News Column

What Drives Serial Entrepreneurs

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They envision change, solve problems and take risks.

They launch new ventures, see them to fruition and then start or invest in new ones. And even when there is a bump in the road, they adapt, change course and dive right in again. And they don't like to be told they can't do it.

They're successful serial entrepreneurs, and they're a rare breed.

"These are very elite people," said Ted Zoller, senior fellow with The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and the director of the Kenan-Flagler Business School's Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"They are the top of the heap, the entrepreneurs who are really sought after for their market insight, for their knowledge of opportunities, for their strategic contacts, and for their leadership abilities to organize teams and build companies," he said.

And their work is anything but mundane.

"They break industry standards and look for opportunities to create new value where it doesn't exist, eliminate dysfunction, make things more efficient and create products that don't exist," said Zoller, who has researched serial entrepreneurs. "In a word, they are painkillers. They look for markets that are in pain and come up with solutions."

Next week commemorates Global Entrepreneurship Week, with dozens of events, mostly free, taking place across South Florida. The University of Miami, St. Thomas University, Miami Dade College and Florida International University will all host panel discussions, presentations, seminars or contests to nurture developing entrepreneurial ventures.

True serial entrepreneurs comprise a tiny subset of business people. While an estimated 8 percent of all entrepreneurs launch a second venture, only 1.75 percent launch three or more, Zoller said.

Many times, they grew up with a parent or a family member who was an entrepreneur. Often, they don't do well in conventional education, may show signs of entrepreneurship at a young age and drop out to start a business, he said.

Entrepreneurs may be rebels who defy authority and are creative, tenacious and adaptable, said Jerry Haar, associate dean and director of the Pino Global Entrepreneurship Center at Florida International University's College of Business Administration.

"And they tend not to have bruised egos, so they bounce back real fast," he said.

Moreover, they may have been "deprived of something, whether political or economic," Haar said. "So, you have that kind of resilience -- the ability to show others that you have what it takes."

A serial entrepreneur creates a business, grows it, then sells it or takes it public, bringing in loads of cash.

They may stay on for a period of time, and then go off and create a new company.

Often, they may create a holding company to invest in multiple companies. They often serve on advisory boards or boards of investors of other firms. They often have a group of people that invests with them, and they form a syndicate based on trust and market insight, Zoller said.

"They do it because they love entrepreneurship. They love building. They love being involved with leaders and they like to remain relevant in their markets," he said.

We found three highly successful serial entrepreneurs in South Florida who embody all that is the spirit and the tenacity of their ilk.

Miguel "Mike" Fernandez, Laurie Silvers and Ed Iacobucci have embraced risk and created businesses that are on the cutting edge of their industries.

Here are their stories:

Mike Fernandez

Health care magnate Mike Fernandez, 59, may be a billionaire today, but he wasn't born well-off, the son of a merchant in Manzanillo, Cuba, a small town with dirt roads.

Yet very early on, he showed signs that he would be an entrepreneur.

Fernandez was 12 when his family arrived in New York in 1964, after living in Mexico for a few months. Preparing for high school, he picked out a top Catholic school and got accepted on a scholarship. His father, who worked three jobs, asked him if the scholarship was because of his grades. He said no, it was because he was Hispanic.

"Then I suggest you go get a job, and you pay half and I'll pay half," he recalls his father saying. "We don't take charity."

Fernandez got two jobs, including one, on the weekends, working at the American Museum of Natural History's gift kiosk.

There, he sold key chains, plastic Triceratops, film for cameras, and the like, but he noticed that the store didn't have a plastic Brontosaurus, the most popular exhibit, or photo flash bulbs, which were needed for the darkened museum. He suggested the items to the manager, who told him to mind his own business, he recalls.

After his second week on the job, he went to the storeroom and found the name of the company that supplied the kiosk's merchandise. He got on the subway, went to the company, and bought 100 plastic Brontosauruses and 25 flash bulbs.

"I sold out within hours," Fernandez said. And he made a 300 percent profit. But the manager chastised him for going against her orders.

Yet, it set off a light bulb in his mind, and he realized he could become independent.

He has never responded well to authority, and was never good at following orders, he said. He held the record for the most detentions at school. And when he was drafted into the Army in 1972, he was promoted three times and demoted three times, leaving after three years at the same rank at which he had entered.

"I always had to define my own way," Fernandez said. "In some ways it has paid off."

He spent just one year at the University of New Mexico, majoring in architecture, before being drafted. He remembers the dean telling his class that if they chose the field to make money, they were in the wrong profession. It is his most vivid college memory.

Fernandez's first business was as an independent agent for an insurance company, making $500 a month. He didn't like the direness of selling life insurance, so he gravitated to health insurance. He built up a brokerage portfolio, focusing on airlines, and by 1979 he had seven national airlines as clients. He was in his mid-20s, and making $1.5 million a year.

He knew he would be outbid eventually, so he put his book of business up for sale, and it brought $4.5 million. He was 27.

"After a month of retirement," he said, "I realized I have a passion for what I do."

In 1981, when the first IBM personal computer came out, he decided he could automate insurance data. He founded Miami-based Group Tech Systems, which he says was the first national database of health insurance information.

But by 1983, he was broke. He had drained the $4.5 million as well as a $600,000 bank loan.

"It was the first time I saw the possibility of failure," Fernandez said. An accountant advised him to file for bankruptcy, but Miami attorney Cesar Alvarez told him his reputation was paramount and to try to work things out.

Fernandez went back to the bank and asked for six months and $100,000 more. In return, he sold his house, his Mercedes and his boat, moved with his wife and two children into his parents' home, and got the business off the ground. He changed the name of the company to Comprehensive Benefit Administrators, and sold it in 1989 to Ramsay HMO for $3.5 million.

Because of the sale, he became a substantial Ramsay shareholder and the company's No. 2 executive. He had signed an employment agreement to stay three years or until the HMO doubled in membership.

By January 1992, the HMO had doubled in size, and he left, but with a non-compete agreement for South Florida. Two years later, United Healthcare bought Ramsay for $500 million. His stock was worth more than $25 million.

He turned to Tampa, and in 1993, Fernandez started Physicians Healthcare Plans, flying his private plane from Miami each day to work.

He had invested $1 million. Eighteen months later he sold 49 percent of the company for $30 million.

"A 30-to-1 sale in 18 months," Fernandez said. "And I still had control."

In 2000, he bought back the 49 percent for $20 million, and two years later, sold the company for $160 million to AmeriGroup, retaining a segment of the business that AmeriGroup didn't want, CarePlus Health Plans.

Fernandez's strategy is to find troubled companies that are in a nosedive and that need to be pulled out.

When he sells them, he shares the profits with the employees who helped him turn around and grow the businesses.

"I've never looked at any deal as my last deal. I've always looked at it as another deal," he said. "You need talented people, so spread it around and you get talented people willing to work as hard as you work."

He has also developed a group of 28 partners who invest in all his deals, including Philip Frost and Alvarez. Fernandez puts in 80 percent, and the others put in the rest.

Next, he bought CAC Medical Centers, which was losing $60 million a year. He paid $10 million for it in 2003. In two years, he made it profitable and sold both CAC Medical Centers and CarePlus Health Plans to Humana for $485 million.

This time, he signed a five-year national non-compete agreement barring him from involvement in HMOs. But he didn't retire.

"If I stop moving," he said, "I think I will whither away."

So he launched a private equity firm, MBF Healthcare Partners, in 2005. He brought in two partners who had worked with him at Ramsay: Jorge Rico and Marcio Cabrera. Today they have a staff of 13, looking at a deal a day.

So far, they have bought six core companies, and folded in other acquisitions. The six include Suncrest, a home nursing company; a 60 percent ownership in Navarro Pharmacies; Nutriforce, a vitamin manufacturer; and eMindful, an Internet-based counseling service.

Last year, when Fernandez's non-compete agreement expired, he acquired the HMOs Total Health Choice, which operates Simply Health Plus, and Better Health. With 20,000 customers, the HMOs were losing $13 million a year, combined. Now, after investments in systems, technology and management, they have 60,000 customers and are generating a profit, he said.

His goal for the private equity firm is to purchase a company each year, and tuck in two or three other smaller purchases.

Fernandez, a morning person who rises at 4:30 a.m., says he is not as hands-on as he used to be. He has moved from an "operations attitude to an investment attitude," he said.

On the side, he raises Black Angus cattle and has amassed 5,000 acres in North Florida, 5,000 acres in Central Florida and 25,000 acres in Alabama.

In January of this year he had a health scare that caused him to reflect on his life: Prostate cancer.For three weeks, he told no one, not even his wife.

He took his dog on long walks, sat on a coral bench at his eight-acre Coral Gables home, and thought about all the time he has put into work, the two failed marriages he had before his current, happy 11-year marriage; the time he could have spent with his five children. He asked himself if he should have done things differently.

He decided he would not have. "I have done what I was put on this earth to do: to provide for my family, to create jobs, to share with the community that has given me so much," he said

Since then, he has had surgery and is fine.

"We're all wired differently," said Fernandez, recalling the memory of his parents losing everything to come to the United States. "I've always thought of myself as a provider."

Laurie Silvers

Media mogul Laurie Silvers also learned entrepreneurship at a young age, and has created a string of ventures, including the Sci-Fi channel (now Syfy).

Silvers, 59, grew up in Springfield, Ill., with a father who owned radio stations and was a pioneer in cable television.

"I remember when I was little, the excitement when he would get a construction permit to build a new radio station -- a start-up from the ground up, in the days when radio was truly dominant," said Silvers, who now lives in Boca Raton.

She studied psychology at the University of Miami and stayed to get her law degree.

"I thought I was going to be going into the courtroom and right all the wrongs and defend the weak and the weary, and I did," she said.

Then, over time, she began to represent people who were in the broadcasting industry, in radio, TV and cable, and fell in love with the business.

So in the mid-'80s, she and her then-law partner and now-husband Mitchell Rubenstein, bought a small cable system in Indiana, with the vision of growing it by boosting subscribers and adding premium services. It was her entry into the industry, backed by friends, family and some bank financing.

When she and Rubenstein sold it a few years later in 1988, Silvers made her first millions. She was 36.

"We were still practicing law, and we had to decide to continue law or to take the knowledge we had learned and go into cable television and buy a larger cable system operator or do something else," Silvers said. "So we decided to create a new cable channel."

Her husband came up with the idea of science fiction. At the time, science fiction movies and books were at the top of the charts, and Star Trek was an enduring brand, but there had never been a national cable network offering 24 hours of science fiction programming.

So they took a gamble, and they poured most of their profits into the new venture. By then, she and Rubinstein were married with three small children, and she was traveling all the time, selling the concept to the managers of small cable systems, to try to convince them to carry the channel.

"It's very scary, because you go for a long time not knowing whether or not it's really going to happen," she said. "You have to really believe in it and believe in your abilities that it will happen."

While she saw the risks, she said she felt the potential outweighed them and was willing to work hard to overcome the obstacles.

"I heard all the time, "You can't do this, and here are the reasons why: You can't do it because you don't have financing, you don't have a satellite transponder, you don't have programming,' " Silvers recalls. "These were all valid points. From the outside, it looked very risky with very little potential for success. But I didn't see it that way. I saw it as the building blocks I had to capture, and I had to figure it out, and that was my challenge."

It took a few years, but she got the cable carriage, a satellite transponder agreement and programming.

"It worked out fine, but it was truly a lesson in entrepreneurship and tenacity to keep going," Silvers said. "Whenever you bring something that brand new to the marketplace, you meet with a lot of resistance."

In the end, needing more capital to bring the concept to the air, Silvers and her husband sought a strategic partner to take an ownership interest in the channel. So they went to the USA Network, whose chief executive loved the idea but needed the approval of the network's owners, Universal and Paramount. They decided they didn't want to invest in it. They wanted to buy it, and they would start their own version, if not.

So Silvers and her husband sold the Sci-Fi channel a few months before launching it in September 1992. She is barred from disclosing the sale price.

"I am so proud of creating something that truly changed the landscape," said Silvers, who stayed on with the Sci-Fi channel as co-vice-chairman for two years.

Then, trying to morph her experience into her next chapter, Silvers created a company, Big Entertainment, and rolled out kiosks selling items of pop culture in malls across America, and also launched a line of comic books based on works of best-selling authors and celebrities from the world of science fiction. The company went public in 1993.

But the business wasn't working out, and she realized she needed to change direction.

"I don't think there's an entrepreneur that somewhere along the way hasn't experienced failure," she said. "It's how you deal with it. You have to say, "This is not working. I am not going to do this anymore. I am going to do something else.' "

She saw the Internet as the next great opportunity, and in the late 1990s, bought Hollywood.com from The Los Angeles Times.

She made it a consolidated site for entertainment and retail, and put Big Entertainment's divisions into it. Then, she bought Broadway.com, which sold tickets on Broadway. She renamed the whole company Hollywood Media.

In December 2010, it sold Broadway.com.

"Hollywood Media, which realized the profit from the sale of Broadway.com, is now in a position to decide what its new growth opportunity is going to be," Silvers said. "I'm back in my entrepreneurial chair, and it's kind of an exciting place to be, deciding what direction to take the entity now."

In addition, Silvers and her husband own Hollywood.com, a cable system in Port St. Lucie called Home Town Cable Plus, as well as a group of five radio stations on the Treasure Coast.

"I like to think in many ways I am a thinker," she said. "I sit down and think and come up with new concepts and new ways to do things and to see things ... It's a creative gene. I can't sing, I can't act, but when I get involved in something that is just an idea for me, that is so creative, so exciting. I spend a lot of time just thinking of how to do it."

Ed Iacobucci

Technology guru Ed Iacobucci was born in Buenos Aires, moved to New Jersey in 1962 when he was 9, and believes that may have something to do with his success as an entrepreneur.

"There's something about people coming into the country," he said. "You can do anything you want, you appreciate the environment."

Iacobucci's father was a biochemist, who worked for Squibb in New Jersey and then Coca-Cola in Atlanta. It was family friend Roberto Goizueta, a Cuban immigrant who later became Coca-Cola's chairman, who influenced Iacobucci, teaching him to play golf, taking him to his first baseball game, and encouraging him to pursue a career in business.

He knew he didn't want to become a chemist, because he felt his father was "the smartest guy on earth," and that he couldn't compete with him.

"I always had the desire to build things," said Iacobucci, 58, who created a product -- beer can lighters -- and a company for Junior Achievement during high school, that won him local and national honors.

So he went to Georgia Tech and got a degree in industrial and systems engineering.

"I knew from the first day I wrote my first program that that was what I wanted to do," he said.

IBM offered him a job (after first sending a rejection letter by mistake). In Boca Raton, he led a joint project between Microsoft and IBM, to create OS/2, a next-generation operating system. He camped out at Microsoft, spending time with Bill Gates and Steve Balmer, and wrote the specs for OS/2.

Microsoft had offered him a job, but Iacobucci wanted to go in another direction and turn OS/2 into a multi-user operating system. He had already written the OS/2 Programmers Guide, on which Gates had written the forward.

On his first try, he got top venture capital firm Sevin Rosen Funds interested, and soon he had a round of $3 million to set up his company in Coral Springs in 1989. He chose the name Citrix Systems, after first considering Citrus Systems -- the name of an IBM project to create a multiuser system that IBM never pursued.

Microsoft gave him a license for its operating system, from which Citrix built its multiuser version of its product.

Iacobucci got another round of $8 million of funding, including $2 million from Microsoft and $1 million from Intel, enabling the company to expand.

By 1995, Citrix went public with $14.5 million in revenue, and made its 60 employees instant millionaires, including Iacobucci. At 35, his stock was worth $7 million. But he said his focus was never money.

"It was about changing the world," Iacobucci said. "Money was just a byproduct."

He said he saw an opportunity to change the course of how computing was done. He ran his company like it was a mission, not a job.

Iacobucci admits he was somewhat of a nerd and geek.

"But I had enough polish that I could sell my idea," he said.

Citrix grew so much that Microsoft notified it in February 1997 that it was going to compete, and the stock dropped from $28.75 to $9.75 per share. Iacobucci spent 11 weeks negotiating with Microsoft every day, finally announcing a partnership in June 1997 that sent the stock up to $40. By December, it was trading at more than $70 a share.

Citrix continued to grow, acquiring companies that added value, increasing from $124 million in revenue in 1997 to $249 million in 1998, $403 million in 1999 and $470 million in 2000, when Iacobucci left. He said he had aggressive ideas of growth, and met with reluctance from the board.

"I had been there since the beginning, and if we hadn't taken the risks we had taken, we wouldn't have been there at all," he said.

The company had market capital of more than $20 billion.

"I felt pretty secure in our accomplishments," he said.

Iacobucci was 47. He thought he would retire.

"My retirement lasted 60 days, and I was jumping out of my skin," he said. "I had the urge to do something."

He had bought a plane a year or so earlier to travel for Citrix, for convenience and to save time.

Fractional ownership of jets and full plane charters were expensive and out of reach of most people.

"My idea was that normal people could use this flexibility and productivity if there were a model to sustain it," he said.

Iacobucci spent the next four years with a team, creating scheduling dispatching software that would work for small jets, creating a business model on a per-seat basis, and convincing the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation to approve it. Boca Raton-based DayJet was born, pioneering a new model in aviation.

"It was a technology company that just happened to fly airplanes," he said. The idea: "We won't tell you what the schedule is; you tell us where you want to go and we will tell you how much it costs and we'll make it work."

Iacobucci had invested most of the company's $80 million in start-up capital. But the company's strategy required it to raise another $50 million just when the market was collapsing.

DayJet filed for bankruptcy protection in November 2008, about 14 months after starting service.

"It wasn't the business model or the airplane, it was the lack of growth capital," he said. "... It was the most exciting and amazing thing we ever did, but we got caught in the September 2008 debacle."

He said he learned a valuable lesson in the dismantling of the company, but one he would not like to experience again.

"My objective is to build things and not to tear them down and sell them into pieces," he said. "It was a painful experience, but a valuable one. I think I'm a better entrepreneur because of it."

Iacobucci had sold his Citrix stock and put most of it in DayJet.

"I'm a big believer in following your dreams ... If you really believe in something, you're foolish not to go all in."

After he left DayJet, Iacobucci took some time to think.

"I knew I probably needed to work, so I started looking at different things. My focus was to build something else."

He felt there was a need for a universal index or catalog of everything in a company, all the data, files, emails, etc.

He created VirtualWorks, based in Boca Raton, and bought a small company in Norway that had an enterprise search product, and merged it, converting the product to make it applicable to more companies.

"The future is going to be getting use of all that stuff rather than occupying bits on disks, and I think we are on the forefront of that," he said. "It's about finding out where data is."

Iacobucci, who lives in Delray Beach, has just closed on an $8 million round of financing from high worth individuals, institutions and strategic partners. He has about 150 investors, and he doesn't hold the majority of shares.

With 35 employees, split between South Florida and Norway, VirtualWorks is expected to reach $3 million in revenue this year, he said. And in the first quarter of 2012, VirtualWorks will begin a major marketing launch of the product.

What has driven him most of all is "changing the world and building something that lasts, proving that something can be done."

Money is not even among the top five motivators, he said.

"If you put it at the top, you're almost doomed to failure because you focus on the wrong thing," he said. "You don't focus on innovation. You focus on doing things the way they have been done, because you don't want risk."

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