“Peter Burns, Serial Entrepreneur….a Legend In His Own Mind”
(An Unauthorized Autobiography)
My name is Peter Burns and I’m an entrepreneur. There are many that claim that appellation, especially in these days of corporate distrust but I’m one of those that truly “walk the walk.” Born into a decidedly “corporate family” to my father, who could have been the composite character of today’s hit series, “Mad Men” and to my mother, the fearless homemaker complete with the prerequisite station wagon, I was raised in arguably, the wealthiest and preppiest town in the country, New Canaan, Connecticut.
Before moving to New Canaan, I was born in Rumson, New Jersey, (of which I have little memory) and then transported to the beautiful northern Chicago suburb of Barrington. There, I attended a private Catholic school, swam in Honey Lake and accompanied my dad on the golf course in the Spring and tobogganed in the Winter at the Biltmore Country Club. My earliest memories of my entrepreneurial bent occurred at our country club at the tender age of 6 or 7.
While walking the course with my dad, I noticed how many bad golfers there truly were. I also noticed that many duffers, while trying to soar over the water holes to hit the green, invariably lost their shiny and expensive new balls in the drink Few, if any, ever even tried to retrieve their balls. My mind quickly grasped the opportunity for profit.
I surmised that if I set up the proverbial lemonade stand off to the side of the water hole that captured the most golf balls, I could wade into the lake and retrieve their golf balls selling the duffers back their balls and a cup of overpriced lemonade. This would represent a veritable bonanza to this 6 or 7 year old. Putting together my little table, thermos, cups and ice, and outfitted with my shorts and well worn sneakers that I didn’t mind getting wet and dirty, I set up shop early one morning at our country club.
The traffic was great, the plan worked flawlessly and soon “my cup runneth over,” so to speak. The golfers thought my little venture was “cute” and they were happy to pay less than half price ($.50) for their $1.25 golf balls that they hit into the lake. Add a cup of lemonade and I made a quick $1 per customer…taking in a fortune my first day of around $50, including tips!
Unfortunately, my first little venture in entrepreneurship ended as quickly as it began when the Biltmore Country Club guardians saw my little operation and asked my father to please remove me from the course as what I was doing was expressly forbidden, especially for the children of the members! Red faced (but I think still proud of my ingenuity) my dad picked me up at the course on my 2nd or 3rd day of operation and my 1st venture was merely a memory as I moved on to bigger and better things.
At the age of 9, my father’s job, advertising on Madison Avenue in New York, took us to New Canaan, Connecticut. We moved into an even more grand home, custom built especially for our family by a renowned builder, complete with every boy’s dream of being surrounded with acres of woods to explore and large neighborhoods filled with other children. Our home in Barrington had been quite isolated with no neighborhood, per se and the private education was limiting in socialization with my peers. My parents moved us to New Canaan, primarily because the public school system was so good…and I was terrified. As a private school kid, we had always heard about the wildness of public school kids and “townies’ as they were called. I couldn’t have been farther off, when I experienced the New Canaan public school system.
Quickly assimilating into “mainstream New Canaan,” I was exposed to a degree of wealth and sophistication I had never seen before. Everyone I met seemed to come from a prominent family with great wealth. I learned the distinction between “old money” and “new money“, which was very looked down upon. Our beautiful English Manor house of three floors and 8,000’ paled in comparison to some of my classmates’ residences. I learned of skiing in Zermatt and“summering” at Dark Harbor and Nantucket . In short, I was exposed to a lifestyle that I had never even heard of before…and I liked it!
We joined an even fancier country club called Woodway in Darien. There was even a beach club on Shippan Point on Long Island Sound in Stamford, which was a great place to hang out during the long summer days. I learned to golf, play tennis and swim competitively. My new peer group consisted of scions from such family dynasties as the Watsons of IBM and the nephew of the infamous billionaire financier, George Soros. Peter Soros became my best friend. Kit Watson became one of my biggest customers for my first entrepreneurial venture at Saxe Junior High School at age 12 or 13. After three years in elementary school, I felt very comfortable with both the public school habitat and my classmates. I liked New Canaan, with all of it’s privileges and sensed great opportunity. I didn’t know what yet but I knew in my DNA that I could make a lot of money in my new environment.
At Saxe Junior High School I discovered my first entrepreneurial opportunity in New Canaan.. Everyone wanted candy and gum and would pay far more than it would cost at a store, if they could buy it with their lunch money while at school. Breslow’s, the local drugstore was less than a half mile from school and I figured out that I could slip out during my morning study hall and fulfill the “orders” for gum and candy that I had taken at homeroom. During lunch, money would exchange hands for gum balls and liquorices and I would triple my investment. Kit Watson, one of the heirs to the IBM fortune, actually paid me $5 for purple gum balls that cost me $.25!
Moving on to New Canaan High School, reportedly the country’s most advanced and costly high school ($10MM in 1970 dollars) brought me to bigger and better entrepreneurial ventures. Of course, at first I started with the “tried and true” lawn cutting business. First, I convinced my dad to let me “save” him the money for paying for an outside lawn service to cut the two acres of our own grass by purchasing our own tractor and mower. In exchange for letting me use the equipment to cut other people’s lawns for extra money, I’d do our own lawn for free. This worked out pretty well but there had to be a way to work smarter, so I would line up new jobs, negotiating the price and “sell” that job to other lawn cutting entrepreneurs, who would take less for the work, allowing me to keep the spread. At one time, I believe I serviced a dozen of our neighbors through my selling and outsourcing strategy.
As a sophomore in high school, I noticed that other members of my wrestling team were constantly talking about “getting laid” with their girlfriends on the weekends. What I also heard was their terror of getting their girls pregnant and their challenge of buying condoms from the local pharmacy without running into one of their parents’ friends or worse, having the pharmacist report their activity to their parents. Remember, New Canaan was a small town and this was in the early 70s. We missed the “free love” era because of the uber-conservative stature of America’s elite capitalists in our town, so buying rubbers freely as a teen was not an option.
I sensed yet a new opportunity and quickly came up with a plan. Doing my R&D, I discovered a mail order company called “Adam & Eve” that offered any number of choices of condoms that could be purchased in bulk and shipped in a discreet package. I priced out the cost of condoms at the local pharmacy, comparing the wholesale cost I could buy them from the mail order house, quickly doubled the retail cost and ended up with a 300% - 400% markup to my wrestling peers from the get go. The word got out and I had all of the athletes buying rubbers from me. It was hilarious…and profitable too.
In my junior and senior years at New Canaan High, I was able to expand my entrepreneurial endeavors into the art of entertaining. Starting first at our beautiful home in New Canaan, where my room actually encompassed the entire basement floor, complete with fireplace and pool table, I would hold poker parties, with entry fees…beer provided, of course. My parents, looked the other way and as long as I kept the noise down and enforced the no drunk driving rules (we let everyone crash and took their car keys), all was fine. The “house”, me, kept a % of the action and the entry fee to gamble. It became a nice little income stream but I wanted more…the story of my life.
Who doesn’t remember the ever-present keg party in high school? Remember paying $5 just to get in and drink a few plastic cups of warm beer from a single keg while the crowds pressed around you? Well, I thought of a bigger and better way to this scenario and to use my parents beach club on the Long Island Sound as the venue. I surmised that if I put together a full fledged beach party, complete with lots of ice cold beer, food (hamburgers and hot dogs) and live entertainment, I could charge $15 or $20 per head and make it exclusive…invitation only. I surmised that people would knock themselves out trying to get invited to pay me money. I was so right.
“Boogie At The Beach” became one of the most infamous traditions at NCHS from 73-74 in which literally 1000 classmates at the last party (there were a couple each year) paid me up to $20 to come to my parties. We were up to 27 kegs of beer, with literally hundreds of hamburgers and hot dogs served by our volunteer staff and entertained by such rock ‘n roll bands as “Fisted Glove” and even “Marshall Tucker.”
All guests leaving the party who were driving were required to repeat the phrase “The rugged rascal ran around the ragged rock” three times and enunciated perfectly to our hired off-duty police officers at the gate, before they could leave. We confiscated their keys and sent for a cab if they couldn’t and I’m proud to say that there was never an injury to any of our party goers. Looking back, this was an unexplainable miracle. Each party netted me between $5000 and $7500...which to a 16 or 17 year old was a lot of cash….but I still yearned for the big time.
You see, looking back one now, one of my primary motivations must have been that while I was definitely from an upper class background and lifestyle, I simply wasn’t up to the level of some of my wealthier peers. Since I couldn’t rewrite my family’s lineage and financial success, I was going to have to make it on my own…which I was hell bent on doing. Now, let me give you a little back story information that few people, even in my own family know. The Burns clan actually did have every bit as much money and power as my New Canaan classmates at one time…but the whims of a love affair erased that. Let me share…
As I mentioned earlier, I was born in New Jersey and both sides of my family on my mother ‘s and father’s were raised there. My mother’s family on her father’s side, had emigrated from Germany in the late 1800’s and anglicized their name from von Brieg to Briegs. Later in life I learned that the von Briegs were from Prussia with a royal lineage of a Herzog (equivalent to a Duke) or two dating back some 900 years. I always knew I was royal! My mother’s mother was from a nice Irish family, referred to as “Lace Curtain” Irish. On my father’s side, his father was of Scottish heritage and my grandmother was pure Irish. Nothing distinguishing in their backgrounds except my grandfather’s uncanny ability to make money…and a lot of it.
Grandad worked at Sterling Drug for 35 years, always refusing the presidency of the company. He liked to sell and to travel, he said and riding a desk was not his idea of having fun. In later years, we would learn why. My dad and his brother lived a very nice lifestyle. They went to prestigious prep school at Peddie and lived in a palatial estate once owned by the original “Godfather” Vito Genovese.
You see, the Burns and Genovese clans attended the same Catholic parish in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. Vito and Grandad knew and liked each other (don’t ask me why) and when Vito had the need to show a legitimate source of cash (for an IRS problem or divorce issue) he came to my dad to buy his estate. Even back in the 50s, Vito’s place, high up on a cliff overlooking the bay, with the main house boasting a living room on the second floor that could hold a couple of hundred people, a dining room whose table sat 100 comfortably, a guest house, what appeared to be sentry towers at the front gate and even an apartment house that served as housing when the Don’s foot soldiers “went to the mattresses,” …..the place was worth millions. Grandad gave Vito his requested $100,000 in cash and that’s how our family bought the Godfather’s mansion.
In any case, my grandfather accumulated an enormous sum of stock and options in his company and upon retirement, he’d have to exercise those options and sell lots of stock to pay Federal taxes on the gains to the IRS. My grandfather deeply detested the IRS and loathed having to pay the exorbitant taxes on his stock. Then, an opportunity to screw the IRS came up….
If you can remember, the 70s were tumultuous times with OPEC flexing its muscles and causing gas shortages and long lines in the U.S. As a way to stimulate gas and oil exploration in the U.S., the Feds instituted a program that allowed a 7 to 1 write off for all U.S. taxpayers to invest in U.S. drilled oil and gas projects. Grandad, hoping to screw the IRS, rolled the dice and put every dime of his 35 years of accumulated stock earnings into a wild cat oil man by the name of Ewell Patrick. However, instead of screwing the IRS and wiping out any of his gains by a factor of 7, Mr. Patrick actually hit 7 straight wells, making a veritable fortune for my grandfather, some 40 plus years ago. Grandad’s earnings topped $50MM (1970s dollars), and Patrick Petroleum became one of the biggest independent oil companies in the U.S. and actually making it to the big time being listed on the NYSE.
Now, of course, the money belonged to Grandad but he was nothing if not generous to our family and Uncle Dick’s family and we all received generous gifts all the time. It was kind of understood that Grandad’s millions would trickle down to his seven grandchildren (including yours truly) on a generation skipping trust, with my dad and uncle receiving a lifetime income…or something along those lines. In this budding capitalist’s little mind, that added up to the nice round sum of $7 million heading my way someday.
Meanwhile, I continued to think up new business ideas, which were getting bigger and better, letting my future inherited fortune remain somewhere in the background. And stay in the background it did because upon my dear grandmother’s death at the age of 75, having been married to Grandad for 50 years, my grandfather took a cruise to Greece and several weeks later announced to his family that he had made the woman of his dreams an “honest woman” and was now re-married. To say we were all shocked was one of the greater understatements of all time.
Unbeknownst to our family, Grandad had kept a mistress for over 47 years, having fallen in love with a mere 17 year old girl when he was a 37 year old traveling salesman for Sterling Drug. This affair, lasting until he married her when she was 64 and he was nearly 85 was truly a love story. Chris (who became my step grandmother) was a lovely woman and didn’t even know that my grandfather was married for the first five years together but by then she was too deeply in love to leave. Through the rest of their affair, my grandfather moved Chris to neighborhoods two streets over from where the Burns family lived and when he retired to Florida, he moved Chris two floors above where he and my grandmother lived in a vaulted high rise in Ft. Lauderdale.
Only two years after making Chris an “honest woman,” Grandad passed away and his fortune dispersed through a change of his will to Chris’ extensive family and her loved ones. The notation to the will regarding Dad and Uncle Dick (and the grandchildren) was simply that we’d all been well taken care of during my grandfather’s lifetime. Oh well…one lesson learned…count on nothing!
Which brings me to my point of being self reliant and paving the way for yourself is really the only way You can‘t count on anything but yourself.. So, I came up with something even bigger and better than throwing beach parties while in high school.
Although I didn’t partake in smoking marijuana, save for the few experimental times all teenagers experience, I couldn’t help but notice the enormous commerce being generated in the sale of weed at our high school. The sources of buying ounces of marijuana appeared to be limited to a small group of dealers, mostly stoned out wannabe hippies more interested in paying for their own supply than actually making a profit. Again, I sensed an opportunity.
Since even the dealers knew me from my “Boogie At The Beach” parties, I had street cred with them when called for a meeting. Around a half a dozen of the school’s largest dope dealers met with me and I outlined a plan that could make us all a lot of money. I suggested a co-op, if you will, of ordering marijuana in bulk and distributing through the channels to each of the dealers there at a much lower price than they were currently buying for. Since the dealers weren’t fiscally savvy (they never had any real money), I’d earn my part by lending the co-op the money to make the buys and charge interest when my principal was out to them. In this way, they could buy more pot, make more profit and I could make money on the “juice.” Already, I was leveraging my earnings from condoms and beach parties into loan sharking…so to speak.
I made it very clear that aside from fronting the cash and collecting interest as a “financier,” I wanted absolutely nothing to do with the drug trade. I didn’t want to ever see it or touch it…I just wanted to collect the interest on funding my new “friends‘‘” business interests. They agreed, we started small and soon I was earning over $600 per week in interest alone from this enterprise.
To this day, I cannot believe my patents never questioned me on how I could drive a different car every week (courtesy of a National car agent who took cash under the table) and eat at nicer restaurants than they did. My room was off limits, as any teenager’s should be and I was always entertaining one more beautiful young lady after another, often being shuttled around by limo, even at the tender age of 16 and 17. Ah, life was grand…
Well, high school ended and my parents decided, very reasonably, I might add, that young Peter wasn’t quite ready for college. My grades and the fact that I barely graduated from high school reflected that, so we decided that I’d take a year off before going back to school. I wasn’t thrilled but reasoned that I could continue to have great fun and then choose the next course for my life. Besides, my lackluster academic performance in high school, I really wasn’t going to get into the higher quality school like my dream school, the University of Virginia or one of the Ivies that I had aspired to but had chosen not to work for…a pattern of my life, unfortunately. Surely something would come my way, I reasoned.
I went to work at Bob’s Sports, practically an institution in good old New Canaan. Everyone who was anyone shopped there from Fairfield County. I saw Steve McQueen, Allie McGraw, Jack Paar and many titans of the corporate world and their offspring. Like everyone else from New Canaan, I bought my clothes from Bob’s Sports, so I reasoned that my paycheck and employee discount would go even farther to improving my wardrobe. I was rather a dandy back then, more concerned with how I looked than the person wearing the clothing. Anyway, I thought a year in a “holding pattern” at Bob’s Sports could not hurt my future plans.
At Bob’s Sports, I met an ex-professional pitcher named Guy. He has been on the Pittsburgh Pirates until injured and now he worked at Bob’s Sports alongside me but his real vocation was professional gambling. Like most gamblers he knew bookies as well as loan sharks, two elements I’d had no experience with. Since I always seemed to have money (in Guy’s eyes) he assumed I was vested in outside business interests, which was true. He told me repeatedly that if I ever needed some quick cash to transact my business (I never told him what I did) he could get it for me from his pal Ernie. I always politely passed on Guy’s offer, until the deal of my life came up,
Do you remember my telling you of my best friend in 5th grade, Peter Soros, nephew of the billionaire George Soros? Well, after elementary school, Peter had gone away to private school until ostensibly being thrown out of Exeter and returning to New Canaan High School as a junior. We renewed our friendship but private school had changed him. I think he’d gone over to the dark side a little but we still enjoyed each other’s company. Peter graduated from NCHS and went off to join the first class accepting men at Vassar College. How cool was that, I thought? We kept in touch and I promised I‘d visit.
Peter had kept up his love for gambling and his healthy trust fund allowed him to cover his occasional losses. However, like most trust funds, payouts came either quarterly or semi-annually and at Vassar, Peter had gotten deeply in gambling debts with the wrong sort. Since I was Peter’s richest friend, he reached out to me for help. Unfortunately, all of my money was out on the street, tied up in product that I had purchased for my dealer network. I thought hard on how I could help my friend and then I came up with a plan.
What if, for the first time, I actually took possession of an order of marijuana, that was purchased at my wholesale rates and then retailed out myself, with all the requisite profits coming my way? What if I broke down the pounds of product into ounces and marketed then at the higher college prices that I could get at Peter’s school through his own connections? I could make a bundle and not only help Peter but have a much quicker and bigger gain. One problem remained…where would I get the cash to make the buy?
That problem quickly resolved itself with a friendly chat with my ex-baseball player friend with the Mob loan shark connections. Guy arranged for me to borrow $14,000 at the heady 50% interest payback in two weeks for the sum total of $21,000. To a skinny little 17 year old , some 38 years ago…this was a very large financial transaction. In today’s numbers, I was a mere teenage boy doing a $100k with the Mafia. Nice…
So, I bought 100 pounds of the finest Columbian weed @ $140 a pound and proceeded to bag up 1600 ounces on the pool table in my bedroom. The heady aroma made me so stoned, it made weighing out, packaging and counting 1600 individual ounces a tedious affair. However, I couldn’t help thinking of the sheer profits from the $80,000 I’d earn in gross income (1600 x $50 per ounce), less the $21,000 in costs ($4k plus $7k interest) for a gross net of $59,000! One deal and I could retire…so to speak.
Peter and made plans. I was finally going to make that trip to see him, at Vassar and this time with a boatload of future profits along for the ride. I rented a big white van from my guy on the take at National Car Rental and carefully made my trip to Vassar College across the New York border from Connecticut. I wasn’t too worried because I was only 17, a minor in the eyes of the law, so if I was caught I wouldn’t do actual jail time, I reasoned. But fate had an even more twisted path for me for this venture, which I would soon learn.
Peter and I partied like rock stars with the lovely coeds. I returned home after the weekend with visions of riches dancing in my head. I had made a deal with Peter to move all of the pot through his own sources, take the money he needed to pay off his gambling debts and give me the rest of the cash. The market for selling pot in college was much higher than high school so my returns were expected to be better then I had originally calculated. Peter could get out of his tricky situation and pay me back when his next trust fund check came in. I could pay off the Mob lender and have plenty of cash to coast on. It was a perfect plan but you know the old saying…“How do you make God laugh(?) make plans.“ Well, God was certainly laughing this time.
Two nights later I was dining at Fat Tuesday’s an upscale dining spot and bar in downtown New Canaan, when there was an urgent call for me. They plugged in the phone at my table (just like they used to do at 21 in New York) and I heard Peter’s strained voice say “The pots all gone.” I thought he had meant that he had sold it all and much quicker than we had anticipated but sadly he corrected me and said it had all been stolen from his room. Apparently, at a small school, we had attracted the wrong type of attention and were robbed. Needless to say my date ended abruptly and I went into survival mode.
I had a $21,000 bill due to a Mob loan share in a week and all of my money was on the street loaned out. My richest friend was busted til his next trust fund check. Where was I going to come up with the cash? I went out to all of my dealer network and started calling in my loans to little avail. I wracked my brains and tried every way to manufacture the cash but I was at the end of my rope…perhaps literally. In desperation, I eyed my family’s heirloom silver and in several pillowcases hauled off the tea sets and candelabra, taking a train to New York, pawned them all at a 5th Avenue pawn shop, famous for the bailing out the landed gentry down on their luck. By the way, I got hardly anything for our family heirlooms.
At Grand Central Station, I placed a call home from a payphone and my mother answered. The first words out of her mouth were “Peter, did you take the silver out to be cleaned?” My silence was deafening and her next words chilled me to the bone. “Your father will be here waiting for you.”
That train ride back from Grand Central Station to “The Last Station To Heaven,” as New Canaan’s stop was named, felt the ride to Hades. Dad and I loved each other but neither parent had any idea of who I really was and what I’d been doing. It’s like I lived a double life. Well, now I was going to have to “man up” and tell the whole, sordid story of what I’d been up to.
Dad and Mom were waiting for me in the den. The other three kids were asked to avoid that side of the house or face death. Dad was in his chair, mother to his side and I was propped up on the front leaning forward from an armchair across from them both. Almost without taking a breath, I started telling my “story.” I shared everything, from the selling of condoms to financing drug sales at high school. I wondered aloud how they never seemed to notice how much money I had, the new cars drove and the fancy restaurants I ate at. How could they not notice my wardrobe, which took up more space than most of the other children’s bedrooms, I asked? Finally, I told them of my “big deal” and how I was going to “retire” from my nefarious ways and start fresh at college in the Fall….paying for everything myself with the profits.
I shared the gritty details of how Peter Soros got into trouble and asked for help and I came to his aid. That didn’t score many points because my parents never actually liked Peter since the time we first became friends in the 5th grade. Then, I told mom and dad how I got the $14,000 to make the buy, split up the pounds into ounces and drove to Vassar College, where I had assumed, wrongly in fact, that it would be sold at great profit. I recalled the horror of learning that it was stolen and how I now owed $21,000 to a no-neck Mob loan shark that was due in a week. I told him of my desperate efforts to dig up the cash, including my latest move of desperation carting their wedding silver to the NewYork pawn shop.
My father was eerily quiet, never a good sign and when he spoke he said, clearly and forcefully….”I am going to give you the $14,000 to repay your debt but I refuse to pay one dime of interest to those bloodsuckers. You got yourself into this pretty mess, now you get yourself out of it.” He continued, ‘Now give me the damn pawn ticket so I can get your mother’s silver out of hock.”
I was chagrined but determined to make the best of a terrible situation. Ok, I had the mobster’s cash, all $14,000 of it and on time, as agreed. However, I didn’t have the $7,000 in “juice” which was surely not a good thing since what would his street rep be if a mere kid stiffed him? Who else would be inclined to repay my mobster buddy if he didn’t make an example of me? I started to envision being on a walker for life…or worse. I had to figure out something. I had to have a plan….so a plan I made.
Calling upon my jock buddies from the lacrosse and football teams, I picked a half a dozen of the biggest brutes and offered to cover their night at drinking at my local hangout, Fat Tuesday’s. All they had to do was to start a fight so the cops would come if it looked like my “business” meeting wasn’t working out. We had a prearranged signal to let them know I was in trouble and to call in the cavalry. I set the meeting with Guy and Ernie, arranging for my friends to get there earlier. I arrived, noting that my friends were positioned strategically between the mobster and the door going out. I had my “story” down pat and now had to play the hand that was dealt me…
Keeping my best poker face, I greeted Guy and Ernie and sat between them. Not given to chit chat I said that I had some good news and some bad news. I reached into the breast pocket of my blazer and handed Ernie an envelope filled with the $14,000 in hundred dollar bills saying, “The good news is, I have your money. The bad news is that I don’t have your interest.” I proceeded to tell them my well rehearsed story of being busted by the cops a drug deal gone bad and losing everything but because I was a minor, being given the choice to join the Army instead of going to jail. I told them I was able to scrounge up the money to pay Ernie back is $14,000 but not enough to pay back the extra $7,000. All of this was untrue but (hopefully) believable.
On the surface, they seemed to buy into my tale of misfortune but when they asked me to leave the fancy place we were at and to go to one of their dives in New York, I was feeling pretty damn scared. I tried not to show my concern as we stood and got ready to leave. There I was, skinny necked little Peter between a former professional athlete and a tough no-neck mobster getting to ready to go off to God knows where. I saw the look of confusion on the faces of my so-called jock friends. I nodded to them, effectively waving them off and decided to take my chances. After all, my dad had said, you got yourself in this mess, now get yourself out of it.
We drove in Ernie’s big black Cadillac, right out of the movie set of Goodfellas and to a bar that hadn’t seen a preppie from Fairfield County …ever. It was dark, everybody seemed to know each other and there were a whole lot of guys like Ernie,that looked right out of the Sopranos TV series. We closed the joint and as we wended our way back to get my car behind Fat Tuesday’s, Ernie leaned over before I got out of the car saying, “Peter, we bought your story but if we find out that you bullshitted us, we know where your family lives.” That was the last straw for this chapter in my life,
At 7 o’clock the next morning, only 4 hours later, I dragged my very surprised father out of bed and enlisted for a four year term in the United States Army at the closest enlistment center in Norwalk, Connecticut. I needed my dad to be with me because I was underage. I didn’t say anything about my life altering decision except to a few close friends and I was off to Ft. Polk, Louisiana in the height of summer for my Basic Training and AIT as a new Infantry recruit for the next 4 months. Ft. Polk, located in the “garden spot” of the swamps of Louisiana near the Texas border is described as the “only hole above ground” with mosquitoes big enough to rape turkeys. Both sayings were dead on.
To say that joining the Army after coming from the privileged background from which I had so foolishly taken for granted was a shock…is a gross understatement. Leaving the enclaves of a country club lifestyle, with no bigger problem facing me than which lovely to seduce (except for the whole mobster loan sharking thing, of course) and being dropped into the harsh reality of Infantry training as the Viet Nam War was ending was jarring. I endured the most brutal physical and mental treatment of my life at the hands of the fearsome drill sergeants and fellow soldiers who simply didn’t appreciate my rapier wit. Four months in the soul-less bayous of Louisiana in the dead heat of summer was either going to put me into the best shape of my life or kill me. Lucky for me, it was the former.
Along the way, a miraculous thing happened. It seems that when I joined the Army, the draft had already ended and we were in the “All Volunteer Army” phase. As a result, the quality of recruits had plummeted because we didn’t get the draft’s cross section of before and my entrance tests qualified me as a shining star among my fellow volunteers.
While my grades in school were never indicative of my intelligence (my IQ measured 153), my test scores did and I aced nearly every standardized test I’d ever taken. My test taking skill held true especially well in my Army entrance tests and because the results were graded on a bell curve, I was literally at the very top. I had also done very well during my 4 months of training and had even been selected for the elite Ranger training. What happened next changed my life….yet again.
I was called out of formation one day at Ft. Polk and ordered to go to our Company Commander, Captain Dobb’s office. Captain Dobb was a “Mustang, “ that is an enlisted man who received a battlefield promotion to Officer status. He had been an accomplished warrior in Viet Nam and piloted an Apache copter in many firefights. I had no idea why I was being called to go to this formidable man’s office.
It turns out that I had a phone call that had been routed to the Captain’s office…from the sitting Governor of Connecticut, Ella Grasso. Unbeknownst to me, I had been awarded one of the two annual Secretary of the Army Appointments to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Because I was a Connecticut resident, Governor Grasso had been notified and was calling in her congratulations. My Company Commander, suitably impressed congratulated me as he dismissed me to return to my unit. The next few days were a whirlwind of activity for me, with me being called out of formation time and again, first for Congressmen Ron Sarasin and Abe Ribicoff and then even U.S. Senator Lowell Weicker….all offering their congratulations for the honor bestowed upon me. In the swamps of Louisiana, I had become a bit of a celebrity and I noticed that my fellow soldiers, the Non-Coms and Officers alike giving m a great deal of respect.
It was so ironic…I hadn’t even applied for an Academy Appointment, yet the circumstances of my joining the Army at just the right time opened up that door. As they say, timing is everything. My training was sped up so I could graduate early, my Ranger training put on hold and I was mustered out. After a short leave back home I would be shuttled up to the United States Military Academy Preparatory School (USMAPS) at Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey to prepare for the next class at West Point.
As I was ushering out of Ft. Polk, I went to my Company Commander’s office for the last time and he proudly told me that I was the very first graduate in the 100 year history of Ft. Polk to win an Appointment to the U.S. Military Academy. .After congratulating me for the fine military career that that lay ahead for me, starting with the West Point Appointment, Captain Dobbs shook my hand and looking me in the eye, quietly asked if I could get him transferred to Ft. McClellan, Alabama. Apparently, my newly bestowed celebrity and the high level notables calling me out of formation had somehow convinced my Captain that I was someone to be reckoned with and could use my formidable influence to help him with his desired transfer. What a joke(!) but I kept my poker face and saluting my Captain said that I would do my best.
I headed back home to New Canaan. I was in the best shape of my life and understandably proud of my accomplishments, let alone surviving the last four months. One of my most vibrant memories was having lunch on the veranda of Woodway Country Club overlooking the 18th green with my dad having lunch together. Looking over the utter luxury of my past life as evidenced by where I sat and my exciting but uncertain future in the Army ahead, nothing made me happier than when my dad, not prone to making many compliments, told me how proud her was. Dad and I spent that time to catch up and I learned that Peter Soros had indeed repaid his debt, by courier, to my house while I was in the swamps of Louisiana…so I’d even managed to repay my father. Life was good.
Days later, I was shuttled to Ft. Monmouth and soon started to see the difference between being treated as an enlisted soldier and an Officer-To-Be. We were officially designated at Cadet Candidates but our routine was identical to being at West Point. We also enjoyed a bit of notoriety while I was there because Congress had ordered the Academies to enroll women and the young ladies selected for West Point were at USMAPS. We had a lot of press, like People Magazine and the Commandant of West Point, (a full 3 Star Lieutenant General) threatening to resign but everything worked out and women are became an integral part of the Academies from that moment on.
At West Point Prep, yet another life changing opportunity presented itself in the form of meeting a fellow Cadet Candidate, the son of the Colonel in charge of the Army’s ROTC program. I discovered that one could actually attend a civilian college paid for by the Army and graduate as a Lieutenant, exactly like graduating from West Point. The key here was winning the scholarship, which was nearly as hard as winning a West Point Appointment from your local Congressman or Senator. I shamelessly dogged my fellow classmate to let me talk to his dad and then petitioned the Colonel to give me the opportunity to apply for the ROTC Scholarship. You see, by winning an ROTC Scholarship, you really could have the best of both worlds. No doubt the West Point experience and prestige would be wonderful but the old saying of it being a “$1 million education, jammed down your throat, nickel by nickel, “ rang true. Getting my Lieutenant’s bars while being with the lovely coeds at a regular college and having the Army pay for it was a dream come true.
I had one little challenge here…besides having to win the prestigious award in the first place., of course. The ROTC scholarship was for civilians and I was Regular Army, therefore not even eligible. Again, I harangued the poor Colonel and I think just to shut me up he arranged for the Army to take my application. Surprise, surprise, I actually won the full 4 Year ROTC Scholarship, which could be used at any school that accepted ROTC and me.
I’d done well at USMAPS, making the award winning lacrosse team (we played with the West Point team) and serving as the Editor at the campus paper. My grades were at the top of my class and once again my test scores were ranked in the 99%. I picked all of my dream schools that I never could have gotten in directly from high school and was awarded admission at Princeton, the Georgetown School of Foreign Service (undergrad) and my all time favorite, the University of Virginia.
I chose UVa. and after a few weeks being tortured at USMAPS while my class matriculated to Beast Barracks at West Point, I got to go home to Connecticut and see my family and get ready for college.
Let me explain with you a personality trait that I share with many fellow entrepreneurs…we don’t take orders well, which could really be a problem being in the military.
In training at Ft. Polk, I was simply too new (and terrified) to that life to understand how to do anything but take orders. When I got to USMAPS and realized that my eventual Officer status would allow me to actually give orders the Non-Coms that were bracing me and making me do pushups and extra laps…I started be a smart aleck…not my most endearing trait. I managed to thoroughly piss off one particular little sergeant who’d served three tours in Nam and had asked the school’s CO to let him have me under his personal supervision, while I was awaiting orders to transfer to UVa.
During the month and a half that I was awaiting orders, the little Nazi actually had me plant grass seed, one seed at a time from 7AM til 4 PM every day, using a pick axe. While he actually sat in a lawn chair observing me, I planted over every path that our Cadet Candidates has traversed over the academic year. I was given the requisite breaks and meals but it was tiresome and laborious duty. Every time I hit the dry, hard ground with my pick axe, I imagined splitting the smirking bastard’s head like a melon. After six weeks, I also got pretty darn strong so when my orders came and I knew I was booking out, I barged into his office, locking the door behind me. He jumped up out of his seat barking orders but I told him in no uncertain terms that he’d better die in the Army because if I ever laid eyes on him again, I was going to break his neck. I left the next day, first to New Canaan and then off to college.
Arriving at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville was one of the happiest times of my life. The old world gentility of Thomas Jefferson’s vision of The University, founded in 1819 was so welcoming. I immediately felt that I belonged there and walked the grounds, (they don’t call it a campus) to embrace my new home. And to think, the Army was actually paying for me to attend! Little did I know that this chapter of my life would again take an unexpected course, bringing me down a completely unexpected path…yet again.
While at UVa, I joined St. Anthony Hall, said to be the equivalent to the venerable Skull & Bones at Yale. Members of America’s wealthiest and most powerful families, like the duPonts, Carnegies, Vanderbilts and others belonged to St. A’s at UVa and the nine other chapters in other schools like UPenn, Yale and Columbia. I felt completely at home at St. A’s, most certainly because of my New Canaan upbringing but I also came to our chapter with the decided edge of having been tested as an Infantry soldier as well as having gone through West Point Prep, which made me a unique member of our gentile group.
Alas, my dedication to academics waned greatly and I was preoccupied with enjoying life to the fullest at college. There were five girls schools surrounding UVa and the coeds there were plentiful as well as beautiful. I adored the lilting Southern drawl and gentile lifestyle of the privileged Southern school. Unfortunately, my grade point average was really pretty dismal but I just couldn’t care at this point of my school career. I simply couldn’t see the point of studying Art History and Latin, when I’d already lived such an exciting and unorthodox life.
Browsing through the school catalogue one day, I spied the course that changed my life and effectively ended my academic path. “Entrepreneurship” was offered as an elective to 4th year (UVa did not say freshman, sophomore, etc.) members of the undergraduate McIntire School of Business. Being a 1st year student and not able to enroll in the McIntire School of Business until my 3rd year did nothing to dissuade me from petitioning the professor of the class to let me in. Professor Henry O’Dell, chuckled at my request and thinking I’d freeze up in front of the class, which he required me to convince to allow me into the class…he quickly found out that I was pretty good on my feet. The class unanimously agreed to include me as one of their own and I was “in.”
My social standing at St. A’s continued to grow as I was able to parlay my Army background into actually using my USMAPS credentials to join to Officers Club over at the Judge Advocate General’s school at UVa’s School of Law. My credentials were identical to West Point credentials, so the O Club let me join and I was able to join the rest of the Captains and Majors, sipping a Chivas on the rocks and paying just $.65, because there were no taxes on military bases, (which included the Officers Club as part of the JAG Corps).
Furthermore, at the age of 19, I was also exempt from Virginia State laws that precluded me from drinking until the age of 21 because I was on military (Federal) property. I was even able to invite my friends and fraternity brothers, take my dates as well as throw some pretty cool parties on the rooftop of the Officers Club. What great memories…and one night there would become another turning point of my life.
The “Entrepreneurship” class was everything I has hoped it would be and my carefully selected team and I put together a business plan for our course project. Naturally, being the Alpha Male, I was the team leader with the idea and I handpicked a marketing major, an accounting major and someone versed in operations as my partners in the course project. The subject for our business plan was the rental of mopeds (motorized bicycles) at American resorts, much like was done in Bermuda, the Greek islands and other resorts around the world. We picked Nantucket Island, a resort that I had “summered” on since a young boy as our test market.
UVa did not allow first year students to keep a car on the grounds so we were forced to use the public transportation or catch a ride with an upper classman. I bought a used moped for a $150 and cruised around at will, garnering an awful lot of interest from everyone, as mopeds were very new to our shores. I let people borrow my new toy and saw the glee in their faces when they putted around. I was convinced that my business plan of renting mopeds to tourists would make a lot of money…and I was proven to be right.
Mopeds were neither “fish nor fowl” in America and we hit the wave of their importation into the country with their specialized classification as neither bicycles or motorcycles. The Feds had originally classified mopeds as motorcycles requiring registration, tags et al but the sturdy little machines of less than 50cc, couldn’t go faster than 25 or 30 mph, so who would go to the bother when for the same effort, one could get a Harley? Still, there was a definite place for mopeds in America, just not in the retail market and I nailed it for the rental market.
The Feds were allowing the States to regulate mopeds and Massachusetts passed legislation early on to allow any licensed driver (auto) to ride a moped on the streets. I immediately recognized the opening of being the first capitalize on the rental aspect that this new law allowed and our project explored every aspect of this new niche. Our little team in the “Entrepreneurship” course did our due diligence, R&D and pro formas. We received a solid “A” on our project, my one and only “A” in my college career…which incidentally ended after that 1st year. To this day, I believe my record holds at a .5 GPA at the University of Virginia.
My professor and I had developed a mutual respect and even a friendship, if you will and pulling me aside at the course’s end, he told me that my project had real “legs” as a business opportunity and I should run with it since I was the first in the space in the U.S. Professor O’Dell had been a very successful businessman, having founded Regal Beloit, a New York Stock Exchange company before he entered the world of academia. If he said my business had “legs” and should try it…how could I argue? Besides, I’d already made my decision to make the move to Nantucket and try it out anyway. J
Going for a drink at the Officer’s Club, on the rooftop of UVa’s law school and JAG headquarters became a place for me to relax and escape “college life.” You see, I had come to the rapid conclusion that despite the fun of dating beautiful Southern belles, acing a 4th year course, being accepted in the most prestigious fraternity…I just didn’t quite fit in at college.
Sure, I had my friends and counted among them the daughter of the sitting Associate Justice of the Supreme Court (soon to be Chief Justice) Janet Rehnquist and Irenee’ duPont May, one of the heirs to the chemical fortune and the fraternity brother that recruited me to St. A’s. I even had a beautiful 3rd year girlfriend named Lisa Robbins, whose father had been a CIA before he died in the Far East, where Lisa had spent much time. What’s more, my “free ride” at UVa came with the same price tag I would have had if I had matriculated to The Point, a 5 year military obligation after graduation. So….I sipped my Chivas and quietly pondered my future.
One night at the O Club, two freshly minted Captains came over to my table and asked if I wanted company. I thought they were going to card me and started to bring out my Club ID but they quickly said that they knew I was a member but admittedly wondered how. I explained my “story” of how I started as an Infantry soldier, won a Secretary of the Army Appointment to West Point, graduated from USMAPS and from there was awarded a 4 Year ROTC Scholarship to UVa. I said that when I applied to join the Officers Club they let me in based upon my credentials. We chatted awhile and they asked me to bring my “jacket” the next time I came to the Club and leave it for them to review it. I did and they called to meet for drinks and chat about what they had learned.
These legal beagles had discovered that the Army, without ever telling me, had given my an Honorable Discharge from my multi-year obligation (3 years left) to accept the civilian Army 4 Year ROTC Scholarship. In addition, the ROTC Scholarship specified that should I choose to give back the remaining three years of my Scholarship to a deserving Scholarship winning alternate, I would incur no further military obligation at all. In effect, my “new best friends” said…in exchange for a year of training, which consisted mostly of an academic year at USMAPS and then being able to attend a fully subsidized year at UVa, courtesy of Uncle Sam, I was free to go with full military benefits intact with my Honorable Discharge!
The drinks were on me for my new friends from then on whenever we crossed paths and I was now more determined than ever to start my first “real” business of renting mopeds on Nantucket when school let out for the summer.
What heady days those were taking the ferry over from Hyannis Port to Nantucket with a business plan in my hand instead of looking at a lazy summer of beachcombing and chasing girls. I set about locating a suitable spot from which to rent my mopeds and learned that most, if not all of the commercial property on Nantucket belonged to Walter Beinecke, Jr., the heir to the S&H Green Stamp fortune and benefactor of the priceless Beinecke Library at Yale. His management company, Sherburne Associates, was who I had to deal with, so I found their office and made an appointment to see Mr. Beinecke’s Major Domo, Nancy Sevrens.
Mrs. Sevrens ruled the Sherburne Associates property holdings with an iron fist but I think my Irish charm and eagerness to establish myself as an entrepreneur caught her fancy. In any case, I was able to secure the lease to rent an empty dirt lot with a popcorn stand for $500 per month for the 5 months of the summer season. It was smack in the middle of downtown Nantucket, right between the two piers in which the ferry lines disgorged their passengers coming from the mainland…the perfect spot to launch my new business!
I learned a lot of lessons launching this first business. Since I was still a teenager, I received little, if any respect from older businesspeople and in order to purchase my first mopeds from the manufacturer, Puch of Austria, I actually had to use the adult son of a New Canaan neighbor in the bike shop business to place the order for me. Even with cash in my hand, saved from the GI bill and stipend earned from the Army while in college, I was not allowed to purchase my initial inventory of 15 mopeds directly. Of course in today’s world of Google, Facebook and other teenage tech billionaires, underage discrimination is long gone but I can tell you, 36 years ago, a teenage entrepreneur was simply not taken seriously by anyone.
I bought a cash box and folding card table for 50 cents at the local thrift shop for conducting my transactions. My mopeds arrived on a ferry and a handful of UVa friends that wanted to spend the summer on Nantucket helped assemble my fleet of shiny new mopeds. We bought a long chain and padlock to lock up the mopeds at night, bought a couple of gas cans and oil and waited until the morning to open for business. I really had no clue what to charge, so I had covertly priced out the bike shop rental rates and multiplied my fee….since my customers didn’t have to pedal and my mopeds cost much more, I reasoned. Nantucket was the home to literally thousands of rental bikes from a dozen or so well established shops. Little did I know that my little moped fleet was treading on their (bike rental shops’) territory…but I was soon to find out.
Let me bring up a very pertinent fact at this point. Creating our business plan, even with the best and the brightest at the esteemed McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia….had absolutely nothing to do with what actually transpired when I launched my moped rental business. In fact, most times, writing any business plan is nothing more than an exercise in seeing potential pitfalls and determining what might happen. Pro formas are pretty much a waste of time but budgeting for start up costs and ongoing operating costs until the business can reach breakeven is important. The due diligence of researching the competitive environment is important too. A business plan’s greatest value is in justifying a loan or investment from an investor. However, don’t ever count on using your business plan as a blueprint for starting and running your business.
I was up at the crack of dawn and hand painted a sign with the name of my new enterprise, Nantucket Moped. Actually, I had done quite a bit of work incorporating the company and printing rental waivers, so we were a totally legitimate business. Burns Three, Incorporated, dba Nantucket Moped, was a Connecticut corporation operating as a “foreign corporation” in Massachusetts with a Federal ID # and brand new bank account at the Pacific National Bank at the top of Main Street. One of the things my “Entrepreneurship” class did was to make sure we all learned the importance of establishing our entity in the correct corporate form and to secure the services of both a good attorney as well as an accountant. A solid foundation was key in starting one’s business and I took this advice seriously.
On Nantucket Moped’s opening day, I eagerly awaited my first customers and wasn’t disappointed. My set up inside the penned, centrally located dirt lot, with the row of shiny red mopeds around the perimeter of the fence attracted much attention. People started to come up to my card table and ask the cost and money soon exchanged hands and I was instructing my first renters.
There were some hilarious and thankfully not injurious crashes of people learning to ride the peppy little mopeds at first. Remember, mopeds were new to our shores and unless the customer had been to Bermuda or the Greek Isles or such and rented one there, this was a new experience. However, there weren’t any gears and it was basically riding a motorized bicycle when one got the hang of it. In the meantime, my crew and I coined some customers as “wall flowers” when they started up the mopeds, froze on the accelerator and careened into our property fence or “popcorn flowers” when the slammed their mopeds into our popcorn stand. Looking back, it truly would have been memorable on “America’s Funniest Videos” or a modern day YouTube sensation and thankfully, neither the individuals nor the mopeds were hurt.
The first day progressed with rental after rental with all of the usual hiccups associated with ironing out the processes of a new business. Customers were late returning or they ran out of gas and couldn’t call us because there were no cell phones back then. There were flat tires too. Each problem required a solution and we started making the required improvements immediately. The second day improved operations and by the end of the first week, I knew we had a real winner and I made a call to my dad to both update him and ask for his help.
I calculated that at the rate our mopeds were being rented and the average return for per day, plus the fact that the summer season was really only 16 weeks long…I needed many more mopeds than my fleet of 15. I asked to borrow $10,000 in order to buy 25 more mopeds and the extra parts and equipment needed to maintain the larger fleet. Thank goodness he agreed and within a week I had the additional mopeds trucked to me and we were up to 40 mopeds.
Business was outstanding and I was looking at a daily cash income of $1000 or more. We had a used pickup truck now to pick up mopeds in trouble and a phone number to call us, if our customers could find a payphone where they had a breakdown. We decided to send the truck out periodically with an extra moped on board and circle the island on the chance that someone might be in trouble and this preventive effort helped more than once. In the meantime, we designed a brochure with suggested sightseeing routes and estimated times for each trip, which really helped our customers and let us know where our people were going to be.
Each day, we got better at what we did and right around the end of our third week of operation, I received a visit from a large man in a uniform with a sheaf of papers apparently ordering me to “cease and desist” my business of renting mopeds. I asked him what was going on and he said that renting mopeds on Nantucket Island was illegal. I exclaimed there was no such law and he pointed out that the Board of Selectman had just passed one. I shuffled through the paperwork and couldn’t help but notice that the head of the Board of Selectman was one Roger Young, the proprietor of the largest bicycle rental shop on the island. So…I was cutting into somebody’s profits and they were playing dirty, I thought. Well, I wasn’t giving up my hard won business without a fight…and fight I did.
Since I was a new business person on Nantucket, although I had summered there since the age of 9, I went straight to my landlord, Sherburne Associates and met with Nancy Sevrens.. I shared what had happened with the Board of Selectman coming down on me and trying to run me out of business with their b.s. new ordinance forbidding the rental of mopeds. Hearing me out, Mrs. Sevrens said there was only one man to speak of, the Irish Barrister (she used that word instead of attorney), Michael Driscoll. I asked where his office was and marched off to make an appointment. Michael ushered me into his office the moment I arrived after I told him that Nancy Sevrens had sent me (she must have called ahead) and we began what turned out to be a war against the Town of Nantucket and a friendship between us that lasted until Michael Driscoll passed away years later.
Michael was as Irish as they come, so we shared a similar lineage and was educated as an engineer at M.I.T., with an analytical mind as sharp as they come. He had a brood of 5-6 children and a to-the-death loyal wife, Patricia. Before moving to Nantucket the first time, the Driscolls fared from Plymouth and Brookline, Massachusetts. After taking his whole family to Nantucket to take a position as the head of the Department of Public Works, Michael quickly became disillusioned by the “good old boy” network of collusion and back door deals the Town officials would cut each other for taxpayer funded projects.
Pat and her brood of children felt ostracized by the other families in their neighborhood and Mrs. Driscoll was actually excluded from tea at the neighbors’ houses. Ostensibly all of this was because the Driscolls were “Off Islanders,” which could well be the case. There was actually a case in which a woman who had moved to Nantucket at the age of 6 months and died at 98, was referred to in the local paper as an “Off Islander.“ However, the reality for the poor treatment of the Driscolls was the fact that Michael was quite vocal in his unhappiness at observing the flagrant lack of ethics in Town dealings.
Ultimately, Michael was fired from his job and returned to Boston with his family. He held down another full time job to support his family while going to law school at night and several years later, with a law degree in hand, he returned to Nantucket with a vengeance. His specialty of law became taking on anyone with a gripe against the Town of Nantucket…and he never lost. Sherburne Associates was one of his biggest clients and when I explained my own story of unfairness, he jumped right into the fray. I was in excellent hands.
Michael went straight to work and was able to start unraveling the Town’s action against me almost immediately. Citing the fact that I was operating as a “foreign” corporation and a Connecticut resident, I was immediately able to move outside of the corrupt Nantucket Court system and go to Federal Court. Michael and I flew to Boston, where we obtained a temporary injunction against the Town of Nantucket.
They didn’t even see it coming…me being a mere teenage boy operating his little moped shop in the dirt lot. My business continued to thrive and the money poured in. By the end of 12 weeksleft of summer , I’d actually amassed over $55,000 in my first legitimate venture. With Michael Driscoll protecting me from the evil Board of Selectman with legal motion after legal motion, I was in good hands there too.
The next decision facing me was what I was going to do now. Would I return to my Army-subsidized ROTC term at Uva , therefore triggering the military obligation of 5 years service when I graduated or would I return to Uva on my own, giving back my scholarship and obviating any military obligation, since I could easily pay for college myself now with my stash from the summer? Of course, the third option was to give back my scholarship, put college on hold and continue building my fledging empire…which is exactly what I did.
I decided that Florida would be a nice place to spend the winter so I took a reconnaissance trip at the summer’s end to explore and ended up picking Sanibel Island on the lovely West Coast. I’d been driving up and down the East Coast of Florida to the typical places of Ft. Lauderdale, Daytona Beach, Miami and Palm Beach ..but then, on a whim, I drove over the West Coast. I stopped in Marco Island and Naples, continuing the drive North. On US 41, known as the Tamiami Trail, I saw a simple wooden sign with an arrow that said “See enchanting Sanibel and Captiva Islands.” I never heard of these islands, dusk was approaching and I followed the road to the water, where I was greeted by a toll booth to the longest bridge I’d ever seen, as well as a toll that 37 years ago was outrageous-$3!
I crossed that 3 ½ mile bridge to Sanibel Island that night, drove a little around the island until dark and found a hotel to spend the night. I called my parents back home in New Canaan and told them I felt that I’d found my next location and winter home. What I didn’t realize back in the end of summer in 1977 was that my whole life was about to change…yet again.
The next day, I traveled up and down the beautiful Australian Pine -lined streets of Sanibel and visited the limited commercial districts. I came upon a perfectly suited little building on a big vacant lot right smack in the middle of the main commercial road, Periwinkle Way. I saw the sign on the property and visited with Don Bissel, the listing agent. Don turned out to be a great guy and we became friends over the years, after he secured the property for me, first as a leasehold and then as the owner.
I made sure that I secured all of the necessary business licenses, sign permits and registered my Connecticut corporation to do business in the State of Florida. Don Bissell introduced me to my new lawyer, John Wilcox and I set the foundation to relocating my Nantucket inventory and to start up the second location of my new business. Three weeks later, two U Haul trucks rolled up with my mopeds and I started to set up shop. Several of the young men that weren’t in college that worked for me on Nantucket moved to Sanibel with me, we rented a nice house in a neighborhood called Gumbo Limbo and we started to acclimate ourselves to our new winter home.
Sanibel Island was a hidden treasure, tucked off the coast of Ft. Myers and boasts some of the prettiest beaches on the planet. Most people back East never heard of it but it is a favorite destination for people from the Midwest. It was very low key with no stop lights, funky little restaurants and bars and no fast food or chain restaurants. There were extensive bike paths throughout the island so I invested in a fleet of bicycles along with my moped fleet.
My East Coast friends and I hit the local scene, which was pretty tame compared to what we were used to at Nantucket’s frantic seasonal pace but then again, Sanibel’s full winter and spring season was months away, so we had only locals and not many tourists…which also meant that we didn’t have much business, so we had plenty of time to ourselves.
Ft. Myers Beach, which was the tacky island neighbor just south of Sanibel became our trolling ground. The Ramada right on the beach became my gang’s hangout, where we’d meet some of the local lovelies and touristas. It was a lot of fun. Casa y Bel, a very laid back bungalow on Sanibel’s beach became another great place to party.
Life was good, very good. The business was picking up as we got closer to the winter season and at night we piled into our fleet of sports cars (my Nantucket profits bought me a very nice BMW). Some of our East Coast mannerisms, read aggressive snobbery, rubbed the laid back locals the wrong way, especially when my friends and I shamelessly hit on the beautiful young lady islanders…often someone else’s girlfriends.
One such “encounter” involved a blonde bombshell named Caroline. I met and romanced her at the island’s nightspots and imagine my surprise when her rather large, older, well-muscled South American boyfriend confronted me while I was at a table with 10 of my friends having dinner. His name was Paulo and he owned a landscaping business and had been on the island for years. The rumors were that Paulo was a very tough customer, holding a couple of black belts in martial arts and was very protective of his possessions….including his girlfriend, Caroline. Uh, oh…
Paulo had a very thick accent and I honestly didn’t know what he wanted until he uttered his girlfriend’s name, Caroline. I honestly had no idea that Caroline was his girlfriend. I was not suicidal, after all. One of my friends at the table, who fortunately spoke Spanish well enough to pacify Paulo by telling him that (for once) I was actually innocent and had no idea that Caroline was his girlfriend. He took that at face value and my life was spared. That encounter started a friendship that has lasted 36 years to date.
What really established the friendship between us was when I was at Island Moped all by myself one morning over the Christmas holidays, because my staff all had returned to their families for the holidays. There was a line of customers around the little building waiting to sign out a bike or moped and then I’d have to run outside and instruct the moped rider or adjust a bike seat and then run back in and do it all over again.
Paulo happened to be driving by the shop and looked over at the pure chaos going on and turned into our lot. He asked me how to show someone how to start and ride a moped and where the gas containers were. For the rest of the day, Paulo instructed and adjusted bike seats and I signed up the customers and took their money. Exhausted at the day’s end, I thanked Paulo as he drove off and collapsed back home.
The next morning while I was setting up the shop for business, Paulo drove into the lot, started gassing mopeds and helping me set up. I went into the building to start servicing the customers that were beginning to line up and Paulo helped them with their mopeds and bikes. At the end of the day, I took Paulo aside, thanked him and asked him if he wanted a job. Proudly he remarked that he owned his own business and didn’t need a job. He was merely returning the “favor.” I was perplexed…what “favor?”
Apparently while at one of the local nightspots with my friends a couple of weeks earlier, a group of college boys bolted on the bar tab and the poor waitress, who happened to be a friend of Paulo’s, would have had to pay it out of her tips. Paulo chased after the half dozen boys and out of a macabre curiosity, I chased behind him. What was one guy, albeit a big, strong guy, going to do against 6 rather strapping college athletes?
Well, as the college boys hopped into their car and started exiting the parking lot, I watched in awe as Paulo ripped out a big wooden railroad tie (weighing a good 200-300 pounds) out of the driveway and holding it like a baseball bat…menacingly threatening the boys in their car. When they figured out he was deadly serious, he marched them all back into the bar and believe me, they not only paid their tab but left the waitress a record breaking tip that night.
When Paulo chased after the boys and saw that I was following him, he thought that I was watching his back and was ready to leap into action to defend the honor of his waitress friend. Well…that was a noble thought but I was simply curious how one guy was going to take on six others. I’ll keep that secret to the grave or until Paulo reads this…which may be the same thing!
Paulo and I started our friendship and he worked with me the next day going forward for many years. Recently, we reunited after having not seen each other for 10 years. It was just like old times, after all, we’ve known each other for 36 years and he’s my longest lasting friend.
Like all of the many rental locations I established over a 20 year period, Sanibel generated many stories that come to mine and some that are definitely worth sharing.
There are so many stories and adventures that came with the opening of new locations for my rental business. From it’s humble beginning in the dirt lot on Nantucket Island, the business spread across the country and even outside of it to dozens of locations…each with it’s great lessons and stories. Some of the additional places we opened up over it’s 20 year operation were:
Captiva Island, Florida
Christiansted, St. Croix USVI
Fredericksted, St. Croix USVI
Boothbay Harbor, Maine
Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
Belmar, New Jersey
Seaside Heights, New Jersey
Block Island, Rhode Island
Newport, Rhode Island
Goat Island, Rhode Island
Lahaina, Maui Hawaii
St. Kitts, BWI
Jaco Beach, Costa Rica
South Beach (Miami), Florida
St. Simons Island, Georgia
Jeckyl Island, Georgia
Hollywood Beach, Florida
Marco Island, Florida
Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
Panama City Beach, Florida
Key West, Florida
Key Biscayne, Florida
Siesta Key, Florida
Boca Grande, Florida
Venice Beach, California
Manasota Key, Florida
Clearwater Beach, Florida
Sanibel Harbor, Florida
Since the moped rental business was such a big part of my business and personal life, I will highlight certain stories from each of the locations that come to mind after all of these years.
Nantucket was the first of my rental businesses and the ongoing fight with the Town of Selectman, led by my fearless barrister, Michael Driscoll, took several years and much litigation to settle but I won hands down. We were able to kick my case out of Nantucket’s jurisdiction to the Federal Court system in Boston because I was a resident of Connecticut at the time. This allowed me a much greater chance to bring my case of illegal activities, collusion and outright conspiracy against the Board of Selectman both collectively and individually. My champion, Michael Driscoll, pulled out all the stops and we added a permanent injunction against the Town of Nantucket to let us continue our business and actually won a $1 million settlement for tortuous interference and collusion against the Town and against the Selectmen individually. During the “moped battles,” Nantucket Island actually threatened to secede from the United States when it could not stop me and my business. Needless to say, I was a bit infamous on that little island and in my naïveté’ I didn’t realize how deadly serious my legal battle could be.
One evening I was celebrating at the downstairs tavern of the Jared Coffin House in downtown Nantucket. I was with a bunch of my off island friends and had to go to the mens room. While washing up, two burly fisherman came into the bathroom, barring the exit door. They pushed up to me, got into my face with their glossy eyes and beer breath and told me in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t set aside the judgment of $1 million in damages against the Town and Selectmen individually, they were going to take me on a one way fishing trip out to sea. They pointed out that I had won the right to run my business and that the award was just more than I deserved and that it would bankrupt some of the Selectmen that would be affected by the judgment. I told them that I’d speak to my lawyer the next morning…I didn’t like fishing anyway. We actually had a beer together and I did what I said I’d do the next day, without mentioning my little conversation in the mens room.