Wayne Huizenga: Lessons from a business icon
By Kevin Gale
Although South Florida lost its most famous businessperson when H. Wayne Huizenga died in March at age 80, he leaves behind memories on a life well-lived.
Wayne Huizenga’s skills went well beyond being the savvy dealmaker who gained so much attention as the only person to build three Fortune 500 companies and own three major-league sports franchises at the same time.
Among those who have the most insight into Huizenga is Mike Jackson, the president, chairman and CEO of AutoNation. Jackson talked about Huizenga during his public memorial service at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts and also in an interview with SFBW.
“Wayne’s secret sauce may surprise you—humility and humor,” Jackson says. “He was a visionary. He was very creative, very dynamic and had extraordinary stamina, but what made the whole thing work in an exceptional way was his humility. He treated everyone the same that he met throughout the course of a day, and he learned something from everybody he met during the course of a day, because he never forgot what where he came from. He never forgot what it took to make a working wage and support your family. It never left his mind.”
He was ranked 293rd on Forbes’ list of U.S. billionaires, worth $2.8 billion when he died, but Huizenga seemed grounded by the fact that his business success started with one used garbage truck in Fort Lauderdale. He also credited his team with a lot of his success, and he was fond of saying “we” rather than “I.”
One telling anecdote Jackson recounted was about the time they played golf in Ireland. Huizenga enjoyed flying friends over to Ireland in his private jet and then helicoptering to various courses.
Huizenga was assigned a 12-year-old caddy named Sean. On the first green, Huizenga says, “Sean, we need to make this putt.” They spent time examining the shot and the young caddy gives Huizenga his advice.
“Wayne drains the putt, gives Sean a big hug, and off they go. Wayne made every putt that day,” Jackson says.
Huizenga had a kind, genuine, thoughtful word for everyone he met, typically delivered with a little wit and a twinkle of the eye that put a smile on the person’s face, Jackson says. “Wayne did that all day long, whether he was in a good mood or a bad mood.”
Bob Henninger, executive vice president of Huizenga Holdings, says he was a young staff accountant at Arthur Andersen when he met Huizenga.
“Wayne treated the young accountant like the managing partner. He treated everybody alike,” Henninger says.
Arthur Andersen was the auditor for Huizenga’s Southern Sanitation, but Henninger didn’t see much of him after the company was folded into Waste Management and Huizenga operated out of Chicago.
Years later, Huizenga retired from Waste Management, and Henninger sat next to him at a chamber of commerce meeting.
“I reminded him we had met probably about 20 to 15 years earlier. The next thing I knew, he gave me a call, I gave him a call [and] I did some consulting work for him. Pretty soon, Blockbuster came along. I became the firm that audited Blockbuster. He became my largest client.”
In early 1994, Huizenga talked to him about joining Blockbuster.
“It wasn’t a tough sell, but it was a tough decision for me because I loved what I was doing, but you just couldn’t look in those eyes and not say yes. He was so compelling,” Henninger says.
Jackson was the leader of Mercedes Benz’s U.S. operations when he met Huizenga early in the history of AutoNation about 20 years ago.
“He was aspiring to buy Mercedes stores. He needed my approval, so we are talking on the phone and he said, ‘How am I going to get that?’ I said, ‘We’ve got to meet.’ He says, ‘You mean I’ve got to come to New York and kiss the ring?’ And I said, ‘That would be a good start.’ And we got along great ever since.”
AutoNation was an unwieldy conglomerate when Huizenga asked Jackson to be CEO.
“I had a lot of concerns about that, but I thought, ‘Here is one of the greatest entrepreneurs of all time. He has a magnetic personality. I can’t let this opportunity pass, to work with Wayne Huizenga. It will be magic or tragic. Fortunately, it was magic and we became big friends.”
The start wasn’t easy.
“He had thrown a company together through aggressive acquisitions—all different, disparate businesses and told people, ‘Just keep doing what you are doing.’ We had everything—billboards, rental cars, trash companies, toilet companies. You name it, it was all in there.”
Jackson remembers telling Huizenga it couldn’t continue that way.
“And he would go, ‘Mike, it’s my baby.’” Jackson recalls, saying he replied, “I understand it’s your baby, but we can’t go on like this. He swallowed hard and said, ‘Do what you need to do.’”
The various businesses were sold off, and AutoNation focused on being the nation’s largest automotive retailer.
“Wayne knew what his strength was: creating companies, having a vision, putting it together. Actually running it day to day is not what Wayne Huizenga wanted to do with his time. When Wayne came to the conclusion I was the right guy, he was delighted to go back to what he does best. He just cheered me on,” Jackson says.
Still, Jackson engaged Huizenga in some of the company’s complicated issues. Jackson would typically say how he saw an issue and then Huizenga would say how he regarded it.
“He’s convincing and compelling. I’m nodding my head like a bobblehead,” Jackson says, adding that he often would think they were done until Huizenga would argue from another direction and then another. Jackson termed this the “360-degree argument.” Huizenga could win the argument from each of the positions—that’s how forceful he was.
Jackson remembers saying once, “‘Wayne, I came to you for help, but now you’ve got me more confused than ever. What are we going to do here?’ He says, ‘Mike, you go home and think about it. You’ll make a great decision. You will be a big success, and I will cheer you on.’ ‘OK, Wayne.’ I paused one more second. ‘Wayne, what if I get it wrong?’ ‘In that case, you are screwed!’”
When Jackson started dating Alice Lucia, he took her to dinner with Wayne and Marti Huizenga a few times. One day, Huizenga declared: “Alice is the one.”
Jackson explained he was trying to get there but was only getting something between a “no” and a “maybe.” Huizenga’s blue eyes practically caught fire and he nearly jumped out of his chair. He told Jackson he was a great car salesman and had done many deals, but he couldn’t convince Lucia to marry him?
“We are going to fix this,” Huizenga told him. (“There’s that ‘we’ again,” Jackson says.)
With some coaching from Huizenga, Jackson married Lucia and Huizenga was his best man.
“As soon as the minister says, ‘You may kiss the bride,’ Wayne walks up and looks at me and says, ‘You are a lucky man.’ Then he turns to Alice and says, ‘And you, darling, now that you have married him, I can tell you this: You could have done better!”
Huizenga had the ability to seize the moment with his wit and just by being open to those he met.
Jackson shared how Huizenga met John McWhinney, the Irish singer who performed at his memorial service. One day in Ireland, Huizenga walked into the Butler Arms pub, introduced himself to a pubgoer and bought a drink for him and his mother.
After a few drinks, the mother told Huizenga her son could sing.
“Now’s a good time for a song. What have you got?” Huizenga said.
McWhinney’s rich bass brought a hush over the crowd and a round of applause at the end. Huizenga asked McWhinney about the largest crowd he ever sang before. McWhinney looked around the pub and noted there were about 75 people there.
As Jackson recalls, Huizenga told him: “John, we are going to America, and I’ve got this little football stadium. You can learn the words to ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ can’t you? I’m going to have you sing in front of 65,000 people. Now, where’s your calendar? Let’s figure this out.”
Jackson says, “That is the genius of Wayne.”
Huizenga didn’t suffer fools or jerks well, Jackson says. That figures in another story about a visit to an Irish pub, where Huizenga’s retinue included Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino.
One of the Irishmen asked for a game of catch, and the crowd at the pub parted to make way. Marino tossed the ball and the Irishman whipped it back, Jackson says.
“We play rugby over here. None of this American football,” the Irishman told Marino. He whipped it back and said, “None of that sissy American football.” As soon as the word “sissy” came out of the Irishman’s mouth, Huizenga gave a look to Marino. Marino returned the look to Huizenga, as if to ask if he’s sure, and Huizenga nodded his head.
Marino zipped the ball, hitting the Irishman in the chest before he could move and he fell over backward.
Jackson recalls: “The pub breaks out in guffaws, and Wayne says, ‘Drinks on me!’”
Huizenga was a tough negotiator in business, but he had a soft spot for Marti—which was part of another Jackson anecdote.
One of her causes was animals, reflected by her name on the Broward County Humane Society building. One day, Jackson noted that Huizenga looked tired. Huizenga said he had trouble sleeping because of Scruffy, Marti’s rescue dog.
“Everytime I get up and go to the bathroom, grrr, grrr, he bites me on the ankles,” Jackson recalls Huizenga saying.
Jackson told Huizenga he was a billionaire and king of the house—so he should be able to deal with Scruffy.
“You know, Mike, Marti has a heart of gold. I love her dearly. If she loves Scruffy, I love Scruffy,” Huizenga said.
H. Wayne Huizenga Jr. says his father battled cancer for more than a decade, and the family thought they were going to lose him a few times along the way. A couple of years ago, he told his family there weren’t any more whiz-bang treatments, radiation or chemotherapy to turn to. He told them he had an amazing life, didn’t have any regrets and was ready to go to heaven.
Shortly before his death, Huizenga told his daughter Pamela that she should still go to a business trip in Dubai. His philosophy was, “Whenever there is a deal to be had, you get on the airplane right now and go ahead and make that deal, because the man is going to change his mind tomorrow and you are going to regret it,” his son said.
At 9:43 p.m. on Thursday, March 22, Wayne Huizenga Jr. shared a loving four-minute voicemail from Pamela that reassured him it was OK to go.
At 10:02, Huizenga looked over at his hospice nurse with clear eyes and a bright look on his face. She recounted to the family that he took a deep breath, exhaled and then closed his eyes. His son came back and found that he had a look of peace.
Even his death was in typical Wayne fashion, his son said: “I’m out of here. Been here, done that. I know what’s going to happen. Take me now, Lord.” ♦
ayne Huizenga’s many personal attributes, as outlined in our cover story, were also the key to another attribute that made him an empire builder: He had superb negotiating skills.
His ability to convince others to sell him their businesses is why he is the only business person to build three Fortune 500 companies: Waste Management, Blockbuster Entertainment and AutoNation.
He also brought those skills to sports as the only owner of three major league sports franchises at the same time, bringing Major League Baseball (Marlins) and the National Hockey League (Panthers) to South Florida while also buying the NFL’s Dolphins. The Marlins won the World Series with Huizenga as an owner in 1997.
Huizenga also created his own currency—shares of his companies. He was so successful that just word of his investment in a company could send its stock price soaring. That happened when he bought Republic Waste Industries, which later morphed into AutoNation.
He put Fort Lauderdale on the map as a major business center, with Blockbuster Entertainment and AutoNation headquartered there. He loved the city so much that he commuted to Chicago to work at Waste Management, which he cofounded with a relative. Huizenga started with one garbage truck in Fort Lauderdale where he moved from the Chicago area as a teenager.
He and his wife Marti, who died in early January 2017, were notable philanthropists in Broward County. The Nova Southeastern University business school carries his name and a restaurant at the Broward County Center for the Performing Arts carries his wife’s name. Huizenga’s community involvement included membership in many civic organizations, including the Florida Council of 100, the Florida Council on Economic Education, the Salvation Army of Broward County and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Broward County.
NSU president George L. Hanbury summed it up aptly in a statement that referred to a statue of him on the campus: “Wayne Huizenga was not only a consummate entrepreneur, but a humanitarian. And as trustee emeritus, he will always be loved by the NSU community. His statue will be permanently sitting under a shade tree, denoting the seeds of greatness he has planted throughout the university and our entire community.”
In 1999, Huizenga donated $4 million to NSU, resulting in the university naming the H. Wayne Huizenga School of Business and Entrepreneurship after him.
I was fortunate enough to have met with Huizenga several times over the years.
My first memory of him is working as a business editor for the Sun Sentinel in the 1980s. I remember asking a reporter to go check the newspaper’s library of clips and see if there was anything about the guy with the unusual name (it’s pronounced “HIGH-zing-a”) who was buying video stores at a rapid clip. We quickly learned that he had co-founded Waste Management with his cousin.
I also saw Huizenga and several partners start a company that would sell used cars. He later realized that owning new car dealerships, which also sold used cars, was a more lucrative venture. The car venture was folded into Republic Industries and became a juggernaut rollup of new car dealers called AutoNation, which is the nation’s largest new car dealership owner under chairman and CEO Mike Jackson.
Jackson and AutoNation issued a statement upon Huizenga’s death that summarized his impact:
“Wayne was our founder, and we would not be the company we are today without the spirit, drive, energy and vision he gave us. Wayne is at the very core of our culture.
“Wayne was one-of-a-kind, whose business success is unmatched and might never be repeated. Wayne was one of the greatest entrepreneurs in the history of business, leaving a lasting mark in sports, community and business.
“His legacy burns brighter than anyone. That’s Wayne Huizenga, our founder.”
Huizenga owned an array of other businesses that were secondary to his legacy but would have represented major business accomplishments for most people. Huizenga’s Boca Resorts, for example, once owned the Boca Raton Resort & Club, Hyatt (Regency) Pier 66 and the Radisson Bahia Mar in Fort Lauderdale. He was chairman of Extended Stay America, which was started by his friend George Johnson. Republic Services, which emerged from Republic Industries, is one of the nation’s largest waste disposal companies.
In 2005, while I was editor of the South Florida Business Journal, we published a special section honoring Huizenga as Ernst & Young’s World Entrepreneur of the Year. The newspaper’s publisher at the time, Gary Press, who is now chairman and CEO of SFBW and Lifestyle Media Group, got to know Huizenga well because they were both early arrivers to Broward Workshop meetings. Stories about Huizenga’s early-rising habits and work ethic were legendary.
Huizenga supported the newspaper’s efforts to present entrepreneur of the year awards. Melanie Dickinson, who succeeded Press as publisher, and I met with Huizenga at his office on Las Olas Boulevard and he thoughtfully provided advice and assistance from members of his team. I sat at the table with him and Marti at the first awards ceremony where he received the Business of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award. I hadn’t met Marti before, but she was so well-spoken and intelligent, it was clear why they were such a great couple.
It was rather shocking to hear a short time later that Huizenga was withdrawing from public life because of health issues. I’d ask friends who were still in touch with him about how he was doing. I heard he was having good days and bad days. Press and I ran into him at a downtown Fort Lauderdale restaurant and he still had a twinkle in his eye.
I was pleasantly surprised to see a newspaper photo of Huizenga appearing at a Panthers game in January where he was honored as part of the team’s 25th anniversary. They retired his lucky number, 37, which came from his birth year of 1937.
Huizenga’s legacy also includes his four children—Ray, Pamela, Wayne Jr. and Scott—and 11 grandchildren.
Huizenga may be gone, but his impact on South Florida lives on.
In my 34 years of working in business journalism in South Florida, I’ve never seen the likes of another Wayne Huizenga who was successful in myriad ways. I doubt I ever will. ♦
Wayne Huizenga Timeline
• Huizenga is born in Evergreen Park, Illinois.
• Huizenga family moves to Fort Lauderdale.
• Huizenga graduates from Pinecrest High School, where he was class treasurer and played center on the football team.
• He enrolls in Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but drops out his sophomore year and moves back to Fort Lauderdale.
• Huizenga starts a six-month stint in the U.S. Army Reserve.
• Huizenga starts Southern Sanitation by borrowing $5,000 from his father, buying some accounts and getting a used truck.
• Waste Management is born after Huizenga partners with relative Dean Buntrock, whose business includes a waste-hauling company founded by Huizenga’s grandfather.
• Waste Management goes public. Also, Huizenga marries Marti Goldsby.
• Huizenga leaves Waste Management and starts buying 100 businesses in the Fort Lauderdale area.
• Huizenga’s companies have annual revenue of $100 million.
• Huizenga buys 35 percent of Blockbuster for $18.5 million with two partners when it had only eight stores and 11 franchises.
• Blockbuster becomes the world’s largest video-rental chain.
• Huizenga buys a 15-percent stake in the Miami Dolphins and their stadium for an estimated $30 million.
• Obtains Major League Baseball franchise.
• Obtains National Hockey League franchise.
• Proposes building Blockbuster Park, a 2,600-acre sports entertainment complex on the Dade-Broward border, anchored by the Marlins and Panthers.
• Blockbuster buys a 71 percent interest in Spelling Entertainment Group, which includes a 37 percent stake in Republic Pictures.
• Buys the rest of the Dolphins and stadium for $115 million.
• Sells Blockbuster to Viacom for $8.4 billion.
• Huizenga and George Johnson launch Extended Stay America hotel chain.
• Huizenga invests $64 million of his own money and raises an additional $168 million to buy Atlanta-based Republic Waste Industries, which is renamed Republic Industries as it buys car dealerships and rental car companies.
• He partners with Jim Moran, the south-eastern U.S. distributor for Toyota,to found AutoNation as a used-car superstore.
• Panthers make surprising trip to NHL championship, but lose Stanley Cup to Colorado Avalanche.
• The team’s holding company has an initial public offering, which raises $67.3 million after expenses.
• The team’s holding company also buys Fort Lauderdale’s Hyatt Regency Pier 66 Resort and Marina and the Radisson Bahia Mar Beach Resort and Marina from Huizenga, his business associates and Rahn Properties in a $125 million deal.
• Broward County commission approves plan for hockey stadium in Sunrise.
• Florida Panthers Holdings raises $68.2 million for more acquisitions, including buying controlling interest in the Registry Hotel in Naples.
• Marlins win World Series.
• Florida Panthers Holdings buys Arizona Biltmore for $288.5 million.
• Republic acquires Alamo Rent a Car.
• Republic acquires AutoNation.
• Florida Panthers Holdings buys Boca Raton Resort & Club for $325 million in stock.
• Republic buys National Car Rental, Spirit Rent-A-Car, Value Rent-A-Car, Snappy Car Rental and EuroDollar Rent A Car.
• Marlins sold to John Henry for a reported $150 million.
• Florida Panthers Holdings buys Edgewater Beach Hotel in Naples for $41.2 million.
• Republic Industries nets $1.4 billion with an IPO for its Republic Service waste disposal business.
• Republic Industries changes name to AutoNation.
• Florida Panthers Holdings renamed as Boca Resorts.
• Mike Jackson becomes AutoNation CEO.
• Panthers sold to Alan Cohen and partners for about $100 million.
• Jackson succeeds Huizenga as AutoNation chairman.
• Boca Resorts is sold to Blackstone Group for $1.25 billion.
• Huizenga is named U.S. Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young.
• Extended Stay is sold to the Blackstone Group for more than $1.9 billion.
• Ernst & Young names Huizenga World Entrepreneur of the Year.
• Huizenga sells 50 percent of the Dolphins and its stadium to Stephen M. Ross, chairman of The Related companies.
• Huizenga sells another 45 percent of the team to Ross.
• Huizenga partners with former Blockbuster and AutoNation CEO Steve Berrard to take a majority stake in Swisher Hygiene.
• Huizenga is named “Man of the Centennial” by the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society.
• Swisher sold to Ecolab for $15 million.
• Marti Huizenga dies after a 14-year battle with cancer.
• Panthers honor Huizenga by retiring jersey No. 37, which matches Huizenga’s birth year.
• Huizenga dies at his home in Fort Lauderdale after a lengthy battle with cancer.