To Felix Sabates, success is more than just knowing how to pick a winner. His uncanny ability to identify product trends, as well as his natural panache, have helped him achieve enviable success as one of the most affluent, respected and recognized businessmen in America. He tempers his successes, however, with a realistic approach when necessary, saying, “When one discovers he is riding a dead horse, the best idea is to dismount.” It is precisely this distinction that has Sabates cruising Victory Lane.
The Charlotte entrepreneur is frequently making news in his diverse business interests. This past fall he was awarded the Chairman’s Award at the Charlotte Chamber’s Small Business Council Entrepreneur Awards. It took him quite by surprise, even though so richly deserved. He has held interests at various times in professional indoor soccer teams, the World Football League, the NBA Charlotte Hornets and the Charlotte Checkers — getting in on the ground floor and selling at a substantial profit. Earlier this year he sold a majority interest in Team Sabco, his NASCAR research and development team, to Chip Ganassi. And most recently he sold Top Sales Company, the enterprise he grew from a two-man outfit to $500 million in sales, to his employees.
These days Sabates occupies himself in large part being owner and president of Victory Lane Enterprises, which designs and sells mega motoryachts. And he’ll probably sell that too when the timing and the price is right. “I’ve never gone into a business where I didn’t think I had a chance to succeed,” he admits. “But I don’t really need to own anything.”
In hindsight, his achievements seem inevitable, but at 16, Felix Sabates didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He had a feeling it was going to be big, though.
“A lot of people thought I wouldn’t amount to anything,” he says, “but I knew better. It was just a matter of time.” As a Cuban refugee, he didn’t speak English and lacked a high school diploma. He counted all of $25, two boxes of Cuban cigars and a few changes of clothing as his only possessions. However, Felix Sabates brought with him an instinct for business and a rich family history to draw upon.
His maternal grandfather had been an executive with the Cuban National Railroad; his paternal grandfather founded a successful jewelry enterprise. The Sabates family were a prominent clan in Cuba, with holdings spanning many businesses — cattle ranches and sugar-cane farms, service stations, drugstores, jewelry stores, a car dealership and optical shops.
But more important than the material trappings were Sabates’ family values. “I come from a very strong family,” he says. “I had a good upbringing. My grandfathers taught us right from wrong and not to look back. And my father was the same way.”
After leaving Castro’s Cuba, the family couldn’t look back. They lost everything. Sabates’ father, concerned about his son’s teenage antics amid the country’s deteriorating political situation, shuttled him out of the country first. Sabates left his parents and six siblings behind.
Although Felix was the scion of a well-to-do Cuban family, it certainly didn’t look that way in 1959. The displaced teen relocated to Boston under the care of an aunt and uncle. He went to school to learn English and worked in a city hospital washing pots and pans. Stubborn, clashing often with his aunt, Sabates soon found himself kicked out of the house.
He gave up on school and moved with a relative to Columbia, Missouri.
To make ends meet, he washed pots and pans at the University of Missouri Medical Center and later worked as an orderly. Despite the menial drudgery, Sabates wasn’t fazed.
“When you’re 16, you’re just happy to have a few dollars in your pocket,” he insists. “You don’t know whether you’re having problems or not.”
Early on, Sabates found his gift for sales. At a friend’s suggestion, he tried his hand at selling aluminum cookware. His poor English dashed hopes of selling door-to-door, but he found a creative solution to this predicament. He and his friends hawked cookware on street corners, offering free pie pans to generate interest.
“Back then,” he explains, “young women stored housewares in hope chests for when they got married.
“If we saw a young woman without a wedding ring, we gave her a pie pan. If she would arrange a party where we could make a presentation to her friends, we’d give her a starter set for free.”
It was an offer the women wouldn’t refuse. Fast-talking Sabates made enough money to quit his job at the medical center. But he was still barely eking out a living.
In 1963, the Catholic Church resettled his mother and siblings in Lexington, N.C. Sabates soon followed. He joined his family, housed in an old funeral parlor, and worked double shifts sanding furniture in a factory to keep them afloat. Far from being discouraged by the seemingly endless cycle of poverty, Sabates was grateful.
“People in Lexington were very good to us,” he says, “They brought us furniture, clothes, food and everything. And I was grateful that the company let me work double shifts.”
Eventually, the Catholic Church helped the Sabates family relocate to Charlotte. (Their father finally escaped from Cuba to join the family in 1965.) Sabates was picking up a friend at the Charlotte airport one day when he noticed a Se habla Espanol sign at the National Car Rental desk. The owner, Hardy Spatz, was an Austrian Jew who had moved to Cuba during World War II. Spatz had known Sabates’ father so he offered Sabates a job. Despite the family connection, this job was also hard work. Sabates parked and washed cars, often working double shifts.
Fortunately, however, not only did he find a job at the airport, Sabates also met his future wife there. He married the North Carolina native, Carolyn Pearce, in 1964.
“Carolyn was always telling me, ‘As much as you talk, you ought to be a salesman,’ ” Sabates says. So he applied at Charlotte Chrysler and Plymouth, but the manager wasn’t too keen on hiring a Cuban. Undaunted, Sabates made the manager an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I told him, ‘If I don’t sell more cars than anyone else here in 30 days, fire me.’ ” Sabates hit the streets passing out brochures and attracting customers. In less than 30 days, he was the dealership’s top salesman. Soon he moved on to bigger City Chevrolet and was making enough money to support his wife and daughter as well as buy a house.
“But I didn’t like selling cars,” he confesses. “I liked selling, but I was never comfortable with the financing packages and closing rooms.”
He turned to a customer, Walter Reich, for his next move. Reich was another Austrian Jew who knew Sabates’ family during a brief tenure in Cuba. Reich represented manufacturers, selling toys, electronics and novelty items to pawnshops, hardware stores, furniture stores and mom-and-pop variety stores.
Reich asked him how much he was making. Sabates told him $400, which Reich agreed to match. Sabates resigned from his car salesman job; his manager was less than thrilled. He predicted, “You’ll fail and come back here begging for your job.”
Eager to prove him wrong, Sabates worked hard, but at the end of the first week, he didn’t get a paycheck. Nor at the second or third. Dipping into savings, Sabates and his wife grew concerned.
“At the end of the month,” he says, “Walter gave me a check for $400. He thought I meant $400 a month.”
Sabates had meant $400 a week. Devastated, he considered begging for his job back at City Chevrolet. His wife, Carolyn, thought otherwise. She encouraged him to stay put and took on two jobs to support her husband’s new sales career.
Sabates managed to talk Reich into putting him on commission, but the first sales quota was high. Reich had set the bar at one million in sales, even though the company had never made anywhere near a million dollars before. As a manufacturer’s representative, Sabates peddled cheap transistor radios and low-priced hair dryers. But he did surpass the million-dollar goal. After a few short years, Walter Reich fell ill and offered him the company. Sabates purchased it over the next few years.
Top Sales Company
At his wife’s suggestion, Sabates renamed the firm as Top Sales Company in 1969. Topp Electronics Company, a Miami, Fla.-based radio importer, was a well-known multi-million dollar supplier for Sabates. Carolyn figured if people confused the two companies, her husband could only benefit.
“It did open a lot of doors,” Sabates says. “People thought it was Topp, a multi-million dollar company out of Miami, instead of Top out of Charlotte.”
Sabates began to court a different kind of retailer — catalog showrooms and discounters like Best Products (now Circuit City) in Richmond and Service Merchandise in Nashville. By the 1970s, Top Sales Company was off and running. He added a team of salespeople and a company plane to his arsenal. Not only did the plane impress potential clients, it enabled him to outmaneuver the competition, which lost valuable time driving to make sales calls.
“With a single engine airplane, I could beat them to the customer,” he says. “You mention to the customer you’ve got an airplane, they think, ‘Whatever he’s got, it must be good.’”
His tactics worked. Sabates was a success. But even more success was yet to come in 1979, with an electronic game called Pong, made by a new company, Atari. Sabates had exclusive rights to distribute Atari throughout the entire South-east region. It soon became a recreational force among the youth of the ’80s and exceeded all sales figures projected.
Sabates’ streak of successes continued with subsequent product lines and investments. There was Teddy Ruxpin, the talking teddy bear, in 1983. The doll maker, in which Sabates had invested, had sales of $100 million in its first five months. Others followed — Nintendo games, Canon copiers, Mirata fax machines, Emerson VCRs, Uniden cordless phones, and Compaq computers.
Sabates was no less successful with his Top Sales Company, which had expanded dramatically to six branches serving the Southeast, Mid Atlantic, and South Central United States, with over $500 million in sales and products distributed through Circuit City, 7-11, Radio Shack, Office Depot, Lowe’s and Eckerd Drug.
Earlier this year Sabates sold Top Sales to his employees. “I chose to sell it to them,” he explains. “That was my way of paying them back for what they have done for me. I’d grown conservative in the business over the past few years. It was time to move on.” The new owners were no less appreciative, electing Sabates Chairman of the Board for the next five years.
Another of Sabates’ interests, long held since his arrival in Charlotte, was NASCAR. With his wife a die-hard fan of Richard Petty, he was a marked man. In 1988 he bought a research and development team from businessman Rick Hendrick, the beginnings of Team Sabco. Over the years the team has had many successes, but Sabates again felt that it was time to move on. Effective earlier this year, he sold an 80 percent majority interest in Team Sabco to Chip Ganassi.
“It takes racing people to take the team to the next level. And I’m not a racer. I wanted to sell it to someone who could make the team grow.”
Sabates is once again paring down his holdings; he is fond of saying, “When you’re green, you’re growing. When you’re ripe, you’re dead.” Having achieved success on land, it appears he’s now going to try to walk on water.
Victory Lane Enterprises
He has taken up another interest at the helm of his own yachting enterprise — Victory Lane Enterprises, Ltd. In a way he is returning to his youthful days by the waterside in Cuba, but with more bravado. Victory Lane is part of Charlotte-based American Show Boats Company, which designs and sells mega motoryachts in conjunction with builder Trinity Marine of New Orleans, La.
The vessels Sabates’ company produces range from 100 to 222 feet in length and have a worldwide reputation as some of the most luxurious and easily maneuvered boats on the water.
Each year the company sells out its full production capacity well in advance and is continually scouting for more yacht builders. Maximum capacity to date is about two to three a year; production time is about three years. Starting price for a Victory Lane yacht is around $10 million for a 126-footer. The 177-foot Seahawk, commissioned by Jim Mattei, runs $32.5 million. The yachts rival the best of European yachts (considered preeminent) and the interiors themselves rival the grandeur of the most plush furniture stores and elegant decorating magazines.
Sabates is no stranger to the boating industry, having purchased his original runabout for $400 many years ago to becoming a licensed yacht broker in Florida. A number of years ago, the land and marina where he docked his boat in Florida were up for sale. He bought them; little did he know or even suspect that Congress was about to levy a luxury tax on boats. The tax was repealed a few years later and business did pick up again. At that point Winthrop Rockefeller purchased his marina at a better price than he originally had paid for the land and marina. Several years later he sold the land as well at a considerable profit.
Sabates spends part of every week in New Orleans, but he is nevertheless devoted to his family. He has been married to wife, Carolyn, for 37 years now and the couple continues to reside in south Charlotte. They have three children and six grandchildren.
His children have interesting occupations as well. Son Chany is CEO of Invencom here in Charlotte, manufacturing gas-activated forcible entry devices. His daughter Mimi owns her own design firm, Perfect Designs. And Son Mario speculates in the real estate market.
Sabates also focuses much attention on civic activities. He serves on the Board of Directors for Carolinas Health Care Systems, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the Windmere Corporation, and the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. He is equally well known for his many philanthropic contributions and has received several honors and awards for his generosity. Belmont Abbey has named its dining hall after him, Elon college bestowed upon him an Honorary Doctorate Degree, and he received a “Special Blessing” in writing from the Pope.
As he approaches 60, Sabates just doesn’t want to be doing the same things he did twenty years ago.
“I’m going to play a lot of golf, play with my grandkids and travel,” he says. “All the traveling I ever did was on business. This time I’m going places that I’ve already been to, but never really seen.”
He jokes, “I’ll probably be bored in six months. Then I’ll find something else to do.”