When Silvio first arrived in Florida from Cuba in 1960, he had few choices.
About 19, he’d lived a pretty good life on the island. But it was different in the U.S. Here he suddenly found himself in charge of two aged aunts, his grandfather and two teenage brothers. His father was back in Cuba, a political prisoner.
These were lean years for him:a young man who’d grown up carefree was now stealing electricity in order to survive.
Silvio is my father and I’ve spent my entire life watching him outrun those early days in the U.S., taking care of others, making sure there was enough so my brothers and I didn’t have to go through the hardships he had.
He did this the only way he knew how, hustling, working, moving. An entrepreneur before the days of seed funding, incubators and magazines dedicated to what he and his cohort would call simply busting your butt.
You see, my father works for himself. He has since he was in his late 20s. He made this decision after going to work at a factory in Los Angeles. It was good work, but he wanted more. He sought out the most successful guy in the neighborhood, approached him one day, and asked: “What do you do for a living?”
The guy sold cars. So, my dad started selling cars at Felix Chevrolet in Los Angeles, this after telling the skeptical sales manager willing to take a chance on a guy with chutzpah that he had experience.
He worked for others for a couple of years before setting out on his own, wholesaling, selling cars to other dealers rather than the public.
Over the next nearly five decades he was able to build a successful automobile business. This was a business, Car Collection, my brothers, Jonathan and Albert, and I worked for every summer vacation, every break from school. I spent a couple of years there as an adult, moving on because, at the time, it was for the best.
My brothers stayed. As did my father’s employees. One, Wilbur Dantzler, worked for him for 40 years. Others stayed 20 years. The business was every bit a family member as any one of us.
And then, well, about two years ago it wasn’t anymore. What happened to my father, to us, is what has happened to millions.
Things changed. I had come back, only to reinforce the notion I was better suited for writing about a business than running one. I could have done a million different things, my brother could have done a million different things, Dad could have done a million different things. But we all know none of it would have made a difference. Industries change, people get left behind. Sears was once Amazon.
If you want to put a clock on it, the end began with my brother Albert's cancer diagnosis and eventual death Dec. 1, 2018. But just like my brother’s treatment, we all hoped, prayed and worked as if the inevitable wasn’t just that, inevitable.
Then in June 2019, our main source of inventory, the lifeblood of the operation for the past 25 years, finally, but not unexpectedly, changed its model. After all these years, the company figured out it could make more money by eliminating the middle man. We were the middle man. We hung on the best we could for about seven months, but were forced to shut down after 40 years in early 2020, just before the pandemic.
Dad is 81 now and he and my mother are still looking for where they will settle. In a perfect world, they'd divide their time between California, where Jonathan lives with his family, and Miami and Tampa. But as they've learned the past couple of years, this is far from a perfect world.
This, the idea of settling down now, is especially difficult for my father, a man who's never stopped. This is a man who on April 17, 1961, landed on a beach in Cuba as part of the Bay of Pigs invasion and spent the next two weeks walking the 209 kilometers from Playa Girón to the Venezuelan embassy in Havana while being hunted by soldiers. This is a man who four years later took a 27-foot boat loaded with 55-gallon drums full of gas across the treacherous Straits of Florida to pick up his father and severals others and take them out of Cuba.
You’re telling this man he has to settle now? To stop running after all he’s done the past six decades is run? A man who feels he has something to prove, a man who wants nothing more than to hustle and to provide?
I honestly don’t know how my father — either of my parents — has survived the past few years and how he will survive the next few years.
Then I think back to the early days of the business. And I think of all that my dad did to stay afloat. And I understand. Because, here’s the thing about a family business: the most important ingredient is the first word not the second one.
My father was always working when I was growing up. Before cell phones, the phone at home would ring all night and all weekend. Three, sometimes four, nights a week he’d be on the road, coming home long after we’d all gone to bed. He’d spend the days running from auction to auction, balancing money, trying to buy a truckload of cars he could sell in town or in Puerto Rico or Venezuela.
Every nickel counted. It had to, because he was just a small guy trying to get ahead.
To me that life you saw on TV, where Mom, Dad and the kids sat down for dinner at precisely six was make believe. Real people didn’t live like that.
But then I think people see someone who runs a business the same way, as if it’s an ideal. They don’t see the long hours, they don’t see the tears, they don’t see the sleepless nights. They don’t see my father getting up at dawn to drive to Orlando for one auction on a 98-degree August day and then rushing down to Fort Lauderdale for another. And they don’t see him getting up the next morning to drive to Jacksonville.
But here’s the thing, my dad never complained. He just got up and went to work.
You know why? Because of us. Because he wanted us to have a better life than he did.
And, that’s what a family business is in the end. One generation building something for the next. One generation trying to give the next stability. One generation trying to give the next a place in this world.
As I sit here, I can now see what my father gave me and my brothers is so much more important than a building or a few shares of a company. What he gave us was everything, his work ethic, his pride, his love.
There is no recession, economic downturn or market trend that can ever take that away.
And one day soon, I hope he sees what I see.
Louis Llovio is the commercial real estate editor for the Business Observer and has been a reporter and editor for 25 years in Florida, Maryland and Virginia.