A conversation with FTBOA CEO and Executive Vice President Lonny T. Powell
As CEO and Executive Vice President of the FTBOA, Lonny Powell has definitely hit the ground running. He recently sat down with Editor-In-Chief Brock Sheridan and discussed his views, goals and visions for the FTBOA and the Florida Thoroughbred industry.
TFH: So you’ve been in Ocala and the CEO of the FTBOA for almost nine months. In a nutshell, what have those months generally been like? How has your leadership and vision been received so far?
LP: We’ve been pretty busy on multiple fronts so the time has really flown by. So far it’s been “all good” from the big picture perspective. I have been pleased and humbled by the positive reception I have had extended to me by our staff, board, vast majority of members, our local community and state racing and agriculture industries. The hopes and expectations are high and I like that. Like everything else in this world, nothing comes easy and the work can be hard but that goes with the territory.
TFH: And what do you think of Ocala so far, including the people?
LP: I love being a Floridian–it seems so natural and comfortable. Ocala and Marion County are such great places to live and work. The quality of life here combined with its intimate size and postcard like beauty, place it at the top of my list at this juncture in my life. You also have to love the emphasis on the horse and general enthusiasm associated with it within the community. I can’t think of a better place to breed, raise, own or train horses on a year-round basis than Florida. Furthermore, the training facilities, farms and deep history surrounding the thoroughbred industry in the Ocala and Marion County area really are awe inspiring!
As far as Members and those associated with the local thoroughbred business and community go, I’d call them: a) resilient b) proud c) passionate for their horses and what they do and d) “ROI challenged” – particularly with the current national and local economy.
We are so fortunate that the vast majority of our membership share our vision of progress and constructive rebuilding for the future. They don’t take their eye off the ball or get caught up with the easy way out of tearing-down and being constant critics for critics’ sake. We are blessed to have today an overall membership that embraces facts, progress, enthusiasm and accountability versus disinformation, negativity and distraction.
I must also say that I have been so impressed with the FTBOA board who I work closely with. They are a super, forward –thinking group. Additionally, the staff and I get incredible face time with our officers- Brent [Fernung], Francis [Vanlangendonck], Bonnie [Heath] and Sheila [DiMare] as well as past president Fred Brei. They really care, volunteer and support.
As far as the leader of our board- “Dr. Phil” [Matthews] goes, he is truly “The Man” for these times. He has been key to this association embracing a forward-thinking vision. He is a humble yet confident leader with a strong moral and ethical compass. It is amazing how much we also share a common philosophy on FTBOA, the industry and life in general in so many ways (yet we never met ‘til last winter). Dedicated, wise, supportive, gracious with his valuable time and a stellar human being is the best way I can describe Phil.
TFH: Prior to your arrival in Florida earlier this year, did you have any experience with the Florida thoroughbred industry?
LP: Fortunately, yes. As the president of Racing Commissioners International, the State of Florida was one of my members. I worked with a couple of Division directors as well as staff and officials. While with Youbet.com I did extensive work with Kent [Stirling], Sammy [Gordon] and all of the [Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association]. As the first head of racing operations for Magna Entertainment [Corporation], I was involved in the purchase and operation of Gulfstream Park whose president at the time, Doug Donn, reported to me. I also was the one MEC dispatched to personally negotiate the experimental “Hialeah Lease” with John Brunetti. Over the years I’ve spent time in meetings with other Florida folks like Tampa’s Stella Thayer, FTBOA’s Dick Hancock [then Calder’s] Ken Dunn as well as many of the greyhound track owners and operators.
[Ocala Breeders’ Sales] president Tom Ventura is a friend plus worked at my side as my assistant when I was first hired to oversee the [University of Arizona] Race Track Industry academic and outreach program in the mid-80’s. As an aside, some of my best childhood memories center around the time my mom, dad and I lived in Hialeah while my father rode there and Tropical Park for a couple of winters.
TFH: What was it like growing up on the track and as a jockey’s son? Do you care to share any childhood memories that still stand out in your mind?
LP: I was raised around all types of horses and a myriad of racetracks since early childhood. It was the world I grew up in that put food on the family table, as it still does today. During high school and college, I worked on the track maintenance crew (starting with working as the janitor in the Les Bois Park jockeys’ room and paddock-that was character-building) and eventually climbed the racing jobs ladder as a jockey valet and member of the starting gate crews on the Idaho and Arizona “bush circuit”.
One of my best childhood memories was our family living in a trailer parked on the beach next to Del Mar race track during the summers my Dad rode there. It was a kid’s paradise. To this day I find going to beaches to be magical experiences.
My low-point as a five or six year old “backstretch brat” was getting in trouble with track security at the original Arlington Park after getting caught shooting my mail order Yahoo Mountain Dew pop gun off at exercise riders galloping around the training track. It was a stupid kid thing to do, and I had no idea at that age it could be dangerous for others. Believe me, as much as uniformed track security and the [Thoroughbred Racing & Protective Bureau] scared me, my Dad was much harder on me at the end of that day after the races. So I think Arlington–knowing how “old-school” my Dad wa–cut me some slack knowing what I was in for at home. Let’s just say I never behaved too badly at the track from that point forward!
TFH: Your career path and experience are well known to many: president of numerous successful tracks and national associations, academic, regulator, [Advance Deposit Wagering] operator, corporate executive, a Cabinet member for a state governor among others. How have these experiences served you in your new FTBOA CEO position?
LP: I collectively rely on all of these experiences, situations, knowledge gained, contacts and relationships forged to best serve the FTBOA, our membership and industry. I must also say that I have enjoyed my career and I am blessed that this industry has been so good to me and afforded so many opportunities to work with great people and organizations while making a positive impact.
TFH: You mentioned that prior to your “responsible adult” years, you worked various jobs around the track ranging from track maintenance to jockey valet to assistant starter. How did those early years help mold your approach to the racing and breeding industry?
LP: Again, just as was the case with the previous question, I do not think I could be nearly as effective or empathetic in the various leadership positions I have held since without the benefit of having worked in the trenches and on the frontlines, getting a little (actually a lot of) manure, sweat and blood on my clothes. In addition to representing a really fun time of my life, the experience was invaluable for the future and for building character.
TFH: In a nutshell, explain the role of the FTBOA within the Florida breeding and racing industries and how your position as CEO supports that role?
LP: FTBOA is a not-for-profit association which represents and provides a voice for thoroughbred breeders and owners who breed, raise, train and race horses born in Florida. We administer a popular awards program which encourages individuals to participate in the industry in our Sunshine State. In conjunction with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the FTBOA also is charged with promoting and marketing the industry throughout the country and around the world.
As CEO I oversee the management, advocacy, public relations, development and strategic activities and initiatives of the Association. I make sure that we execute upon policy as directed by our board and its chair.
TFH: It seems your position is not only one of business, advocacy and public relations, it is very much a part of the Florida agriculture, animal science and ag business communities? Do you have any background or ties to agriculture?
LP: Fortunately, I come from an agriculture, in addition to horse, background while growing up in Idaho and California. During high school, I belonged to the FFA [Future Farmers of America] where I went on to win the state public speaking and poultry judging awards. Ultimately, I was elected state president. I attended the Colleges of Agriculture at the University of Arizona (UA) and Idaho, and later became a faculty member in the Department of Animal Sciences and Agriculture at UA. I am also a former trustee and officer for the state of Arizona 4-H.
Florida is a huge agricultural state and the FTBOA and thoroughbred horse Industry has long been looked upon as one of the key and high-profile contributors to our state ag mix. With agriculture, you either know it or don’t. You can’t really fake it. Currently, I have been named to four ag-related and state sponsored governing and/or advisory boards and committees since my arrival this year. We are fortunate that our FTBOA “brand” gets us an empowered seat at those governance and policy-making tables.
TFH: In addition to your FTBOA position as CEO, what other capacities do you currently serve or volunteer?
LP: I also serve as FEP [Florida Equine Publications] CEO & EVP [executive vice president], Florida Thoroughbred Charities executive director, OTR [Ocala Thoroughbred Racing] CEO & EVP. I have recently been appointed to serve on the boards of several Florida entities including the state animal technical committee, the Florida Horse Park, the Farm Bureau equine advisory committee, the Marion County Agriculture Alliance, the Ocala Marion County Chamber of Commerce equine/ agriculture committee. Nationally, I continue to serve on the advisory council for the University of Arizona and have returned to the racing committee of the American Horse Council.
TFH: The pari-mutuel industry nationally and locally faces many challenges. Can you discuss a few of these that are “close to home”?
LP: There are many. Like virtually all of our peers throughout the country, we’re working to improve the economics and conditions while navigating the path for the future of the business. All while working to resist further decline in the interim. And our Members specifically are “job one”. Each and every day can involve a plethora of issues and initiatives (most planned, some spontaneous).
We also have remained ever-vigilant in the political and industry relations arenas as we attempt to address - in the best interest of our members - a whole host of potential issues. These involve things as grand of a scale as destination casino-resorts legislation for South Florida, revisiting the economics of ADWs and all the way to the “bizarre”. Of all things, we face the highly questionable quarter horse “pari-mutuel barrel racing” meets and related rogue facility permits, which lack legitimate horsemen’s representation or participation.
In addition, much effort has been made in working with the small, hard-working and dedicated FTBOA and FEP staff in modernizing and re-tooling our office operations, policies, practices and procedures. We have also spent considerable effort working with the board as well as newly launched advisory member committees. Efforts are moving forward with a small (but growing) band of member volunteers to do such things as review our by-laws, discuss certain stakes programs and undertake community outreach efforts. There has been progress made to one degree or another on all fronts with much more work still to do. As in many cases, certain challenges have the potential to be converted into opportunities.
I’d like to refer back to our staff one more time and clearly let the readers know that we have a great staff in our FTBOA building. I see their hard work and dedication each day-even in the face of sometimes thankless tasks and unnecessary distractions-though, again, they all get that this all goes with the territory. I am also excited about the management team I have working at my side –Becky [Robinson], Patrick [Vinzant], Caroline [Davis], Brock [Sheridan] and Tammy [Gantt] have risen to the challenges and opportunities like the first-round draft picks I was confident they had the potential of being. Though Team FTBOA/FEP may be modest in size, these folks move mountains of work trying to make this association and membership the best it can be. Their dedication and enthusiasm ranks up there with the very best management teams I have had the pleasure of being associated with. It is a priveledge to have them on my team.
TFH: You’ve used the word “transition” a couple of times during this interview regarding FTBOA. Can you expand upon what that means to you?
LP: Certainly, life in general and our industry specifically is full of transitions, especially if you are going to evolve, modernize and progress. I guess what we all pretty much mean in this case is that we as an association for the first time in over 20 years are no longer under the management of long-time former executive VP Dick Hancock. It’s a pretty big deal when an organization makes a change after that many years.
One of the things that I have spent a significant part of my career on and have been fortunate enough to have seen some great things happen under the umbrella of transition. Over the years I have been heavily involved in transition related projects including mergers and acquisitions, restructuring, start-ups or otherwise re-invigorating businesses and associations in need of a new spark or alternative path. Transitions can represent wonderful and exciting opportunities for an organization and its leadership provided the right people, vision and motivations are in place.
TFH: Can you share a few of the goals you are targeting?
LP: Florida is too strong of a thoroughbred and horse state to allow it to ever become irrelevant. Just last month, the Jockey Club reported that only Florida stallions produced more foals this year compared to last year. Florida was the only one in the top ten states to have an increase - the others - Kentucky, New York, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, California, New Mexico, Texas, Ontario, etc. showed actual decreases in this area. Our local marketplace is continuing to show signs of new life investment….mares and stallions are now coming in from other jurisdictions and helping fill-in some holes left in the past 5 years or so. Still, there is so much more work and improvement within our industry that must be focused on. We must continue to set our sights and progress and most of all lead - as is the case with the rogue and destructive quarter horse barrel racing movement. We defend and protect our thoroughbred industry. We are in a building and looking-forward mode at FTBOA.
Accordingly, much of our effort has and will be aimed at doing our part in working on continued increased awards and purses, growing membership, stabilizing the foal crop, facilitating demand for Florida-bred and Florida–owned horses in the hyper-competitive international marketplace and receiving our economic fair share from [Advance Deposit Wagering] and other track or gaming-driven revenues. Bottom line is we have in our fast, competitive and consistently performing Florida thoroughbreds, a proven, solid and highly regarded brand and product strengths with room to be enhanced and built upon. That’s what we plan to do. That’s what we will do with the support, unity and forward vision of our membership.