Winning Mandate: An Encore

With remarkable speed, Mark E. Hamister built National Health Care Affiliates Inc., the business he founded in 1977, into a powerhouse with 23 nursing homes and other geriatric facilities in five eastern states. The Buffalo-based company's whirlwind growth propelled it onto the Inc. 500 list five times in the 1980s, earning it a spot in the Hall of Fame. In 1996, at age 44, Hamister decided to chill out. He sold all of the business, except two nursing homes and a then-budding provider of home-based health care, for $135 million. He also cut his work schedule to two hours a day. "I came into the office occasionally to putt," he says.

Hamister had every reason to stick to golf: He had pots of money. He had proved himself beyond all doubt as an entrepreneur and a businessman. He had a dream house in the suburbs and plenty of time to spend with his three children. "That first year I had a ball," he says.

A life of leisure, however, didn't sustain Hamister for long. To combat his ennui, he did what came naturally. He started more companies: Premier Self Storage Inc., Hamister Development Corp., and Buffalo Sports Enterprises. As an irrepressible creator of companies, Hamister is hardly alone among his fellow CEOs at the 52 businesses that have achieved Hall of Fame status. At least 13 of those entrepreneurs have created brand-new companies, according to a recent Inc. survey. All told, the start-up repeaters have launched 32 new ventures.

Although Hamister's record is remarkable, he's not the undisputed second-act champ among the Hall of Fame founders. Grady Burrow, 65, of Birmingham, Ala., for example, attained Hall of Fame laurels in 1997, when Designer Checks Inc. made the Inc. 500 for the fifth time. Also, another of Burrow's companies, Maxus Construction Co., made the list in 1996. He has since sold both companies, but he says he's angling for the 2004 list with his 1998 start-up, Main Street Checks Inc., which he estimates will do $1 million in sales this year. A provider of custom-designed checks for community banks, Main Street relies on the same laser check-printing technology that fueled the explosive growth of Designer Checks.

Not that Hamister is conceding anything, however. He's been ramping up National Health Care Affiliates, a name he retained for the holding company that owns his current health-care properties. Now he operates three assisted-living residences in New York. His most profitable recent venture, he says, is Premier Self Storage, which rents out storage space at three facilities in the Buffalo area. The two-year-old business posted $2 million in revenues last year.

Then there's Hamister Development, his real estate development arm, which has built shopping centers, among other projects. And he has plunged into a different world with Buffalo Sports Enterprises, the owner of the Buffalo Destroyers. The national football team, started in 1997, competes in the Arena Football League, which is 13 years old and features play indoors. Hamister sees the Destroyers as the first step in a larger sports-franchise strategy. He envisions building a sports empire that includes big-league football and basketball teams.

Hamister's multiple start-up strategy may seem capricious, if not willy-nilly, but he says that it isn't. "I happen to be a study freak," he says. "I need to know what demographic I'm trying to reach with a business, or I won't touch it." For example, Hamister's storage business, which offers space that customers fill on their own with household goods or other items, targets female heads of households. That's a large and growing group, he says, that eschews self-storage facilities, which are often dirty and usually saddle customers with the job of hauling heavy objects like sofas. Hamister says his company is a stickler for neatness, and he teams up with local truck-rental companies to do the heavy lifting.

Similarly, in purchasing the Buffalo Destroyers, Hamister was aiming for a specific sports niche: families with small children. To amuse children so their parents can enjoy the game, Hamister offers face painting, cotton candy, and inflatable fun houses. The company's annual revenues have grown to $6 million, despite the team's regular-season record to date of 6-22.

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