Less heartier characters might have blanched at the work environment, but Mr. Huizenga found it invigorating. His eldest son, Wayne Jr., recalled that as a child he spent summers working in landfills for his father.
“It was a smell I grew to love,” the younger Mr. Huizenga said in an interview on Friday. “My dad would say, ‘It smells like money to me, son.’ ”
The company was worth several billion by the time Mr. Huizenga stepped back from his active role in 1984.
While it was his partner, Dean Buntrock, who is credited with the vision for a waste company with a national footprint, Mr. Huizenga was quick to internalize the lessons of that success. He saw great opportunity in businesses, like garbage hauling, that had regular customers and recurring revenue but were fragmented and undercapitalized, suggesting that consolidation could yield great returns.
Despite rarely watching movies himself, he recognized such an opportunity when he visited an obscure Chicago video store called Blockbuster in 1987. Traditional video stores were shoestring operations with minuscule offerings and a whiff of seediness. But Blockbuster was clean and inviting, and the selections seemed limitless.
He bought into the chain in 1987, when it claimed fewer than 20 stores, and helped expand it to more than 3,500 locations within seven years.
Wayne Huizenga Jr., who opened some of the first stores the company set up after the investment, recalled that his father had bought three centrally located liquor stores in South Florida and completely renovated them in the familiar Blockbuster image, with its bright lighting and large, open spaces.
Seeking to be family-friendly, the chain refused to stock films rated NC-17 (not to mention X). “Parents would thank you for not having a section their children can’t go,” Wayne Jr. said.
As Blockbuster’s prominence — and stock price — rose, Mr. Huizenga became something of a folk hero in South Florida, where, it sometimes seemed, much of the community was sharing in his wealth. Strangers would approach him to ask about the business and reveal that they owned stock.
When he decided to sell to Viacom for $8.4 billion in 1994, said Mr. Henninger, Mr. Huizenga still loved the business but felt he had no choice because of his obligation to shareholders.
By the mid-1990s, he had gained a legendary reputation among investors that sometimes outstripped his ability to deliver. The stock of companies he acquired or took public would balloon, largely on the basis of his involvement.
“I often heard him say, ‘That stock is running fast,’ ” the younger Mr. Huizenga said. “I think that put a lot of pressure on him.”
The share price of one of those companies, Republic Services, appreciated many times over in the first few years after Mr. Huizenga assumed control in 1995. Though Republic at the time was another garbage-hauling company, it became a vehicle for the conglomerate that Mr. Huizenga had set out to build. It proceeded to open a national chain of used-car stores and purchase dozens of new-car dealerships as well as a few rental car companies for good measure, among them Alamo and National.
Mr. Huizenga believed that consolidation of these different entities would unlock significant efficiencies, and that the sheer volume made possible by a national automobile retail and service business could offset its low margins.
“We were coming from Blockbuster, with huge gross margins, and he said, ‘There’s no margins here,’ ” Mr. Henninger said. “I started to agree with him. Then he said: ‘But look at the number of zeroes. If you multiply a small margin by big volume, that’s a big number, Bob.”
Even so, the automotive portion of the business, later spun off as AutoNation, struggled. In 1999, the company hired Mike Jackson, at the time the head of Mercedes-Benz in the United States, as its chief executive.
After two weeks on the job, Mr. Jackson recalled in an interview, he met with Mr. Huizenga and told him that to rationalize the business, it should sell off many pieces and focus on new cars.
“It was a moment of truth, telling Wayne we would have to do some major surgery,” Mr. Jackson said. “But he said, ‘O.K., Mike, you have my support.’ Wayne fully empowered me to do what needed to be done.”
AutoNation today is the largest pure auto retailer in the country as well as one of the most consistently profitable players in the industry.
Mr. Huizenga retired as chairman of AutoNation in 2004 but remained a major shareholder and mentor to Mr. Jackson.
As a businessman, Mr. Huizenga was famous for his brass tacks financial sense, but this same unsentimentality led to a checkered career as a sports magnate, whose portfolio included the Florida Panthers hockey team and the Miami Dolphins. He owned a World Series champion, the 1997 Florida Marlins, but began dismantling the team shortly after that triumph amid significant financial losses. He sold the team the following year.
For years after that, Mr. Huizenga was stung by criticism that he had betrayed the community with his coldblooded stewardship of its championship team. In his view, it was just the opposite: He had invested tens of millions of dollars of personal money to produce a contender and succeeded against all odds, only to see the Florida fan-base respond indifferently.
“I think that had the stands been filled every day for regular games and not at one-quarter capacity, he would have said, ‘I lost $30 million but South Florida is happy,’ ” the younger Mr. Huizenga said. “Instead, he lost $30 million and no one came. He said, ‘Wow, that hurts. I don’t understand.’ ”
Wayne Jr. said his father had believed that he was behaving honorably by unloading high-priced contracts once he had decided to sell the team, so that a new owner could start afresh and not have to play the role of bad guy for a franchise that was hemorrhaging money.
Harry Wayne Huizenga was born on Dec. 29, 1937, in Chicago to Jean and Harry Huizenga. The family moved to Florida when he was a teenager, and he graduated from Pine Crest High School in Fort Lauderdale.
He attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., but dropped out to pursue his business interests. His first marriage, to Joyce Vanderwagon, ended in divorce. His second wife, the former Martha Jean Pike, died last year.
Besides his son Wayne, Mr. Huizenga is survived by three other children, Scott, Ray and Pamela Huizenga, and 11 grandchildren.
He was a significant donor to the Republican Party and remained active in Huizenga Holdings until his death.
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