Wayne Huizenga Part 2: Garbageman to Blockbuster Videos

Reading Wayne Huizenga’s biography, I learned something unexpected: Blockbuster Video’s roots were in making software for oil and gas companies. David P Cook & Associates was founded in 1978. By 1983, when it went public and raised $8 million as Cook Data Services, it had employees in five offices and hundreds of oil company customers. Then the oil market tanked and customers stopped paying their bills. Founder David Cook sought ways to use the company’s barcode technology and settled on the exploding video rental business. Powered by software and a high-tech distribution center, he could build a superstore in an industry full of mom-and-pop entrepreneurs. The first store opened in 1985 and had more customers than it could serve.

So how did a garbage entrepreneur find a small, public company that was pivoting? Wayne, through Huizenga Holdings and wealthy friends, built a deal machine with great deal flow that they shared with each other. A friend came across Blockbuster and pulled Wayne in. Wayne visited a store and was hooked on the rental and service aspects of the business.

In 1987, Cook tried to raise money to grow Blockbuster, but a negative Barron’s article sunk his chances of selling $18 million worth of shares to public-market investors. He raised only $4 million. Wayne and his friends came to the rescue. They agreed to invest $18.5 million and receive 1.2 million shares, warrants to buy another 1.7 million shares, and 60% company ownership.

Wayne believed the company could be easily duplicated, so he focused on getting large quickly. In 1987, with just 19 stores, he acquired a large competitor with 29 stores. Cook, losing control and disliking acquisitions, quit, forcing Wayne to become CEO.

Wayne quickly realized this was an unfamiliar industry and hired seasoned executives to fill his gaps. This team would drive the hyperbolic growth he envisioned. Wayne preferred company-owned stores to franchising, but each store cost $500,000 to build. He planned to fund the growth by selling shares to public-market investors, but Blockbuster shares cratered by more than 50% during the October 1987 stock-market crash. Wayne hastily arranged for family and friends to invest $8.4 million via a private placement instead.

The company grew from 19 stores in 1986, to 133 stores in 1987, to 415 stores in 1988, to 1,079 stores in 1989. While Wayne’s lieutenants ran operations, he focused on acquisitions and on managing Wall Street analysts’ and institutional investors’ perceptions of the company. Positive perceptions led to a high multiple on the stock, his main currency in acquiring companies. Employees at all levels were partially compensated in stock options, which Wayne also used as motivation to run the company at a breakneck pace. The pace took a toll: one executive died of a heart attack and others divorced.

Wayne completed 110 deals in seven years. He needed a strategy to raise capital to fuel that growth, silence critics who said pay-per-view was a threat, and gain more credibility with Wall Street, and he devised one: he struck deals with Cox Enterprises and United Cable, two of the largest cable companies. Each invested $12 to $15 million initially and bought rights to open 100 stores. The companies perceived as big competitors were now Wayne’s investors and partners.

Wall Street embraced the company, which moved from trading on an over-the-counter (OTC) stock market to the NYSE in April 1989. The stock went from $5.75 to $33.50. Blockbuster was perceived positively . . . for the time being.

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