BROOKSVILLE — Good old boy, wheeler-dealer, smooth talker.
Every small town has one, and for the past 40 years, the man who best fits that image in Brooksville is Paul Clark. He's been the guy people go to when they're looking for a nice used bass boat or a car that fits their budget. Need a utility shed or a topper for your pickup? He's got those, too.
Easily recognizable with the white wide-brimmed hat he sports, Clark is proud of his entrepreneurial skills. He'll sell just about anything if he can "turn a buck at it." But he insists that being a businessman isn't all about making money.
"I like people, and I like making deals that help both of us," the 60-year-old Clark said from his desk at Paul Clark Enterprises on State Road 50 west of Brooksville.
Surrounded by vehicles of every shape, size and description, Clark describes himself as a man who has mastered the art of deal making, even if not every sale will earn him optimum profit.
A lot of that philosophy he credits to his late father, who urged him to "make a deal every day, even if it's just you and your buddy swapping pocket knives."
Jovial and easygoing, Clark says he has learned how to weather the bad times and relish the positive moments during his four decades in Hernando County. His office — inside an aging mobile home that once served as his residence, where he often struggled to pay the lights bill — serves as a testament to his fortitude to keep going no matter what.
These days, Clark rarely is around the place. Rather, he spends much of his time in his SUV, traveling to and from vehicle auctions, where he takes notes on what he thinks are good deals.
"I sort of keep an inventory in my head for what certain customers are looking for," said Clark. "If I think it's a good deal for both of us, I'll work the numbers and then pitch it to them."
Some people are born salespeople, and Clark's lineage — his father and grandfather both sold used cars, and his great-grandfather owned a general store — seemed to foretell his future long before he moved from Poplar Bluff, Mo., to Brooksville in late 1973. Although his father had offered him a share in his trucking business, the younger Clark was determined to find his own way.
Clark began building small utility sheds and set up shop on a vacant lot on the then-two-lane U.S. 41, across from the county fairgrounds. Business wasn't exactly booming, so he decided to add a few used cars to the mix. In time, he got to know people around town, including politicians, business leaders and county department heads. Most important, he linked himself with a network of wholesalers around the state who could provide him inventory.
Relocating his business to its present site was risky for Clark. Back then, SR 50 was little more than a two-lane stretch of blacktop running from Brooksville to U.S. 19, with few businesses along it. Customers were hard to come by. Feeling he needed to offer something unique, Clark decided to take a chance on selling and repairing used recreational vehicles.
"Up till then, you pretty much had to go to Tampa or Orlando to get an RV, and you had to pay a lot of money for it," he recalled. "I figured there might be a good opportunity knocking."
Perhaps at no other time did opportunity knock as earnestly as when Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida in 1992. The instantaneous destruction of more than 25,000 homes made Clark realize there was money to be made by a quick-acting entrepreneur like himself. He carted down generators by the truckload, and later brought used RVs, travel trailers and sheds to sell to victims in desperate need of shelter while they waited to rebuild.
"It was a boom time for me for sure," said Clark, who did the same in the wake of other storms, including hurricanes Charley and Katrina. "But in the end, it was also helping people who were trapped and had no shelter, no power, no anything."
Not everyone has seen Clark's actions in such a positive light. After Katrina, an article in the Los Angeles Times targeted Clark as an opportunist who made money off the misery of storm victims. He dismisses the notion, saying he was merely providing a service to folks who had no other place to go.
"A lot of people don't understand that money isn't always the motive when it comes to helping people," he said. "I was there when the government wasn't."
Clark admits that the recent recession forced him to make some changes in the way he runs his business. The tightening of credit by lenders has put a clamp on many of his customers. He stopped selling new RVs because he could no longer afford to assume the lion's share of the financial risk.
"It's all different, but I still love it just as much as I ever did," said Clark, who is throwing a 40th anniversary party for the public from 2 to 6 p.m. March 29. "To me, all of it's been good."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.