H&H in­ter­view 2018 WEG host and ty­coon Mark Bel­lis­simo

As the Amer­i­can busi­ness ty­coon pre­pares to host the 2018 World Eques­trian Games, Madeleine Sil­ver heads to North Carolina to talk mil­lion-dol­lar projects and why the eques­trian world needs a shake-up

Horse & Hound - - News -

“WHAT you’re look­ing at here is the ball­room,” says busi­ness­man Mark Bel­lis­simo, point­ing to a vast ex­panse of flat­tened mud — and a dig­ger in ac­tion.

As far as the World Eques­trian Games (WEG) go, ball­rooms, we imag­ine, are fairly low pri­or­ity. But then so are in­fin­ity pools, fives­tar ho­tels and spas, all of which were sketched out by Mark on the back of a piece of pa­per — “My daugh­ter has kept them and calls them the Markhives!” — and are now swiftly swing­ing into pro­duc­tion.

“We want this to be, lit­er­ally, an al­most Dis­ney-like ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says, sur­vey­ing the 1,600 acres at Tryon In­ter­na­tional Eques­trian Cen­ter in North Carolina that he bought in Jan­uary 2014 with his wife Kather­ine and five other fam­i­lies.

Dressed in a crisp open-col­lar shirt, preppy loafers and a white cap bran­dish­ing the Tryon logo, he is ev­ery­thing you’d ex­pect from a like­able car­toon char­ac­ter of an Amer­i­can en­tre­pre­neur. Thanks to suc­cess dur­ing the dot­com era, as well as in the health and man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­tries, he has hit the big time, hav­ing had a mod­est up­bring­ing — some­thing he is keen to em­pha­sise.

Con­ver­sa­tions are lit­tered with talk of his “vi­sion”, “com­mu­nity” and “you’re kid­ding?” — the lat­ter when he finds out we haven’t yet been shown the lat­est clus­ter of cab­ins to help ac­com­mo­date the ex­pected 500,000 spec­ta­tors at the games.

“WHEN we went to build this orig­i­nally, our vi­sion was to cre­ate an eques­trian life­style des­ti­na­tion,” he says — a process that be­gan by mov­ing three mil­lion square foot of earth, where there was once just a bank­rupt golf course and rolling hills.

What did the lo­cals make of what is, if horses are not your pri­or­ity, some­thing of a blot on the land­scape at the foot of the Blue Ridge Moun­tains?

“This has be­come the largest em­ployer in this re­gion, which was dec­i­mated by the tran­si­tion of the tex­tile in­dus­try out of this com­mu­nity. We em­ploy over 500 peo­ple dur­ing the sea­son, which runs from April un­til Oc­to­ber,” he says.

“As many peo­ple have shared with me, they were just look­ing for some hope and this was al­most a bit of a gift to the com­mu­nity.”

Rem­i­nis­cent of a city in the Mid­dle East that rises out of nowhere, the eques­trian cen­tre sprung to life in just 18 months. By the sum­mer of 2015 there were 1,200 sta­bles, a cross-coun­try course, Derby course, 12 are­nas and eight restau­rants.

Tryon only won the bid last Novem­ber to host WEG, af­ter it was mu­tu­ally agreed to pull the games from Bromont, Canada, due to money trou­bles. And so, as Mark says, “the time­line is not what I’d par­tic­u­larly want, but we’ve had great suc­cess as a team al­ready”. Be­fore next Septem­ber there’s a size­able to-do list; ho­tels need to be built, there are plans for an un­der­pass and over­pass to be built off the high­way to ease con­ges­tion, a 20,000seat stadium, 360 ac­com­mo­da­tion units for grooms, 400 more sta­bles…

But even be­fore the loom­ing WEG dead­line, Mark was work­ing to a time­line most peo­ple’s blood pres­sure would strug­gle to cope with.

“Peo­ple didn’t be­lieve that this would work in this area,” he says. “One of my part­ners had tried to do some­thing up here, but it didn’t grab the at­ten­tion or the imag­i­na­tion. But when this thing popped up overnight, enough peo­ple were cu­ri­ous just to come and have a look.”

And then there is his se­cret weapon for ac­cel­er­at­ing the build­ing work. Last year Mark bought a nearby fac­tory — “I just went in and made a great of­fer” — fa­cil­i­tated it with 20 ro­bots and set them to work build­ing the re­main­ing fa­cil­i­ties needed for WEG, which can then just be trans­ported to the site ready-made.

TRYON is just a slither of Mark’s mo­nop­oly on the US eques­trian in­dus­try; to­gether with his part­ners he has in­vested over $500mil­lion (£380m).

To date, his port­fo­lio in­cludes Palm Beach In­ter­na­tional Eques­trian Cen­ter in Welling­ton, Florida (home of the Win­ter Eques­trian Fes­ti­val), The Colorado Horse Park (a 200acre com­pe­ti­tion venue near Den­ver), The Chron­i­cle of the Horse mag­a­zine, Cen­tral Park Horse Show in New York and most re­cently the In­ter­na­tional Polo Club of Palm Beach, which he bought for a re­ported $74m (£56m) last year.

This im­mer­sion into the horse world is es­pe­cially sur­pris­ing when you con­sider that one of his first times on a horse wasn’t un­til a fam­ily hol­i­day to the Do­mini­can Repub­lic with his wife — who showjumps and is heav­ily in­volved in the busi­ness — and their four chil­dren.

“Ac­tu­ally, it’s a funny story, given that I sur­vived,” he says, re­count­ing how his horse “sort of sensed the barn was around” and took off at a gal­lop, through hous­ing de­vel­op­ments and cross­ing roads, with the gau­cho des­per­ately chas­ing him.

He now sticks to trail rid­ing on his quar­ter horse Easy, a Christ­mas present from his wife. Easy has be­come an over­sized pet for Mark — he’s trained to come to his whis­tle.

But his lack of ex­pe­ri­ence in the sad­dle hasn’t stopped him see­ing the big­ger pic­ture.

“My two girls and wife rode, and my two boys didn’t and it re­ally split the fam­ily go­ing to com­pe­ti­tion venues,” he says. “So we wanted to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment where the whole fam­ily could en­joy it, re­gard­less of whether they’re com­pet­ing.”

It’s free en­try for spec­ta­tors at Tryon

(apart from for WEG), and fam­i­lies flock in on the Satur­day night we visit, the car park over­flow­ing with pick-up trucks. There’s face paint­ing, a carousel, women on stilts and a buck­ing bronco. The crowd whoop and cheer as the grand prix gets un­der way; this is a far cry from the stuffy horse world that lo­cals may have at first feared.

“If you walk around the carousel on a Satur­day night, which is some­thing I do, you see the fam­i­lies, and they’re be­com­ing con­verts,” says Mark. “I think in this coun­try, more so than in Europe, the sport isn’t as eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble.

“WEG has the po­ten­tial to present a break­through. We want to con­nect to those 200 mil­lion peo­ple on Face­book who have ‘horses’ as an in­ter­est.”

You can’t help­ing think­ing that this is the sort of man who fires off emails in the mid­dle of the night — there aren’t enough hours in the day to keep all of his plates spin­ning — or who lies on a sunbed on hol­i­day, cock­tail in one hand, phone in the other. But to put on the world’s big­gest eques­trian spec­ta­cle, with less than two years’ no­tice, this sort of work ethic must be at the top of the job spec.

What is for sure, is that in this ru­ral cor­ner of the States, the Amer­i­can Dream is very much alive.

Tryon In­ter­na­tional Eques­trian Cen­ter won the bid to host WEG a year ago. ‘We want this to be an al­most Dis­ney-like ex­pe­ri­ence’

Mark and his part­ners have in­vested in ex­cess of £380mil­lion in the eques­trian mar­ket

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.