CEO profile: Semi-retired Longboat Key executive built a name building brands

jsalman@bradenton.comAugust 29, 2012 

MANATEE -- Greg Hoffmann never could stay in one job too long.

Even if he was pretty darn good at each of them.

The semi-retired Longboat Key attorney made a name for himself by helping some of the most recognizable brands build a successful U.S. franchise -- including time as a founding partner with Mary Engelbreit, whose licensed greeting cards and calendars have generated more than $1 billion in sales.

While managing his own small scuba diving business and real estate developments, Hoffmann also specialized in helping entrepreneurs with a good idea navigate the legal maze of licensing.

Hoffmann represented names from the first Jiffy Lube car-care franchise to the popular TV show "Ice Road Truckers" and even an engineer who invented what's now become the industry-standard bowling ball.

The Chicago native spends his retirement teaching at Webster University and helping businesses as mediator and court arbitrator. Hoffmann also volunteers for Mote Marine and the Manasota Score group, where he currently serves as chairman.

Q: How did you get your career started?

A: I had a long history of volunteerism, so after school, I joined what is now known as AmeriCorps, the domestic Peace Corps. I went to Alaska, joined the Bar Association and went to volunteer for a legal aide group. That was a very active time in Alaska, when the Native Claims Settlement Act was just passed. High school students would drop out of school and go work on the pipeline. Sarah Palin was a young schoolchild at the time.

I spent about 2 1/2 years in Alaska before I returned to the Midwest, back in Missouri, where I had the opportunity to work for now what are some pretty famous people including former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth, former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and U.S. Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas, who were all former state attorneys general in Missouri. Most of the work I did for the state was business torts and issues dealing with antitrust.

I also represented the Department of Agricul

ture. That was fun and it did have an impact on my further career. We managed the fair, and that was my first introduction to dealing with artists.

Q: How did you transition into licensing and franchising?

A: Ultimately I started my own private practice in St. Louis ... I did work all over the place. I was involved in all types of cases. At the time, I did a lot of work with the old Barnett Bank, which had a lot of class-action stuff. I also got involved in doing a fair amount of intellectual property and franchise work.

I had the good fortune of helping some of the original founders of Jiffy Lube and worked with them as they established territories in the Midwest -- from Ohio to Colorado. The guys that started that were from Iowa. I was dealing with trademarks, franchises and even represented some sports figures.

Q: How did you get involved with Mary Engelbreit?

A: Mary's husband and my wife were friends when they went to college. We went into business together and over a period of 12 years, we continued to build her brand, which included a chain of retail stores, a magazine with over 500,000 circulation and some licensed products like greeting cards, calenders and books that over the lifetime have had more than $1 billion in sales. I stopped my private law firm at that point because I couldn't do both, and I was pretty burned out. That was a lot of fun to do.

What we have seen in the U.S. is the amount of retail space per capita has grown, but it's owned by fewer and fewer people. If you can crack in, you can make a lot of money, but you have to get your stuff on the shelves. It's a very difficult business to be in, and I left in 2006 and decided to do something different.

Q: What else have you done in your career?

A: While I had my practice, I also owned several businesses, including a scuba diving company in St. Louis, where we had a store and gave lessons. We also went on a lot of trips to Florida, and that was part of what led me here. I also got involved in the education side and did a lot of training on legal issues associated with scuba diving.

That business was never very profitable. Basically it paid for all of the travel and equipment. It's like the old saying in the restaurant industry, we ate all of our profits.

I have been a small business owner my entire life. Other than a very short time, I have never worked for a business venture I didn't have a substantial interest in. I just never played well in the large corporate sandbox. It just wasn't a good fit, and I knew that early on.

Q: What do you mostly attribute your success to?

A: You have to find the right people who are better at what they're doing than you are. The people who are at the top take the risks and help direct the vision. The people who do the work make you successful. That's critically important, and the biggest thing I see small business owners doing is try to do everything and be in charge of everything. It sounds cliché, but you have to find the right people and let them do their jobs.

Q: What brought you to the Manatee-Sarasota area?

A: My parents retired to Charlotte County, and I wanted to be closer to them. That's what brought us to this area. You have to look far and wide to find a better place to live than Sarasota and Manatee. There's so many resources here and so many people who are smart and capable. The level of capability here is as high as any community I have ever worked in, and that includes New York City and London.

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.

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