By Dorie Cox
Owning a yacht was not like H. Wayne Huizenga Sr.’s other ventures. The billionaire entrepreneur, who died March 22 at age 81, was known for rolling up businesses and building successful Fortune 500 companies.
But his 230-foot Oceanfast M/Y Floridian was different.
“The yacht was not a money-maker,” said Capt. George Whitehouse, who worked for Mr. Huizenga’s on M/Y Floridian. “The yacht was for him to be with friends and family. … The money doesn’t come close in the equation of family and friends. I think for him, that transcended money.”
South Florida knows of Mr. Huizenga through his companies – Waste Management, Blockbuster Entertainment and AutoNation; and the sports teams he founded – baseball’s Florida Marlins and hockey’s Florida Panthers, as well as football’s Miami Dolphins, which he owned for a time.
But his yacht crew knew him on a different level. When Mr. Huizenga was aboard with his family, it was less about work than making sure everyone enjoyed themselves. And, to Capt. Whitehouse’s surprise, that included his 18 crew.
“Mr. H took a personal interest in us,” he said, using one of the two nicknames Mr. Huizenga’s colleagues affectionately knew him by: “Mr. H” or “Senior.”
“That was probably the only yacht crew I know of that was upset when the owner got off the boat,” Capt. Whitehouse said. “That was so rare. We wanted them, he and [his wife] Marti, on the boat. They were so fun.”
Capt. Whitehouse, who now serves as business development director at Lauderdale Marine Center, fondly recalled his opportunity to work for Mr. Huizenga in the early 2000s as “the best experience of my life”.
Mr. Huizenga was known for hiring well and letting those people run things. Capt. Whitehouse followed that example, employing the best of the people he had met during his years in yachting. He hand-picked crew from his longtime colleagues, with an eye to personality and respectfulness. Most importantly, he made sure everyone could blend as a team. And it worked.
“I saw how Mr. H respected everyone and made you feel good,” Capt. Whitehouse said. “We all blossomed.”
Boats were most always a part of the Huizenga life, as the family had homes on the water in Fort Lauderdale and at the yacht club they built in Palm City, Florida. The boats were well-used, with destinations ranging from Nova Scotia to the Caribbean and over to the Mediterranean.
Capt. Mark Elliott met Mr. Huizenga in Mexico in the early 1970s. Mr. Huizenga was in the country for a garbage convention and rented Capt. Elliott’s small boat for fishing. When Capt. Elliott had the opportunity to work with Mr. Huizenga as a permanent captain running several of the family’s yachts, he jumped at the chance. Now a yacht sales and charter consultant at IYC, Capt. Elliott brokered the Floridian purchase.
“We flew to Barcelona, stayed for one hour, he liked it, we made a deal and flew back,” Capt. Elliott said. “Senior was a great negotiator.”
That deal hinged on the ability to add a helipad for a 12-passenger helicopter, an innovation in the industry at the time.
“It was designed to take his friends and their golf clubs,” Capt. Elliott said. “When he wasn’t using it, it was used to take guests and the crew for rides. It was all about having people share in his fun and enjoyment.”
As did the Whitehouses, Capt. Elliott witnessed throughout the years how Mr. Huizenga’s small actions had huge impacts on yacht crew.
“He called all of us ‘partner’ and he made you feel like a partner,” Capt. Elliott said. “He said ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ These actions let you know your decisions were very important.”
Another key was that Mr. Huizenga trusted people. Much of that stems from a deep part of Mr. Huizenga’s makeup.
“Let’s face it, he was the epitome of someone who never forgot where he came from and how hard he worked,” Capt. Whitehouse said.
Chief Stew and Purser Alyssa Whitehouse, wife of Capt. Whitehouse, experienced that first-hand.
“When guests are on, we are their servants and we do our job serving them,” she said. “But Mr. and Mrs. H looked at us as equals. The entire family was so sincere, so grounded and down-to-earth. Remember, Mr. H physically picked up people’s garbage, so he respected people doing any job similar to that.”
Mr. Huizenga had “a nice and gentle presence,” Capt. Elliott said.
“I think people would be surprised to know how down-to-earth he was,” he said. “He would take time to talk to a plumber or the chairman of a company. If there was a doorman, he knew his name.”
The Whitehouses give credit to Mr. Huizenga and his family for treating the crew so well, and they hope that legacy will serve as a model for other yacht owners.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think most owners give a huge importance to the relationship with the captain and crew. I don’t think they give it the importance it deserves,” Capt. Whitehouse said.
If yacht owners could see the value, they may better keep crew problems and job turnover to a minimum, he said.
“I am not sure how to teach that, but Mr. Huizenga did it day to day. He led by example his whole life,” Capt. Whitehouse said.
The Huizengas sold the Floridian sometime around 2007, and they did not buy another large yacht. The Whitehouses continued to work with the family at Rybovich, a shipyard that Mr. Huizenga purchased with his son, H. Wayne Huizenga Jr. Capt. Whitehouse became the business liaison and customer relations manager and Alyssa Whitehouse used her background to handle marketing and graphic design.
Rybovich changed the face of yachting in the Palm Beach area with a full-service marina, refit yard and facilities for crew on yachts up to 300 feet. The yard weathered the economic downturn to remain a megayacht spot.
“It was Junior’s mission,” Capt. Whitehouse said of the company CEO. “He had a vision with an open slate when the real estate market was not there. Junior is fantastic; he has the spirit of his father. I think he likes to be in this industry.”
And as with Mr. Huizenga’s love for his yacht, Capt. Whitehouse said, Huizenga Jr.’s love for Rybovich has turned it into a world-class megayacht destination.
“I don’t think other people would have put that money into it,” Capt. Whitehouse said. “I don’t think the money is as big as their passion.”
Mr. Huizenga’s passion for boating continued even after he sold M/Y Floridian and, technically, got out of yachting.
“Mr. H called me and said, ‘I got a houseboat. My captain wears suspenders, and he makes a mean hotdog,’” Capt. Elliott said. “He was happy.”
In addition to his love of life, his captains and crew said they will mostly remember Mr. Huizenga for his kindness.
“It was an honor to work for him,” Capt. Whitehouse said. “If yachting had more families like the Huizengas, that would make yachting one of the best businesses in the world.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.