As outdoor murals have multiplied across St. Petersburg, it seems everyone has a favorite.
Science fiction fan? Get a picture of you and your friends running from the city’s former landmark – an inverted pier – giving chase on spider legs and shooting deadly lasers at tourists. The “War of the Worlds” design – itself painted over an antique Coca-Cola sign – is by the Vitale Brothers. (Corner of Baum Avenue & Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N)
Science fan without the fiction? Pose beside a Carrie Jadus portrait of Nikola Tesla, whose inventions often rivaled those of Thomas Edison himself. (2232 5th Avenue S)
Admirer of Mexican writer Frieda Kahlo? There’s a popular Jennifer Kosharek mural of her face in “Mural Alley,” located downtown behind the stores on the 600 North block of Central Avenue.
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota is anything but a circus, despite its familiar name.
Found in a remarkably gorgeous, serene setting on the Intracoastal Waterway amidst banyan trees that are themselves works of art for their endlessly intricate branches, the museum campus is a natural attraction.
Inside, the 21 original galleries built by the famed circus man are a source of never-ending change and wide-eyed wonder. Don’t take our word for it, though; The Ringling is a State Art Museum of Florida and part of Florida State University. And the facility itself is on the National Register of Historic Places.
(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.”
(Note: The following story originally appeared in the St. Petersburg Times, where I was a correspondent for many years. It was fun for my then-fiancee (now wife) and I to ask everybody we met, ‘Is Bruce Springsteen coming tonight?’)
By Bob Andelman
November 3, 1987
ASBURY PARK, N.J. – One well-placed rumor swells attendance at the Stone Pony on Sundays. And there is only one rumor that matters: Bruce Springsteen is coming. Although for the past decade Sunday has been the night reserved for the popular local band, Cats on a Smooth Surface, it is also the night New Jersey’s favorite rock ‘n’ roll son has been known to make surprise appearances: whether it’s to catch a new act, maybe sing a song with Bon Jovi or Marshall Crenshaw – or shuffle in with his entire E Street Band.
“Tell you the truth – we never know ’til he walks in the door,” says disc jockey Lee Mrowicki, who acts as spokesman for the Stone Pony. He has seen every announced and unannounced Springsteen appearance in the nightclub since it opened 13 years ago. That was before Springsteen was on the covers of both Time and Newsweek, heralded as the future of rock ‘n’ roll.
“Before Bruce went on tour in ’85, he was here every Sunday. It was a regular thing. If he wasn’t here, you were worried,” he says.
The club is convenient for Springsteen to drop into from his home in nearby Rumson, N.J. And amid life here in this tired old beach town, the bulky warehouse of a building has become the beacon of the Boss’ mystique, an unassuming landmark in the world of a rock ‘n’ roll legend.
A few blocks away from the Pony, on a recent Sunday inside the Asbury Park Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum (Please see related story, below), curators Billy Smith and Steve Bumball think tonight may be one of those impromptu visits.
Smith has heard that Springsteen and the E Street Band have been practicing songs from the new Tunnel of Love album and may try out material around 1 a.m. “We have good vibes,” says Smith. “It’s a good night.
Something’s going to happen. The band’s been rehearsing new songs all week. I heard they’re going to bump Cats tonight.”
Because the word is out, Smith and Bumball arrive early at the club to stake out positions along the edge of the small stage.
Backstage at the Pony, guitarist Ray Anderson has heard the rumors and is becoming convinced Springsteen will join Cats on stage later in the evening.
“It’s awfully crowded tonight,” he says. “The buzz is around town about the Boss. Who knows?”
While fans look for signs of Springsteen, one surprise guest does arrive. Guitarist Bobby Bandiera of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes joins the band during Cats’ second set. And John Eddie, another local favorite who released his debut album on CBS last year, is roaming the Pony.
Surveying the growing crowd, Mrowicki points out fans who have come from as far as Washington, D.C., on the remote chance they’ll catch a glimpse of Springsteen in his “home” club. “The problem is, a lot of the time, if (Springsteen) doesn’t show, somebody takes the blame,” he says. “We got a letter last week from an irate customer.”
Whether Springsteen shows up, of course, is beyond Mrowicki’s control. He just serves up a steady diet of Bruce tunes, which helps to whip up the hopes of the rumormongers.
The Stone Pony is truly unspectacular, inside and out.
Just a stone’s throw from the aging Asbury Park boardwalk and Atlantic Ocean, the long white building will never win any awards for architecture. Although the fire marshal limits crowds to 554 people, the club feels roomy, with a square, walkaround bar near the entrance, another one at the rear, two smaller bars in-between and a stage and dance floor. The difference between the Pony and any other nightclub in the world is that no matter how ordinary, this is the one Bruce Springsteen calls home.
“Everybody likes to have a place they can go and see familiar faces,” says Billy Smith. The Stone Pony, he adds, is a place Springsteen “can go and, to a certain extent, be treated like a normal person.”
Bruce Pielka, owner/manager of the club, and his partner Jack Roig, aren’t as sentimental about the things that happen at the Pony as the fans are, so the place isn’t overwhelmed with memorabilia. They also are cautious not to commercialize the visits of their famous guest for fear of frightening off the Boss.
“You don’t see a whole wall of Bruce,” says Mrowicki. “We just don’t want to play it up. If you were coming just to hang out, you wouldn’t want to see your face all over, either.
“We never advertise that he comes here,” the DJ continues. “It’s a word-of-mouth thing. We’ve never sold tickets … We have gotten strange letters. We got one from someone in Staten Island who thought he could get tickets by clandestinely sending us $100 a ticket.”
The cover charge on Sundays is actually $4 whether Bruce plays or not. Stone Pony T-shirts are sold, but nothing that even refers to Springsteen appearances is available. There are collections of snapshots on a few walls from special nights when Springsteen and other locals – Southside Johnny, Bon Jovi, John Eddie, Glen Burtnick – have shown up to play together or separately. A Born in the U.S.A. poster at the door congratulates “Bruce” on reaching the top of the Billboard charts in 1984.
The Stone Pony has become as special a club as any in New York City, including the old Max’s Kansas City – which launched Springsteen almost 15 years ago – The Bottom Line, CBGBs or the Roxy. It is as revered and as identified with Springsteen as Liverpool’s Cavern was to the Beatles in the early 1960s.
“You get a feeling when you’re in there,” says Bumball. “You know it’s special.”
Ray Anderson, the Cats guitarist, is a Bruce fanatic.
“Born to Run – that’s my bible,” says the musician shortly before going on stage. “The first time he asked me to sing a song with him, I felt thrilled. He knows my name! That’s warmth. I’m a fanatic about him. I can’t put it into words.
“A couple of times, he’s just come up alone and we’re his backup band. We’ll huddle and he’ll teach us a song on the spur of the moment.
“I’m gonna feel strange doing one of his new songs, Brilliant
Disguise, tonight,” adds Anderson.
Hans-Peter Schulle, who has been Cats’ on-again, off-again keyboardist for 10 years, tries to reassure Anderson.
“One of the things Bruce said to me before he started joining us,” says Schulle, “was ‘I like the way you guys do my stuff.”‘ “Really?” says Anderson. “Wow.”
Depending upon whom you talk or listen to, the Stone Pony may not offer the Boss a home away from home much longer.
Bruce Springsteen performing with Cats on a Smooth Surface at The Stone Pony, Asbury Park, NJ (1982)
Plans are being explored to pull the land at Ocean & Second Avenue out from under the club as part of Asbury Park’s overall redevelopment efforts. Developers have told the Pony’s owners they have between two and five years before the land will be needed.
“We don’t know what our reality is,” says Mrowicki. “I’ve said I’d stand in front of the wrecking ball. They’ll have to go through me.”
No one involved financially or emotionally wants to see the place come down.
“It’s certainly a bit of history now because of Mr. Springsteen,” says Anderson.
Steve Bumball and Billy Smith of the rock museum hope the end never comes.
“It’s sort of an institution,” says Bumball, “a major tourist attraction. It’s really helped this town stay alive. People hear about Asbury Park through Bruce. They go to the Stone Pony and Madame Marie’s. If not for Bruce Springsteen and the Stone Pony, this town – as you can see, it’s not very alive.”
“We consider ourselves real spoiled because we’re minutes away from a club where things are constantly happening,” says Smith. “There’s Bruce fans all over the world that would kill to see him there once.”
“It’s the kind of club people go to to hear the music, see the band,” adds Bumball. “It’s not the kind of club people go to to pick up girls or even to drink. There’s nothing pretentious about the Pony.
It’s nothing fancy. I think that’s what I like about it; you feel that it’s real.”
Springsteen never does put in an appearance. Bobby Bandiera joins Cats at 1 a.m. for their second set, but with hope of seeing Bruce extinguished, many in the crowd go home.
Maybe Bruce changed his mind, maybe he was never coming in the first place. Maybe the club just generates rumors each week to keep people coming to this otherwise desolate, deserted seaside resort, where most businesses have long since closed up for the season or for good.
Maybe Bruce will never come back again. He has been known to make bunches of appearances and then disappear for long stretches of time.
No matter, say the fans.
“People will keep coming,” says Smith, “hoping he will.”
Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum in Asbury is a Springsteen fan’s wild circus
As museums go, the Asbury Park Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum is tiny. The Museum of Modern Art it is not. Even the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas is many times its size. But few treasure troves of trivia could match this celebration for fans of New Jersey rock ‘n’ roll. Outside of private collections, it would be difficult to find posters touting a concert featuring “Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom with Bruce Springsteen” circa 1971. Ditto the long-haired, baby-faced pictures of Springsteen in his earliest bands, Child, Steel Mill and the Castiles. One of his guitars from that period is housed in a glass display case.
There are handwritten lyrics to two Springsteen classics, Backstreets and Meeting Across the River. His 1974 California driver’s license is here, too.
The Asbury Park Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum opened its doors a year and a half ago on July 4th – Independence Day to some, a Springsteen song title to others. Billy Smith and Steve Bumball, diehard local music fans, founded the facility to “completely and accurately portray the development of the Asbury Park (music) scene.”
Besides an inordinate amount of Springsteen memorabilia, the small room just inside the Palace amusement center – and just two blocks from the Stone Pony – pays homage to other local legends, including Southside Johnny, Little Steven and Bon Jovi.
“We don’t want to be just a Bruce Springsteen museum,” says Bumball. “The people that come in have a genuine interest, not just in Bruce but in all the bands from the area.”
Jon Bon Jovi has patronized the facility. Southside Johnny autographed a wall devoted to his work. But, so far, no Bruce.
“He has no objections, from what we understand,” says Smith. “The whole thing with him is he’s not interested in looking back. I’ve told him I’ve got an old Steel Mill poster and he says, ‘What do you want that for?”‘