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Business Observer Thursday, Jun. 17, 2010 11 years ago

Business owner grew large coaching

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H.L. 'Penny' Robinson turned a love of sports, be it fishing or tennis, into a $60 million nationwide sporting goods enterprise that got its start in Bradenton.

H.L. 'Penny' Robinson turned a love of sports, be it fishing or tennis, into a $60 million nationwide sporting goods enterprise that got its start in Bradenton.


Sports, it turns out, was a fitting place for Robinson to make his mark in business because he was a coach-like mentor to dozens of employees. Robinson, founder of Robby's Sporting Goods, died June 3 after a long battle with cancer. He was 72.


“Penny was like a great coach,” says Bill Robinson, Penny Robinson's younger brother, who was also his business partner in several ventures. “He liked to surround himself with lots of great and talented people and then orchestrate the whole thing.”


That philosophy was the backbone of the success at Robby's, which Penny Robinson opened in 1960 to sell toys and sporting goods in West Bradenton. By the mid-1980s Robby's was a 45-store chain across Florida and the Southeast, with $60 million in annual revenues.


In 1988, Robinson sold the chain to Champs Sports, which had just been bought by the Woolworth Co. The Robinson brothers agreed to the sale on a condition: The company's headquarters would remain in Manatee County.


Al Jeffrey, co-owner of Scuba Quest, a Sarasota-based chain of seven scuba gear stores, was one of the legions of young people who learned by watching and listening to Robinson. Jeffrey was a store manager for a Robby's in Bradenton from 1980 to 1986, which is where he says he learned how vital it is in retail to buy merchandise at the right price.


Jeffrey recalls that Robinson was quiet and unassuming and expected the same of his employees. But Robinson also remained considerate and thoughtful with every employee, Jeffrey recalls, which was somewhat surprising because the chain had grown so much.


Says Jeffrey: “He was like E.F. Hutton — when he spoke, everyone listened.”


Bill Robinson says he also learned a lot about business from his older brother. One standout lesson was the elder Robinson's devotion to watching expenses. “He was fanatic about price control,” Robinson says.


Robinson was behind several other businesses in Manatee County, in addition to Robby's. Those include DeSear's appliance stores and Robby's Sportswear, a screen-printing and embroidery business later renamed Team Edition and sold to Woolworth.


Penny, whose full name was Harry Louis, was born in Kentucky. He moved to Bradenton with his family in 1948 and then went to Manatee High School and Florida State University. He is survived by his wife, Sandra, four children and 11 grandchildren.

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