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Life after Interval International: Mario Rodriquez remains an Industry Leader

By Rosalie E. Leposky

Two decades after launching Interval International, one of the timeshare resort industry’s two major vacation-exchange companies, Mario F. Rodriguez no longer is associated with the firm but remains intensely involved in the industry as a developer, consultant, and roving ambassador.

Rodriguez recently became chairman of the American Resort Development Association's Political Action Committee, after concluding a stint as chairman of the International Timeshare Foundation. Some of his other industry leadership assignments include membership on ARDA’s board of directors, and the presidency of ARDA's International Committee, a role in which he travels extensively to promote the worldwide development of timesharing.

   
    Mario F. Rodriguez 
    January 10, 1945 - March 25, 2003

For the past five years Rodriguez has felt that Asia was especially ripe for increased timeshare development. "Asians, and particularly Japanese businessmen, like to know their business partners and the depth of their commitment," he says. "Asians often are afraid Western businessmen will 'grab the money and run.' They want long-time business and personal relationships."

In 1990, Hispanic Business listed Rodriguez as one of the 100 most influential Hispanics in the United States. He follows events in his native Cuba with particular interest. "I support the Cuban American National Foundation and count some of that organization’s senior members as close friends," he says. "When Castro falls, which I've believed for a couple of years will be soon, I want to help start Cuban tourism development, especially timesharing in Cuba."

The Early Years

Before World War II, Mario Rodriguez’s father, Frank, attended Tulane University in New Orleans and worked in the United States. During the war, Frank Rodriguez moved back to Cuba and lived in the city of Guantanamo in Oriente Province, 40 miles inland from the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, where he worked.

Mario was born in 1945 in the city of Guantanamo. The next year, Frank Rodriguez moved his family, including Mario and an older sister, Thania Rosalia, to Miami. Thania Rosalia Cabrera now manages the Miami customer-service office of Calinda Traveler's Plus, a timeshare club sponsored by Calinda Hotels, a Mexican hospitality firm. One of Thania's three children, Patricia Estrada, works with her. Patricia is married to Raul Estrada, an Interval International assistant vice president.

Mario’s two younger sisters were born in Miami, and worked in the past for Interval International -- Vivian R. Fernandez in the accounting office, and Brenda F. Knight as a seminar coordinator. Brenda is married to Ray Knight, a former Interval marketing vice president. Brenda coordinated timeshare seminars that predated the creation of Interval International. Now she teaches jazzercise classes. Ray Knight’s brother, Kenneth Knight, served from 1978 to 1988 as Interval’s marketing vice president and was responsible for many resort affiliations during those years. Ken Knight was married to the best friend of Mario’s first wife. "We divorced them and married each other," Mario quips.

Miami -- now a largely Hispanic city with strong linkages to the Caribbean and Latin America -- was a sleepy Southern city with a very modest Hispanic presence in the late 1940s and 1950s. "My parents believed in Catholic boarding-school education and sent me and Thania away to high school," says Mario. He attended St. Leo School, a Benedictine institution 40 miles northeast of Tampa; Thania went to Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa. The two younger sisters attended Catholic and private non-sectarian schools in Miami.

"St. Leo’s disciplined, no-nonsense atmosphere changed my life," says Mario Rodriguez. "I was surrounded by people from all over the world who came from good families. We were expected to make good grades, attend good universities, and after college become someone of importance." His St. Leo classmates include Joe Taddeo, now president of U.S. Tobacco, and U.S. attorney Bob Merkle. Rodriguez still is proud of the state track relay record he helped his St. Leo team set in 1962. He ran the third leg of the race, which won a gold medal for the school.

By the time he entered college, Rodriguez was bored of boarding. He spent most of his early college days at the University of Florida in Gainesville playing intramural football every afternoon and talking sports with friends at night -- with predictable consequences. Returning to Miami, he resumed serious studies as a commuter student to earn an Associate in Arts degree at Miami-Dade Community College and a Bachelor of Arts degree in accounting at the University of Miami.

"I found my major quite by accident, when I took my first accounting course, did not do all the homework assignments, and still set the class curve," reports Rodriguez.

Becoming a Developer

            

After graduation, Rodriguez joined McClain & Company in Miami as an accountant. His audit partner, Thomas J. Davis, Jr. was studying law at night at the University of Miami. Davis and Rodriguez became close friends, and combined their personal resources and those of family members and friends in several small -syndicated real-estate ventures. 

  
   Thomas J. Davis, Jr. 
   July 4, 1938 - January 11, 2002

After graduation, Rodriguez joined McClain & Company in Miami as an accountant. His audit partner, Thomas J. Davis, Jr. was studying law at night at the University of Miami. Davis and Rodriguez became close friends, and combined their personal resources and those of family members and friends in several small -syndicated real-estate ventures.

One of Davis and Rodriguez’s early projects was on Long Key in the Florida Keys. "We started by purchasing some defaulted adjacent subdivision lots from the developer," says Rodriguez. "Eventually we purchased all of his defaulted lots and reassembled the entire tract, which was 50 to 60 acres. The subdivision was almost a mile long, covering a narrow strip of land between the Overseas Highway (U.S. 1) and Florida Bay. We did a leveraged buyout of the developer’s company before we knew how to spell it."

About this time, Davis and Rodriguez learned from Andy Ponticos, later a salesman for Punta Gorda Isles, a planned community on Florida’s Gulf Coast, about "the crazy idea of selling vacation villas by the week. Andy badgered us until the idea made sense. We compiled what now would be considered laughable numbers, and put together a syndicate to promote this concept."

In early 1972, Davis and Rodriguez sent to their investor base an offering for this new venture, tentatively named Buy a Week, Inc. "We thought we had invented a new concept, and did not have a clue anyone else was doing anything similar," says Rodriguez. When Rodriguez left on a honeymoon trip in February of 1972, the $500,000 offering was oversubscribed -- the first and last time that ever happened.

"Early planning convinced us that before we could develop the Keys property, it would take several years to clear all the Keys’ environmental and zoning hurdles," Rodriguez recalls. "No environmental or zoning laws affected development in the western North Carolina mountains, which our group though would be a good complement to the sunny Florida Keys.

At Bird Rock Falls, immediately west of Brevard, N.C., we reconditioned a chalet in a cove overlooking the falls and built three of 500 planned Rondette homes, manufactured by the Rondesics Company of Asheville, North Carolina. Rondette’s pre-cut octagonal homes on stilts were assembled on-site and could be used on a slope."

When the chalet renovations were complete, marketing would begin. Rodriguez knew that he would need a logo, image, and name. He asked a friend and prior investor, sports announcer and advertising executive Hank Goldberg, to suggest a name. Goldberg proposed "Interlude," which Rodriguez felt lacked a positive connotation. From brain-storming sessions the term "Interval," with its implications of space and time, evolved. "We named our company Interval, Inc.," Rodriguez says.

Inventing a New Industry

"By the end of 1972, we were ready to market Interval Bird Rock Falls to the main market for this product, South Floridians, many of whom already spent summer vacations in North Carolina. An advertising campaign was launched in The Miami Herald and the local paper in Brevard. Almost immediately we ran into a problem, the need for an agreement-for-deed contract. A common objection to timesharing was, ‘Can you really legally sell a week’s use of a home?’ Tom Davis, the lawyer, was totally convinced it was possible under English common law, but we had no proof. We figured the only way to effectively and affordably convince everyone's lawyer was to get title insurance, so we went knocking on the doors of title companies and were soundly rejected on numerous occasions."

While in Charlotte, N.C., in search of financing, Davis and Rodriguez made a cold call on Bruce Boney, manager of the Charlotte office of Lawyers Title of Richmond. Boney wanted to pursue the idea with Boyce Outen, a senior vice president and real-estate law expert in his firm’s home office.

"Outen was absolutely fascinated by our ideas, and immediately became involved," Rodriguez says." Davis and Outen spent a couple of days together and came up with the interval deed and what we now call interval ownership." Having invented this legal structure, Davis worked to get it accepted by county attorneys and title insurance companies. "Tom's invention was the automotive steam engine of the timesharing industry," says pioneer developer Carl G. Berry, now a partner in Eichner Enterprises in New York City.

Sales began at Interval Bird Rock Falls. "We sold a few hundred thousand dollars worth of intervals, and then we basically ran out of money," Rodriguez says. "We operated on our own equity, and borrowed a little from Clyde Savings & Loan in Clyde, N.C., to build the homes." The economic recession that crushed the real-estate industry started in the summer of 1973, cutting off funds promised by the Cameron Brown REIT in Charlotte. "When the REIT cut off our funds, we had to close down Bird Rock Falls, take our lumps, and get out. At that point," Rodriguez says, "we decided to become consultants."

Life in the Consulting Lane

Taking advantage of phone calls generated by publicity about interval deeds, including a cover story published in a trade magazine, Lawyers Title, Davis and Rodriguez established Property Planning Consultants. Their phone rang with calls from condominium developers nationwide who had large inventories of unsold whole-ownership resort condominiums due to the recession and were interested in this new idea of timesharing. One of Property Planning Consultants’ first clients, in December of 1973, was Aruba Beach Club developer Ray Maduro. Another was the Miami-based developer of Hawk's Nest in Marathon, FL, a failing condominium project that became a successful timeshare resort. Still another was Keith W. Trowbridge, developer of Sanibel Beach Club on Sanibel Island, FL, who came to Davis and Rodriguez for consulting services about two years before he started his project in 1976.

Davis and Rodriguez also wrote How to Structure the Interval Project and other books on timesharing, and conducted seminars in various parts of the nation. Among early attendees at these seminars was Jon DeHaan, co-founder of Resort Condominiums International, now the largest of the two major global vacation-exchange companies and the main competitor of Interval International.

"I'm not sure who presented the first timeshare conference," says Carl Burlingame, founder, publisher, and senior editor of Vacation Ownership World. "The first article mentioning timesharing appeared circa 1972. The essential value of exchange to timesharing was quickly apparent, but no one thought the idea would go anywhere."

After several years as consultants, Davis and Rodriguez stopped to reflect on their situation. "Our seminars were well-attended, the phone rang, but the cash register didn’t ring enough," Rodriguez recalls. "Tom and I realized it was flattering to be nationally-recognized experts, but we really needed to earn a living."

Meanwhile, Jon DeHaan and his then-wife, Christel, had launched RCI from their Indianapolis home to offer an exchange service to the owners of resort condominium apartments. Jon was RCI’s marketer, promoter, and strategist; Christel was in charge of operations. John B. Reinhart, vice president-resort services at Resort Condominiums International, notes that Davis and Rodriguez affiliated with RCI one of their early development projects -- Encore Resorts in the Florida Keys. It began in late 1974 and died in mid-1976.

"RCI went nowhere for a couple of years," Rodriguez says, "but with the advent of timesharing it started to gain momentum. Then Tom and I made a strategic decision. Tom would start a law firm specializing in timeshare documentation and closing, and I would start a new exchange network to compete with RCI. It was obvious we were part of a nascent industry that would grow rapidly, and there was room for more than one exchange network."

Interval International is Born

Davis and Rodriguez actually incorporated Interval International in mid-1975, but they didn’t announce it publicly until January of 1976. At that point, the company was essentially Rodriguez, a secretary, and an idea. At a cocktail party, he obtained his three first resort commitments -- Sanibel Beach Club, which sold well and still is affiliated with Interval International, and two others that no longer exist: Hawk's Nest, and a New Mexico resort called Cloud Country. Luis Fuentes, Mario’s uncle, kept track of Interval’s early exchange activity on index cards he kept in a couple of shoe boxes.

"Tom Davis and Jon DeHaan were extraordinarily competitive," says Burlingame. "Both men were brilliant. Jon generated hostility, and Tom was a typically confrontational lawyer. Mario, meanwhile, was perhaps the most universally-liked person in the timeshare industry."

Burlingame says he often was recruited to serve as an arbiter between Davis at Interval International and Jon DeHaan at RCI. "I would call Mario when I wanted to talk to someone cool and sane. In those days I even heard Jon speak favorably about Mario. It is a testament to Mario that he was the one to stay with Interval International, and become the controlling force and majority owner. Under his direction, Interval International grew and prospered."

Eventually Davis became bored with the practice of law. In 1979 he sold his interest in his firm, Davis, Langer & Margolis, to Mark Langer, and came to work full time at Interval International. In 1981, Rodriguez bought out Davis’s interest and Davis left.

"Tom's Interval International contract lacked a non-compete clause," Rodriguez recounts. We became enemies when he started Network One, a competitive company in Buffalo, NY, with former employees of Interval International and with pirated contracts and records. Interval International filed an industrial espionage lawsuit against Network One and won every motion."

In 1985, Interval International’s employees nominated Mario for ARDA’s Timesharing Professional of the Year Award. The application was signed by every Interval International employee in Buffalo, Denver, London, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Miami. It read in part, "a spontaneous and unanimous declaration of respect and affection in which we hold him and testimony of our firsthand knowledge and awareness of his outstanding business and personal qualifications for this most important award...." ARDA agreed; Rodriguez received the award.

In March of 1988, Rodriguez sold Interval International to Leaguestar plc., a London-based leisure-services holding company, which in turn was acquired on December 11, 1992, by CUC International Inc., a publicly-traded membership-services company based in Stamford, CT. Rodriguez served as Interval’s chairman emeritus until March of 1993, when his contractual relationship with the firm ceased. Today he watches with delight from the sidelines as Interval International grows under CUC’s stewardship.

New Challenges

After Interval Since selling Interval International, Rodriguez has resumed his search for new challenges. "I am a builder," he says. "I like to create things and have other people buy into the creation. Once the foundation is established, I let other people carry on my idea, while I go on to something new. An important element of entrepreneurship is to have an idea or a vision, and to make that idea or vision a reality in the form of a company, product, or service."

Early in 1993, Rodriguez founded Resort Advisors International, Inc., as a consulting firm for resorts and timeshare developers, operators, and lenders. In addition to Rodriguez, Resort Advisors’ resources include the extensive experience of four others:

·James Broughton, founder and CEO of LEXES Leisure Group.

·Leonard Goldstein, a veteran timeshare marketing and sales executive.

·Walter Sommer, owner-operator of Four Ways Inn and Restaurant in Hamilton, Bermuda, and Springs Hotel in Devonshire, England; and former chief executive officer of Princess Hotels, International.

·James Woods, a financial consultant for Asian corporations.

In addition to his consulting activities, Rodriguez has become a developer again. He is converting The Crescent, a 22-unit apartment building on Ocean Drive in Miami's glitzy South Beach area, to a 28-unit timeshare property; and he has other development projects under way in Florida, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

Active in Politics

Rona M. Harris, now the administrator of Resort Advisors, was the sixth employee hired at Interval International. She says Rodriguez always was fair to everyone. "From the very beginning, he worked hard to make timesharing credible, not a sleazy product, by supporting ARDA and bringing honesty to the industry," she says.

"Over the years Mario taught me how to treat people, from the man who cleans the floor to the President of the United States. I'm a Democrat and worked for Bill Clinton, and I often tease Mario about our political differences. He’s a registered Republican -- a fiscal conservative, but a social liberal."

Rodriguez has passionate feelings in favor of gun control, and is disappointed that so many Republicans are against it. "Gun control has nothing to do with criminals. Too many people are dying," he declares.

Some years ago Jack H. Wetenhall, who was an official in the administration of President Gerald R. Ford in the mid-1970s and president of Franconia Development Corporation in New Hampshire, introduced Rodriguez to Jack Kemp, a former Buffalo Bills quarterback, former Republican Congressman, and former Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"My first real introduction to politics was working with Kemp Associates, Kemp's support and advisory group during the 1988 presidential campaign," Rodriguez says. Other prominent Republicans with whom Rodriguez is close include U.S. Senator Connie Mack (R., Florida); Jeb Bush, who came within a whisker of winning the Florida governorship in 1994; and Miami-area Congresspersons Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

Rodriguez has elected to sit out the 1996 presidential election because his candidate decided not to run. "General Colin Powell's campaign would have meant a major step forward for American race relations, instead of the backward slippage of the last decade," Rodriguez says. Unlike many high-powered entrepreneurs today, Rodriguez distains carrying a beeper or cell phone. A couple of years ago José Cruz, a former Interval International vice president for Latin America who now works for Intersol, S.A., in Buenos Aires, Argentina, gave Rodriguez a car phone for his red Rolls-Royce as a Christmas present. "I don't know the phone number," Rodriguez says.

A New Father

Rodriguez and his wife, Mimi Soler Rodriguez, are enjoying the growth of Mario’s first child, Alec Francisco, born October 19, 1995. "I always dreamed of having children, and I am thrilled to be a father," says Rodriguez, who warms baby bottles and has learned to diaper his young son.

Outside the business world, Rodriguez’s other interests include the cinema, classic rock, jazz, early Motown, rhythm and blues, and Spanish romantic music. An Eric Clapton fan from the beginning, his other rock favorites include David Bowie, The Eagles, and the Rolling Stones; his favorite film directors are Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese.

Fighting weight is a constant battle for Rodriguez, although he lives across the street from Miami's best vita course and jogging and bike path. "A knee injury prevents me from using the jogging path, and a new bicycle waits to be used on the bike path," he says. His other sports interests include downhill and water skiing with his sisters and their children, and attending at least one weekly jazzercise class.

Mario’s Mexican Connection

"Mario Rodriguez was the first to suggest there should be a Mexican counterpart to the American Resort Development Association. He arranged a meeting of myself and some Mexican banks, developers, and financiers and urged the creation of AMDETUR," says Gary A. Terry, founder and former president of ARDA, who is now an attorney of counsel with the Utah-based law firm of Jones, Waldo, Holbrook & McDonough, PC.

In 1975, Rodriguez and Arq. Raul Ortiz Parlatto of Groupo ICA, a large publicly-traded Mexican construction and engineering firm, co-sponsored the first Mexican timeshare seminar in Acapulco. Ten years later, at the 1986 ARDA meeting in Las Vegas, they discussed the status of the Mexican timeshare industry and agreed it was time to hold a second such meeting. The trade association that emerged from the 1976 seminar had died, and Parlatto and Rodriguez felt it should be replaced. At their urging, ARDA and Groupo ICA sponsored a January 1987 meeting at the Maria Isabel Sheraton Hotel in Mexico City, entitled Resort Development Mexico '87; a conference on investment opportunities in established and developing resort areas in Mexico.

Following this 1987 conference, three men took leadership roles in the creation of the current Mexican timeshare trade association, AMDETUR:

· Pablo Gonzalez Carbonell, owner of Costamex Inc., developer of the Royal Holiday Club.

· Fernando Gonzalez, mayor of Puerto Vallarta and a partner in the development company that built Villa del Mar and Villa del Palmar in Puerto Vallarta.

·Gabriel Oropeza, then RCI's vice president for Mexico, and now for all of Latin America.

Rosalie E. Leposky is managing partner of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

For More Information

Resort Development & Advisors, Inc. - http://www.resortadvisors.com/

In Memoriam -  Mario F. Rodriguez - http://www.ampersandcom.com/ampersandcommunications/inlifebrotherinlife.htm

© Copyright 1996 Ampersand Communications
All Rights Reserved
Published in The Resort Trades, February 1996.


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