From ice cream and sports to science and Broadway, this Casey Key entrepreneur has done it all.
By Susan Burns / Photography by Jenny Acheson
Joe Farrell's office is on top of his garage in a 90-year-old cottage on Casey Key. The house is one of a trio of butter-colored cottages with mint-green trim. The Gulf-to-Intracoastal property, refurbished 15 years ago by Farrell and his wife, Kristen, into a low-key, island-style compound, stands in contrast to the glamorous mansions nearby. The front cottage is for guests and entertaining. The back cottage, also 90 years old, was formerly a boathouse and is now the main living area, accessed only by crossing a narrow wooden boardwalk under a canopy of trees.
Several times a week, Farrell, 59, makes the drive a few miles south to oversee Pop’s Sunset Grill in Nokomis—a Margaritaville-style fish restaurant on the water—that he owns with buddies. But that’s just for fun, a laid-back hangout where he and his far-flung friends can get together.
Farrell’s other enterprises are farther away. In fact, he has started and run so many other businesses in so many industries that he has difficulty cataloging them—or maybe just gets tired of trying to list them for others. He’s started and/or owned ice cream parlors, restaurants, a blues bar, graphic design studio, a national executive search firm and a managed healthcare company, a professional indoor soccer team, sport events companies and a major Broadway ticket service.
Now take another deep breath. He still owns Wings Winery in Napa Valley and a four-star restaurant and hotel as well as a rum and spirits bottling company in the Bahamas. He’s co-owner of a tiny Bahamian island that he’s been hoping to develop into a luxury resort spa. And, oh, yes, he’s also, at this moment, involved with a film production company with Stanley Tucci and Steve Buscemi and is sitting on a board at Harvard dedicated to curing Alzheimer’s and other diseases of the brain.
In the past he’s climbed mountains, sat on Olympic committees and, in 1990, smuggled a Soviet Olympic-hopeful diver to safety in the U.S. under the watchful eye of the KGB. And he’s done all this while afflicted with narcolepsy, a neurological condition that causes daytime drowsiness and sudden sleep. To stay awake, he moves constantly, a strategy that long ago earned him the nickname, “The Shark.”
With his list of exploits, longish silver hair and good looks, he’s a cross between Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines and—as one of his friends says—the worldly, handsome actor in the famous Dos Equis beer commercial. “You know,” says his longtime friend Jeff Black, “the Most Interesting Man in the World.”
Farrell just says, “I can’t really hold a job to save my life.”
It Started With Hallmark Cards
Farrell was the product of a solid middle-class family in St. Louis, Mo. He and his four brothers (one is his twin) never felt deprived, but their hard-working father, a salesman of industrial equipment, and their homemaker mother made it clear the boys needed to work for what they wanted, whether it was clothing, a car, or, most important, college. Farrell’s sleeping disorder meant he was never a strong student—“I fell asleep when I read so I didn’t read,” he says—but he managed to graduate from college without ever buying a book by studying what he calls the soft sciences, which, in his opinion required nothing more than common sense. He majored in psychology and got a teaching degree as well, and landed a job out of college teaching high school for a year. “I conveniently forgot my transcript,” he says about the job interview.
To make ends meet, he also took a job as an assistant to a Hallmark greeting card salesman (a status “slightly below a part-time yoga instructor,” he remarks), who sold cards to grocery stores and drug stores. He was ecstatic that the job came with a Pinto station wagon. When the salesman asked him to cover for him for three weeks, Farrell made double the sales of the next highest-grossing salesman in the country. Leaving teaching was a no-brainer. He ended his first year with Hallmark as the top salesman in the country, but after selling cards for two years, Farrell wanted more.
From Ice Cream to Healthcare
In 1976, his former Hallmark boss and a friend wanted to open a high-end ice cream parlor and deli in St. Louis. By finding enough limited partners, Farrell and his partners opened six Delaney’s stores in 18 months in St. Louis, Indianapolis, Louisville and Dallas without ever putting in a penny of their own money. Farrell was working 20-hour days, opening new stores and running the places from breakfast to closing. But restless again after a couple of years, he sold to his partners and started looking for his next venture.
He followed a friend into the executive search field, eventually starting his own physician search company, Challenger and Hunt, in 1984. He was 31. “In a five-year period we were the third-largest physician search company in the country,” he says.
At the same time he had started a travel agency and purchased a graphic design studio out of bankruptcy, renaming it Phoenix Creative Services and growing it to a 45-employee company that eventually produced all the artwork for Purina cat food and the beer labels for Anheuser Busch as well as art for the Grateful Dead.
Simultaneously, he launched the Broadway Oyster Bar in St. Louis, which was voted the No. 1 blues bar and Cajun restaurant in the country for 10 years.
Farrell soon became involved in the St. Louis sports world, sitting on and chairing boards, from the St. Louis Sports Commission to the St. Louis U.S. Olympic Festival and the U.S. Olympic Committee executive director selection committee.
He was also chair and owner of the St. Louis Steamers soccer franchise.
After selling Challenger and Hunt to employees in 1992, Farrell moved into managed care, launching Allied Health Group in Miami with three physician partners. The company developed a unique business model that capped costs to insurance companies and had physician specialists managing the claims of physicians in their specialty, under the premise that doctors would recognize, better than an insurance company, the fair reimbursements for their peers. That company sold to publicly traded Magellan Health Services in 1998 for $70 million.
It was at this point Farrell and Kristin left their 7,000-square-foot modernistic St. Louis home hanging over a cliff and moved to Casey Key. While the impetus was “partly for tax purposes,” he says, and this was supposed to be a second home, within two months, the couple decided they never wanted to leave.
Another innovative Farrell creation was Broadway Inner Circle, which he started in 2001. Farrell understood that high-priced tickets—think club seats—at major sporting events were cash cows in the sports world. (He used this concept and started a joint venture with the Olympics in Salt Lake in 2002 by selling premium tickets to see all the outdoor events—the $1,000-a-day price included an elegant, heated sports lounge, an all-you-can eat-and-drink package and concierge-type services.)
This money-making strategy intrigued Debby Landesman, the wife of long-time Broadway theater producer Rocco Landesman, when she met Farrell at an Aretha Franklin concert in New York.
“The scalpers make all the money,” Debby Landesman told him about producing expensive musicals.
“Then why don’t you do what we did in the Olympics?” he asked Debby.
A week later, he got a call to meet Rocco Landesman in his office in New York. Also in the office were the president of Clear Channel Entertainment, Mel Brooks and Harvey Weinstein, who, at the time, were creating The Producers.
That meeting led to Farrell’s premium ticket program that charged a high price for V.I.P. Broadway tickets (although way less than scalpers) and gave customers the royal treatment. Now the money went to the producers and investors “rather than some guy named Vinnie in New Jersey,” he says.
Every Broadway theater runs this way now, and, he asserts, the concept has altered the face of Broadway. “More theaters have opened up, making more room for musicals. You’ve changed the dynamics, created competition,” he says, explaining that these premium tickets mean smaller theaters can try big productions now, too.
“He’s an idea guy, not a good operator,” says his friend Mike Dyer, a Sarasota-based sports marketing consultant.
Dyer met Farrell in 1988, and says Farrell has a gift of figuring out how to make things better.
Farrell says he’s able to juggle all his projects because he learned to play to his strengths.
“There are four or five things that I’m pretty good at, or OK at,” he says. “There are about 100 things I’m really crappy at, and I have an acute awareness of those 100 things. I stopped working on my weaknesses long ago and surround myself with good people.”
Farrell insists that he’s slowed down—and his friend Jeff Black, the president of the James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour (something else Farrell launched back in 2003), says Joe’s latest incarnation almost seems like “the anti-Joe Farrell.” He got rid of his three-piece suits and Jaguar and now prefers shorts and T-shirts and drives a pickup.
But slowing down to Farrell means traveling to the Bahamas a few times a month for his resort projects and traveling to Boston to advise Harvard’s Neurodegeneration Institute, which is trying to find cures for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS and other neurologic diseases. His neighbor, Dr. James Schumacher, a Sarasota neurologist, roped him in. “I go to Joe when we need to raise money,” says Schumacher. “He’s good at structuring finances and has an open mind. He thinks anything can be done, and if you give him a problem, he’ll have five different ways to solve it.” Schumacher also introduced him to actor Stanley Tucci, and Farrell has partnered with Tucci and Buscemi to develop Olive Productions.
Black, who says Farrell remains his mentor, predicts his friend will never stop.
“He’s always looking for the next project,” says Black. “As soon as it’s up and running, he wants something else to light a fire.”
Does Farrell ever see a time when he won’t want to work?
“The problem with retirement is you never get a day off,” Farrell says.
Farrell's Company Catalog
1977-1984—Delaney’s. Ice cream parlor/delis.
1984-1992—Challenger and Hunt. Physician search company.
1986-1998—Phoenix Creative Services. Graphic design company.
1988-1999—Broadway Oyster Bar. Blues bar and Cajun restaurant.
1993-1998—Allied Health Group. Managed care company.
2001-2006—Broadway Inner Circle. Premium ticket program.
2001-present—Pop’s Sunset Grill. Waterfront restaurant in Nokomis.
2005-present—Wings Winery. Napa Valley winery.
2006-present—Little Harbour Island. Resort development in the Bahamas.
2007-present—The Landing. Restaurant and hotel in the Bahamas.
2009-present—Afro Head Rum, Wine, Vodka. A bottling company in the Bahamas.
2008-present—Olive Productions. Film production company.
The top things Joe Farrell does well.
“I use common sense.”
“I don’t let perfect get in the way of advancement. The vast majority of things will never be perfect, but if you can create something that’s better, then do it.”
“I enjoy what I do. My motivation has never been financial, but I also don’t have a lot of internal satisfaction in creating a company that didn’t make money. My real fun is learning stuff.”
“Time management. I always think commission in my mind, and if you own your own business, it’s the same as commission. When I started, I knew if I wanted to make 100 grand, I would need to make a certain number of calls per minute. If I went downstairs for a 10-minute mini break to get a Tab from a vending machine, it could cost me $7,000 a year. I might well think it’s worth every penny, but at least I knew.”
“I think things through to multiple steps; if we do this, then this will happen.”