Huizenga created some amazing companies, including Waste Management, Blockbuster Video, and AutoNation, and he obtained expansion franchises in the NHL and Major League Baseball--and once owned the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
With his death at age 80, The Wall Street Journal published one of the best obituaries and summaries of his career. Here are some of the most inspiring lessons of his life for any entrepreneur.
1. Think bigger
Huizenga dropped out of college, joined the military, and managed a small garbage-hauling business in Florida. From there, he started his own company, and by 1968, the Journal recounts, "he had 40 trucks and a large share of the hauling contracts in fast-growing Broward County."
Next, he teamed up with a distant relative and started rolling up similar companies around the country. Result: Waste Management, which is now almost a $36 billion company. The point is, never stop growing.
2. Work harder
A quote here will do it: "We're certainly not smarter than the next guy, but we work harder, and when we focus in on something we are consumed by it," he told Gail DeGeorge, author of The Making of a Blockbuster.
3. Be the boss
Huizenga was technically only the president and second-in-command of Waste Management, nominally subordinate to his cousin's husband, with whom he built the business. It wasn't enough--so he left, and ultimately started two other iconic companies, plus buying his sports franchises. If you want to be the boss, find a way to be the boss.
4. Sell real stuff
Huizenga eschewed digital; everything he built was a real, tangible product--even the sports franchises, which he thought of as selling space and time in arenas. Besides garbage, he wasn't afraid to invest in dirty businesses. In the mid-1980s, between Waste Management and Blockbuster, the Journal notes, he was buying companies that rented things like portable toilets.
5. Know your strengths
"Though he loved flying around the country to scout acquisitions or inspect his operations," the Journal wrote, "he wasn't much interested in running a business long-term." As he told the paper in a 1994 interview: "I'd rather build a company than manage one."
6. Embrace your brand
Video stores seem quaint now, but when Huizenga got into the field in 1987 it was a wildly fragmented industry--and most stores had a section in the back that rented pornographic films. Even though it was a lucrative part of the market, Huizenga decided that Blockbuster would be family-friendly, and that an X-rated section would be contrary to the brand. So there were no back rooms at Blockbuster.
7. Get out at the top
Huizenga was the head of Blockbuster for only seven years--selling in 1994 to Viacom for $8.4 billion in stock. In retrospect, this was literally the perfect moment to get out, just before the internet took off. (For exact timing, it was the year before Jeff Bezos started Amazon.)
8. Try again
Waste Management? Big success. Blockbuster? Big success (at least when Huizenga was running it). AutoNation? More iffy. Huizenga also started the hotel chain Extended Stay America, and owned a company that sold the little soap cakes found in urinals. The point: Try, try, try, try, try. Then try again.
9. Save time for family
Huizenga was married for 45 years, until his wife, Marti, passed away in 2017, and he left four children and 11 grandchildren. But as the Journal reported, he had some regrets about the way work took him away from his family.
"I've never understood how someone could separate their business from their personal life," he said at one point, and later added: "Your kids grow up a lot quicker than you think they do, and all of a sudden you look back, you haven't spent the time with them."