Katherine Bellissimo

Her critical role in marketing and sponsorship at equestrian center drives its success

Karen Floyd: You have four children? Tell me about your choice to be a stay-at-home mother during their formative years.

Katherine Bellissimo: Yes, ages 25 down to 20 actually. Two boys. Two girls. I think I knew what I was getting into, but when you do it, you just are all in. Ahead of time you decide and then you will do it to the best that you can. I was able to have the kids and to spend a lot of time with them. After our first child, I worked part time. By the second child, I was able to be full time as a mom. I just felt that that was my responsibility. It’s what I wanted to do. I just did not want somebody else doing it. That was obviously a time in young couple’s lives when the husband is working the hardest. And so those first couple of years were spent traveling for him. It was so important for him that we were with him. A lot of times I was traveling with babies even if it was just to see him for a day or two so that we could have a dinner together and we could see each other and then I would travel back again. Obviously, we thought we knew what we were doing, and I’d already decided to dedicate this time. So once we made this decision, you just go ahead and do it as best that you can.

Q: What were you doing in Boston prior to 2000?

A: We were raising our family. Mark had graduated from business school at Harvard, was doing a consulting job. So we ended up in Boston back where we both grew up. That’s where our families were. It was obviously very important at that time to have family support because he was traveling probably six or seven days a week and we are having little children and dogs. Part of his job was going to Florida for one of his customers. So, at one point, one of the customers, which was VITAS Healthcare, actually was a wonderful company, still there, asked him to come on as a vice president of operations. He was only I think probably 28 years old, but we’d had enough of the traveling and so we decided just to take a leap and go to Florida. So we were down in the Miami area for about five years, had a couple more kids, and finished his job down there and moved back to Boston. I think we were there for about eight years, and he had gone through two more startups. One was healthcare and one was sort of a sales force-related type of thing.

Q: And that was kind of his niche, startups and helping structure companies?

A: Yes, struggling companies, turnarounds. And, at that point, I think it was fortuitous because the winters were becoming a little bit more difficult. We were getting involved in the horse world, and his company merged with another in Colorado, and we were given an opportunity to sort of sit down and think about what we wanted to do next, which is why we went down to Florida.

Q: Professionally you either manage and/or are in partnership with four equestrian centers/shows. Which is your favorite?

A: Each one is different. I have to say the most exciting one is actually the Central Park horse show that we do in September. We are coming up on our third year. Probably because it feels magical and it’s almost surreal. We were able to do something which hadn’t been done before, which was to take a location, the Wollman Rink in Central Park, and create a horse show arena in the heart of Central Park surrounded by the skyline. And when you’re there during the nighttime, you are embraced by the backdrop of the New York skyline. You have the energy of the crowd in New York City and you just — you can’t explain the energy that you get from that type of venue. Everything else is unique; Florida has its own ideas, and Colorado is different, and Tryon — where we’ve spent actually most of our time now — has such a soul to it. … But I have to say, if I had to narrow it down to one, I’d say Central Park is really the most dynamic and magical.

Q: So how did Central Park come about?

A: Well, it’s funny. I guess it was four years ago that Mr. Trump visited us at our facility in Wellington and spent the evening watching one of our Saturday night Grand Prix’s. We turned a phrase calling it Saturday Night Lights. So it’s not just about watching a horse show. It’s actually the entire experience. We had spent some time with him at Mar-a-Lago, and he was interested in coming out to visit what we were doing in Wellington. He came. I think he was planning on coming for about 15 minutes. He ended up spending about two and a half to three hours with us. He really understood the energy that was there and everything that was going on. The next year he decided to do something at Mar-a-Lago. So we have had a show we’ve been running at Mar-a-Lago with Mr. Trump that is charity-based. We have been doing that I think what is coming up on our fourth year. After the first year, it was so successful, he said to us, “What’s next?” Mark turned to him, and he said, “Central Park.” We knew that people had been trying to do it, but they were trying to do it on the grass. Mark had figured out, by looking at the map, that Wollman Rink was something that Mr. Trump controlled. He said, “Would you be willing to lease us the rink during that time to be able to put on a horse show?” The city went through an administration change, so all of what we had done about six months before changed very dramatically. We had a new administration, were working with the parks department, the conservancy. There are a number of groups to interface with if you do anything in New York City, but we just found our way. You know, perseverance and just knowing that to bring horses back into the city is important. There really hadn’t been anything since Madison Square Garden, which had been going on years ago. So it just found its way. It is a tremendous effort that continues all within one week.

Q: When did you start working in what I call partnerships with Mark?

A: He got interested in the equestrian world as he had some free time when we were deciding what he was going to do next. He wanted to understand it. He looked at the horse show and then he wanted to understand why these people were coming from all over the world. The facility wasn’t really a premier facility in terms of what it offered, and yet people would still come, and that perplexed him. He wanted to understand that. So we started by buying some property down there. We bought a farm just as we were getting more comfortable with living there and getting to know the people. We found out, from the person who was running it, that actually the entire show was in jeopardy of not even being able to come back the next year. So the owner asked Mark if he could help do something in terms of restructuring it because that’s Mark’s nature. That is how we became involved in the horse show. Mark and I continued to buy property in that area. It evolved into us working together. Because of already being in the equestrian world through the riding, acquiring property was something that interested both of us. We both became involved in the horse show, eventually buying it and taking over the entire operation.

Q: Wellington was your first equestrian center operation that you both did in what I call a true partnership?

A: Yes. There was never really a plan. We didn’t move to Florida to take over the horse show. We moved to Florida to change our life. The horse show sort of stumbled upon us, I guess, in terms of maintaining the lifestyle that we had just committed to. Because we had just moved our entire family there, we wanted to make sure it was going to stay. That’s how we got involved in the horse show. Then as we became more involved in the horse show, it became even more interesting to us as a lifestyle type of destination for us as well as everybody else. As we became more involved in Wellington, the opportunities for other locations came up.

Q: So what was the next location?

A: The next location was North Carolina. The Smiths, who are partners, founding partners with us in Wellington, are from North Carolina and had asked if we would look at this area for a second location. Winter is Wellington, but the rest of the season people are sort of disbursed. The Smiths wanted to create another type of home environment for people so that they’re not so nomadic the rest of the year, in terms of where they go for horse showing.

Q: So Tryon, North Carolina? How was that decision made?

A: Oh, again, it wasn’t land. We were coming just to visit the Smiths in the off season and going to the Block House Steeplechase every year. We use to do that. I mean, as of ten years ago, we were coming to visit. But we’d spend the week or the weekend with them touring around, looking at the properties. During those conversations, it was asked if we would consider doing another horse show operation up here. Of course, you do the research and evaluate everything. We looked at other opportunities, but everything kept pointing back to this area. It was a beautiful location in terms of people coming and going during the seasons. It was located close enough to other cities and transportation. The lifestyle aspects between the mountains and the lakes and just the general field of people that live here. It was really a no-brainer once we actually looked into it.

Katherine Bellissimo stands with her husband, Mark (holding check), during an awards presentation in June at the Tryon International Equestrian Center.

Q: How did Denver come about?

A: We were approached by the woman who had been running those shows. She was ready to retire, and she was worried that if she put that property up to the general public, it was going to be turned into a housing development. She really wanted to continue what she had built there. So she had approached us and, again, we looked at it, and it did make sense. It made sense because it was a farther-away location that was close enough for us to be able to manage. It also tapped into a different population but still had the same feel to it of being a very important place from a cultural perspective. It was more of a lifestyle equestrian-type of destination than just a horse show that was thrown up. And so it made sense.

Q: And when did that one transpire?

A: About a year ago January. So the first year was spent getting our arms around it and understanding it. This year we put a lot more capital into improvements that were needed for underground work for drainage. The riding rings needed improvement from the footing perspective. So we attacked it from a rider and horse safety perspective and more than the experience of actually horse showing. We have plans to do more in the future. You have a shorter season there in Colorado, so you have less time to actually do all the things that you wanted to. You have to plan very carefully.

Q: What did your parents do professionally?

A: My mother was the very first female employee in the training program at IBM. I’ve always been proud of her. She put herself through Smith, full scholarship, and then went through the interviewing process. So this is the late ’50s, early ’60s I guess, and she was hired. She told me she used to have to wear white gloves and go out to the job sites because they were sales training. So they would go and check on those big, you know, mainframe computers, and that was her job. It’s amazing to me because that’s really when women married right out of college. Obviously, my parents got married shortly thereafter, but she had quite an impressive job right away right out of college. My father was in the Army because that’s when you had to do some service. After that he and his brother went to take over their father’s oil company. It was a private independent oil company in the Boston area. Their father had passed, and they had to go back and run it, and my uncle was in the Navy, my father’s in the Army, and they finished and then went back and took it over. They grew it into the largest independent petroleum company in the Northeast area. So they still have remained best friends, and they still have lunch, I think, every other week together.

Q: And he married for brains.

A: Yes, he did. They were set up on a blind date. He was at Cornell, and she was at Smith, which is funny. It’s ironic, I suppose because Mark and I were also set up on a blind date as well.

Q: Please tell me about this blind date when you met your husband.

A: Mark’s brother went to high school with us, and I’m one of four, and so we were 13 months apart. Every single one of my brothers and sisters were in one hallway or another in high school. Mark’s family had six, but they were a little bit more spread out. His younger brother was very very good friends with my younger sister. Mark was at Andover at the time but would come home on weekends, and he had his license. So he would drive them to the movies with their friends. In one of those trips, my sister and his brother said, “You really should meet Katherine. I think you guys would get along.” Of course he brushed it off. They were busy with things going on at school. But, by the summer, they basically convinced him to give me a call and I said yes, of course. We both had very active social lives at that time. But why not meet somebody, especially during the summer? He called me, and we went on a sailing trip at my beach because we had a Sunfish. On the one day that there was absolutely no wind whatsoever, and we happened to pass a young man that I was dating at the time on the way. So that was a little bit uncomfortable, and we were stuck in the middle of the ocean. He was trying to tell me how to sail, and I was trying to tell him how to sail. It’s amazing we actually had a second date.

Q: Did you know immediately that he was different?

A: I knew that he was someone to be serious with. You know, a lot of people you date you date for different reasons. It’s a lot of fun, it’s an experience. … But Mark, when I met him, I knew that if there was someone to be serious with, it would be him. So we were very serious on and off. Every time we were together very serious. But life/college gets in the way. He worked in New York City. I worked in Boston. By the time we got back together again, we very quickly became engaged and were married.

Q: Wow. So how long from the first date till marriage?

A: Nine years. I was 16 when we met on the blind date, and I think we got married when I was 25.

Q: What brings you the most joy?

A: Really just spending time with the children and being a family. I’m sure it sounds strange because they’re young adults, but, you know, I really just still enjoy being with them. I love that they’re interested in what we do. I love that I get to spend time with them having fun and laughing really hard, and we still have a lot of family dinners. That is sort of important to them to bring friends and so, a lot of times, it turns into eight or ten people. But it’s great. I’m hoping that they’ll stay in our lives for a long period of time, and I certainly cherish every year that they’re still with us and that they still have time to be with us.

Q: You oversee eclectic competencies: sponsorships, marketing, communications, retail operations, and vendors? So go back with me in time. You received your college degree, raised kids, and now you have tremendous responsibilities. How did that evolve?

A: When we began, it was just Mark and me. It was a very grassroots operation in Florida with Mark and me working out of the house. I was writing the checks, he was the vision, and we both oversaw all of the operations. As we became a little bit more involved in other venues, obviously it’s impossible to manage everything, and you grow a team, and you go with your strengths. My background was in real estate as well as in marketing and communications. And so my natural tendency was to oversee some of the more creative aspects of what we were doing. Everything that we do in those areas overlays into the rest of the business. And so it’s a way for me to still oversee the operations because it’s not a separate entity and everything is interrelated. Sponsorship is a very strong base to what we do, but it overlays in the retail. It overlays into the show operations. It overlays into the marketing communications and social media. But if you can’t deliver from an operations standpoint, then it’s meaningless. So even though I have that title, and that is where I build the team, we all work together. Mark and I still overlay in terms of what we are doing, but his strengths are more in the financial arena.

Q: I was fascinated, in our first visit, your team travels with you, and they are self-described as nomadic. How were you able to foster an environment that made people want to do that?

A: You know, it’s interesting, and it wasn’t obviously the plan. Again, it evolved because initially it was just Florida. The point of Florida was to turn it from a seven-week horse show where the whole thing was nomadic. You never had a year-round employee. Now we have 32 weeks a year that we’re running horse show operations. And so it’s ironic that it turned into a nomadic lifestyle because of the three and four locations. When we initially hired people, it was with the understanding that they would stay in Florida and have a life and not have to travel. But as Tryon evolved, they did approach us and say we’ll come. We want to be a part of this new adventure. So people would relocate for that time period, and it worked out. They fell in love with Tryon, and we have an operation out in Colorado and then we all sort of come back together again for Wellington in the winter. It just sort of happened that way. I didn’t think we’d be doing it, but somehow it works. It is great because if you have the flexibility to do that, it’s a wonderful way to live. You’re always going to the best weather that you can find. So how can you complain, right?

Q: How do you hire someone? When you hire someone, what are you looking for?

A: You know, we look for somebody who we’ll feel comfortable going to dinner with. A lot of what we do is very public in terms of we are creating a lifestyle experience for people. Everybody that is interacting with those people needs to be able to support that vision. It’s very important that obviously you look for their qualifications. You don’t even get to a meeting face-to-face until you’re qualified. So let’s say okay, you have to be qualified for what we’re looking for. You have to bring something to the table that we need. But it’s very important for us to have a team that feels a little like family. Because the hours are long sometimes, there’s stress and things like that. You want to feel that you can rely on people, just knowing that you’re with people that will support you that you enjoy being with so that you can push through. Also it is important to know that you can put them in front of anybody that comes and feel comfortable that they will be representing, you and the organization.

Q: Is loyalty important?

A: I think loyalty is very important. But I feel like the people who come to us, it’s sort of a given. It’s a very strong culture that they’re getting into, and for the people who are not going to work out, it happens very quickly. The other people that stay are very very loyal because they know how loyal we are to them. Like I say the word family, we get involved in helping obviously beyond just the 9:00 to 5:00 a lot of times. I think that’s very important to them as well. I think the loyalty comes. It’s not something that’s asked, but obviously it’s something that’s very necessary.

Q: What’s the secret for you and Mark to manage marriage and business? I have heard my entire life never ever work with your spouse.

A: I think it’s because he has allowed me to take pieces that I can own. I don’t have to be with him at all times. We obviously don’t make decisions without talking to each other, but there’s a certain level of trust now between the two of us that we know generally how the other one would react, or if we have to really talk to the other one before making a decision. I think the fact that he’s given me sort of that whole section of the marketing and sponsorship to oversee and gives me a little bit of space to have time to nurture myself as well as a part of the business without always having to be with him, I think makes a big difference in what we’re doing.

Q: What is the best part of your day?

A: Probably when I’m out riding my horse with my daughters. I think that’s, you know, that’s my favorite part of my day.

Q: What do you want to be remembered for?

A: Probably the children and creating some really good adults, you know, who can contribute in the world.

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