Felix Sabates has reached the pinnacle of success through hard work, innovation, and specially a work ethic that is reminiscent of the great men who built America. Carnegie, Vanderbilt or Rockefeller shaped their own destiny and propelled their vision of a great America, a place that rewards the entrepreneurial spirit of men like Felix Sabates.
Felix was born in the city of Camaguey, in the cattle rich eastern part of Cuba. He is the oldest son of Feliciano Sabates and Maria Tavio, who had made a family fortune through wise investments and a series of businesses that carried the family name. These included Sabates import and export, optical and jewelry stores, insurance, cattle, sugar, service stations and pharmacies. But this truly blessed life was about to end abruptly with the arrival of the communist revolution of 1959.
I visited Felix during the Ft. Lauderdale International Boat Show, where he was promoting his fleet of über luxurious yachts to reminisce about the past and perhaps look into the future of this entrepreneur. He talked about his childhood in Cuba, remembering long Sunday lunches with the entire clan in the family home, before the property and the businesses where expropriated by the communists. He sadly recalls how the family stores were emptied and neglected. Almost overnight, the Sabates family lost everything they had worked their entire life for.
1. Sabates with siblings at their beach house in Cuba.
2. Sabates with the local baseball team in Camaguey, Cuba.
As a very young man, Felix joined the underground resistance against Castro. He was ready to go and fight the dictatorship in the mountains, but government forces killed all the conspirators in his group. Felix had to leave Cuba to avoid prison or worse, the firing squad. He was the first in his family to come to the US, at age 15 and by himself. A few years later his brothers and sisters came to exile during Operation Peter Pan, a rescue mission by the Catholic Church that allowed safe passage to unaccompanied children fleeing communist indoctrination. Operation Peter Pan is a testimony to the desperation Cuban parents felt during the early days of the Revolution. His mother later joined them in Lexington, North Carolina in 1962. It wasn’t until 1965 that Dr. Sabates Sr. could join them. During those years the responsibility to support the family fell on Felix’s shoulders. He had to drop out of high school to take care of his newly arrived relatives. He jokes, “I graduated with honors from the eight grade, but that was the end of my formal education”. Felix didn’t have the opportunity to be a teenager. “I was by myself in Columbia, Missouri and had to work in a hospital kitchen washing pots and pans. I then became an orderly and when my mother came, I moved to Lexington and was the only one working, so I went from being a teenager in Cuba to an adult in the US in one day.” Eventually the entire Sabates family settled in Charlotte, NC, where Felix worked his way up in a car dealership from car washer to star salesman.
1. Felix Sabates.
2. Felix’s grandparents return from a trip to Paris.
3. Feliciano Sabates and Maria Tavio, Felix’s parents.
4. The Sabates family in Charlotte, NC.
His first break in business came when he sold several cars to the person who would become his mentor. Walter Reich was an Austrian Jew who lost his entire family in a concentration camp during the war and later settled in Cuba. He then had to flee communism in Cuba and come to a second exile in North Carolina. Walter, who was the father of Ambassador Otto Reich, was in the distribution business and hired Felix as a manufacturer’s representative. Felix remembers Walter fondly as a man of impeccable work ethics who would drive for miles promoting sales. “He was a work machine, never stopped working and taught me a lot about life and business”, says Felix. When Walter was ready to retire, he lent Felix the money to buy his own company. “The only difference I ever had with Walter was that he wanted to walk and I wanted to run, and this was my chance”, adds Felix. Within a year of buying the company, the ambitious Felix had tripled the revenues of the company Top Sales.
Sabates should also get credit for the popularity and availability of video games during the late 80’s and 90’s. What was a novelty then, has become one of the most lucrative industries of our time. He always had the ability to recognize product lines that showed promise, even if they were harder to sell. He distributed Atari and Pac Man, later came Nintendo and Super Mario Brothers and Teddy Ruxpin, the talking Teddy bear. By the early 9o’s the Cuban entrepreneur got the rights for distribution and sales marketing for Compaq Computers, affording the Compaq brand great success and recognition at a time when most people didn’t even have home computers, let alone laptops. It is this kind of vision that is still palpable when he speaks. The young man who did not graduate High School had become an example of selling power in the US. Felix would surprise the business world when he sold Top Sales to his employees, a sign of gratitude to the people who had helped him succeed.
Felix Sabates at NASCAR.
After the sale of his beloved company, Sabates turned his attention to the world of professional sports. He joined the NASCAR motor sports elite with the purchase of a research and development team, which became SABCO racing. Eventually he would become a multi team powerhouse with drivers like Kenny Wallace, Sterling Marlin, Bobby Hamilton, Jamie McMurray, Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett to name just a few. He has also been involved with professional hockey and soccer, and was influential in Charlotte’s bid for an expansion basketball team with both the Charlotte Hornets (today New Orleans Hornets) and the Charlotte Bobcats, owned by basketball legend Michael Jordan for whom Sabates has words of praise for his efforts to make the Charlotte team a success.
Felix Sabates at NASCAR.
Today Felix Sabates is the chairman of Trinity Yachts, the factory that builds mega yachts that sell for upwards of 50 million dollars. The economic downturn of the past years was devastating to the yacht industry. “We have survived because we did not owe any money coming into this crisis, and we keep overhead spending quite low,” says Sabates about Trinity. The company that builds and sells luxurious yachts also deals in less sexy ventures like building barges for oil companies and the military. But Felix Sabates is a happy man. When something makes him unhappy, he follows his own mantra “when you are green you are growing, when you are ripe you are dead. A rolling stone gathers no moss. Even if you are sitting on the right track, if you don’t move the train will run you over” and moves on. “I’ve bought businesses that were profitable, but the work didn’t make me happy so I sold them”, says Sabates of his business practice. “I don’t want to ever retire. I will be here for a long time.”
Like with many great men, there is a combination of thrift and generosity that makes him stand out. Felix is a committed philanthropist who dutifully contributes to worthy causes like the Boys and Girls Club of Ft. Lauderdale, Levine Children’s Hospital, the Allegro Foundation, Belmont Abbey College and the North Carolina Institute of Medicine, among many others. He sees the world through rose color glasses and admits “there is more good than bad in the world. You just have to look at all the angles.” The kid who dropped out of high school received an honorary doctorate degree from Elon College in North Carolina. Life has a way of rewarding those who get up after a fall, the men and women who are capable of building empires out of their dreams with hard work and perseverance. Felix Sabates like Rockefeller and Carnegie is one of them. ■