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January 17, 2012

Get To Know Mark Bellissimo

Mark Bellissimo believes that sharing the excitement of horse shows with the public will benefit the industry. Photo by Randi Muster.

Mark Bellissimo, 49, is managing partner and the largest shareholder of Wellington Equestrian Partners LLC, which includes Equestrian Sport Productions LLC. ESP operates the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla., attracting more than 5,000 horses from 49 states and 30 countries with more than $6 million in prize money to their Palm Beach International Equestrian Center each winter.

How and when did the Wellington Equestrian Partners begin?
Our family—my wife, Katherine and our four children, Matthew, 21, Paige, 20, Nicole, 18, and Michael, 16—had been coming to Wellington from Boston since 2000. It was a special place for Katherine and Paige and Nicole to compete and for Matt and Michael to get away from the cold New England winters.

In 2004, we moved to Wellington full time. In 2005, we purchased one of the last horse properties in Grand Prix Village, only to find out days later that the Stadium Jumping Inc.’s lease of the show grounds, which was projected to expire in 2008, was potentially in default. Gene Mische [who created WEF] understood the limitations of the business and the facility but knew he did not have financial resources to take this event to the next level.

[I’ve had significant experience with] corporate restructurings and business turnarounds. I’ve been involved in a diverse set of industries including airlines, manufacturers, software and service companies. The common theme in failing/flailing companies is the lack of focus and discipline in understanding the relationship between evolving market conditions, customer value propositions and business cost structures/capital investments. I believe this to be true also in the horse show business.

Without getting into detail, I worked with Gene to put a plan in place that would be a call to action. Our group would purchase the Wellington show grounds from Palm Beach Polo and would ensure that WEF would become a permanent fixture in Wellington.

The Wellington Equestrian Partners was formed in early 2006, with three partners—myself, Dennis Dammerman and Roger Smith—and our wives. Our vision was to transform Wellington from a town with a large horse show to a community with a vibrant equestrian industry that would include a world-class showgrounds, enhanced lifestyle options and a family friendly offering that would be integrated into the community.

We expanded the partnership to include a diverse group of 20 families. The common denominator of all these families is their love of horses and a passion for Wellington and the equestrian lifestyle.

You mentioned that your wife and daughters ride.
They ride both hunters and jumpers. We keep the horses at our farm in Wellington.

When did you meet your wife?
In high school—she was 16 and I was 17. We’ve been married 24 years.

What’s your background?
I grew up in Boston, Mass., attended Middlebury College (Vt.) and received my MBA from Harvard Business School (Mass.).

What’s your involvement in ESP?

While I oversee a number of personal private equity investments, I’ve pretty much evolved to WEP and ESP full time. This has turned into a larger investment and a larger scope project than I originally anticipated (more than $200 million), and I personally have tens of millions of dollars of capital invested. It’s much more of a lifestyle investment as I’ve had the pleasure of interacting and working with my wife and family on this endeavor, and I’ve developed some great relationships/friendships with my partners.

What is the overall goal?
To transform Wellington from a community with a large, seven-week horse show and playground for the wealthy into the premiere equestrian lifestyle destination in the world. The vision is centered around the love of the horse and making the sport more accessible to anyone with an interest, regardless of financial resources—whether a direct participant or a spectator.

Our strategy was broken into five key steps: acquire all of the assets necessary to make it a world-class facility (the showgrounds, the licenses, ancillary property); improve the footing in the rings, traffic patterns, and public spectator options; expand the shows from seven weeks to more than 40 weeks by expanding and diversifying the product offerings; engage the community by moving away from the elitist private club and open up the event and the facility to the community; and lastly, expand and preserve the commercial elements in order to attract and support local businesses, create full-time jobs, attract more exhibitors, spectators and sponsors.

Do you travel to other venues for inspiration?
I’ve been to the usual suspects in the United States, and I’ve gone to Calgary [Alberta], Rome, the Leipzig World Cup [Germany], a couple of local German shows and Olympia [the London International Horse Show].

Have you based your business on a model or modeled it after something you’ve seen?
Our goal is to provide the best equestrian show experience in the industry from the perspective of the quality of the competition, the facility (with a focus on footing), and the general lifestyle experience. 

The second level of our business model is in its infancy and is focused on developing the high end of the sport. We want to create world-class events that are well attended by spectators and heavily sponsored to create a true commercial sport for the top equestrian athletes (and a goal for those amateurs who aspire to be professionals).   

Let’s face it: Currently, you have to be independently wealthy, have a strong owner or be extremely productive in horse acquisition and sales as a trainer to survive in the top level of the sport. Sports such as tennis, golf, bowling and car racing went through transitions from hobbies to professions. (Europe is far ahead of us on this issue.) Most often that transition comes as a result of executing five steps; structuring the event to ensure a high level of spectator interest, aggressive promotion of the sport to the community, increased media coverage, developing strong sponsorship relationships, and finally developing a financial model so that the athletes and the organizers can both make money.  

The critical economic driver for the success of the “top” sport is sponsorship. Without a strong sponsorship model there’s no meaningful top sport in this country, and there’s no financial model for the riders. There needs to be more productive collaboration between the top riders and organizers in an effort to create “personalities” in the sport and a more engaging and marketable product that attracts media interest and corresponding sponsorship. We’re investing in this future, but it’s a long, slow process.

What’s been the biggest challenge?
Making the equestrian center and its activities relevant to the community.

Over the next few years we’re going to be opening up the facility to the community. First, we have to get people to know about the facility by providing high quality, low cost entertainment that inspires them to come learn about equestrian sport. I would estimate that less than 30 percent of non-equestrians know where the facility is and less than 10 percent have ever been there.

Second, we have to create an access point or vehicle that allows families in the community to experience the majesty of the sport through free lessons, camps, accessible riding programs and a scholarship program for children—that vehicle is the Palm Beach Riding Academy, and it will soon be moved to the old polo stadium at the corner of South Shore and Pierson.

Third, we need to create a low-cost interscholastic public school riding program that starts in elementary school and ends up in high school and allows the participants to become positioned to access the tens of millions of dollars of collegiate scholarships. 

Once people become insiders to the sport and not observers to a “distant world,” they will become interested, engaged and fellow enthusiasts. I’m excited because my wife and daughter, Nicole, who is a high school senior, and I are going to work together to develop the strategy and get it implemented. I think this is attainable within the next three to five years.

What’s it like at the Bellissimo house? Do you have any non-equine pets?
We have five dogs. A Great Pyrenees named Daisy and four Shih Tzus: Cassie, Lexie, Bentley and Coco.

What are three items that can always be found in your fridge?
Chobani Greek yogurt, Jell-o chocolate pudding and sparkling water.

What’s your favorite home-cooked meal?
Nearly every month, Katherine does a great turkey dinner—from scratch. Like a holiday meal, but not just for the holidays.

One of your most anticipated projects is the new dressage facility and Global Dressage Festival. How did this project come about?
Shortly after purchasing the old polo stadium property in 2007, Michael Stone and I thought that it would be a great home for dressage. We then got preoccupied in renovating the core show grounds and decided to put it in hold.

In January 2011, [six-time Olympian] Robert Dover, frustrated by the lack of a world-class dressage product in Wellington, approached us to see if we could work collaboratively on a product for dressage. We met, identified the old polo stadium as the right venue and put together a plan.

I think within three years it will be the premiere dressage destination in the world.

Tell me about the equestrian village/dressage project. What can people expect?
By 2007, the old polo stadium property, which was once Wellington’s signature equestrian property within Palm Beach Polo, had been subdivided and was held by four different owners. Some local developers had plans to build a strip mall and a senior care facility on the South Shore side of this famous property. It would have been a shame. My wife and I always thought it was a special property.

In many ways the two premiere venues, PBIEC and the International Polo Club, are at a disadvantage in that they are tucked away from major roads and not widely known by the local residents. Each year, I’m approached by someone who says, “I’ve been here for 20 years and never knew this existed.”

This property, given its special location, should become the gateway to Wellington’s equestrian world, and the hotel/resort facility should be a defining element—a great architectural feature (the hotel) that is tastefully done and accessible and prominent, where all residents of the community feel welcome and can be introduced to and celebrate the equestrian lifestyle and the sport it supports. 

The WEP Partnership purchased the four properties in late 2007 with the hope of one day returning it to the status of Wellington’s signature equestrian property. That time is now. 

What do you hope to be WEP’s legacy?
The FTI Consulting Great Charity Challenge. My daughter, Paige, is a co-founder with me.

In two years, the event has raised more than $1.5 million and is targeting to raise $1.5 million this year alone. In five years, we hope that it’s at least a $5 million annual event, which allows us to showcase and financially support the broad missions of 32 Palm Beach charities. They’re randomly selected from a pool of more than 200 applicants that serve Palm Beach County. Then, the charities are randomly assigned to teams made up of one Olympic equestrian and two junior/amateur jumper riders, and they compete in a relay race where every team charity wins prize money ranging from $10,000 to $150,000 dollars.

We see it as an educational event, intended to inspire others to support Palm Beach County charities. One hundred percent of the money raised gets distributed to the charities. The event costs are all absorbed by WEP, and the winnings must be spent in Palm Beach County.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Get To Know Mark Bellissimo" ran in the January 16 & 23, 2012, issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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