H. Wayne Huizenga, a Florida billionaire who launched his business empire by driving a garbage truck and went on to build three Fortune 500 companies — Waste Management, Blockbuster Entertainment and AutoNation — and whose tightfisted ownership of three professional sports franchises sometimes angered their fans, died March 22 at his home in Fort Lauderdale. He was 80.
The death was announced by his family and businesses. He reportedly had cancer.
Mr. Huizenga (pronounced HIGH-zen-guh) drove a garbage truck for a few years before buying a one-truck trash hauling business in 1962.
He remembered the words of his father, a cabinetmaker-turned-builder: “You can’t make any real money working for someone else.”
In less than 10 years, Mr. Huizenga was a multimillionaire and well on his way to making Waste Management the world’s largest trash disposal company. He went on to found, buy and sell a dizzying array of businesses and became the only person to guide three different companies into the Fortune 500.
Last year, Forbes magazine estimated Mr. Huizenga’s wealth at $2.8 billion, making him the 288th-richest American.
Despite his success in business, Mr. Huizenga was not particularly well known to the wider public until the 1990s, when he became the primary owner of South Florida’s professional football, baseball and hockey franchises.
He bought a share of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins in 1990, then became the principal owner four years later. In 1991, he paid $95 million as Major League Baseball expanded to Florida for the first time with the Florida (now Miami) Marlins. He shelled out another $50 million for an NHL expansion team, which he dubbed the Florida Panthers. The Marlins and Panthers both played their first games in 1993.
“I don’t see it as different than any other business,” he told the New York Times when the Marlins debuted. “I won’t lose money on the Marlins. Money is how you keep score.”
At first, Mr. Huizenga reveled in his teams’ success. The Panthers reached the Stanley Cup finals in 1996. A year later, the Marlins won the World Series in only their fifth year of existence.
Soon after the Marlins’ victory parades through Miami and Fort Lauderdale — this being Florida, the players sat on power boats chugging along downtown rivers — Mr. Huizenga began to dismantle his money-losing championship team.
He traded or sold off the Marlins’ best (and most expensive) players, including pitchers Kevin Brown and Al Leiter and star hitters Moises Alou, Bobby Bonilla and Gary Sheffield.
“We lost $34 million the year we won the World Series,” Mr. Huizenga told South Florida’s Sun Sentinel newspaper in 2009, “and I just said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to do that.’ If I had it to do over again, I’d say, ‘Okay, we’ll go one more year.’ ”
Once a popular owner who sometimes danced the hokeypokey on the field during games, Mr. Huizenga quickly became reviled by Marlins fans and was booed in his own stadium.
After the Marlins finished 54-108 in 1998, Mr. Huizenga sold the team for $150 million to John Henry, now the owner of the Boston Red Sox. He sold the Panthers in 2001.
He held on to the Dolphins for 15 years, hiring such big-name coaches as Jimmy Johnson and Nick Saban and executive Bill Parcells, all of whom failed to deliver a Super Bowl champion. Mr. Huizenga sold the Dolphins to real estate developer Stephen M. Ross for $1.1 billion in 2009.
Harry Wayne Huizenga was born Dec. 29, 1937, in Evergreen Park, Ill., near Chicago. His grandfather, a Dutch immigrant, started a garbage collection business with a horse and wagon.
Mr. Huizenga’s family moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1953. He served in the Army, drove a bulldozer and briefly attended Calvin College in Michigan before returning to Florida.
He had worked in his family’s garbage business during the summers and reluctantly took a job driving a garbage truck. In 1962, he borrowed money from his father to purchase a retiring trash hauler’s truck and route, collecting garbage from office buildings.
“I didn’t know anything about the business,” he told the Sporting News. “I just worked hard and gave good service. If I was late picking up the garbage, the customer would call me at home to complain about the driver. I was the driver.”
He drove the truck from 2 a.m. to noon, then put on a suit and tie to solicit more customers. Within six years, his company, Southern Sanitation, had expanded throughout Florida. He then merged with his family’s Chicago-based operations to form Waste Management, which went public with its first stock offering in 1971.
The company paid millions of dollars in fines for violating environmental laws and paid $19 million to settle a lawsuit alleging price-fixing while Mr. Huizenga led the company.
Mr. Huizenga was worth an estimated $21 million when he stepped away from the day-to-day management of Waste Management in 1984, but his retirement lasted only five weeks. He was soon buying up real estate, hotels and other businesses before a friend told him about Blockbuster, a Texas-based video chain with fewer than 20 outlets.
Mr. Huizenga bought a minority share of Blockbuster in 1987, soon took over the company and expanded it into an international behemoth with about 4,000 stores during the heyday of home movie rentals in the 1980s and 1990s. His $18 million investment turned into an $8.4 billion payout when Blockbuster was sold to Viacom in 1994.
His goals in business were simple. “I enjoy building something good,” he told the New York Times in 1991, “and having a successful product and making money.”
In 1995, Mr. Huizenga founded the Extended Stay America hotel chain, followed a year later by AutoNation, a Florida-based chain of superstores for new and used cars. Although Mr. Huizenga never sold a car in his life, AutoNation quickly became the country’s largest retail auto dealer.
Mr. Huizenga also controlled broad-based holding companies that, at different times, included such familiar brands as National and Alamo car rental companies, Boston Market restaurants, the TruGreen lawn-care company and the Port-O-Let portable toilet business.
The companies Mr. Huizenga invested in may have been diverse, but the underlying principle was remarkably consistent. He often bought up smaller businesses to form one large, dominant company, and he preferred businesses with recurring revenue streams, such as cleaning services or rental agencies.
“If I rent something,” he said, “basically I’m selling the same thing over and over.”
His first marriage, to Joyce VanderWagon, ended in divorce. His second wife, the former Martha “Marti” Pike Goldsy, died in 2017 after 44 years of marriage.
Survivors include two sons from his first marriage; two stepchildren, whom he adopted; and 11 grandchildren.
Mr. Huizenga and his wife gave millions of dollars to charity, and the business school at Florida’s Nova Southeastern University is named in his honor.
In 2012 — more than a decade after he sold the Marlins — Mr. Huizenga was still named in a poll by Time magazine as one of the most hated owners in sports.
He was baffled by the response, admitting he saw his teams as profit-and-loss business enterprises. Even though he had played baseball and football in high school, he couldn’t grasp the emotional attachment fans felt toward their favorite teams.
“I’m not saying it’s wrong,” he told the Sun Sentinel. “I just don’t understand it. I don’t have a problem with that. I just don’t understand it, that’s all.’’