Epilogue: Lavish yet humble, Stu Arnold built Auto Trader empire

Stuart Arnold, 82, was the founder of the Auto-Trader magazine, which grew to become one of the largest classified magazines in the country. He died Sept. 11, 2017.
Stuart Arnold, 82, was the founder of the Auto-Trader magazine, which grew to become one of the largest classified magazines in the country. He died Sept. 11, 2017.
Published Sept. 26, 2017

From his living room table, Stuart Arnold pasted Polaroid photos and typewritten ads onto pages that became the Auto Trader magazine.

In a few years, the idea that began in Mr. Arnold's 600-square foot St. Pete Beach apartment flourished into an empire of photo classified magazines that spanned 25 markets across the United States.

"As I get older, I see the door at the end of the tunnel," Mr. Arnold told the Tampa Bay Times in 1992. "You want to leave something behind you. There's an excitement seeing something grow."

On Sept. 11, Mr. Arnold died of a heart attack in his Tierra Verde home. He was 82.

To many, Mr. Arnold was known as a successful businessman who lived lavishly, often going on yacht excursions or buying sports cars, a Learjet, and even a one-man submarine.

But to his family, Mr. Arnold was a humble man with a penchant for pizza who wanted to share his good fortune with loved ones.

"You would never know he had money unless somebody told you," said his son, Stuart Arnold III. "He was just a normal guy. He never flaunted anything. He was just inclusive and was hoping everybody had a good time."

Mr. Arnold was born on Dec. 9, 1934 in the Bronx, N.Y. When he didn't show interest in his grades, his parents sent him to boarding school at Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg.

"It didn't really help much," Mr. Arnold told Florida Trend in 1996. "And then I went on to Duke and majored in journalism. It was a disaster. I couldn't take anything seriously."

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After several editing positions at newspapers and magazines in California and New York, Mr. Arnold moved to Florida in 1973 after divorcing the mother of his two children, Bonnie and Stuart.

According to Florida Trend, he applied for an advertising position at the then-St. Petersburg Times. After waiting about a half hour for his interview, he grew impatient and walked out. Soon after that, he started the Auto Trader.

The younger Arnold, then a teenager, moved with his father to Florida and helped in the new venture. He took Polaroid photos of cars for sale and called owners to ask if they wanted to run an ad for just $4. The magazines were sold near the checkout of convenience stores and supermarkets.

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"Everybody said yes," Arnold said. "It just kept growing and growing."

Fifteen years later, Auto Trader had sold 17 franchises and published 72 editions of its classified magazines. The first franchise was sold to Ben Schmidt in Cincinnati for $2,000. He later sold it for $7 million. Trader employed 750 people in Florida, with 480 of them in Clearwater.

"He was just a driven guy," said Schmidt, who later moved near St. Pete Beach and considered Mr. Arnold his best friend. "He was truly a self-made man."

In 1988, Mr. Arnold sold Trader Publications to Cox Enterprises, an Atlanta-based media chain. Mr. Arnold didn't disclose the selling price, but told the Tampa Bay Times it was an offer he couldn't refuse.

Mr. Arnold later operated CPN television studios in Clearwater, the largest independent studio in Tampa Bay at the time. When he couldn't turn a profit, he sold the studio to Hubbard Broadcasting in 1997.

Mr. Arnold tried to relax after the end of CPN. He lived in Clearwater and took trips to New England every summer, traveled to Europe and vacationed at properties he owned in Key West and Las Vegas.

He owned a Ferrari, a Lotus, and a Learjet. But above all, Arnold loved his 103-foot yacht, the Ivory Lady. Just before his death on Sept. 11 after Hurricane Irma charged through Tampa Bay, Mr. Arnold hopped on board, checked the boat for any damage, and moved it closer to the dock.

Mr. Arnold loved to spend time with loved ones and often took them on trips.

"He would just take us places," said his daughter, Bonnie Arnold. "He'd say to me, 'Hey Bonnie, want to go to lunch?' Next thing, we're in the Learjet and we're going to Key West for lunch."

When the shuttle Discovery took off from Cape Canaveral in 1998, Mr. Arnold and several friends watched the launch from his Learjet at 50,000 feet.

"I think he just touched many, many people's lives with a lot of good memories," said Arnold, his son.

Mr. Arnold was also known for his love of pizza. He ate slices every week. His favorite: plain cheese on thin crust.

"He was trim and fit and all that but he loved his pizza like that was the only thing that was available," said Isaac Llanes, Bonnie's boyfriend.

Every Friday, Mr. Arnold met with Schmidt and a few others to eat pizza at Tony & Nello's in Tierra Verde. In recent days, Schmidt, 83, said he and Mr. Arnold joked around about getting older.

Bonnie, Mr. Arnold's daughter, said she finds comfort in knowing her father lived a full life.

"It was always an adventure," she said. "The best way to put it: you never knew exactly what you were going to do, but there was always pizza involved."

Information from a 1996 article by Florida Trend was used in this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at Follow @lauracmorel.