I felt my heart pounding. I knew this was it. Bennett Collett, Sr., now the majority owner of World Jai-Alai, was taking over. No doubt he was going to put his own team in.
He sat across from me, having just left ex-CEO Dick Donovan’s office. I had to be first on his “hit list.” After all, I was Donovan and Rico’s man, even though I was actually now an “outside” advertising agency. But I knew the Collett’s (Bennett, Sr. and Benny, Jr.) had no use for the executives from the old regime.
Bennett now grinned at me. Florida Gaming, his company, now owned our frontons in Miami, Tampa, and Ocala. They had previously purchased Ft. Pierce Jai-Alai from us. His vision was to expand from just Jai-Alai and simulcasting to the hottest fad sweeping the country, poker.
Our two major facilities, Miami, and Tampa, had already begun construction on plush, new poker rooms. My brother Sol’s firm Fleischman, Garcia was the architect for both poker rooms. Perhaps, that agreement could be in danger, too.
Then, Bennett spoke. “Marty, what are the current advertising budgets for Miami and Tampa?” he asked. I looked at him wondering where this was going. I quickly told him, “Just over a million annually.” He leaned forward in his chair, almost without hesitation and said emphatically, “DOUBLE IT!” He quickly got up told me we’d talk more later and quickly exited my office.
I sat there stunned. Doubling the budget meant doubling our commissions. This was like someone calling you in and saying that we are doubling your salary starting tomorrow. Dollar signs were dancing in my head. Could this really be happening? Well, he was the CEO, the largest shareholder. There was no one above him. And, he said, “Double it!”
I quickly picked up the phone and called my wife, Sue. I told her about my conversation with Bennett. Could our fears about the corporate takeover be unfounded? In fact, did we just hit the jackpot? I told her we were eating steak tonight.
My euphoria was short-lived. An hour later, Bennett’s son Benny walked into my office. Benny was short, had short hair, casually dressed, and looked to me like a country singer. He was close to my age and had a very friendly demeanor. But I could tell from the beginning, you never really knew what Benny was thinking.
After some pleasantries, Benny assured me that very few changes were going to be made. He had developed a close relationship with Dan Licciardi, our Assistant GM, during the Ft. Pierce acquisition and told me that Dan thought very highly of me. That was good enough for him.
Then, he asked me what his father had said to me, knowing Bennett had been in my office first. I told him his Dad told me to double the advertising budgets. I said I was happy they were going to promote the poker room openings with major advertising support.
Benny gave a little smirk and said, “Forget about what my father said.” I was flabbergasted. Was this a game? Who was actually running the new company, Bennett or Benny? This would be the beginning of my witnessing a complex relationship between a father and son, both personally and professionally.
I asked Benny how I was supposed to disobey a directive from the CEO, the top man, the boss. Benny said, “I’ll take care of it. Just continue what you’re doing, no changes.” We shook hands and he left. I called Sue back and told her to forget about steak, we were back to chicken that night.
This began my whirlwind relationship with the new owners, the Collett family and Florida Gaming. Benny was going to oversee the day-to-day operations in Miami, while still maintaining a presence in Ft. Pierce. I think he preferred the small town feel of Ft. Pierce and tried to go back as often as possible. Dan Licciardi, being the most knowledgeable manager, became his trusted right hand in the entire operation.
Benny seemed to have no further use for Richard P. Donovan, past CEO for World Jai-Alai. Though Dick negotiated a consulting agreement worth $1 million over a five year period, he was rarely consulted. Not that he wasn’t willing.
Donovan had told me he was sure the Collett’s would find his knowledge of lobbying in Tallahassee invaluable. He was certain they would need his help with the players. Donovan, being extremely arrogant and self-important, did not fit in with the Collett culture. They never called him about anything!
Donovan felt compelled to call them periodically to offer his help. He kept notes and a log of his willingness to assist, to live up to the agreement. In the end, he would need it because it took some litigation to get the full amount of his consulting contract. I would find this to be the modus operandi of the Collett’s. Any agreement or commitment could be broken.
Bennett, always referred to as “Senior” by Benny, would pop in, spend some time at the fronton, and then fly back to his Freedom Financial corporate office in Indiana, across the bridge from Kentucky. Bennett did take a very active role in the construction and design of the poker rooms. Some influence, though, did come from a woman that accompanied him on many of his trips to Miami, Linda Dornbush.
Linda, quite a bit younger than the senior Collett, was a very nice woman. I could sense her discomfort on her trips to Miami, seemingly in an unofficial business capacity. It was obvious that she was Bennett’s girlfriend, though always claiming they never shared a hotel room. I liked Linda. Both were divorced so there was really nothing wrong with them having a relationship. But, the perception from others that she was merely there, giving advice on the design and furnishings, only because she was Bennett’s girl had to be perplexing for her.
Then, there was Benny. Benny was fairly close in age to Linda. You could sense some complications there between them. No doubt jealousies existed, and I almost felt that we were in the middle of some complex family tensions. I was trying to navigate this but had difficulty knowing whether to listen to Bennett or Benny. It all went back to that first conversation where Bennett said, “Double it!” and Benny quickly countermanded the order.
Construction proceeded and the poker rooms began to take shape. High hopes were riding on the $10 Pot Limit Texas Hold’em games to be offered since poker was now being featured on ESPN. Big Texas Hold’em tournaments were being held around the country. Hopefully, this would stem the decline in our revenues and give a major boost to profits.
As we trained poker dealers and I was in the middle of producing our first poker commercials, I received a call from Benny. He was sitting at his desk in Ft. Pierce. After some casual conversation, he hit me with a stinging proposition, one that would force me to think about an early retirement. Bennett’s proposal before was a dream. Benny’s, a nightmare.