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Business Observer Monday, Jan. 6, 2020 4 months ago

Retail entrepreneur, philanthropist, dies at 70

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Bill Robinson had a business career in three acts.

Agriculture and retail entrepreneur Bill Robinson took a break during cancer treatments in the summer 2018 to visit the West Coast Surf Shop. A 50-year-old Anna Maria institution, Robinson spent a lot of time there as a kid, working and hanging out. Store Owner Jim Brady and Robinson launched the region’s first surfing competition from the shop in the 1970s, among other highlights.

But this wasn’t only a nostalgia visit. An electrical fire had recently wrecked the store, and Robinson — bald from chemotherapy but not without his bright smile — was there for an auction and fundraiser to help Brady get back in business. Robinson bought an old wood board for $800 and chatted with friends. “He was such a good guy,” says Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore, who has known Robinson since back in the surf shop days. “He was so kind and always so professional. He got a lot done because he always treated everyone he met with such respect.”

Robinson died Jan. 2 at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, after battling acute myeloid leukemia since 2018. He was 70 years old.

“He lived a great life,” says Will Robinson, one of Bill Robinson’s three sons. “Two of the things he taught us were to always tell the truth and always work hard. He was also the ultimate family man.”

Robinson’s work ethic led to a business career in three acts. First was Robby's Sports in Bradenton. Founded with his brother, Penny Robinson, and their dad, H.L. Robinson, the chain became one of the largest athletic retailers nationwide, with 49 stores and $70 million in annual sales. The Robinson family sold the business to the Woolworth Co. in 1988. Bill Robinson spent a few years in the Woolworth corporate office but longed to be his own boss again. So he started a tree farm, which grew into a $12 million company.

Robinson sold the tree farm to John Deere in the early 2000s. A few years later, Robinson’s son Parks approached his dad with an idea to start a new sporting gear store, one that offered both variety of products and put a premium on customer service. That chain, Fit2Run, was founded in 2005 and now does $20 million a year in sales with 13 stores and an e-commerce unit. Bill Robinson, in a 2013 Business Observer story, called the Fit2Run strategy to be a “candy store for runners. If anybody has it, we have it.”

Robinson also left a big mark in the region philanthropically, on boards, coaching youth sports and, notably, with the Robinson Preserve. The 600-acre west Bradenton preserve includes hiking paths, kayak and canoe waterways, bridges, mangrove forests and a 53-foot-tall tower with a wide-open view of the Tampa Bay area.

Plans initially called for the site, onetime farmland, to be redeveloped into a golf course and housing development. But Robinson sold the land to Manatee County for $10 million, a big discount, and then worked to make the site a preserve, which opened in 2008. “He didn’t have to do that,” Whitmore says.  

Will Robinson, a Bradenton attorney and state representative, says his dad’s work ethic and devotion to family was sometimes a complicated feat. One example: Bill Robinson would work at Robby’s through Christmas Eve every year then immediately get on a plane to be with the rest of the family, who had already driven to relatives in Alabama.  

Will Robinson says he also admired his dad’s devotion to Peggy Robinson, Bill’s wife and Will’s mom. The couple, Will Robinson says, took walks in Robinson Preserve up until the last few weeks of Bill’s life. Soon after Bill Robinson died, Will Robinson posted a message and family pictures on Facebook. “Dad gave me one final fatherly lesson with his battle,” Will Robinson wrote, in part. “Treat every day as a gift, and live that day the very best you can.”

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