Earlier this month, Lonny Powell assumed his duties as CEO of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association, replacing longtime executive Richard Hancock, who retired Dec. 31 in the wake of growing dissatisfaction rippling throughout the FTBOA’s membership.
Powell has a resume that encompasses racetrack management (from small tracks like Longacres and Turf Paradise to large ones like Santa Anita), advance deposit wagering, regulatory and legislative issues, and higher education. He has served as a director/member on numerous industry boards and task forces, as well as industry charities.
What are your immediate goals in your new role at FTBOA?
I want to have an immediate positive impact on the spirit of the staff, membership and entire association. We will do so by clearly and enthusiastically declaring that this is a period of re-tooling, new vision and forward thinking.
Enhanced communications on all levels with a new focus on individual as well as team accountability will bring our office and Association up to the level of expectations we have for FTBOA.
I think the most positive feedback I have gotten so far has been based on the reception over my own personal style and personality – a consummate communicator, very outgoing, not afraid to debate, a straight-shooter, speaks from experience, big sense of humor.
As you know, I really do love and understand this business and would guess that I have one of the most diverse and successful backgrounds. I try to be a good listener and am always trying to learn more. I am a big people/relationship person with a major work ethic and strong moral and leadership compass.
I want my members and Association to have no doubt and feel comfortable at all times that their CEO has the level of experience, street smarts, brains, fortitude, confidence and presence to best represent their collective needs and interests.
We are about a new vision and esprit de corps.
What are the biggest challenges the FTBOA faces, and what are its greatest resources?
Like any breed association, we continue to keep our eyes on the national, regional and local foal crops. That plus a very dynamic state gaming market keeps a guy like me in an industry CEO position like this on point and looking for every possible intended and unintended ramification.
Our greatest resources remain our quality home breds, nationally renowned racing scene, and, of course, our people – those who invest incredible increments of time and treasure in order to breed and/or own Florida Thoroughbreds.
How do you build consensus between the small breeders and larger operations?
If you step back and think about it, this is one of the constant challenges faced by any membership organization How do we represent and take care of all levels of membership … from large to small to in between … from recruiting new members to retaining existing members?
When I was at RCI (Association of Racing Commissioners International), it was more of an issue for “big” states and provinces (in terms of industry and wagering) not wanting to see their votes smothered over by the “little” jurisdictions. When on the TRA (Thoroughbred Racing Associations) Board, it was oftentimes “the big tracks vs the little tracks.”
There is no perfect way to represent competitive and sometimes disparate parties. What we need to do as leaders within our associations is always remain cognizant as to the somewhat different needs and perspectives and points of view that exist across our membership and industry segments. I try to unite and collaborate when working towards some reasonable level of consensus. This type of ability to work and cooperate with others has helped me significantly throughout my career and life.
Have you studied or immersed yourself in Florida breeding enough to have an understanding of why, in a state rich in Thoroughbred tradition, the foal crop and stallion population has declined so significantly at the same time slot machines were added to the two South Florida racetracks?
What we all need to keep in mind (are you listening out there “have-not states”?) is just because we have Racinos does not mean that the hard work is over. In fact, I would suggest that the work has only just begun.
There are also plenty of other competitive Racino markets that pull breeding stock such as New York, Pennsylvania and Louisiana based on the programs and economic incentives offered in those other states.
The good news from an indicator perspective is it seems like our stallion numbers have hit bottom and now are slowly climbing back up. We are also seeing a little more life on the sales front at places like here at OBS and Kentucky, which also gives some cautious optimism.
How to you stop the declines in the number of mares and stallions and reverse course?
It’s so much about the economics. That’s why we target economic growth and diversification as always in play objectives to shoot for. We need more indoctrinated and prospective owners. We need to give the farm owners enough faith and confidence for the future so that they just don’t sell out the farmland to developers.
Are there other states with better-designed or more effective incentive programs?
I’m sure there are a number of other programs that POTENTIALLY may offer better features or programs. I want us to take a look at what’s out there as well as what might be possible if we could totally reinvent the wheel when it comes to state incentive programs.
You know me, as is the case in everything I have done in this business – track, association, regulatory authority, academic program , ADW, etc. – from a leadership perspective is based on: a) no “sacred cows”; b) no baggage; c) no pre-conceived notions that we do everything either right or wrong; d) no pride in authorship or insecure need to be the smartest person in the room.
Therefore, anything and everything we do is up for review and possible enhancement.
Will you recommend a review of the Florida program?
That’s already on my list once the dust settles. We will not just review it because of me being the new CEO; we will look at key economic drivers such as our Florida-bred program on an ongoing basis so that we might continue to modify and evolve in order to best meet the needs of our membership.
The loss of revenue to ADW wagering has been singled out as a problem. Is there a way to reclaim a greater share?
This is really a challenge. On one hand, nobody wants to crush or weaken legitimate ADW as it provides the only pari-mutuel growth channel in the industry today. The convenience and quick accessibility and variety associated with the activity make it a fan favorite. It is here to stay (and must).
The issue, to the point you raise, is all about the fairness in revenue splits. In Florida, ADW certainly impacts my members – the breeders and farm owners. Our law says that for every dollar wagered in Florida we, the Florida breeders, are to receive X%.
My organization and membership have a very strong suspicion that the breeders are not being remunerated by ADW at the level granted to us by law.
This remains a HUGE issue to the FTBOA. It negatively impacts our economics as an Association plus those of our members each and every day. Should there not be a timely and sensible business fix from the ADWs to us, we will investigate and/or pursue other possible means including political or legal. We are hopeful that the solution can be kept a common sense one via either creative and proactive business conversations or legislative touches. We are not looking for our entitled share to come out of the HBPA’s purses, wagering customers’ commission or even the track’s share; the margin is on the ADW’s side, so they and their contracting client tracks will need to address it pretty darn soon.
What will you do differently in terms of lobbying in Tallahassee? What are the biggest challenges there?
Everyone has a little bit different style and philosophy when it comes to lobbying. I’m a real hands-on type of guy when it comes to lobbying for my organizations, members and stakeholders. I have been also blessed by having access to the services of some of the finest lobbyists out there – including the great individual we have on our Tallahassee team as we speak. I enjoy the political arena part of our game about as much as any aspect. I devote considerable time to the activity. I have been a registered lobbyist in California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, and now Florida.
No matter what state capitol you are working, when it has to do with Thoroughbreds or pari-mutuels, our challenges always remain: a) maintaining a perception of unity and peace; b) doing your economic homework; c) developing a realistic and collaborative strategy; d) represent credibility and integrity; e) keep relevant; f) develop relationships and access.
I see Florida racing and breeding needing to continue walking and talking both sides of the very dynamic debate over the destination resort casino environment we find ourselves in. There is also a certain level of political and public relations backlash regarding the pathetic pari-mutuel barrel racing effort that could have some negative unintended consequences on those who try to play by the rules and do things right.
Anytime there are this many gaming interests, scope and bills during one single session, we must also prepare for the possibility of no racing or gaming bills being heard this session.
I plan to work closely with my racing brethren on legislative and regulatory issues as much as reasonably possible and will try not to surprise. I prefer to settle differences behind the scenes and away from the stage. I would much rather collaborate on versus lone wolf legislation.