ST. PETERSBURG — As Sandy Akl browsed the personal ads in 1998, a headline caught her eye.
"I'm the one your mother warned you about."
She gave the bad boy a call. She learned that Michael Lemle was an entrepreneur like herself with a suntan lotion business he had named after his dog.
Mr. Lemle's tough-guy persona was at least partly accurate.
"He would kick your butt on a moment's notice," said Akl, 52.
He also cried at SPCA commercials and handed out $20 bills to the homeless.
The next year, they started a business selling indoor tanning supplies. They bought a house together, where Mr. Lemle served neighbors drinks from a bar in the garage.
Mr. Lemle died July 11 at St. Petersburg General Hospital, of multiple organ failure. He was 56.
He grew up in West Virginia, raised mostly by a grandmother. He served with the Army in Vietnam, but seldom talked about what happened there.
"When he came home from the war in the San Francisco airport, he got spit on and ridiculed," Akl said. "He never forgot that."
He worked his way up to regional manager of Burger Chef, then bought three of the restaurants. He opened his own restaurant, The Rib Factory, in West Virginia. By 1986, a tough economy forced Mr. Lemle to close his restaurants. He had also gone through a marriage and divorce. He relocated to be near sun and salt water.
He lived in Tierra Verde, and found a companion there. A friend brought Mr. Lemle a malamute-wolf puppy and told him he should take the dog.
Zeke was black and white, with blue eyes. He trotted through any open gate or door, occasionally into the homes of total strangers. Zeke and Mr. Lemle enjoyed a close relationship, and howled together every night before bed.
Mr. Lemle opened Zeke Lotions, a line of tanning supplies. It was a good time to invest in tanning, just as tanning salons were beginning to catch on.
In 1999, he dissolved the company and formed Breeze Products with Akl, which supplied spray-on tanning solutions.
The company manufactures tanning bottles used by bodybuilders and others who desire a dark look quickly. The bottles bear the brand names of individual salons, who are their customers.
The company did well, with as many as 50 employees at its peak. Mr. Lemle gave jobs to people who were down on their luck. "He's probably hired and fired a couple thousand people over the course of his career," Akl said.
When a couple of homeless men approached Mr. Lemle at the company's Largo office, Akl said, he didn't give them the shirt off his back. But he did drive home, returning with several new Polo shirts from his closet.
The couple bought a house together in 2003 in Yacht Club Estates, just east of Treasure Island. They encouraged neighbors to drop in, and dined out at O'Bistro."You always saw him with a cocktail in one hand and a cigar in the other," said Todd Earnhart, a Houston tanning supply distributor and a close friend of Mr. Lemle's.
By 2006, the $5-billion-a-year tanning industry began to come under attack. Critics suggested a link with skin cancer. Some states regulated whether minors could use tanning parlors.
The industry also faced competition from large retailers and the effects of rising oil prices. The staff at Breeze Products dwindled to 15.
"In business, people say they are doing phenomenal even if they're not," said Earnhart. "Mike would say, 'We're sucking wind.' "
In recent weeks, Mr. Lemle's health declined. Akl, concerned about his diabetes, took him to St. Petersburg General Hospital. He entered the hospital July 3 but did not improve, and died eight days later.
Akl is running their business by herself. She doesn't think Mr. Lemle would have left her unless she could handle the load.
"He was a big old redneck from West Virginia with a heart as big as the moon," she said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]