Photo: Scott Wiseman
Iconic Florida developer H. Irwin Levy
[Attorney, Century Village developer, West Palm Beach; age 88]
I worked my way through college as a mechanic, but I don’t work on cars anymore. They’re too complicated. I can’t even raise the hood on a car with all the electronics. I can still drive one and tell you what’s wrong with it, but I wouldn’t have any idea how to fix it.
My father was a pipeline welder. He took a management job one time. That lasted about 60 days. I never will forget. He came home and he broke down and cried at the dinner table. He said, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t manage people. I don’t want to correct them. I don’t want to fire them. I just want to do what I do best.’ He really was tremendously skilled. I learned so much from him. He could make anything. He could take a piece of steel and make chicken salad out of it.
I always say this about any industry: You’re really just in the people business.
You demonstrate your integrity and make sure your people don’t take advantage of the consumer in any manner. Sure, you’re expected to make a profit, but you do it in an honorable way.
Management, I learned in the Navy. The military is a great place to learn.
In the sales game, you might be talking to a 24-year-old or a 74-year-old. The successful salespeople learn how to make that transition. You have to be cognizant all the time.
The Minnesota Twins, the Texas Rangers and the Oakland A’s — those were the three teams that we were involved with (from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, while trying to bring a Major League Baseball franchise to Tampa Bay). We had contracts with two of them. I don’t want to throw rocks, but it seems to me the integrity of the people involved — at least at that time — they were not honorable. It was devastating to me. After we were cast aside, that was the end of it. I could not read a sports page for probably two years. We had been assured. I had done everything they asked. It was hard. I never have seen a baseball game since. Nor will I.
Like most people, I thought that, well, the government pays for everything at state universities. But then I learned that’s not the case. When you look at what the states give to higher education, it continues to dwindle. I believe in public education very strongly, so we just started getting involved (giving to the University of South Florida), and it evolved from there.
A leader has to set the example. You’ve got to be the things that you say you want.
I’m very concerned that we have such a partisan Legislature, both the Senate and the House, that legislators are not listening to the people.
I ultimately was asked to go on the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That probably happened in 1975, give or take. I became chairman of the board in 1985. President Carter, President Reagan, President Ford, President Bush, yes I was fortunate to have somewhat of an acquaintance with all of them. I never felt I was in a room with aristocracy. I was never in awe. There never was a feeling of being overwhelmed. You just felt like you were talking to an average guy on the street. All those presidents operated that way.
The transaction price of a car today is very high. Honestly, everybody wants these bells and whistles and you gotta pay for them.
It was 1981. I got a call from Toni Jennings, who was president of the state Senate at the time. I never had met Toni Jennings. She said, ‘I want to ask you to be on this Constitutional Revision Commission.’ I said, ‘why?’ So, anyway, I agreed to do it, and it was a wonderful experience. Everybody on there, for the most part, there were no real agendas. People were very pragmatic. We did a great job of getting public input. To the people who will serve on the next commission, be open-minded and look to the future. That’s what we tried to do.
We have 20 million people in Florida. Our government has so many demands on it that our state cannot support what needs to be supported. The private sector has to step up.
I recommend this to a lot of company owners. My secretary and I always open all the mail in the company. We didn’t have someone else open the mail. It’s amazing what you learn when you open the mail.
Education is a continuum. You’re never through, if you want to succeed.
I’ve had about 30 dealerships. We never sold Chevrolet or Cadillac. I think everything else, we sold. It didn’t make any difference. Iron is iron. We were selling iron.
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