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.
World Jai-Alai had become the dominant force in the sport of Jai-Alai in the 1970s and ’80s. Our company owned four frontons in Florida, one in Connecticut, and subsidized facilities in the Basque Country. Our training schools in Miami and France almost guaranteed us acquiring the top young talent in the world. Now, in 1997, that was all changing.
Having sold off the Ft. Pierce Fronton to Florida Gaming Corporation (owned almost entirely by Bennett and Benny Collett), World Jai-Alai was forced to surrender the remaining assets in order to survive. Florida Gaming Corporation now owned it all.
The corporate office, located inside Miami Jai-Alai, began to change. Richard P. Donovan, CEO, was basically out. He began spending most of his time in his side business, Creative Display, in Hialeah. Still on a consulting agreement, he was never consulted. The Colletts really had no use for Donovan once the deal was closed.
H. Paul Rico, who was titled Chief Operating Office and GM of Miami Jai-Alai, seemed to be next on the Collett’s list. But Paul being an ex-FBI agent, commanded a great deal of respect from Bennett and Benny. They were being very careful on handling his forced departure.
I had spent almost every day with Paul since my relocation to Miami. Whether it being just at lunch or the late afternoon card game, Paul was like a father to me. He was my biggest benefactor and supported me when I got into trouble myself in 1979. I couldn’t bear the thought that Paul was going to leave.
Frank Duffin, another ex-agent, was Director of Player Personnel. He occupied the office between me and Donovan. Benny seemed to rely on Frank’s ability to get the required visas for our players. It seemed Frank was going to survive the changeover.
It was now apparent to me that Benny, Jr. was going to run the operation. “Senior” was the “big picture” guy. His main responsibility as President of Florida Gaming was to keep the shareholders happy and raise more money. Bennett would definitely make the final decisions on major issues. But somehow Benny could either convince him to change his mind or countermand a decision hoping he would forget about it.
I found out how that worked when doubling the advertising budget never became a reality. In fact, after Benny told me to forget what his father had ordered, Bennett seemed to forget he had ever ordered it. What a way to start with new ownership!
But Benny really seemed like a nice guy. He relied on Dan Licciardi, Asst. GM, to help him navigate the morass of running Miami Jai-Alai. Dan became his confidante, his right hand. Benny would call him multiple times a day and all hours of the night. Benny seemed to have complete trust in him.
One day, Dan came into my office to chat. He and I had not only a close working relationship over the years but had become great friends. We were both trying to figure out our futures with the new company. I figured with Dan spending so much time with the Colletts, he had the best insight.
As I asked him about what he thought was going to happen, he said he wasn’t sure. But then Dan cryptically told me that Benny liked working directly with people. He didn’t like working with outside agencies. I said, “Are you referring to me, Martin Fleischman Advertising?” He answered, “He doesn’t like any.”
I said, “You know, I still have another year on my signed contract with World Jai-Alai. Doesn’t the new company have to abide by all past contracts?” Dan answered that they do, but there’s always a way for them to somehow get around it.
I had been a little concerned that Benny might want to make a change in advertising. But, from Senior wanting me to double it to Benny wanting an in-house agency, I was now worried that I was on my way out. I thought at least I had the comfort of a signed contract for another year.
I quickly started searching online (not for the first time) about the Colletts and their past business history. I found that they had run into past problems with banking regulators. Then, there were some SEC violations. It seemed they were not afraid of litigation. That meant, they were definitely not afraid of breaking my contract.
A few days later, I got a call from Benny who was in Ft. Pierce. On his many trips to Miami, Benny always came to my office where we had some very friendly chats. Sometimes Dan was there, too. I found him to be so down to earth, personable, and I liked him. But I knew behind his “country boy” appearance was a very shrewd, intelligent businessman.
After some friendly banter, Benny said they had been using their own people in Ft. Pierce to place the advertising, taking advantage of the commissions which went back to the fronton. He wanted to do the same at the other frontons. I asked him if he was aware of the remaining year on my contract. He was but wanted me to come back inside as an employee, be on salary, and continue as an in-house agency.
But, when he told me what my salary would be, it was a major pay cut to what I was making. He told me that was it, no negotiation. He felt it was fair and that we could have a meeting with his father the next day in Miami to finalize the details.
I asked him what would happen if I declined and chose to just finish out the year of my contract as an outside agency. He said in his off the cuff way, “I don’t think you want to do that. It would be much better if you re-joined the team.”
The next day, I sat in a meeting upstairs in Donovan’s old office where Bennett and Benny repeated the offer. I mentioned to them both that it really was a major pay cut, that I did want to continue with them. Was there anything else they could do to help in the salary adjustment.
Bennett, the CEO, started telling me that he wanted me to be part of the “inner circle.” If I came into the company, he would guarantee me stock options in Florida Gaming. Maybe as much as 250,000 shares. Again, Bennett had my eyes rolling. Stock options! Inner circle. He hooked me…. again?
I agreed but asked if we could just continue through the completion of the television spots for poker and the preliminary launch. This was only a few more months. They both agreed. I shook hands with both of them and left the office.
I had mixed emotions. I, somehow, had developed a great rapport with the older Bennett. Benny, Dan, and I seemed to be the Triumvirate of sorts, consulting on many operational decisions. Could my future suddenly be even brighter with Florida Gaming?
I was just a few months from Bennett calling me, uttering the words I had wanted to hear for more than 25 years… “Marty, we want you to become General Manager of Tampa Jai-Alai!”