Updated on May 23rd, 2017.
Mark Bellissimo, 55, is the founder, managing partner, and largest shareholder of a series of equestrian related entities which are focused on creating sport, entertainment, and lifestyle centered around the love of horses.
The flagship partnership is Wellington Equestrian Partners (WEP) based in Wellington Florida. Bellissimo brought together some of the world’s top equestrian families as partners whose passion and commitment to equestrian sport are changing the equestrian landscape.
His entities have invested over $500 million dollars in the equine industry and own and operate some of the largest equestrian venues in the world, including the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, the Tryon International Equestrian Center, the Colorado Horse Park, and the world-renowned International Polo Club.
As CEO of Equestrian Sport Productions, Bellissimo manages the Winter Equestrian Festival which is the largest and longest running Hunter/Jumper event in the world. Bellissimo also created the Global Dressage Festival which is the worlds premiere dressage circuit which also operates over 12 weeks in the winter. The two events run from the beginning of January to the end of March and have up to 3,300 horses showing in any given week and over 7,500 over the duration of the circuit. The events distribute over $10 million dollars in prize money annually. Participants come from 50 states and 43 countries.
In January 2016, WEP purchased the Wanderers Club, a 200 acre private sports club and golf course located 3 minutes from the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. In April 2016, WEP purchased the 248 acre International Polo Club of Palm Beach (IPC) for $74 million dollars. IPC is one of the highest profile polo venues in the world and home of the US Open, the most prestigious polo tournament in the US. The recent purchases in 2016 bring WEP Wellington land holdings to nearly 1000 acres.
Bellissimo is also the owner of International Equestrian Group (IEG) which owns the Chronicle of the Horse media business and the Rolex Central Park Horse Show in NYC, as well as other equestrian related entities and events. In November of 2016, the Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina was selected to host the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Tryon, North Carolina. The event, which is the olympics of equestrian sport, will occur between September 10th–23rd, 2018 and is projected to have over 500,000 attendees over the 14 days and will have an economic impact of over $400 million dollars to the community.
How and when did you get involved in Equestrian Sport?
Our family, my wife, Katherine and our four children, Matthew, 26, Paige, 25, Nicole, 23, and Michael, 21 have been coming to Wellington from Boston since 2000. It was a special place for Katherine, 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 later expanded the partnership to include a diverse group of 10 families. The common denominator of all these families is their love of horses and a passion for Wellington and the equestrian lifestyle.
When did you meet your wife?
In high school—she was 16 and I was 17. We’ve been married 29 years. She is active in the business and manages the sponsorship and marketing portfolio for the entities.
What’s your background?
I grew up in Boston, Mass., attended Middlebury College (Vt.) and received my MBA from Harvard Business School (Mass.).
You mentioned that your wife and daughters ride.
They ride both hunters and jumpers. We keep the horses at our farm in Wellington. My son plays polo.
Do you ride?
I have a Quarter Horse called Easy that my wife and daughters bought me as a christmas present. I really enjoy riding him around the farm and the trails. I built a chute that goes from his paddock to a patio outside my office in North Carolina. I wake up early in the morning when it is dark and he will see my light on, come over and neigh outside my office until I come out and give him a treat. I have trained him to my whistle. If I am on the phone sitting outside the office, he will come and put his head on my lap until I give him a treat. He has become a big dog.
How would your friends describe your character?
During a celebratory dinner on my behalf, a dear friend conveyed, “….great father, husband, respected boss, loyal friend that is always there in good times and bad, who is eager to take on a challenge with a high intensity effort, never discouraged by obstacles thrown in his path and a relentless, but principled pursuit and track record for successful outcomes.” I was honored by the comment.
Some of your efforts are disruptive to some traditions in the sport, How do you deal with your critics?
Change is extremely hard for most people, especially those people who are vested in what they know, feel and touch. Add a level of uncertainty in the outcome of that change, and it creates fear. That fear then evolves into resistance and criticism of the unknown and then criticism of the individuals who are pursuing the change.
This is true for most exploration and invention in history. The fact is, visions do not come with majority support, and the execution of the vision is filled with setbacks in the form of mistakes, failures, and shortcomings that provide fodder for the critics. In response to these setbacks and critics, you can either quit, adapt, or get stronger, smarter, and overcome. If the critics prevail, the status quo prevails, and the corresponding change and opportunities die. You will never know what could have been.
Your willingness to persevere directly correlates to your fundamental belief in the outcome, your resources and your team, because the ultimate fact is, critics do not write great novels, produce great movies, build great buildings, invent cures, lead companies, build products, or change society. They criticize. Criticism is important to improve a process, but it should not be the lasting legacy.
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 $500 million). 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 equestrian sport from an elitist fragmented fringe market into a more respected and valued lifestyle and sport option and to create the premiere lifestyle destinations in the word. 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.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
Making the equestrian centers and its activities relevant, attractive, and engaging to the communities in which they operate.
For the past 10 years we have opened up the facility to the community with great success. During the Winter Equestrian Festival we consistently draw an audience of 6,000-8,000 during our Saturday Night Lights event. The strategy was very focused. First, we had 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 when we started less than 10 percent of non-equestrians in Wellington knew where the facility. I bet now there a close to 50% of the residents have attended an event.
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 is had great success in introducing hundreds of local families to horse sport.
Third, we need to embrace and help grow the pony clubs, low-cost interscholastic public school riding programs, and collegiate programs. Many of these programs start 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 an inaccessible “distant world,” they will become interested, engaged and fellow enthusiasts. Katherine has driven this strategy.
What is your strategy?
In a given year in the US, there are 8 million people who ski, 23 million people who pick up a tennis racquet, 25 million who golf, and 27 million people who will ride a horse. There is a great passion for horses and horse sport, but for many, it is considered a fringe, elitist, inaccessible activity from a sport, leisure, and commercial perspective.
Horse sport in the US (despite being the world’s largest economy) has not reached its potential in terms of competitor participation, sponsorship, and spectatorship. It is far behind Europe and other countries in this regard. This is the result of a number of factors:
• the large number of sporting alternatives in the US;
• urbanization, which has converted horse farms into subdivisions and makes access to entry-level riding programs less accessible;
• participation in the sport is expensive relative to other sporting options;
• many show facilities are located in remote areas with limited spectator options and organizers have little incentive to promote spectatorship as shows generate their primary income from the competitors;
• competition formats can be confusing;
• the lack of developed rider personalities;
• the formal attire of the athletes;
• limited participation and spectatorship in the sport which limits the viability of TV and corresponding media impressions which are critical to generating corporate sponsorship interest – the core driver for true commercial sports.
These factors have created a scenario where to succeed 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. Currently, very few equestrian athletes in the US can generate their primary income through prize money winnings.
Sports such as skiing, tennis, golf, and even car racing went through transitions from hobbies to professions in the US through aggressive efforts to commercialize the sport. 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 target market;
• increased media coverage;
• developing strong sponsorship relationships;
• developing a financial model so that the athletes and organizers can both make money.
The critical economic driver for the success of US 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. Also, there needs to be more productive collaboration between the top riders, event organizers, and the governing bodies in an effort to create athlete and horse “personalities” in the sport and a more engaging and marketable product that attracts media interest and corresponding sponsorship.
There is no silver bullet that will happen overnight; the transformation of horse sport will take well over 10 years. Organizations need to have great patience and capital to shepherd this transformation along. In essence, as an organization, we are embracing the five-step strategy mentioned above. The venues (PBIEC, TIEC, and Colorado) and the events (Central Park Horse Show) we are creating are generating significant spectator and sponsorship interest. We have one of the largest sponsor portfolios in the world with diverse brands like Rolex, Coca Cola, Land Rover, BMW, Bank of America, Fidelity, Hermes, etc.
We believe that Tryon International Equestrian Center is the first equestrian venue that is a dedicated platform to grow the sport across all dimensions (sport, entertainment, lifestyle, and commercial).
What is currently your most interesting non-equestrian project?
Recently, in support or our efforts in Tryon, we started a manufacturing company which I operate called US Precision Construction, which utilizes robotics and automation to manufacture high-end modular structures that can be used for residential, retail, commercial, and hospitality projects. I am excited about its capabilities and the opportunity to change the construction industry. It is a very bold plan, that has really never been done in this country at the level of automation we are pursuing. It will fundamentally and profoundly change the velocity and cost of our development in Tryon.
What is currently your most interesting equestrian project.
Clearly it is the FEI World Equestrian Games that will be held in Tryon on September 10th-23rd, 2018. Our organization is both honored and excited to run this event. We have a great team led by Michael Stone that really understands the sport and we have a great opportunity to present this event to world unlike any other. We are going to run an event called the World Equestrian Expo along side the event with the theme of the “Celebration of the Horse” highlighting the essence of the horse through history and its impact on human life.
What do you hope to be your legacy?
There are two dimensions. First, in the sport, I am hopeful that our venues and events were ground zero for transforming the sport from an elite sport for the privileged few to a sport that is much more accessible and engaging to a population that loves horses. This country was founded on the back of a horse and the power and majesty of the horse has engaged humanity for thousands of years. I think we can bring energy and passion for the horse to a larger audience.
Second, from a community perspective, the Great Charity Challenge presented by Fidelity Investments. This is an event that was founded by my daughter and I and supported by our family, the WEP Partnership, and the equestrian community. In the last seven years the event has raised more than $10 million dollars and is consistently raising over $1.6 million dollars per year. Anne Caroline Valtin is the executive director, and she has done an amazing job driving this event. Without her it would not be the success it is today. We have distributed 100% of the money raised to over 40 randomly selected charities each year and over 200 since the start of the event. It has some guiding principles that are important. 1) 100% of funds get distributed that evening, there are no admin costs (which are covered by our partnership). 2) The Charities must qualify as a 501 c3 in business for over 2 years and have direct operations in Palm Beach County. 3) The 36 annual charities are selected randomly from a pool of 400 charities that register online. 4) The charities are randomly assigned to a teams of riders that are funded by an equestrian family. 5) It is a fun family night, no black ties or formality around the event. The focus is on the spirit of giving. 6) Everyone wins. The money is distributed based on a 3 person relay competition with the 1.6 million distributed in a sliding scale from 1 to 36 teams which all represent a charity. The winning team’s charity gets $150,000 dollars, the 36th place team gets $15,000. We measure the success of the event, not in terms of money raised, but the numbers of lives we touch which at this point is in the tens of thousands.
How will you measure your life’s success?
On June 18th, 2038, I would love to have a family dinner celebrating my 50th wedding anniversary with my wife Katherine, with all of my four children, Matthew, Paige, Nicole, and Michael, and grandchildren (to be named later), who are all happy and healthy, at our summer home in New Hampshire (which is our family’s favorite place to be). Obviously, there are a great number of successes embedded into a very desirable single event.
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