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Remebering South Florida Icon H. Wayne Huizenga

The ads began in the late 1970s in Gold Coast magazine. They were full-page, color and expensive. They looked like nothing else in the magazine. Among glossy ads for Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord and Taylor, Castro Convertibles, Autohaus Mercedes Benz, luxury condos, expensive jewelry and cruise lines were ads for a trash company. We all thought they were strange ads, and it is doubtful if any readers even took the time to read them. They were tastefully done—no pictures of garbage trucks; rather a few words about the company’s innovative leadership in its field worldwide. The only clue as to why they were appearing at all was the address of a company called Waste Management on 62nd Street in Fort Lauderdale.

 Not well known outside the business community in the 1970s, Wayne Huizenga was a household name a decade later. He and his wife, Marti, were on Gold Coast’s cover in 1995, along with one of his diversions—classic cars. Fifteen years later his reputation had grown to “Man of the Century” status.

Few made the connection at the time, but the man behind the ads had begun showing up on the social pages of Gold Coast and other publications. Not many knew who he was at the time, or realized H. Wayne Huizenga was running up the flag in his hometown. He was Waste Management.

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It seems like ancient history, and a bit hard to believe almost 40 years later, but the name Waste Management, even though it had become a Fortune 500 Company, did not mean much locally until Huizenga launched another local company that seemed to gain immediate recognition. Blockbuster Entertainment, followed closely by an unprecedented entry into the sports world, made Huizenga the most prominent business figure in South Florida. Only then did people come to appreciate the remarkable history of a man who moved to South Florida as a teenager, attended Pine Crest School, dropped out of college and started out as an entrepreneur with one trash truck, which he bought with borrowed money.

Waste Management ads seemed out of place in Gold Coast magazine in 1980. By then the Huizengas were showing up at charity functions as his philanthropic activity grew. They are shown in the mid-1970s at a Boys and Girls Club event. By the time Blockbuster ads began running in the late 1980s, South Florida was familiar with the name Huizenga.

By the time of his death in March at age 80, the man had established a legacy that has few parallels in the history of Florida. In addition to building three Fortune 500 companies, all based in the Fort Lauderdale area, and owning three major South Florida sports franchises at the same time, he had expanded into real estate and other businesses, and earned a reputation for philanthropy that has few equals. In its 2010 salute, marking Fort Lauderdale’s 100-year anniversary, this magazine called him the “man of the centennial” and could think of only Henry Flagler for comparison to his influence on the state.

It took some time to realize it, but there were interesting connections between Huizenga’s enterprises and our magazines. It begins way back in the 1950s. The company spokesman during the hectic Blockbuster rollout—and a busy man announcing new acquisitions and fending off Wall Street critics—was Wally Knief; the same man who gave me my first paying journalism work—as a high school kid covering school sports for a large Philadelphia weekly paper of which he was the editor. And one of Huizenga’s top lieutenants at Blockbuster was Bob Guerin, who had occasionally written for Gold Coast magazine, before he ever heard of Wayne Huizenga.

Bob Guerin writes movingly of his days at Blockbuster’s first office. That classic building looks like it was built by the conquistadors but actually dates only to 1979. And it happens to be the same building where Fred Ruffner housed Gold Coast magazine during his brief ownership in the early 1990s, just after Blockbuster moved on to larger quarters.

Dick Toplin was a casual acquaintance for almost 20 years, known as a top stockbroker, but what I did not know until later is that he was Huizenga’s broker who had helped take Waste Management public. Along with Bob Guerin and his son, Sean, he was an investor in Gulfstream Media Group when we reorganized in 1994. Other shareholders at the time were Jim Machen, a Boca Raton CPA who did accounting work for Huizenga, and Eric Peterson, an attorney in West Palm Beach who owned several Blockbuster stores. This reflects the strong local orientation of Huizenga’s various businesses. It is fair to say that many, if not most, of the more than 2,000 people who attended two memorial services for Huizenga were better off financially, and more than a few quite wealthy, because they either worked directly or indirectly for Huizenga, or invested in the man whose name they once mispronounced, putting the emphasis on the second syllable, rather than the first.


by Robert A. Guerin Jr.

Bob Guerin with Wayne Huizenga when he joined Blockbuster. He celebrated his new job by buying this Maus & Hoffman suit.

Bob Guerin wrote a fascinating account of going to work for Wayne Huizenga for our 2010 cover tribute when Fort Lauderdale recognized him as “Man of the Century.” Guerin had returned to Fort Lauderdale after working in Atlanta, where he had been president of Wells Fargo’s Armored Services division. He returned to Fort Lauderdale rather than transfer to Texas. Back home, friends told him Wayne Huizenga was the man to work for. So in 1987, Guerin showed up at his office without an appointment and waited for hours until he finally got an audience. He talked his way into the job of senior vice president of national development and franchising for Blockbuster. He played a leading role in Blockbuster’s first major acquisition, Major Video, which at the time was larger than Blockbuster. He was later president and chief operating officer of Republic Security Services, a division of Republic Industries, another Huizenga company.

Now retired, he splits his time between a home in the Florida Keys and an apartment in Fort Lauderdale. He reflects nostalgically on the day of his former boss’s death.

That Thursday was a sunny day for taking “Rocky” on a walk. He was determined to visit his favorite spot—a dog boutique on Las Olas Boulevard where he gets treats and baby talked to as much as is possible for a 100-pound German Shepherd. But rather than following our normal route and returning to our apartment, I wandered on down to 901 E. Las Olas Blvd., that classic Spanish-style building that is still one of the most beautiful on the street of “The Waves.”

I sat on the edge of the fountain in the shaded courtyard and wondered why I was here—where I hadn’t been for at least 25 years. I looked in the lobby, which is now a real estate office, and thought back to when I met a man who would not only change my life, but the lives of thousands. And like a sculptor, he would reshape the face of South Florida, and specifically Fort Lauderdale.

Working with his friend Terry Stiles, Wayne Huizenga rebuilt this 11-story building in what became known as Blockbuster Plaza. The company provided hundreds of downtown jobs at a time when the city needed redevelopment. As later with AutoNation, his commitment to Fort Lauderdale brought employment to many and financial rewards to numerous investors. The building is now part of Nova Southeastern University.

I looked in that corner office where H. Wayne Huizenga once put in 10 or more hours a day, six days a week. I looked at the conference room where strategy was ironed out for a company he had just acquired called Blockbuster. The same room where we often met with those seeking a franchise or expanded territory. Big names at the time came to meet and impress Wayne, people like O.J. Simpson (still doing Hertz commercials) who never got a franchise. Wayne had a nose for posers and fakes, and tolerated neither.

Looking out back at the parking lot, I could envision that big blue Mercedes parked under the tree in his regular spot. Knowing how Wayne appreciated a work ethic, everyone would try to get their cars parked before Wayne got there. Few could. One perplexed lieutenant trying to impress the boss was coming in at 7 a.m., even on the weekends. Exasperated, he asked, “Doesn’t that guy ever go home? He beats me every day.” Wayne had a great sense of humor and left his car in the lot when traveling out of town.

CPA Steve Berrard was Huizenga’s trusted advisor, important enough to warrant a cover feature in 1996.

Wayne helped save downtown by refusing to leave even though we’d outgrown 901 E. Las Olas. Instead, he had his great friend Terry Stiles gut out and rebuild the 11-story Mercedes Building into Blockbuster’s corporate world headquarters. Thus assuring the hundreds of existing and new employees would buy local real estate, and shop and dine in the revitalized downtown.

Wayne had incredible visions that could outrun everyone’s expectations. A couple of us had brought up the idea of Blockbuster sponsoring a NASCAR cup racer. We thought the demographics fit our Blockbuster Video card holder. The marketing pros, most with backgrounds working for McDonald’s, argued that the Golden Arches never did any such advertising (they do now!). But we convinced Wayne to meet with Bill France, the founder of NASCAR. Bill flew into the Fort Lauderdale airport on a corporate jet, and I took him and his son, on a Saturday, up to Wayne’s office on the 11th floor. After a few pleasantries, Wayne and “Big Bill,” as he was known, shut the door, leaving his son and me to talk about the possibilities of a race car with our blue torn ticket logo.

I had great hopes for the ongoing meeting, but those hopes were smashed like a 10-car pileup at Daytona. France came out without the smile he went in with, told his son to call the pilot and told me to take him back to the airport. It was the longest ride I’d ever taken as France was steaming. I had to ask what was wrong. “I’ll tell you what was wrong, Bob. I came down here at your request to discuss your sponsorship of a NASCAR racer. That was a false pretense because shortly after we began talking, Wayne went from a car, then to a race, and he ended up wanting to take over the entire sponsorship of the series. He wanted it to become the ‘Blockbuster Cup.’ He even said we would have to drop the cigarette (Winston) sponsorship sooner rather than later.” (They did in 2003.) Needless to say, I quickly got the Frances to their plane with no more pleasantries.

Wayne Huizenga moved to Fort Lauderdale as a teenager and played center on the Pine Crest School football team. Prophetically, he was also the class treasurer.

That was pure Wayne, taking a germ of an idea and taking it to its maximum potential. Those of us who worked with him got a world-class education in entrepreneurship such as is now offered at the Huizenga School of Business at Nova Southeastern University.

Still sitting by the fountain, I remembered watching the St. Patrick’s Day parade with Whitey Ford and others Wayne had invited to our 901 office. I thought of the humility and kindness he showed everyone in the building when he would hand out pizza at our annual Christmas party and pour cups of Moet White Star Champagne. He never lost that sense of humor. During one of our last visits, more than a year ago, he greeted my wife with her favorite quip: “Mary, I told you—you could have done better!” It was a line he liked to use with wives of his business friends. We, and I say we as in hundreds of close friends, could not have done better than having Wayne for a boss, a mentor and an example of patriotism and charitable giving back.

As Blockbuster grew at a furious pace, the name Huizenga became known to most people. But anyone who did not know him by 1990 had that void filled when he began launching big-time sports teams. Although he had been an athlete, Huizenga had not been a super fan until he became involved as an owner. Even then, he said he did it more for South Florida, which deserved the excitement of professional sports. Also, there was money to be made.

Rocky looked up at me, as much to say, “It’s time to move on; we’ve been sitting here too long.” On the way home, I saw some kids playing catch and I thought: these kids can go with their dads to hear the cracks of bats at major league games, or the slaps of pucks at NHL games, or the whistles blown by refs at Dolphins games. It’s hard to walk anywhere in Fort Lauderdale without being reminded of the enormous contributions to our lives from Wayne.

I had known Wayne was slipping, but that day I did not know he was in hospice. It was not until the next day I learned he was gone. It is not without a deep sadness that I say goodbye. What force, other than Rocky, pulled me over to 901 Las Olas on the very day our good friend slipped from the bonds of his earthly existence? One can only guess. But those of us who met him will never forget him.

Stockbroker Dick Toplin knew Wayne Huizenga since 1963 and helped him go public with Waste Management. He remained a close friend until his death in 1997. He was profiled in a financial story in Gold Coast in 1992. He later wrote an account for Gold Coast about working with Huizenga in Waste Management’s early days.
As Huizenga’s fame grew, so did that of several local influential relatives. Prominent among them was a cousin, B.J. Buntrock, a generous woman noted as the founder of Pantry of Broward. She died in 2014.