent salaries, we’re destroying the games. Agents have a responsibility to keep the games affordable.”
END, PART TWO
Part Three: Power Players
Read the sports headlines lately? The scores have been superseded in importance by salaries and free agency. Everyone’s getting rich except the guys footing the bill – the fans.
But read past the headlines. For every college player signing a first pro contract for $70 million, there’s a veteran quietly accepting an equally huge reduction in pay. It’s the first sign of reality hitting the sports salary spiral, indicating there is a ceiling on how high all this madness can go.
Whereas free agency at first seemed a license to steal for athletes and their agents, there’s obviously a price. What increases the fans don’t bear, the players apparently will.
Don’t believe it? Well, if someone who still makes hundreds of thousands of dollars but must accept deep, deep pay cuts can be described as a victim, that’s what the system has turned pitchers Jack Morris and Bobby Thigpen and quarterback Mark Rypien into.
Morris swallowed hard and watched his base salary slip from a career-high $5,425,000 in 1993 to $350,000 in 1994. Thigpen dropped from $3,416,667 to $200,000. At least they found jobs; Rypien was cast adrift after refusing a new contract that would have cut his pay by more than two-thirds, from $3 million in ’93 to $1 million this fall.
This is the side of contract negotiations no agent wants publicity for. It’s a bold slap of reality following years of player successes in gaining ever increasing free agency and a bigger piece of the revenue pie. Agents who spent the 1980s and early ’90s squealing, “Gimmee, gimmee, gimmee!!” without regard for the impact such wanton greed now have some serious explaining to do. Ditto for their unions, and, for that matter, the teams who eagerly made dollar commitments for today without considering the reverberations tomorrow.
All across pro sports, unproven rookies get the keys to the bank and yesterday’s stars are being unceremoniously shown the door. Athletes are being split into three camps: the haves and have-nots are being joined by the hads.
Many NFL stars fell into a black hole unintentionally created by their union’s last collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the league. In an effort to gain greater free agency for players and yet avoid total anarchy, the union compromised with management. In exchange for allowing veteran players with more than five years experience and whose contracts expired beginning in 1993 to become free agents (four years experience as of ’94), the NFLPA agreed that teams could designate “franchise” players who were pre-empted from free agency as long as they were paid accordingly. “Accordingly” meant at least matching the average salary of the top 5 players at the franchise player’s position. The “franchise” tag sticks with the player until their contract expires or they retire. Then the team can tag a new player.
A second layer of top athletes, labeled “transition” players, were created as a bridge between the old system and total free agency. Teams were allowed two “transition” players by guaranteeing them the average salary of the top 10 players at their position.
Players and their agents had no say in accepting or declining the “franchise” or “transition” tag. And once the two transition players’ relationship with their current team ends, the teams don’t get replacements. According to the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), about half the NFL’s franchises designated transition players.
It sounds like an equitable system, but agents say it didn’t work. Most rue the day the terms “franchise” and “transition” were adopted.
First of all, the salary numbers were based on the preceding season’s totals, not the current negotiating season. And while other teams could bid on franchise and transition players, the athlete’s current team retain first right of refusal, meaning if it matched an offer, the player stayed put. Finally, teams were given great latitude with franchise or transition players. While player contracts expire annually on February 28, teams knew what it would cost to keep their designated stars months earlier.
“It worked to the detriment of all the transition players,” says Edward Sewell, president of the San-Francisco-based Professional Sports Center. “Having the transition title meant that none of those players – the best in the NFL – ever got any job trips or offers from other teams because the system, or the fraternity, said, ‘You don’t mess with my transition players and I won’t mess with yours.'”
“You use that word,” Sewell says. “I call it a gentlemen’s agreement. You have to prove collusion. It’s a strong word.”
“Any agent who believes that, we have the strongest anti-collusion language of any sport,” counters Michael Duberstein, NFLPA director or research, citing Article 28 of the collective bargaining agreement. “All they have to do is come to us and we will take action. Not one agent has come forward to say the clubs are colluding.”
Sewell hit the transition situation with two different clients: Ricky Reynolds in 1994 and Ronnie Harmon in 1993. A third client, Cris Dishman, was listed by the Houston Oilers as a franchise player. But because of management fraternity, Sewell says, the trio received little or no outside interest.
“Their teams took that to mean, ‘Oh, gee, you’re not that valuable to anybody but us. Therefore, we’re not going to pay you market value, we’re going to pay you whatever the minimum is at your position,” according to Sewell. “Plus they are able to keep these guys out of the marketplace, away from other teams, while they scratch their heads and decide whether they really want to sign him. So they got the best of every world. They lock their best talent in, kept ’em away from the marketplace and they were able to rescind the offer at any time. As long as the title stays with you, odds are you’re going to stay with that team because you don’t get offers to move.
“In Ricky Reynolds’ case,” Sewell says, “the Bucs kept him out of the marketplace starting in February when there were some choice jobs available. There was one in Seattle that Nate Odoms got. Ricky had plane tickets to Seattle but the Seahawks decided they would do the Odoms situation because it didn’t require any kind of match. In other words, when they negotiated the deal with Nate, they had Nate Odoms. Versus negotiating with Ricky Reynolds and waiting a week to see if the Bucs were going to match it. In that week, they would have lost Nate.”
By the time Tampa Bay lifted the transition tag from Reynolds and freed him to negotiate, Sewell says, all the available jobs at Reynolds’ position had vanished and his salary was in freefall. Whereas his transition value was $1.7 million, Sewell’s first offer for his client was a mere $750,000. Fortunately for Reynolds, Ray Perkins, the former Bucs coach who drafted him, had moved on to the rebuilding New England Patriots and still believed in his skills. Perkins persuaded his boss, Bill Parcells, to take a chance on Reynolds, who signed a deal worth in excess of $5 million for three years, including $2.23 million for ’94.
“We went from Diet Pepsi to Dom Perignon,” Sewell says.
Reynolds, of course, did better than his former teammate and co-holder of the Bucs transitional tag, Reggie Cobb. Cobb was entitled to a $2.6 million salary until the Bucs yanked his tag. Forced into the open market, the best he could do was $1.1 million with Green Bay.
“Helluva drop,” Sewell says. “Never get that back.”
Michael Duberstein doesn’t think agents such as Sewell understand the transition label.
“Transition players were imposed in the settlement by the league,” he says. “What they wanted was to protect some of their better players. They would not make a deal, there would be no CBA, without the ‘transition’ and ‘franchise’ system. It was because the owners were so scared they were going to lose all their best players. No one here proposed it or wanted it. The goal of the Players Association has always been total free agency when the player’s contract ended.
“Did it work out the way we anticipated? Most of the clubs didn’t use it. The reason is, they don’t want to guarantee that much money. By the time we hit ’95, very few clubs will be able to designate transition players, anyway,” Duberstein says.
Duberstein thinks the real problem agents have with the transition and franchise tags is it makes agents virtually unnecessary to players.
“I don’t see anything rational about an agent saying “transition” and “franchise” doesn’t work. All it did was guarantee them free money,” he says. “If I was a transition or franchise player who accepted a contract, I wouldn’t give an agent a penny. He didn’t do anything.”
The NFLPA encourages its members to pay their agents. But for transition and franchise players who accept a salary – without negotiation – equal to the top 5 or top 10 players at their position, Duberstein thinks there might be a case for withholding a commission. “In a situation where there was no negotiating, I don’t know what the (union’s) ruling would be,” he says.
The CBA has its positive points, particularly that so many players gained free agency when their current contracts expired. But labor and management wind up trading big salaries for loyalty. That’s a two-way street, however. The players are loyal to whomever pays them the biggest salary. And when a player’s salary gets out of whack with his or the team’s performance, the team’s loyalty to him ends.
“What big salary gets you is loyalty to yourself,” Sewell says. “It pushes you into a selfish mode. Unfortunate, isn’t it? The days that a fellow would always be identified with one team are over.”
Another creation of the latest NFL collective bargaining agreement was the league’s first salary cap.
Ken Staninger, president of the Montana-based Staninger Sports Agency, represents former Washington Redskins quarterback and Super Bowl XXVI MVP Mark Rypien. Rypien found himself on the wrong side of the salary cap this year. Although Rypien, who had taken his team to the playoff in four of six years, wasn’t burdened with either the franchise or transition tag, his agent’s negotiating hand was damaged by several factors. Rypien endured an injury-plagued ’93 season and, when he did play, he didn’t play well. The Redskins had a lousy season overall (4-12), eventually hiring a new head coach, Norv Turner. And the former Super Bowl champs were stocked with aging, over-paid players who tied up resources.
“It was a horrendous situation” for Rypien, Staninger says.
Earning a high draft pick and a shot at either Tennessee QB Heath Shuler or Fresno State QB Trent Dilfer, Rypien became expendable and that’s the way the Redskins handled him. The team offer its former star a 1994 salary offer of two-thirds less than he made in 1993 – and that was their second offer. It lacked any incentives whatsoever, according to Staninger. Rypien declined it and was released. But by then, as in Reynolds’ situation, every other team in the league had settled its starting quarterback position, leaving Rypien high and dry.
“What the Redskins did was a calculated move,” Staninger says. “They had Mark under contract. On February 1 they got a new coaching staff. At that time they were not sure they could draft the quarterback they liked. Then they decided they could. They kept Mark to the last possible date. Mark thought the cut they were asking him to take was unreasonable, that it was time for a complete change. The biggest reason we turned the Redskins down was they would not consider any incentives. We took that to mean we weren’t wanted.”
Staninger and Rypien’s frustration is the flipside of the good timing you hear so much about. Their timing couldn’t have been much better when Staninger insisted on a one-year contract in 1991 and Rypien subsequently took the team to the Super Bowl. “At the time, we were rewarded,” Staninger says. “Now, with Mark coming off his worst year, the timing couldn’t be worse.”
Again, the NFLPA’s Michael Duberstein thinks this is a case of an agent who just doesn’t get it.
“Players who used to get released after camp, just before the season started, and would have to scramble are now getting released in spring,” he says. “Now they have more time to find a place to play. . . The fact players are being asked to take less money is not unique to the salary cap.”
Maybe Rypien just became another overpaid superstar caught in the back-end vortex of outrageous salaries banging head-first into a salary cap. Before there was a salary cap, nobody worried about coming out the other side.
“Now I think some of these big deals are going to turn into nightmares,” Staninger says. “There are few guaranteed contracts. Next year, you’re going to see even more big players who will be released or asked to take huge cuts. The teams, the GMs, don’t like it any more than we do. But their hands are tied. This is not a unique year. You’re going to see it every year.” + + + +
Not everyone thinks there’s anything new or particularly worrisome in the expansive disparity between the multi-millionaires on a team and the rest of the guys putting on their uniforms one leg at a time. Don Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, thinks it’s just a matter of separating the regulars from the utility players.
“That’s always been true,” he says.
Salary caps just exacerbate the differences, says the only man who stands between baseball players and the sport’s inevitable push toward a cap. “The biggest problem with a salary cap from a fan’s point-of-view is it inhibits your ability to improve the team. And everybody knows the way to improve a business is to make better investments ahead of time. That’s why basketball (which has a cap) doesn’t have anything like baseball’s balance. The big market teams always win and the salary cap multiplies their advantage.”
Fehr doesn’t see any harm in letting the free market determine player salaries from here to eternity. And pointing out baseball set an all-time attendance record in 1993, he doesn’t interpret that as fans complaining.
“It’s great gossip and people like to pontificate on it,” he says. “But I don’t think (salaries) affect customers.”
H. Irving Grousbeck agrees with Fehr on this point. Now a lecturer in management at Stanford Business School, Grousbeck made a lot of money in cable television and in 1992 toyed with purchasing the San Francisco Giants. But he backed away after studying the team’s books, salary and revenue prospects.
“It’s a very revenue-driven business,” Grousbeck says. “The Houston Astros had a $14 million payroll two years ago; one club today has a $50 million payroll. Some of the teams with $37 million payrolls are making money; some with $29 million payrolls are losing money.
“As a would-be owner,” he continues, “I hate to see the balance of power go to the players. And I hate to see the players grouse, but I don’t think it’s the death-knell for baseball. Am I concerned about player salaries? Not if I’m the Yankees. Not if I’m the Toronto Blue Jays. But the Giants are going to lose money this year because they play in Candlestick. If they played in St. Petersburg or Cleveland, they’d make a lot of money.”
But Grousbeck, a huge fan of the game, doesn’t think fans are being turned off by seeing star players become jillionaires. Would they rather hear less about it? “Sure,” he says. “Does it keeps fans from the ballpark? I don’t think so.”
Money is a part of sports these days. Apparently it’s not a serious depressant. If it were, it would dampen attendance everywhere. And there are plenty of places attendance is up, not down. + + + +
Salary inflation hasn’t yet hit the NHL as hard as it has other leagues, but it’s coming, if increased attendance, wildly successful expansion franchises and rising ESPN television ratings are any indication.
“It has been moving up,” says Greg Jamison, chief operating officer of the expansion San Jose Sharks, a team which reached the playoffs in only its third season. “Higher salaries have been paid out in the last two or three seasons.”
All of his players are represented by agents and Jamison thinks that’s for the best.
“I think agents are just one of the players in sports,” he says. “They’re a part of our business, just as players, owners and domed stadiums are. It all works together. I don’t blame agents for where sports is today. There are good agents and bad agents, just as there is good management and bad management. We’re all players and have to take equal responsibility. And equal blame, maybe.”
Jamison hopes hockey can learn from the salary cap stumbles of the NBA and NFL as it moves toward locking up a similar vehicle with its players union. “I think the successful leagues and teams have to work together,” he says. “The players are who people come to see skate and play to the best of their ability. But management, owners and athletes have to be on the same page. There has to be a common goal.”
The NBA cap works for Jamison, but as a football fan, he’s worried about the impact the new NFL cap will have on the San Francisco 49ers. “We’ve heard a lot about the 49ers having to let people go to stay under the cap,” he says, nervously. “Cap management is building stock in your team and being prepared for the future. Sometimes there’s player movement that’s not fully understood (at the time). Why is a player who is popular suddenly moved? Maybe he came out and said, ‘I’m not re-signing with the club.’ Maybe to retain value, they moved the player. I have a lot of respect for GMs in all leagues who have to maintain a mix of veterans and youth and know when to make a move. It’s an art form.”
Where is it all going? There’s no easy answer.
“Where’s the airline industry going?” Jamison retorts. “Every industry has to ask itself that. When I was a kid, a pack of gum was a nickel. What’s the ceiling on gum? I’m not trying to be trite. These questions – sometimes, in a free market, things try to shake themselves out. We try to do long-term planning. We try to anticipate (cost) increases here, revenues there. The league has goals; individual teams have goals. The Sharks’ goals are simple: we want to win every game; we want to sell out every game. We want the best players. We want them happy. And we want the fans happy.” + + + +
“The biggest problem I have with agents is the number of holdouts,” says Peter Hayes, managing editor of College & Pro Football Newsweekly. “Guys in their rookie year miss camp, marquee players hold out till the middle of the season. Most of these guys want the best deal possible. They want security. Nobody can begrudge them that. But I think it’s the agents controlling the player, filling his head with nonsensical things. It’s bad for the game. Football isn’t alone in this. All sports is full of this nonsense.
“I think the average fan who supports a team has a hard time understanding,” Hayes says. “It all comes down to performance. Emmitt Smith performs and they still love him. If the players perform on the field, the fans don’t care if they’re making $10 million or 10 cents.”
Hayes blames agents for damaging young players by pushing them into professional drafts too soon, thereby sacrificing their education and full college eligibility. “These guys who come out early – many go late in the draft or they don’t make it at all,” he says. “Where did they get the idea to come out early? Agents.
“I think a lot of good players are getting a lot of bad advice,” Hayes says.
Soon, they may get their advice from a new source: sporting goods manufacturers. Nike hit the industry first, formalizing its informal relationships with Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Alonzo Mourning, Harold Miner and several other superstar athletes last summer into Nike Sports Management. Former CBA commissioner Terdema Ussery is president of the subsidiary.
“Our focus is to work with a select few Nike athletes on everything but their playing contracts,” says public relations director Keith Peters. “We work on everything in their portfolio, from business advice to finding other endorsements. It’s our charge to go out and market them.”
Mourning was represented in his last Charlotte Hornets contract negotiation by agent David Falk, who handles Michael Jordan. But instead of sticking with Falk for the rest of his business, he dribbled over to Nike. “He worked with David Falk on his Hornets contract, paid the going rate,” Peters says. “All the rest of his business and accounting, soup to nuts, is what we do for Alonzo.”
Traditional player reps are dismayed by Nike coveting their turf and predict the company will not get off the ground in its new venture. Too much potential conflict of interest, they say.
“Nike says they’re going into the business. I think that’s a grave mistake,” Ken Staninger says. “Nike may try to cherry-pick the superstars of the future. And it would make sense if Nike is successful that Reebok will follow suit. But if they’re out competing with us, we’re not going to be too excited talking about a Nike contract when we have a superstar. You don’t want to support a company competing with you. And you’re always going to be concerned about client interference.”
“To the degree that a lot of agents do more than just player contracts,” Peters says, “perhaps they feel they’re competing with us. But to date, we have not negotiated a player contract. There may be a misunderstanding about that.”
Nike gets a pretty good deal by avoiding player contracts. No worries about certification, no outside control over its fee schedules and its athletes are already household names. The company also doesn’t waste time and money chasing raw talent or developing it. “We’ve become aggressive in a selective way,” Peters says. “Each year we hope to get one or maybe two baseball, basketball or football players, the kind of athlete it makes sense for us to invest resources in and who has the potential to stand above the crowd and be attractive to other sponsors.”
Peters figures Nike Sports Management’s competition are the full-service sports agencies and agents: IMG, ProServ, Falk and Leigh Steinberg. And he knows Nike won’t be the last manufacturer to go this route. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of (our competitors) were to do it,” he says.
Staninger doesn’t like it one bit.
“Nike is so big,” he says. “I don’t know why they’d want to get into this aspect of the business.” + + + +
What do fans think of all this? Many are pissed. They want their favorite teams well-stocked with top talent, but mostly they want a return of debate over RBIs, shots on goal and free throw percentages, not option years and incentive clauses.
“Most people hear salaries – three years, $5 million; two years, $8 million – we just can’t comprehend them,” says Ken Silverstein, a veteran sports radio talk show host who spent eight years with Houston’s KTRH before joining WFNS in Tampa Bay. “These numbers roll off our tongues like we’re talking about Monopoly money. We see it coming out of our pockets because we see prices going up – tickets, hot dogs, parking. Fans understand that; they don’t like it.”
Rising sports ticket prices in football, basketball and hockey are right on the cusp of forcing the middle class out for good. Instead of season tickets or partial season tickets, the average family of four might spring for one or two games a year as a special outing. “It’s pretty mind-boggling what it costs for a family of four – or two,” Silverstein says. “Sports has become a very white-collar thing. It’s not good, but that’s where it’s going.”
“I have very mixed feelings,” says Dan Gutman, lifelong baseball fan and author of several books including Baseball Babylon (Penguin) and It Ain’t Cheatin’ If You Don’t Get Caught (Penguin). “On one hand, utility second basemen hit .210 and get million-dollar salaries. That’s outlandish. On the other hand, the players were screwed by owners for 100 years. Now it’s their turn to get even.”
In general, Gutman finds the emphasis on salaries a bore.
“I don’t want to read about arbitration and how much this guy is going to get paid. It’s not what sports is all about,” he laments. “I speak to a lot of fans. The overwhelming feeling is that the high salaries have hurt the game. It puts players out of touch. They don’t dive for balls.”
Still, he says, baseball ticket prices haven’t exploded the way they have in other sports, so as long as Gutman can still get a $6 general admission seat at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, he’ll keep his gripes about Darren Daulton’s million-dollar deal to himself.
(The following story appeared in Tampa Bay Life in 1989.)
Rosie Owen just wanted to cash a check. What she got that clear November morning was a few minutes of sheer terror that will last a lifetime.
“I had just gone up to the teller and she was verifying my check,” remembers Owen. “I heard an awful commotion behind me. I looked back and I saw – it looked like a giant, a man wearing a stocking over his head! He was a big man, close to six feet. He was heavy, kind of clumsy. He was waving a gun – he looked nervous. He told everybody to hit the floor.”
Twenty miles from Disney World, at 10:15 a.m. on November 14, 1988, the Florida National Bank branch at 6306 W. Colonial Drive in Orlando was being robbed by an awkward, six-foot-three, 370-pound bandit wearing pantyhose over his head, green surgical gloves and armed with a .22-caliber revolver.
“He kept yelling at the tellers to hurry up and put the money – all the money – on the counter.” He particularly asked for 50s and 100s.
“If you give me any dye, I will come back and kill you,” threatened the bank robber. “I’ll come back and blow some brains out!”
When the tellers had emptied the money from their drawers on the counter, the bandit came to Owen, 46, who was face down on the floor. He hit her on the shoulder with the gun and said, “Lady, get the money.” He gave her a gray plastic bag to collect the bundles of cash.
“I have no idea why he singled me out. Trying to make my life more miserable, I suppose,” says Owen. “I was so nervous, I kept fumbling the money. He said, ‘Hurry up, lady, or I’m going to start shooting!’
“He was really nervous. Afterward, everybody kept saying he must not have been a professional because he took so long. But part of the reason he took so long was I kept dropping the stupid money.”
Outside the bank, Glen Lannon, a 26-year-old landscape worker, was stuck in traffic, driving his company truck to a job. As usual, he was paying attention to everything but the other cars on the road. “My girlfriend always gets on me for looking all around and not paying attention to traffic,” he says. This particular day, his wandering eye caught something more interesting than a fast girl in a pretty car. This morning, he saw a big man hurriedly exit Florida National Bank and run to a silver 1985 Dodge Caravan.
“I seen him running. He’s a big boy; kinda looked suspicious. I said to myself, ‘I know what that guy’s doing,'” recalls Lannon. “I said, I’m going to catch that fucker.”
Just then, a red dye packet smoked and exploded inside the bandit’s money bag. Realizing the money was no good to him, he dropped it in the parking lot and took off in the van.
“I called my supervisor on the truck’s radio. I said, ‘Hey, guys, I’m going to follow this bank robber!'” Lannon’s boss had a phone in his car and alerted authorities. For the next 20 minutes, the young landscaper – who noted the van’s license plate had been removed but who didn’t know the bandit was armed – followed the bank robber from a distance, passing their changing locations on to the police through his boss.
The bandit became suspicious at a red light.
“He opened up the van door and leaned down like he was looking under the van,” says Lannon. “He looked back and seen me and made a quick turn-around. The police nabbed him right after that.” A .22-caliber revolver and stocking mask were found on the van’s floorboard. Ironically, the man was captured in front of an Orange County Sheriff’s Department sub-station.
(Lannon says Florida National Bank sent him a $1,000 reward and a letter of thanks. Ironically, the same bank later refused him a new car loan. “I didn’t have enough collateral,” says Lannon. “Too risky.”)
Back at the bank, the police brought the bank robber back in chains for witnesses to identify. Rosie Owen had no doubt this was the man who robbed the bank – Hillsborough Community College Director of Student Services William J. “Bill” Strawn.
“I cannot express the fear in words,” says Owen. “You start thinking about your family and the Lord. I thought, ‘If this is it, forgive me for what I’ve done … ‘ It was kind of hard for me to sleep for about a week after it happened. I’d start falling asleep and I’d wake up having nightmares about it.”
* * *
The jails of this country are filled with innocent men and women, law enforcement officials will tell you. They say that sarcastically because few ever admit to committing crimes of which they’ve been convicted. Bill Strawn is different. He confessed to robbing banks, first to the police, then to the Orlando Sentinel, then to Tampa Bay Life. Strawn has seen the evidence, he knows he had possession of stolen money, he knows he tried to get away. He claims he doesn’t know why he did these things and, if you believe him, he has no memory of the events themselves. He says he was in a seizure-induced trance each time a robbery occurred.
Strawn had actually robbed four Orlando banks by the time he was caught, netting more than $80,000. The junior college administrator says that in each case, he only remembers getting in his car to go to work and then – much later – coming out of a trance and finding a sack of money in his van.
“It’s a very strange case,” says FBI Special Agent Larry Curtin. The FBI was involved in a joint investigation of Strawn; Curtin says Strawn is not a suspect in any further bank robberies. “It’s unusual that someone in the position Mr. Strawm occupied would be arrested for and suspected of bank robberies. He was gainfully employed.”
Strawn, his eyes red and welling up with tears, insists his capture was the first time he knew for sure where the money came from.
“What would you do,” he asks, “if you were riding along and looked down and saw a garbage bag, a plastic bag, with money in it, wrapped up with things around it where you could see where it was from, and you didn’t know where it came from? What would you do? Would you go to the FBI? Would ‘ya? No sir. Would you go to the police? What do you do? I had that dilemma. I didn’t know what to do. I wish, now that I look back, I had called Lee (Elam, his attorney and friend) and said, ‘What do I do?’ But I didn’t. I was afraid that all they’d do is arrest you. ‘Man, you robbed a bank, you’re under arrest.’
“Well, they caught me at it,” he says with resignation and shame. “They took me back to the bank several hours later, handcuffed, chains around my waist and walked me up to the window outside the bank, people everywhere, all around. And the people who had been there and witnessed it were inside saying yeah, that’s him.
“Thank God it was that (bank robbery) and not something more serious. Thank God I didn’t have this urge to go out and kill somebody or something like that. I look back now and I think it was like kleptomania or something,” he says. “It had to be. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
Legal and medical authorities don’t know how to describe it either.
A lifelong victim of concussions, seizures and two major auto wrecks, Strawn’s family, friends, ministers, former students and physicians are attempting to paint a picture of him as a long-suffering man in pain, a man beleaguered by demons, voices and blackouts. They have written 66 letters to Orlando Circuit Judge Jeff Miller begging for leniency and mercy on Bill Strawn’s tortured soul.
Independent experts and even Strawn’s own psychiatrist say his behavior could be explained by complex seizures and brain damage once – maybe even twice. But four times strikes all four of them as suspect. They’re not buying the former educator’s story.
Rosie Owen has read all the newspaper reports about Bill Strawn’s mental health problems. Unlike the bank robber’s friends and family, however, she saw what he did. She was the one he threatened point-blank with a revolver.
“He’s pulling wool over their eyes,” she says. “He’s no more sick than I am.”
Strawn pled no contest to four counts of robbery with a firearm in an Orlando courtroom. “It’s obvious,” says Strawn’s Brandon-based attorney, B. Lee Elam, “that on the one count (robbing Florida National Bank), he wouldn’t stand a chance, outside of the fact that he admitted it to a newspaper reporter. And I don’t think he is capable of standing trial. We got through the plea part and I had my fingers crossed. Then they told us to sit in the back of the courtroom while they filled out some paperwork. But we never got to the papers. The bailiff tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You’ve got a problem.’ And I looked at him (Strawn) and he was having a seizure. So I knew he would never be able to get through a full trial. And I’ve noticed every time I’ve had occasion to have him come into the office, no matter how small an area or topic we’re covering, he has seizures. The smallest stress causes it. I was concerned that maybe trial stress might be life-threatening. … I just didn’t feel comfortable taking him through the stress of a trial. One count or four counts, it’s all the same stress on him. Maybe this is something a lawyer shouldn’t say, but Bill’s not only a client, he’s the closest friend I have. I had to consider that. I had to put that into the equation. Would I take a chance on seriously injuring a friend as well as a client?”
Some might suggest that Elam – who won an out-of-court traffic accident settlement for Strawn in 1983 and donated his services to Strawn pro bono – should have set aside friendship and let another lawyer handle the criminal case. Arguments can be made that instead of pleading Strawn nolo contendre, Elam should have attempted to have him declared not competent to stand trial. At least one nationally recognized psychiatrist examining his case believes that if Strawn were unable to contribute to his defense or control his behavior – demonstrated by the courtroom seizure – his own psychiatrist and attorney had a responsibility to seek to have him declared not competent to stand trial.
The crimes Strawn has pled to carry minimum mandatory sentences of three years each because a weapon was involved. In Florida, bank robbery is a crime punishable by life in prison.
* * *
While the cash from the Florida National Bank job was recovered, none of the money from three previous robberies has been located. Strawn says it never will be found.
“The first time, I put it in a dumpster at the college,” he says. “I put it in two bags so you couldn’t see through it. They came everyday and dumped our dumpster, about 4 o’clock. I put (the money) in it about 3:30. I looked out and there was this guy out there looking for aluminum cans. I had never seen that before – he was going through the dumpster. I nearly had a heart attack. I went out and chased him off. They finally came and picked it up.
“The others – I burned ’em in a 55-gallon drum (at his Plant City farm). I think if somebody went out there and looked in that drum, if they could identify ashes, they could identify that. … I thought about flushing it down the commode, but that’s a lot of flushing. And burning it is not easy. It takes a lot of gasoline and you gotta drop it in a few (bills) at a time. It’s not easy, it’s tough. You gotta stir it. It’s hard to burn money – it’s the hardest thing to burn in the world. I used gasoline and I stirred it, more gasoline, and I stirred it.
“I was scared to keep it. All I could think of was it had numbers on it so if you spent it they’d catch you anyhow. But I didn’t want to spend it. I’m really not a bank robber. I’m not a bank robber.”
Rosie Owen and the staffs of three banks – Florida National Bank (robbed Nov. 14, 1988), Southeast Bank (robbed May 1, 1987 and May 16, 1988), and First Union Bank (robbed Sept. 9, 1987) – might disagree.
* * *
“When I received the call from Orlando telling me Bill had been arrested I wondered if I knew him at all.”
Those are the words of Jean Strawn, Bill’s wife of 35 years. She wrote them in a letter to Orange County Circuit Judge Jeff Miller, begging for mercy on her husband. (Mrs. Strawn declined to be interviewed for this story. She attempted to have this story stopped after her husband had been interviewed at length – despite the presence of his attorney. She also threatened a lawsuit against Tampa Bay Life – “You’ll be sorry if you print any story about us … This is our lives and you better not print this.”) Two weeks prior to her husband’s arrest, Mrs. Strawn purchased the gun he used in the Florida National robbery at a garage sale for $20.
Strawn remembers the moment he had to call home and fess up to what had happened.
“(When) I called my wife, I said dont say anything. Just listen. I said, ‘I want you to divorce me. Tell my grandchildren I died. I want you to forgive me.’
“When I was arrested,” he says, “I was laying out on the concrete, face down. There must have been 30 guys with guns and I was cryin’: ‘Please shoot me. Please do.’ I started to get up and run, so they would. And then I thought, no, if I do that, they’ll think I’m really guilty of something.”
Strawn is a beloved figure in Plant City and at Hillsborough Community College. The inexplicable twist his life has taken has left friends and former co-workers wondering if they, like Jean Strawn, knew Bill at all.
“The whole community was just in total shock,” says Sadye Martin, a city commissioner and former mayor of Plant City. “He was just such a role model in the community for so many young people. When they said what happened, I thought it had to be somebody else. He was an upright citizen.”
Barbara Kent, editor of the Courier in Plant City, wrote an editorial about her friend that began, “Some things are hard to believe” and ended, “Say it ain’t so, Bill.”
“I can’t recall ever hearing anybody saying a bad thing about him,” says Donna Allen, HCC’s director of communications. “If you were down in the dumps, he’d do something to cheer you up. I thought the world of him. He was one of the nicest co-workers I had. I can’t imagine what happened. There’s something not right for someone to have that kind of double personality.”
Two administrators at HCC – Safety and Security Manager James A. Lassiter and Plant City Provost Charles Deusner – wrote sympathetic letters on Strawn’s behalf to attorney Lee Elam, which were forwarded to Judge Miller. Lassiter’s letter was written on school stationery; Deusner’s was not.
This is the second case of administrative mischief to rock HCC in the 1980s. Back in 1982, Ambrose Garner was pressured to resign as president of the community college after charges he sexually harassed female professors, administrators and students (“Sexual Politics at HCC: Did Ambrose Garner Go Too Far?” chronicled in the July, 1982 issue of the now-defunct Tampa Magazine).
* * *
Bill and Jean Strawn met as students at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green and have been together ever since. They live – along with all four of their parents, Strawn’s brother Richard, twin sons Terry and Perry, 29, daughter Valerie, 32, their spouses and children, six cows, five rabbits, five horses, two geese, a donkey and a goat, 21 people and 20 animals in all – on a 15-acre Plant City farm with an estimated market value of $300,000. They have lived there since 1981.
The entire extended family eats together every night at 6 p.m. in a screened-in dining room. “I use the (Strawns) as an example of what people and families should be like,” says family friend and attorney B. Lee Elam. “They live together; they eat together in a common area. They’re the most amazing family.”
There are a lot of little details about Bill Strawn that describe the kind of man his friends and family know. Born in Norfolk, Va. … Rose to rank of Eagle Scout. … Member, Sigma Nu fraternity at Vanderbilt, which he attended on a football scholarship. Tossed out of Vanderbilt in freshman year when his picture appeared on the front page of the Nashville Tennessean during a panty raid. … Transferred to Western Kentucky and added shotput and wrestling to his athletic prowess. … Declared 4-F by the military because of a bad shoulder. … Drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles as a linebacker/center but left after a few weeks in camp because of his shoulder. … Earned bachelors and masters degrees in counseling and guidance from Western Kentucky. … Learned to shoot a gun in ROTC. … Taught high school in Portsmouth, Va. and college in Kentucky (Lees Junior College) and West Virginia (Marshall University). … Enjoys gardening, fishing, crabbing. … Conducts bible study every Sunday at his home. … Doesn’t smoke and hasn’t had a serious drink of alcohol since 1955.
During 20 years with Hillsborough Community College, Strawn made a lot of friends and rose quickly from a guidance counselor to department head to dean of student services, in which he oversaw the library, counseling, advising, financial aid, custodial staff, admissions, records, job placement services, student government and newspaper. After a 1979 auto wreck, he took a lesser position as director of student services at HCC’s Plant City campus. Still, he was well-compensated for his work and years of service – he earned $46,500 in 1988, $52,000 in 1987. Strawn was suspended with pay from his position immediately following his arrest; he resigned in January.
Early reports indicate he was desperate for cash when an antique business run by his son Terry, 29, went bad – their combined debt was said to be $14,000. From 1982 to 1986, Bill also owned Heaven Sent Nursery. Both businesses operated from the Strawn compound in Plant City. In a telephone interview from jail immediately following his arrest, Strawn told the Sentinel, “I was going to work and I stopped and said, ‘I’ve got to get some money.’ I was in debt badly.”
That may explain one robbery, but not four.
Most people who earn $46,500 have a measure of debt between credit cards, auto loans and home mortgage. Few turn to bank robbery. They negotiate consolidation loans, extended payment terms. Anything to avoid the public humiliation of inventorying your trousers, shoes, blouses, knick knack shelves, bandsaw, fishing rods and surrendering your automobile to the bank.
According to their voluntary petition for personal bankruptcy, Bill and Jean Strawn owe $114,553.37 on their mortgage, $9,000 on the Dodge Caravan getaway van (since repossessed) and $19,252.57 in credit cards and medical bills. (Their list of unsecured debts includes notations for First Union Bank, Florida National Bank and Southeast Bank – institutions Strawn robbed – all with the word “undetermined” where the amount should be listed.) It is a lot of money but leveragable with Strawn’s income and property holdings. He knows he went to an extreme. And that’s what makes his case so strange. Bill Strawn doesn’t go to extremes. By all accounts he’s level-headed, even-tempered and quite bright.
Or at least he was until those two auto accidents.
“I used to be a hyperactive person who was everywhere,” says Strawn. “Now I’m slow. I don’t function like I used to. This is no cop-out, but I’ll guarantee if I hadn’t been in those two accidents, this would never have happened to Bill Strawn.”
* * *
Do you know Orlando very well?
I don’t. I really don’t.
You’re not familiar with the streets?
I have been to Orlando probably 10 times in my whole life. And usually when I go there it’s to a deans’ meeting and then right back.
Have you ever been there for a week?
No. In fact, I don’t have any idea how I found these banks. And frankly, I don’t even know where they are. If I had to take you to them right now, I couldn’t take you to any one of them.
You were charged with four armed bank robberies. Did you commit any bank robberies?
I had the bag of money. I dont know. … But from everything I’ve read, I think I did. I didn’t know what I did. I didn’t have any idea of what I did, from the time I left Plant City. I really couldn’t tell you. I didn’t know what I was doing. I really didn’t.
You don’t remember driving from Plant City to Orlando?
You don’t know why it was this bank and not that bank?
I have no idea. But I’ll say this: It’s not uncommon for me not to know what I did that day. It’s not. There are so many days that I couldn’t tell you one thing that happened to me all day long. On the others, I came to somewhere around Lakeland when I was driving back. I thought, ‘Oh, God.’ The last one, I came to when I was coming out of the bank.
You realized then that something was wrong?
That’s when I realized I had done something wrong, when I found the sack there. I wish I’d been caught the first time.
You remember burning the money the first time?
Oh, yeah. I was perfectly sane then. But I’ll tell you this – there wasn’t any way that I could figure out – and I still can’t figure out – any way to have turned it in. Especially the second and third times.
I’ve got my whole family saying, ‘Why didn’t you turn it in, why didn’t you tell us?’ My wife, especially.
Did she have a hard time understanding why you didn’t confide in her?
Well, yeah. Because I confide in her in everything. But this was a horrible thing to me.
The money was gone. What did you do then?
I prayed every night that I wouldn’t have this thing happen again. One day when this happened, the next day, two guys from the FBI came to visit me. It was about something unrelated, nothing to do with this. But it scared me to death. I thought, they must know. They must be checking me out.
* * *
Strawn’s claim to being unfamiliar with the locations of the banks he robbed is dubious at best.
The first two banks, Southeast and First Union, are both located on Sand Lake Road, mere blocks from Interstate 4. “Easy-on, Easy-off,” as read the fast-food drive-thru signs that beckon to hungry highway travelers. Theoretically, Strawn – who allegedly used a lever-action rifle in at least one of these crimes and a short barrel shotgun in others – could have exited I-4, robbed a bank and been 10 miles west toward Plant City before police arrived. Except that Sand Lake Road provides access to Orlando’s Hotel Row, International Drive, making ingress and egress slow at best. Authorities say banks in this area are frequent robbery targets; Southeast has at least six video cameras visibly trained on its lobby.
Explaining the choice of the Florida National Branch may be more complicated. Its West Colonial Drive location is far off the beaten trail, five miles – and a few dozen traffic lights – west of I-4. Along that route Strawn would have passed branches of almost every bank in town. But Strawn likely knew a faster route than I-4 to Colonial Drive because of his many years as a junior college dean. State Road 435 intersects I-4 and ends north at Colonial. How could Strawn, who claims to barely know Orlando, find his way across town on such a local road? Perhaps because Valencia Junior College sits midway between the bank and I-4 on S.R. 435. Even on this route, he had to pass branches of C&S, Barnett, Sun, and Orange Banks before arriving at Florida National. The route also passes the Mystery Fun House and under-construction Universal Studios Tour.
Just after being arrested, Strawn told the Orlando Sentinel he chose the tiny Florida National Bank branch over another institution across the street, The First Financial Center, abecause there were fewer cars in its parking lot.
What puzzles most people examining these crimes is – if Strawn planned the robberies – how he ever expected to get away unrecognized with a stocking mask over his face. His sheer girth – 370 pounds – made him memorable to witnesses; he couldn’t possibly be confused with a medium-build bank robber.
* * *
Tom Oatmeyer wrote a letter to B. Lee Elam, Strawn’s attorney, to be used in his defense. In it, Oatmeyer balances tales of Strawn’s humanitarian gestures with what he calls “unusual occurrences.” Once, he writes, his friend Bill gave a speech to HCC students and suddenly spoke in Turkish. Four Turkish students thanked him afterwards for his comments and asked where he had learned their language. That same morning, his secretary found a note he had written – in Arabic. A student had to translate; Strawn couldn’t read his own note. “It said that Bill would come by to pick up the president of Hillsborough Community College in a rickshaw,” writes Oatmeyer. The stories are also confirmed by another witness and letter writer, Earl Hartman. “It was very obvious … these experiences were tormenting Bill,” according to Oatmeyer.
In February, Jean Strawn asked Oatmeyer to “come quick, something was wrong with Bill.” He arrived to find Strawn in the midst of one of his spells. He announced he was leaving his family and never coming back.
“He left with nothing,” writes Oatmeyer. “I decided to check the airport because Bill loved flying. I arrived to find a ticket in Bill’s hand for a northern city. He had no luggage, (he was wearing) a short sleeve sport shirt and (was) going to a city that had temperatures in the 30s. When I went to him, he was in a daze. He acted like he didn’t know me. I kept talking to him until finally I reached him. At that point he said, ‘I don’t know why I have this. I don’t even know anybody in this city.’ He was now ready to go home, shocked at how he even got to the airport.”
There is a huge body of circumstantial evidence such as Oatmeyer’s letter that supports the claim of Strawn family members, friends and physicians that Bill Strawn is mentally ill. While certainly biased, the authors build a caseload of bizarre twists in Strawn’s life. They tell wildly different stories which form an undeniable pattern of abnormal events and behavior.
o Joe Menendez wrote a very moving letter about Strawn. After describing his familiarity with Strawns blackouts and seizures, Mendendez got to the root of their relationship: “Many years back he counsled (sic) me, week after week because I was in a very bad stage of depression and I was about to kill a few of my coworkers (sic). If the Lord have (sic) not put this man in my path I just don’t know what I would have done.”
o William Seeker is now president of Florida Keys Community College in Key West, but from 1970 to 1979, he was Strawn’s supervisor at HCC. “I noticed Bill would have periods of memory lapses and/or blackouts. He did not remember conversations we had, assignments I had given him or meetings that he had attended. At one particular staff meeting he actually went into what I would call a convulsion.”
o Strawn himself tells many examples of his troubles, including pre-cognitive experiences wherein he foresaw a friend having a heart attack or his father being struck by a train.
Being at work did not make him immune from seizures and blackouts; secretaries, teachers and administrators used to cover for him regularly.
“My secretary and I worked on a grant one day,” he remembers. “We worked on it from seven in the morning until 5:30 at night. We finally got it finished and we mailed it. We were so happy. The next morning when she came in, I said, Stella, we’ve got a big job today – we’ve gotta get this grant done. I had already worked on it for an hour and she said, ‘We worked on that yesterday.’
“I had secretaries who would really help me, who would keep up with me if I wouldn’t come back on time. They’d try to find out where I was. They probably should have been getting my salary.”
o Jean Strawn’s eight-page letter is the most revealing and poignant plea to Judge Miller. In it, she traces a number of steps in the life of her husband that helped set him apart from most men. As a high school history teacher in his younger days, he gave anti-communism speeches at night at Baptist churches. Drawn by a need for teachers in Appalachia, he moved his family to Jackson, Ky. There was the time he pulled a man from a burning car shortly before it exploded. Or when the bleachers collapsed at a basketball game and Strawn pulled them apart to release trapped arms and legs. A neighbor stopped breathing and Strawn got him started again with CPR.
Despite all of these super-human acts with neighbors and strangers, Strawn faltered when it came to dealing with family crisises and job stress, according to his wife. “He would want to lie down and within minutes he was out of it and talked out of his head a lot. One time he really scared me because he was talking to his dead grandfather. (Strawn) said he wanted to go with him. I pleaded with him for about an hour not to go because I needed him here. He has also seen his dead uncle Francis. He tells me about places we used to go and it would be so real to him. He said he could taste the chicken at Farrells which was a place back in (our) college days.
“I used to accuse him of being too weak to face up to problems. I told him every time I needed him most he folded up on me. Now that I look back he was having a form of seizure then whenever he got under pressure or stress.
“His life has been memorable,” Jean writes. “Some day I know I will find out what God’s plan for him really is and then I’ll know why Satan has tried to destroy him.”
On the day she wrote the note, Jean Strawn writes, her husband had survived 15 seizures.
* * *
It is difficult to compile an exact list of incidents contributing to Strawn’s head injuries because there are insufficient medical documents and only family accounts to go by. But problems seem to have begun at age seven, when a baseball bat fractured his skull; other incidents include a number of concussions, two broken jaws and a fracture skull in 1952 and 1953 while he was in college playing football; multiple hospitalizations in Bowling Green, Ky.; a 1979 head and neck injury in a Tampa automobile accident that left Strawn unconscious for an hour and paralyzed for ten hours; a second auto accident, in Brandon in 1982, resulted in back surgery. He won out-of-court cash settlements in both accidents.
Strawn has suffered from grand mal and petit mal seizures off and on since 1975. Grand mal seizures take place when the victim falls down, begins convulsing on one side, bites his tongue, foams at the mouth, wets his pants and/or wakes in a stupor, unaware of having had the seizure. Petit mal seizures cause the person to stop, sit silently and not know what is going on around him, then regain consciousness and not realize anything was amiss. They are considered physical, not mental, problems caused by electrical disturbances in the brain’s temporal lobe.
Strawn’s frequency of either seizure type occurring varies between daily and every few weeks depending upon how well he controlled he is medication-wise. Stress is widely considered a trigger to the seizures. Strawn has had seizures at home, church, school, doctor’s and lawyers office and in court and jail. They manifest themselves differently from incident to incident.
“There are times when I can’t carry on a conversation, times when I forget a whole day,” he says. Sometimes he sees and hears things that aren’t there. “I would actually see these creatures telling me to hang myself. I’m not the kind of guy to do that. But there were times when I really felt like I was going to do it.”
* * *
Is Bill Strawn telling the truth? Could seizures and blackouts have caused him to rob four banks over 19 months?
A quintet of nationally recognized experts in epilepsy and neuro-psychiatry say yes, it is possible that Strawn was not in control of his actions when he committed the first bank robbery, maybe even the second. But none is convinced such a pattern could occur four times.
The four authorities consulted by Tampa Bay Life for comment who were not directly involved in the case were given details during individual telephone interviews, including hearing direct comments from the deposition of defense psychiatrist Dr. Walter Afield and from an interview with Strawn. Participants in the “psychiatric autopsy” were:
o Ann Scherer, director of Information and education for the Epilepsy Foundation of America in Landover, Maryland.
o Dr. Dietrich Blumer, a psychiatrist specializing in epilepsy at the University of Tennessee Epicare Center. The Epicare Center is the largest center for the treatment of epilepsy in the Southeast. Blumer was recommended as an expert by the Epilepsy Foundation of America.
o Dr. George Dohrmann is a neorosurgeon at the University of Chicago and was recommended as an expert by the Brain Research Foundation.
o Dr. Helen Morrison, an M.D. who is certified in general, child, adult and forensic psychiatry, has been an examiner for the American Board of Forensic Psychiatry. Morrison – who was recommended by Dohrmann – is also director of The Evaluation Center, a neuro-diagnostic program in Chicago for the evaluation and treatment of people with organic and emotional problems. She has examined serial killers Michael Lockhart and Bobby Joe Long as a witness for the prosecution.
o Dr. Walter Afield, a former professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, was retained by the defense to examine Bill Strawn and form conclusions about his mental fitness. Afield is an accomplished psychiatrist who has a private practice in Tampa and works as an expert psychiatric witness in criminal trials across the country. He worked for the defense in the trials of Bobby Joe Long (opposite Dr. Helen Morrison), William Cruise and fire-bomber Billy Ferry.
Afield says that in reviewing a battery of neuro-psychiatric tests (including EEG, Luria, Halstead) and documented seizures, he has no doubt that Strawn has suffered severe brain damage and intractable seizures. He says that Strawn did not undergo the now common magnetic resonance imaging tests because he was too big to get in the machine. There could have been a “definite correlation” between Strawn’s seizures and the bank robberies, according to Afield, until he learned the number of crimes had grown from two to four.
“That was the hardest part for me to understand,” says Afield. “That was a little difficult. I’d be a little hard pushed with the evidence that four were due to that. But you do have a man with brain damage and it can make a man do strange things.”
The expert consultants agree that criminal activity is rare as a result of even complex seizures, but not out of the realm of possibility for a man with Strawn’s history of head injuries and brain damage.
According to Dohrmann: “Some people who do things out of character can have something wrong with the left frontal lobe, impairing their judgement or understanding of right and wrong. The frontal lobe’s function is to ride herd over a person’s impulses. When that’s gone, people can be quite impulsive. Normally they wouldn’t say, ‘I don’t know what I did.’ They’d say, ‘I did it – so what?'”
All three doctors doubted epileptic seizures alone could cause Strawn’s repeated criminal activity. But they believe the seizures might be part of a greater neuro-psychiatric malady.
“There are a tremendous number of possibilities,” says Morrison. She says robbing a bank would not be unusual in the “Fugue” state, a form of amnesia. In this state, someone can do incredible things, like disappear only to “wake up” years later. It is caused when people are unable to handle extreme stress and become amnesiac as a result. Another possibility she cites is multiple personalities, which the mind creates as a defense mechanism. But she is ultimately skeptical of a stereotyped crime being repeated over and over with the same highly organized pattern.
“Why not just rob a bank and a gas station or a speeding ticket?” wonders Morrison. “If he has brain damage, why would it be limited to bank robbery? Does brain damage explain the robberies? It doesn’t. Can you definitely connect the damage to the action? No, you can’t. No one can prove this man’s seizures led to the robberies.
“A thousand things can aggravate seizures,” she continues. “If the person is going to have a seizure, why wouldn’t he have a seizure while robbing the bank? Or while going through the complex act of burning the money? Does that seem like the action of someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing? He was scared? One time, okay. Twice, maybe. Three, four times? Forget it. It doesn’t take any psychiatry to figure that out.”
* * *
What should society do with Bill Strawn?
He robbed four banks at gunpoint. That seems beyond dispute. Pre-meditation is more to the question. Did failing health and looming debt push Strawn to knowingly commit these four criminal acts? Can his claims of being in a trance-like state be borne out by medical evidence? And if he was not responsible for his actions, does the state still have its own responsibility to his victims to mete out some form of justice?
In some ways, society has already begun taking its measure of the Strawn Family.
“We’ve gone through bankruptcy, we applied for food stamps the other day” – Strawn pauses as tears well up in his eyes – “we’re about as poor as you can be. I’ve taken my family through a lot of embarrassment, I know. I can’t get near water, I can’t get near machinery, I can’t drive a vehicle. And yet everything I’m trained to do requires those kinds of things. I can’t go up steps, I can’t walk near a durn ditch that’s got six inches of water in it – I could drown. I almost drowned one night in the bathtub, taking a bath. Now I have to take showers. Part of the real punishment I’ve had is seeing my family go through this. Every day is something in the mailbox. Every day is another call. Every day there’s another hell to face.”
Dr. Walter Afield, who examined Strawn, thinks the accused is ashamed, embarrassed and of the opinion he should be punished for what he did. That worries Afield.
“He’s depressed, suicidal,” the psychiatrist believes. “If he makes it to jail I wouldn’t be surprised if he kills himself. He’s not a jail kind of guy.” Afield feels that because of Strawn’s continuing need for medical attention, justice, the community and Strawn would be better served by community control. “House arrest is cheaper on the taxpayer. If he falls down on his head, we’re going to get a $50,000 bill.”
“Obviously, the gentleman’s going to prison,” says Assistant State Attorney Gary Dorst, who is the new prosecutor on Strawn’s case. Dorst notes that sentencing statutes in firearms cases have been rewritten to take discretion out of the hands of judges. They are required to issue minimum mandatory sentences and there is no “gain time” for good behavior in firearms cases. He estimates Strawn could get anywhere from six years to lifetime in prison or 100 years probation. One possibility that could reduce prison time would be to run sentences for each bank robbery concurrently. “It’s a crime punishable by life,” says Dorst. “He’s looking at four life sentences. That’s the possibility. He probably won’t get it.”
“I wish they would put me in a situation where I could do something worthwhile,” says Strawn, wistfully.
Whatever Bill Strawn’s fate is, he has changed Rosie’s Owens’ life forever.
“I have a great fear of going in the bank,” says the woman who felt Strawn’s gun at her back on the day he was caught. “It was a frightening experience – it goes with you. It’s something you never forget.”
(This story was written in June 1989. I believe it appeared in Tampa Bay Life later that year. I also believe that some of the original text was lost due to computer incompatibility.)
By Bob Andelman
It’s 4:30 p.m. and she’s now an hour late for the shooting of a new edition of “Hooters Nite Owl Theater,” the weekly movie she hosts on WTOG-TV Ch. 44. Her lateness is more gnawing to the production crew because earlier in the day everything was pushed back from 1 to 3:30 p.m. and Lynne is still late.
When she finally arrives – already wearing the Hooters T-shirt and day-glo orange shorts she has made famous on billboards across America – the Ch. 44 staff and Hooters staff go into overdrive. Lynne does a quick, emotion-less read-through of the script as lights are pointed and cameras are put into place.
A plate of freshly made chicken wings on a cheap wooden plate is set before her and Lynne suddenly reaches into her shirt and adjusts her brassiere to accommodate Tampa Bay’s most famous bosom.
Suddenly the red light goes on and Lynne Austin becomes “L.A.,” the Hooters equivalent of the Gerber baby, Ronald McDonald and the little red-haired girl from Wendy’s. L.A. is Lynne Austin’s Mr. Hyde: quick-witted, sarcastic and effervescent.
“Anybody that can read can do this,” says Lynne between shots.
“Not like you,” answers WTOG’s Ed Jones.
Lynne Austin is … not every mother’s dream come true.
But Annette Austin has no complaints. While some parents might disown a daughter who repeated bares her essentials to national magazine photographers and videographers, Annette is the true archivist of Lynne’s growing celebrity. A wicker basket beside the couch in her Sarasota home overflows with her daughter’s newspaper and magazine clippings.
“How did you hear about Lynne?” she asks innocently, as if six years on billboards, a spin as Playboy magazine’s Miss July 1986 centerfold and a platinum Video Centerfold weren’t enough. “I guess I just find it real strange that everybody thinks she was a real big deal,” explains Annette as Lynne laughs.
The Austins – Lynne has a younger brother – are a close-knit family considering Annette and Bob have been divorced for more than a decade. They still spend holidays together. And whenever Lynne has an open weekend in her hectic travel schedule, she prefers to spend it hanging out with mom rather than partying with girlfriends.
Annette is Lynne’s business manager and confidante – they speak frankly and bluntly with one another. It is relationship most mothers and daughters would envy.
Lynne Austin is … famous.
There was the time in Atlanta she called housekeeping at 6 a.m. one morning saying she needed an iron and the manager – dressed in a three-piece suit – personally delivered it minutes later.
Lynne Austin is not a bimbo.
“We get a lot of angry calls whenever we have her on the air,” reveals Bill Murphy, host of WTSP-TV Ch. 10’s “Murphy in the Morning.” “I guess that’s because Lynne once opted to take her clothes off.”
Ron Bennington has experienced a similar response to her on the radio.
“She was doing our show, taking calls,” says half of the morning team at WYNF 95 FM. “A lady gave the normal, right wing attack, ‘You should be embarrassed about being being in Playboy!’ We took 50 calls defending her. That amazed me. People in Tampa Bay are proud of Lynne. She’s a Tampa Bay icon.”
“She’s great in bed, can I say that much?” jokes Bennington, half of the morning team at WYNF 95 FM. Lynne does frequent promotions with the station. And while Bennington is just kidding, he does bring up the assumption many people have that L.A. is promiscuous. I can speak to this first-hand: a few years ago when I was publishing a struggling local magazine, Lynne was on the cover. For weeks after the issue occurred, The idea that any woman who poses in the nude must be a cheap slut gets no support from anyone who knows Lynne Austin well. People who don’t know her and just see her pictures sometimes assume otherwise.
There is a certain class and intelligence about this woman that draws great loyalty and respect from her friends and business associates. They say sure she’s beautiful, but hey, what a mind on that babe! As if being blonde automatically excludes her from being bright.
There are dozens of men in the Tampa Bay area who boast of having dated Lynne. Or their son, brother or nephew has. The stories are just not true.
Not that Lynne needs anyone to defend her. When a woman called into a Louisville, Ky. radio station where the model was a guest and complained that Lynne and all the other women who posed in Playboy – which her husband buys – were disgusting, Bob Passwaters recalls her response. “Lynne said, ‘Okay lady, how fat are you?’ It ended the conversation.”
While debunking the bimbo myth, this may be a good time to deal with the perception that Lynne Austin is not all Lynne Austin. Rumors have circulated for years that she is the product of plastic surgery and breast enlargement.
Pshaw, says the model, who has heard it all before.
Lynne Austin is a vegetarian.
Have you ever actually seen her eat a chicken wing? Not likely; she hates chicken and only eats it when she’s sick. Even then, only mom’s secret recipe will do. And she hasn’t tasted red meat in six years.
Still, a driving interest of hers continues to be the acquisition of her own Hooters restaurant franchise sometime in the future. “I’ve grown up with the company,” she says. “I know all the ins and outs.” What she doesn’t know, her mother probably does; Annette is manager of the Sarasota restaurant.
Lynne Austin is an inspiration to young women.
In the six years since the first Hooters opened on Gulf to Bay Blvd. in Clearwater and she waited on the first customer, Lynne has gone where few waitresses have gone before. Without any formal training she has modeled, acted, hosted a television program and become a small industry – “Lynne, Inc.” That’s why there’s rarely a shortage of pretty girls interested in becoming Hooters waitresses.
“A lot of the girls have tried for Playboy,” says Lynne; while four have made minor appearances, none have made centerfold or been as much in demand for personal appearances. “We went through ‘Playboy Fever’ where every girl and her sister wanted to be in Playboy. One girl has tried for five years. I told her it’s not for everybody – for some girls, it’s just one big heartache. It’s going to hurt her for a long time because she’s not going to give up.”
Knowing many waitresses aspire to her success, Lynne doesn’t discourage them. “Go after your own goals,” she says. “Let Hooters help you, but do your own thing.”
“In the last five years,” she says, “I dated five guys. I don’t date around. I get one, stick with them ’til they dump me and then I move on.”bleach, “These are the artificial things on my body,” she recites in good humor. “My hair is lightened, my front two teeth are bonded and I wear tips on my nails.”
So has her mother. “They ask me at work,” says Annette.
“Between ninth and tenth grade I grew to this” (she puts her hands on her breasts) “size. I don’t know how many times, on the back of the bus, I had to prove I didn’t stuff!”
“I couldn’t be prouder that she would have the face and body a national magazine would want,” says Lynne’s mom. On the other hand, Annette is still a protective parent. “If she wanted to know if I wanted all the men in America to see my daughter without any clothes – no.”
The follow-up to the international bestsellers Don’t Gobble the Marshmallow…Ever! and Don’t Eat the Marshmallow…Yet!
After facing many hardships and challenges, former chauffeur Arthur has come out on top, happily married and at the pinnacle of his career. But Arthur has always had a dream of starting his own business. In the face of a difficult economy and his own fears of success, Arthur begins to flounder in his new endeavor and forgets all of the principles his former boss, billionaire Jonathan Patient, taught him. Instead of delaying gratification, Arthur begins to eat his marshmallows again.
Based on the landmark Stanford University study, the marshmallow theory details the results of an experiment where children were left alone with a marshmallow and told that if they didn’t eat it they would receive an additional marshmallow in fifteen minutes. Years later, researchers discovered that the children who had chosen to wait grew up to become more successful adults than the children who had eaten their marshmallows immediately.
In Don’t Eat the Marshmallow…Yet! and Don’t Gobble the Marshmallow…Ever!, Joachim de Posada revealed to readers that the secret to success is not merely superior intelligence or hard work, but rather the ability to delay gratification. Now, in Keep Your Eye on the Marshmallow, Posada uses the parable of Arthur’s struggles after reaching the top to teach us that adhering to the marshmallow principle is especially important in uncertain economic times. True success is more than just financial gain or recognition; it’s the ability to balance every aspect of life outside of work—including hobbies, family, and love—in order to enjoy your success, maintain long-term goals, and savor the marshmallows of life.
“Wrap It Up!” cover story of Tampa Bay Weekly, by Bob Andelman, about Dunedin, Florida company promoting safe sex with t-shirts, etc., under the brand name “Wrap That Rascal.” (Thanks to Robert LaMonte for sharing)
Interview: Shelly Broader, president of Kash n’ Karry/Sweetbay Supermarket.
By Bob Andelman
(This story originally appeared in the October 2005 issue of the Maddux Business Report, published in St. Petersburg, Florida. The story below is the unedited version and includes material that does not appear in the published version.)
Shelley Broader works customers in the prototype Sweetbay Supermarket in Seminole in a manner reminiscent of Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot. She talks to everyone she encounters, charming them in conversation, infusing them with her bubbling enthusiasm, and tempting them to sample everything from blueberry sausage to lemon cream cake. When they’re looking for something special in the produce department she doesn’t point towards their object of desire and send them on their way. Instead, she guides them to its location and ensures their satisfaction. Marcus, known for biting the fingers of Depot associates who point instead of taking customers by the hand and guiding them, would be proud.
This is not your old n’ crusty grocery executive who has seen it all and cannot be moved by the latest and greatest variation on deli fried chicken. Broader, 41, is an evangelist, the woman who might just save supermarkets from themselves in the 21st century.
Even better, she has an unusually delicious sense of humor for a corporate executive.
In showing off Sweetbay’s extensive international foods aisle, the chain’s president and chief operating officer looks left, then right, then left again before pointing out her favorite British canned product. Assured no customer will see or hear her, she continues, displaying the sponge pudding like the finest of Barker’s Beauties on “The Price is Right.”
“I’m just too immature not to laugh at a can of ‘Spotted Dick’! It’s just wrong!” she says, cackling like a naughty schoolgirl.
• • •
Few readers of the Maddux Business Report have probably been in a Sweetbay’s yet, so consider this a preview of a store that may change more than a few family shopping habits in the Tampa Bay area in 2006. It’s already occurring in the chain’s out-of-town tryouts. Fort Myers and Naples were the first communities to experience the retirement of grocery discounter Kash n’ Karry and the arrival of Sweetbay. Even as you read this, the last K n’K stores in Bradenton and Sarasota are being made over. And in 2006, the 50 stores in the Tampa Bay areas will go under the knife and re-emerge with extreme supermarket makeovers.
Walk in a typical grocer’s front door and the first thing you see will be cash registers or a customer service desk. Boooooring! Walk in the front door of a Sweetbay and all of your senses will be assimilated, including sights and smells.
In the produce department, the average Sweetbay offers almost two dozen varieties of tomatoes and at least as many mushroom varieties. Then there are the exotics, including lemon grass, Thai coconut, cherimoya, kiwano horned melons, name, yautia, batata and a Broader favorite, celery root. “I boil it, peel it, cut it in cubes and add it to mashed potatoes with some horseradish. Here,” she says, scratching one with her nail. “Smell.”
“I’m obsessed with food,” Broader says. “Once I was in a restaurant when I was really young. We were having prime rib. I thought the bowl in front of me was coleslaw, so I took a big forkful – it was horseradish! The top of my head about blew off! But it started my love of food.”
A particular weakness: the bakery department.
“I try to operate at 30,000 feet, but sometimes I come down right to the cakes,” she says. “I ate an entire one of these while working in the store’s break room one day – it took four hours – and now it’s called ‘The Presidential Cream Cheese Fudge Cake.’”
A few bakery items will survive the transition from Kash n’ Karry to Sweetbay, including the chain’s signature home-style-baked donuts and Cuban bread.
If you ever see Broader walk from one end of a Sweetbay to the other, you’ll wonder why she doesn’t weigh 400 pounds. She samples everything in sight.
“My favorite cheese is white Stilton with blueberries and champagne. It’s the most decadent thing on earth,” she says.
If pronouncing Sweetbay the future of supermarkets sounds crazy at this juncture, consider some compelling evidence:
• BREEDING: Forget 50 years of Kash n’ Karry. Sweetbay’s ancestral line traces directly back to Hannaford, the “Publix of New England,” if you will. Founded in Scarborough, Maine, in 1883, it is one of the top upscale grocers in the Northeast and highly respected around the country.
• EARLY SUCCESS: Sweetbay, Kash n’ Karry, Hannaford and Food Lion aren’t even half of the 11 supermarket subsidiaries owned and operated by Delhaize-America. (The Belgium-based Delhaize Group has food operations in 10 countries on three continents.) And while the company trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol DEG, it doesn’t break out individual sales per supermarket.
But here’s a number that Broader will disclose: 40.
That’s 40 as in the former Kash n’ Karry stores that have been retired so far are doing, on average, 40 percent better in a year-to-year comparison as Sweetbays. “It’s early; nobody’s popping the champagne yet,” Broader says. “But consumers have really responded to what they’ve seen.”
• MANAGEMENT: When Broader was handed the Kash n’ Karry chain in June 2003, she was given the authority to do whatever it took. She achieved a cultural revolution in part by finding key cogs for her new machine from several already well-oiled engines with portfolios of best practices experience.
“I have finance guys from Food Lion,” she says. “Our corporate development and real estate person is from Wal-Mart. Our merchandising and procurement person is from Kash n’ Karry. Our retail operations person was at Kash n’ Karry for three years and prior to that was at Hannaford. Our marketing, HR and organization development folks are people I asked to come down from Hannaford.”
Broader, incidentally, was Kash n’ Karry’s ninth president in 17 years.
“When I came here, it was to help Delhaize focus on what the opportunity was,” she says. “It became clear it wasn’t about changing Kash n’ Karry. It was about developing a new brand.”
• TRAINING: Just because a cashier worked at Kash n’ Karry yesterday doesn’t guarantee he or she will be punching the clock at Sweetbay tomorrow.
“The person who just comes in and punches a clock but doesn’t like food has a choice – change or leave,” Broader says. “They either are motivated to change or they are asked to leave. It’s a different environment.”
Even the company’s employment application is different. Beyond the front-page basics requesting name, rank and serial number – and there are four pages in all – Sweetbay says “Let’s Talk Food.” Take Question No. 2, for example: “Tell us about your favorite foods. What makes them special to you?” Forget checking a box or writing one-word answers. Sweetbay wants whole sentences that demonstrate a knowledge and love of food from every position.
“Once you get inside,” Broader warns, “you will see questions that either inspire you or make you say, ‘These people are not for me.’ Retail pay rates are fairly standardized. What matters is whether we have people who are connected, rather than people who just show up. When you buy an auto part, the guys working in those stores love cars. They want to help you fix your car. We’re in the food business. And until now, we’ve done a poor job attracting people who love food.”
And with Sweetbay stores employing up to 30 people more per unit than the average Kash n’ Karry, the commitment to customer service is real. “We have 10,000 people who work for us,” Broader says. “If they’re turned on, they’re going to be great ambassadors.”
• “What ingredients are in your favorite recipe?”
• “What three items will always be found in your refrigerator?”
• “Describe your favorite meal or food experience. What was the setting? Who were you with? What did you eat?”
That last question leaves enough room for an answer in essay form, incidentally.
• INTANGIBLES: Sweetbay, like Hannaford, smells irresistible from the moment you walk through the automatic sliding doors. The experience at both begins with the pungent aroma of fresh fruit and the racetrack layout then moves unsuspecting shoppers into the even greater aroma of a fresh bakery. Taste buds working overtime, the path then leads to the ready-to-eat deli, multiple fresh seafood counters (which, to their credit, don’t smell at all) and the butcher before you remember to pick up tawdry stuff like laundry detergent and Spotted Dick.
“It’s more crucial than ever for supermarkets to know where they fit in, what differentiates them from the competition, to have an edge,” says Jenny McTaggart, senior editor of Progressive Grocer magazine. “Wal-Mart’s edge is low price; you could also argue convenience. But on customer service, Publix wins. I think Sweetbay will be an interesting concept to watch. Our editor-in-chief went down there to profile one of their stores. He was pretty impressed.”
“Publix, Wal-Mart and Target are going to be the leaders for a while,” says Craig Sher, president of St. Petersburg-based Sembler Company and a long-time development partner with Publix in Florida and Georgia. “I think you’ll see Sweetbay right behind them. I think they’re on to something with the concept. I don’t think they’ll climb to No. 1 or 2, but they can be a strong No. 3 over time as long as they have capital committed and their leadership is good. I think their new stores are nice.”
• • •
When Broader took charge of Kash n’ Karry and its 144 Florida stores more than two years ago, the novice chief executive’s first dramatic act was closing 34 stores, primarily in Orlando, essentially abandoning that market.
The remaining stores have been converted by media market, moving south to north: Naples/Fort Myers, Sarasota/Bradenton and now, St. Petersburg/Clearwater/Tampa. The 50 stores here will receive their makeovers in 2006. There won’t be a single grand opening day, but none of the old K n’ K stores will officially close in the conversion either. There will also be two new Sweetbays built from the ground up in Riverview and St. Petersburg’s Midtown area.
There will most likely by 108 Sweetbay stores by the end of 2006, when the conversion process is complete. Beyond that, and without releasing specific numbers, Broader promises “significant” new store growth in Tampa and St. Petersburg.
Sweetbay has different real estate requirements than Kash n’ Karry did on access and egress from the road, visibility and who its outparcel and shopping center partners are, preferring complementary users, not competitors. With in-store pharmacies and liquor stores, for example, it isn’t interested in locating next to a CVS, Walgreen’s or independent liquor stores.
“We’re looking at a lot of existing sites now that are currently occupied by a tenant thinking of leaving and we’re also looking at new construction,” Broader says.
Including Winn-Dixie stores?
“I think everybody is looking, absolutely,” she says.
• • •
What, you may wonder, does Lakeland-based Publix Super Markets think of this ugly duckling turning into a beautiful swan in its own backyard?
We have no idea.
In response to our written request for an interview with Publix executives on a wide range of topics, company spokesperson Maria Brous responded thus:
“Our stategy (sic) and success is simple – we focus on customer service, quality of product and best value for our customers. Our goal is to provide the best shopping experience possible, and we know we have been successful when our customers refer to ‘their Publix’. Our business philosopy (sic) has made us successful for 75 years and we’re looking ahead to the next 75. No matter who the competitor is, no one matches our commitment to service and to our communities.”
And – no kidding – Brous misspelled “strategy” and “philosophy.”
An appeal to Publix President Ed Crenshaw (the subject of a Maddux Report cover story in July 1996 when the grocer entered the Georgia market) brought a similar response – without the typos. “I appreciate your desire to include a more definitive response for your story. I do hope you understand it would not be appropriate for me to participate. Publix has been very consistent with the response to media requests of this nature and to make an exception would not be fair to others.”
(Albertsons and Winn-Dixie also declined comment for this story.)
But with Winn-Dixie in retreat (a.k.a. bankruptcy protection) and rumors swirling that Albertsons may abandon Florida (it exited Northeast Florida in May, selling six stores to Jacksonville start-up, Rowes), there is an opening for a new No. 3, especially for one with the resources that Delhaize brings to Sweetbay.
Broader has no illusions of knocking Publix off its throne as Florida’s No. 1 grocer, although she isn’t intimidated by it, either.
“I think they’re great, an incredibly well run company,” Broader says. “They have terrific execution, a great real estate strategy. Sweetbay is not looking to be No. 1 in market share in a market where the ratio is 900 to 1 in store count. We’re not trying to imitate what Publix does. They execute their go-to-market strategy flawlessly. We’re trying to do something different and give people a viable option.”
Broader threw in the towel as far as Kash n’ Karry’s discount concept ever succeeding against Wal-Mart, which No. 2 in the state. That’s a move with which no one takes issue.
“Wal-Mart has been huge for a long time, longer than most people realize,” says Chuck Cerankosky, an analyst who follows Albertsons, Kroger, Safeway and Whole Foods Market for KeyBanc Capital Markets in Cleveland. “But they segment the market to a lower tier and upper tier. Wal-Mart is not known for selection and higher quality. That’s where Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats or Publix can do a better job, especially in the fresh food categories. To the same extent that not everybody wants to buy clothes at Wal-Mart, the same goes for food.”
(According to The Shelby Report, a grocery industry trade publication covering the Sunbelt states, Wal-Mart is the grocery market share leader in the following SE states: Alabama; South Carolina; Tennessee; Mississippi; and Louisiana. It is second in: North Carolina; Kentucky; Virginia; Georgia and Florida.)
As for Albertsons…
“I hear a different rumor about a different competitor every day,” Broader says, “ever since Albertsons made the announcements of adopting the GE model of being one or two or out. But you can’t hold every decision in the hopes something will change with your competition. Anyone after a share of stomach is a competitor to me; I consider 7-Eleven a competitor. When we made the decision to start a new supermarket chain in Florida, Winn-Dixie was a viable competitor, as was Albertsons. If one of those banners change, it’s still competitors going after the same food dollar.”
Winn-Dixie, obviously, has serious competitive issues ahead. They’re going to operate a leaner company and need to find a niche and stick to it.
“I don’t know if they have time to do it,” Sher says. “You have to change margins and image to go against Wal-Mart. I think they need to invest more on their stores. The knock on them has always been their stores were less up to date.”
Albertsons is another enigma in Sher’s eyes.
“They’ve tried to sell their stores and exit the market and not lose everything,” he says. “They have decisions to make; they’re just kind of treading water. They have an announced corporate policy that if they can’t be No. 1 or No. 2, they get out. Well, they’d have to invest really heavily to get to that. That’s really tough when you’ve got Publix and a Wal-Mart ahead of you on the ladder.”
Cincinnati-based Kroger has emphasized being No. 1 or 2 as a strategy for many years, says Cerankosky. “Retail rewards economies of scale. Albertsons has shown willingness in recent years to exit markets where it has small market shares. They have a lot of stores in Florida but they’re spread throughout the state and have strong market share holders ahead of them. They’re still digesting their American Stores (merger) from 1999 and they’re not doing as well as Kroger and Safeway in recovering from the recession and other competitive factors.”
(The American Stores merger brought Acme, Jewel-Osco, Osco Drug, Sav-On Drug and Lucky stores in California under the same roof with Albertsons In 2003, Albertsons – the nations second largest grocery chain overall – also acquired Shaw’s and Star Markets in New England.)
Tampa-based RMC Property Group works with Publix to find and develop new stores across Florida, as does Sembler Company. Both companies discussed the Lakeland supermarket with some trepidation.
“Sharing info is not their favorite thing,” says Mitchell Rice, CEO of RMC. “A component of what we see of their strategy is looking to have their existing stores maximize their strategic location. We see Publix doing significant remodeling of their existing stores. At Dale Mabry, & Linebaugh, they tore the store down and built a new prototype in its place. That’s a painful process for Publix because they have to close the store and be down. I think they justify it by having other stores in the relative trade area. They spend a lot of money in older facilities remodeling but they’re left with the same physical plant.”
Publix is now growing in South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama; they pretty much have Florida covered, says David J. Livingston, managing director of DJL Research in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. “Publix is smart and they will not cannibalize sales unless nearby stores are so successful they need to take pressure off.”
During the 1990s, Publix experimented with 60,000-square-foot superstores, a strategy it appears to have backed away from in favor of more targeted neighborhood stores (such as the 29,000-square-foot shops at Carillon and University Village in St. Petersburg or scaled prototypes of 39,000 and 49,000 square feet), a natural foods banner, GreenWise, and a Hispanic foods concept, Sabor.
“I toured the Sabor store in Hialeah,” says Progressive Grocer’s McTaggart. “My impression was that they’ve done their homework. They’ve had many years of catering to Cuban customers. They have good products and know how to do it. If anyone can do it, Publix will be the one to watch.”
While most of the attention in the Florida market has focused on Publix and Wal-Mart, Sher says that Target and membership warehouses such as Costco and BJ’s shouldn’t be discounted as big players in the grocery business.
“I think Target is on a major push to broaden their base in Florida,” he says. (Sembler developed the Super Target store at the new Clearwater Mall.) “It’s a high priority for them; they perform well here. Publix is more selective. It seems like they’re everywhere. They’ll replace substandard stores and upgrade them. They’re not slacking; they’re very consistent in what they do. They’ve got some interesting new concepts, including the Spanish one and the GreenWise, whole foods concept. They’re going to try a few of them. I think they’re smart to customize Publix to different areas. If you can hone a concept that’s good for a Latin population, that makes sense. And if certain areas want more than the usual Publix, that makes sense, too. Publix can merchandise anyway they want because they’re that good.”
Sweetbay isn’t the only grocer nipping at Publix’s heels and with design on a bigger piece of upscale market share.
Whole Foods Market, which has only one of its seven Florida stores on the west coast (in downtown Sarasota), is a national dynamo in the organic grocery market. It hasn’t announced plans to open a store in Tampa or St. Petersburg yet, but economies of scale and the growing upscale residential environment suggest that announcement could come at any time. (The company declined to comment on expansion plans.)
“We did a Whole Foods store in Atlanta,” Sher says. “It’s a great store, a beautiful store. They will be here in isolated places. They may do one or two in the Tampa Bay area. They’re not one to be on every block. I would think they’d go to South Tampa first. Somewhere with lots of parking.”
“Sooner or later they will,” agrees David Conn, a senior vice president of retail services for CB Richard Ellis in Tampa. “I can’t imagine they’ll run with the lone outpost in Sarasota and nothing else.” Wild Oats, however, is already under construction with its first Tampa Bay location at Walter Crossing at Dale Mabry Highway and Interstate 275, where in March 2006 it will be a neighbor of the new Target store.
“One of our real estate strategies for this year and next is to do greater density in our existing markets,” says Wild Oats Communications Manager Kristi Estes. “Our South Florida stores are doing really well; Tampa is a natural extension of those.”
The 26,000-square-foot Wild Oats store is a new prototype for the company, offering expanded organic produce, meat and seafood selections as well as a new in-store café. And it is flying in the face of the traditional image of natural foods stores that in the past tended toward rehabilitating abandoned supermarket and drug store locations and keeping overhead low.
“We’ve been doing a lot of stores in lifestyle centers – alongside high end boutiques and stores like Target. They’ve been very successful,” according to Estes. “With all of our new stores we seek out high traffic locations.”
The Wild Oats store will employ about 150 people and be open seven days a week from 7 a.m.-10 p.m. – typical hours for mainstream grocery stores, not narrowly defined boutiques.
“Publix definitely could be a competitor of ours,” Estes says. “We compete quite a bit with conventional grocery stores. They are introducing organics more and more.”
Wild Oats will definitely compete with Fresh Market, a similar concept that recently opened stores in Countryside and Tampa. Estes hadn’t heard of Sweetbay yet. “If there are other stores that offer natural and organic foods, we tend to grow the market together,” she says.
• • •
To the casual shopper unaware of Sweetbay’s lineage through Hannaford, the expectation might be that this is a nice experiment that will crash and burn. But that’s not likely. A visit to a Hannaford store in its Scarborough, Maine, headquarters community reinforces the notion that there is little of a random nature in the presentation, organization, pricing or even the lighting at Sweetbay.
One of the subtle keys to a store’s success and culture is its collection of store brand products. Publix-branded products, for example, often do well in side-by-side taste and quality comparisons with national brands. Kash n’ Karry store brands… well, there wasn’t much to recommend them.
As for Sweetbay branded products – there are none. During the early days of the transition, Broader stocked her new stores with pre-packaged Hannaford-branded foods as a stop-gap measure until Sweetbay was large enough to justify ramping up product of its own line. But then something unexpected happened. Sweetbay customers really liked the Hannaford foods, especially the frozen gourmet “On The Go Bistro” line, which includes crabmeat tartlets, cranberry & brie phyllo, spinach walnut ravioli, and molten lava cakes. And for the many transplanted northerners in Florida, finding the Hannaford brand is like being reacquainted with an old flame.
“All of our fresh departments are branded Sweetbay,” Broader says. “When we were making the decision to transition, we looked at costs on private label brands. But we would have had to carry Kash n’ Karry and a Sweetbay private label. The cost of carrying a label with such low volume was economically prohibitive, so we looked at what outside label we could use. We decided the depth and breadth and quality of Hannaford would be a great way to reduce the cost of the transition. What we’re finding now is making that label exclusive at Sweetbay is an advantage. We may well be Sweetbay offering Hannaford brands in the long haul. It’s been well received.”
• • •
Shelley Broader never dreamed of a career running a supermarket. The Spokane, Washington, native majored in broadcast journalism at Washington State University and figured she’d be in front of a camera, reporting on four-alarm fires, police reports, stuff like that.
“When I graduated and did my internship, I hated it,” she says.
Derailed from the life she imagined, Broader relocated to Boston in search of a “big city adventure.” She wound up employed by a mutual fund company, discovered a love of finance and she earned a National Association of Securities Dealers Series 7 investment broker’s license.
Through a series of moves with clients she landed Hannaford Brothers Co. as a client, working on a debt placement for them. They told her that if she wanted to advance her career with them, she’d have to learn their business from the ground up.
Broader accepted a position as manager of an inner city Hannaford’s grocery on Central Avenue in Albany, New York. But before they let her run the store, she had to start with the basics: running a cash register.
“I was a cashier, and not a very good one,” she says. “Even worse, people I had done multi-million-dollar deals with were coming through my line and they were horrified. I’d look at them and I knew they wanted to call their attorneys. To say I changed careers was an understatement.”
Ron Hodge was the New York division head for Hannaford back then; he’s now the company’s CEO and Broader’s mentor for 12 years as she rose to senior vice president of Hannaford.
“He said, ‘You’ll know right away – you’ll either love it or hate it.’ I love it. The people side of it, the products, the strategy. It’s a great business.”
Bob Andelman worked as a cashier at a Stop n’ Shop supermarket during his senior year of high school in North Brunswick Township, New Jersey. He was never considered future management material.