SBJ/October 29-November 4, 2012/In Depth

Verge knows not to get comfortable in revolving door CEO post at Santa Anita Park

In March of this year, Los Angeles area businessman Mark Verge was named CEO of Santa Anita Park, at least the 10th chief executive named to run the historic racetrack since billionaire Frank Stronach bought the facility in 1998. In a candid interview this month, Verge talked about how he got the job, the challenges of revitalizing Santa Anita’s fan base, and the opportunity the track has in hosting this year’s Breeders’ Cup, horse racing’s annual championship event. He also addressed questions about his future at a facility that has seen so many CEOs come and go.

■ What is your background?
VERGE: I am an entrepreneur. It helped that I grew up broke. I started a pretty successful company called Westside Rentals. We have seven offices. We find apartments for people. I grew up in Santa Monica. Grew up with six kids in the family and always wanted to make money, so I started different businesses. What happened when I started Westside Rentals, I started buying hotels, buying apartment buildings. Then I got into the bar business. Mainly soulful kind of clubs and bars. More pubs, bars, like more historic spots. Like we own a place called Cole’s. It’s the oldest restaurant in L.A. It has a back bar call The Varnish. It just won best bar in the country.

■ How did you meet Santa Anita owner Frank Stronach? How did you get this job?

VERGE: I got called in to meet with Frank Stronach on a Monday night in Pasadena. I live in the Palisades and I didn’t want to drive over there because my daughter had a practice, but I wanted to meet Frank Stronach. But his main guy called me and said, “He really wants to meet you because he heard you are a guy who has ideas on how to save Santa Anita.” I said, “I am sorry, I am coaching my daughter’s team.” And Stronach’s assistant called back and said, “Oh my God, I told Mr. Stronach you wouldn’t leave your daughter’s practice — I would never do that for anybody.” So the next morning, I met him. I told him why his racetrack was failing. And the main reason was there is not a face to it. He’s the one who owns it. He said, “I want you to be the face of Santa Anita.” I gave him 10 ideas on why his racetrack was failing. There wasn’t any character to it. There wasn’t a face to the races and too many times as a guy who goes to the racetrack — I love the racetrack — it just seems like when I was giving ideas to people they weren’t getting done.

■ What did Frank say?
VERGE: The passion for the game is there and he has a passion for the game. But he has 160 companies and he has 110,000 employees. He started more companies than I ever will. He’s a billionaire. It’s great to sit with a billionaire, but my point to him was: The reason Santa Anita is failing is there isn’t a face to it.
He said, “I want you to work for me.” I said, “No.” He offered me a job. I said I never had a job or worked for anybody. He flew me out to Florida. He said, “I want you to be my partner. I want you to look at an ownership of Santa Anita.” I kicked it around in my mind and I thought, “That would be kinda cool.” And a couple of buddies said, “You gotta do it.” So, I’m doing it.

■ So, are you a partner in the track?
VERGE: He calls me that. I think I am more of the guy, the CEO of the place.
Verge was looking on the bright side even when talk was circulating that Gene Simmons of KISS fame could soon replace him.
Photo by: Benoit Photo


■ Did you put any of your own money in Santa Anita?
VERGE: Nope. I offered.

■ Do you have an equity stake in Santa Anita? Is that the deal?
VERGE: Yes. That’s my deal. I have an equity stake. Not enough. But I do have an equity stake. All my (compensation) is tied to an equity stake. That’s why I am here.

■ That’s what your compensation is?
VERGE: Yes. I have 258 employees of my own. I am not here for a paycheck.

■ What does Breeders’ Cup mean for Santa Anita?
VERGE: It really is an opportunity to showcase what we have. To show people who are coming out across the country that we are going to deliver a great experience for them. We have the Bond movie premiere. We have Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck coming out for Taste of the World. There are so many things that we are doing that are going to showcase horse racing in Los Angeles. It is just going to be, “Wow.”

■ How many CEOs have there been at Santa Anita the last 10 years or so?
VERGE: About 14. Something like that. My office is a turnstile. That might not be the worst thing. For me, it’s a challenge to get this thing to sell. But for me, it doesn’t really affect me.

■ Did you mention that to Frank, that he seems to have fired a lot of CEOs or they have left?
VERGE: No. I like Frank a lot. I was very fired up to have the opportunity. I was like, “How would this guy hire me?” I mean, I have a chance to run a racetrack. So, I was going to do it for free.

(Editor’s note: About a week after our initial interview, horse racing blog The Paulick Report reported that Stronach’s daughter, Belinda Stronach, held a high-level executive meeting at which Verge was not present, but Gene Simmons, the frontman of the band KISS was present. SportsBusiness Journal asked Verge about the report.)

■ What is your reaction to the report?
VERGE: They say Gene Simmons is replacing me — which I think would be a great move. I don’t know if it is true, but it is a great move. I haven’t been fired yet. But if Gene Simmons replaces me, it’s a good move. … If it happens, I would hug Frank Stronach. I loved the opportunity.

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