THE NEW WORLD OF MERRETT STIERHEIM
The Miami Herald
Sunday, February 23, 1986
The announcement begins with the words "A Volvo," and half the room snaps to attention. The upscale folks at Boca West cannot know that this Volvo, the one with its headlights still on, is Merrett Stierheim's aging hand-me-down from his daughter.
In a flash, Stierheim's meeting is suspended. He's out the door. Flash. He's back. Forgot the keys. Flash. Back again, just in time to recover the misplaced pen an aide found for him.
"I'm a little preoccupied," Stierheim says. "Lots on my mind."
Welcome to the new but familiar world of Merrett Stierheim, the man who left behind the Dade County manager's office and a 26-year career of often obsessive public service to find a more relaxed pace in, of all things, professional sports.
Now, after seven weeks as executive director of the Women's Tennis Association, Stierheim does seem somewhat more relaxed, more at peace with himself. The media no longer dissect his every move; he can walk into a supermarket without being accosted by a dissatisfied citizen; he is learning what it is like to have a private existence.
But the habits of a lifetime are hard to break at age 52, and the new WTA executive director is no less obsessed, no less driven than the erstwhile county manager.
The WTA is essentially a union that represents female tennis pros in a variety of interests, most prominently their participation in dozens of tournaments. There is a new world out here, a fascinating new world for Stierheim to dominate and conquer.
"It's a natural," he says. "It's a transition, quasi-public, yet private. It's fun, it's travel, it's exciting."
Indeed, the conversational points of reference are now London, Paris and Zurich instead of Miami, Perrine and Pennsuco; there are 300 tennis pros to nurture, most of them half Stierheim's age and some already millionaires; there are agents to deal with, promoters, high-octane corporate sponsors, hustlers. Stierheim is ready for them all.
"He is a much more relaxed person, but there's something you have to remember about Merrett," says Bill Colson, a prominent Miami attorney who advised Stierheim to take the new job. "He's got one speed, and it's full-speed ahead."
So Stierheim's schedule remains hectic, and it harbors no respect for weekends, holidays or other artificial barriers. He lugs home a heavy briefcase. He carries a portable telephone
from room to room.
He says he does not miss the old days at Metro. He seems to be enjoying himself.
A few weeks ago, Judy Stierheim, a management consultant, ordered a call-waiting line so a few of her phone calls might break through her husband's blockade. It was futile.
Now, Merrett Stierheim works the two lines like an AT&T pro. Judy Stierheim's calls remain in never-never land.
"I don't think his intensity has changed at all," she says. "If anything, at this time, he is more into everything because he's learning about the new job. Maybe once he's overcome the learning curve he can be more laid back. Maybe."
'So far I like it'
Gone is the four-door, county-issue Oldsmobile, complete with mobile telephone. In its place is the 10-year-old Volvo on loan from his daughter.
Decisions about a new car and possibly a move from Dade are on hold pending resolution of one of Stierheim's new problems -- where in South Florida to consolidate the WTA's offices. Dade and Palm Beach counties are the leading candidates; Broward is a possibility.
Also gone are about eight pounds, with more on the way, Stierheim says. Now surrounded by athletes and former athletes, Stierheim is determined to get in shape.
His tennis game, a longtime passion and more than a coincidental factor in his career move, is also being overhauled, but more about this later. Otherwise, little seems different about Stierheim, at least on the surface.
To some degree, his new job is much like the old. Only the venue, the cast of characters and the scale are different.
He is still responsible for negotiating complex contracts, this time with corporate sponsors and tournament promoters instead of public-employee unions and public-works builders. Currently on the table is a 50-page, half-inch-thick proposal by Virginia Slims, the primary sponsor of women's tennis. He is responsible for a staff, this time 25 people instead of the 22,000 at Metro. Instead of the $1.3 billion county budget, he watches over a WTA administrative budget of $1.4 million.
And there are many problems for Stierheim to solve, as there always must be.
"He's a driver," says Ron Fraser, the University of Miami baseball coach who is Stierheim's frequent tennis foil and a close friend. "A guy like that always needs a mountain."
The problems: To some extent, women's professional tennis has peaked in popularity. Virginia Slims, the prime sponsor, produces cigarettes, and many of the players are discomforted by that. Stierheim's predecessor was a lame duck for a year, and sensitive personnel and political matters stacked up.
While noting that the WTA faces a host of difficulties, Stierheim acknowledges that, in the greater scheme of things, these problems do not carry the same importance as his problems of years past.
"I've got 300 people to worry about, and it is still an extremely popular sport with the public," Stierheim says. "At least for me, I've been able to identify a sense of purpose in it.
"But it certainly isn't anything like Jackson Memorial Hospital or the race-conscious ordinance in terms of the community's public welfare. No, it isn't the same in that respect."
Then, he catches himself, and he remembers something that is important to add.
"I feel like my conscience is very, very clear," Stierheim says. "I have paid my dues and I think I've done it well. I was ready for a change, and this one is exciting. It has purpose, and it's fun, and so far I like it."
He calls it "The Fever," that adrenaline-fueled surge of intensity and resolve he can no more control than the very act of breathing.
Much of it comes from his early years at St. Johns Military School in Ossining, N.Y., where an 8-year-old Merrett Stierheim was the youngest and smallest student. "It was survival, to a certain extent," he says. "It was a dog-eat-dog environment."
That intensity characterized Stierheim's later career and particularly marked his nine years as Dade County manager. It was a facet of his personality that drove him and others to great accomplishments and sometimes to despair.
His temper tantrums, while less frequent than generally believed, were legendary. He took on his bosses and subordinates, union leaders and big-deal contractors, newspaper reporters and editors.
In The Herald's newsroom, Stierheim's flare-ups were known -- without particular affection -- as "Hulk-Outs," after the fierce transformation of TV's Incredible Hulk.
Now, Stierheim's new aides say they have yet to see this side of him. And the county manager who supposedly would allow few of his employees to call him "Merrett" now takes pleasure in saying that he is on a first-name basis with nearly everyone.
Movers and shakers
The Lipton International Players Championship at Boca West is a major tournament -- not yet a grand-slam event but close. Played during the past two weeks and scheduled to end today, the LIPC is also an opportunity for the movers and shakers of tennis to do business under the Florida sun.
For Stierheim, it is something of an inaugural. He meets agents, promoters and officials of other tennis associations. He cements relations with some of the female pros and introduces himself to others.
It's a movable feast of business meetings, conducted in grandstands, at cocktail parties, in the players' lounge. Almost all of the participants have the lean, well-scrubbed, affluent look of the current or recent professional athlete.
And all of the time, Stierheim watches and listens and learns. Early in the tournament, Virginia Wade, one of the most respected of the WTA veterans, took a look at Stierheim and called him aside. Loosen up, she said.
"It's good that you're wearing a business suit," she told him. "But also wear a tennis outfit or a pair of slacks and a sport shirt. Let them see you relaxed and comfortable."
Stierheim's reaction? "Good advice," he says.
The tournament also provides Stierheim with an opportunity for strategy sessions with his new associates at the WTA.
One day last week, he held a three-hour meeting with Peachy Kellmeyer and Trish Faulkner, two former pros who have been associated with the WTA almost from its start in 1973. He calls them "two of my three right arms," the third being William Talbert, Stierheim's executive assistant at Metro and now director of administration at the WTA.
During the meeting, Stierheim depended heavily on the experience of Kellmeyer and Faulkner, probing them for ideas and solutions. He touched their arms to draw more out of them, but when he spoke, his hands rose into the air and then fell heavily on the table for emphasis.
Later, he is asked about his management technique.
"That's always been my style," he says. "I always surround myself with good people . . .
"You know, there's a myth out there. Some people see me as a very strong person and would think of me as being autocratic, when that is the antithesis of my management style.
"I am strong. I mean I'm capable of leadership and taking strong positions, and I've never been shy about speaking my mind about what I think is right.
"But my management style is teamwork, creating the climate of participating, healthy egos. I like having healthy egos around me."
No one has ever accused Stierheim of subordinating his own ego, particularly on the tennis court.
Stierheim's friends tend to fall into two categories: Those who lose to him in tennis and those who won't play with him.
Now, to his tennis partners' dismay, Stierheim is positioned to get pointers from the pros.
Fraser says Stierheim swore just a few days ago that he was not getting such help. "I made him cut his wrist and do a blood-brother thing," Fraser says.
Maybe, but Stierheim buffaloed him anyway. The truth is that Stierheim has played with several of the female pros, and flaws in his backhand are being corrected by his new friends.
Told this, Fraser bursts into laughter. "That son of a gun," Fraser says. "I knew it."
JoAnn Russell, a 10-year pro and a WTA board member, says Stierheim was a more-than-respectable doubles partner a few weeks ago. He also has made a good start as executive director, she adds.
"I'm a big fan of his," Russell says. "I like the guy, and nobody's come up to me and said, 'God, I don't like him.'
"But I have one complaint. I had to run a lot when we played together," she says. "If you see Merrett, tell him to chase his own lobs from now on."
'So far, I don't miss it'
In addition to rubbing tennis elbows with the pros, Stierheim is looking forward to the foreign travel inherent in his job. He expects about six foreign trips this year, including stops in England for Wimbledon and Paris for the French Open. He smiles broadly while contemplating that.
And there is the money. His county salary was $111,188. Now, he gets about $150,000 plus extensive benefits. He agrees that he could be making more in the executive suite of a major corporation, but he says he has all he needs -- financially and professionally.
Still, one wonders if Stierheim ever gazes with envy or wistfulness at the new Dade administration building, one of his final monuments, as he heads toward his new friends in his new world.
For the record, Stierheim refuses to share his opinion of either Dade County government or County Manager Sergio Pereira, the only times during many hours of conversation that he retreats into "no comment."
Stierheim's wife says he has had little time thus far to form firm opinions, but . . .
"He may, down the road, sit back and see something happening and say, 'Damn it, if I was there that wouldn't have happened,' " she says. "I can see that happening down the road."
For now, asked the deeper question -- does he miss the sound and the fury and the attention -- Merrett Stierheim turns unusually introspective, and he mentions his predecessor at Metro, Ray Goode, now a prominent businessman.
"You know, I used to call Ray and I would ask him, 'Ray, do you miss it?' " Stierheim says. "I always wanted to know if they missed it, 'cause, you know, if you got The Fever and it's in your blood, there's always that element.
"I was concerned about that. And so far, it's only seven weeks, but so far, I really don't miss it. I'm really enjoying myself. I'm actually having fun."