Mike Repole ’91SVC
Mike Repole ’91SVC doesn’t like titles or organization charts.
“I’ve always believed that in any business, and really in any organization, everybody has a role to play, and each of those roles is important to the overall success of the operation. I believe in a level playing field. Whether you’re the CEO or a new clerk in the shipping department, you’ve probably got something that the organization can use to make itself better. As the head of my businesses, I’ve always wanted to hear what everybody else had to say.”
An extremely outgoing and genuinely likeable man whose favored business attire is jeans and sneakers, Repole looks and acts nothing like the successful corporate executive who, at only 38 years of age, had already sold his former company to Coca Cola for a huge profit.
Regardless of what he has achieved in so many areas of his life, he’ll always be “Mike from Queens.” That’s the way he wants it, because that’s who he is.
Repole describes himself as a “…down to earth guy who just happens to be successful. I don’t know how to be anybody else. I’m the same person I’ve always been, and that’s the way it should be. I call my grandmother, who’s 84 years old, and my parents every single day to tell them that I love them. Making money and being successful doesn’t have to turn you into a different person. Nobody should have a sense of entitlement just because they’re successful and making money. That’s just wrong.”
The 41 year-old Repole grew up in Middle Village, a typical middle class Queens neighborhood just a few miles west of St. John’s University. The son of a devout Catholic family, he attended St. Margaret’s Elementary School and Holy Cross High School before coming to St. John’s as a Sport Management major. Although the cost of providing him with a private Catholic education undoubtedly taxed his family’s finances, his parents managed to do what was necessary to be certain that he received a superior, faith-based education.
“The most important thing for my husband and me was that Mike got a good education,” said Repole’s mother, Annie. “We wanted our kids to have a better education than we had, and so sending them to good schools took precedence over everything else.”
“My parents were never rich but they provided me with the things that mattered,” recalled Repole. “They didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but they sacrificed everything that they had for my education. When I walked out of St. John’s I didn’t have a dollar to pay back in student loans because my parents had taken care of everything. I came from a loving home and I got a great education.”
Realizing the sacrifices that his parents were making for him, Repole admits that while he wasn’t driven to become “book smart,” he was committed to making the most of the education that his family had worked so hard to provide. “I didn’t just want to be in college, I wanted to graduate from college. I wanted that for myself, but I also wanted that for my family. My graduating from college was important to them, so that made it important to me.”
Repole acknowledged that his ideal job would have been as General Manager of the New York Mets or Head Coach of the St. John’s men’s basketball team. When neither of these positions was immediately available, he focused his competitive nature on the business world and quickly capitalized upon his entrepreneurial skills to assume a leadership role as Co-founder and President of Energy Brands, Inc., known as Glaceau, makers of Vitaminwater, Fruitwater, Smartwater and Vitaminenergy, new products just emerging onto the bottled water scene. The concept of an enhanced, vitamin- enriched water appealed to the health-conscious Repole, and he assembled a team of like-minded individuals to propel the brand to unimagined heights.
The company was ultimately sold to Coca-Cola for $4.1 billion. Repole now owns a majority stake in Pirates Brands, manufacturers of the popular Pirate’s Booty snack lines. The company has been creating healthy snacks since 1987 and includes a variety of baked, all-natural snacks free from fryer and trans fats.
In addition to Pirates Brands, he holds interests in other enterprises, including Energy Kitchen, a chain of healthy-eating restaurants in New York City and Kind Healthy Snacks, manufacturers of all-natural whole nut and fruit bars.
Throughout his career Repole has maintained an open-door policy with all of his employees, encouraging them to share their ideas, suggestions and concerns with him regardless of their position within the company. “If you talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk,” he remarked. “You have to lead by example. People are not afraid to tell me the truth or to tell me that I’m wrong. If anyone can show me that I’m wrong, and can tell me why, I’ll change on a dime.”
Many of his most senior executives are friends from Queens who have known, and in some cases grown up with, him for many years. Their relationships are uniformly ones of mutual loyalty and respect.
“I met Mike when I was eight years old,” noted Joseph Serventi, Vice President, Corporate Development at Pirates Brands. “He was a coach and counselor at the Forest Hills Community Center where my friends and I spent time. He was always like an older brother to me when I was eight, and here we are 23 years later and we still have that same kind of relationship in the business world. Working for Mike is sometimes a lot of pressure, but it’s always a lot of fun. He works hard and plays hard, and he’s instilled those values in all of us here at the company. If you know Mike, you know that he’s got a huge heart and he’s very loyal to his family, to his company, to St. John’s and even to his horses.”
“Mike will always do the right thing, especially when it comes to taking care of his employees,” agreed John Camus, Vice President, Operations at Pirates Brands. “I’ve known Mike for about 30 years; we were childhood friends. He’s really committed to making sure that everybody works hard and has fun. He’s totally driven to be the best and he sets a great example for all of us. I have to say that Mike brings out the best in everybody.”
According to his wife, Maria, one of Repole’s most defining characteristics is his total honesty, both at home and in his social and business interactions. “Mike says what he wants,” she said. “He always tells it like it is because for him, that’s the only way. And it goes both ways. You can tell him anything you want, disagree with him as much as you want, and he’ll listen to what you have to say. He’s not thin-skinned and I’ve never known him to hold a grudge against anyone.”
Repole acknowledges that Maria has always been his strongest and most loyal supporter in everything he’s ever wanted to do. Where others dismissed his ideas as dreams, Maria saw it as a given that he would turn those dreams into reality. “I’ve totally supported him in everything he’s ever done,” she noted. “I’ve always believed in him, because I could see that he had a way of making his dreams come true. Mike is very quick and very competitive. He can do 19 things at once and at times it’s hard to keep up with him, but I’ve always had complete faith in him and totally believe in him.” The Repoles have been married since 1999.
Reflecting an ongoing love of sports that has always been another prominent characteristic of his personality, Repole is an avid and successful owner of thoroughbred racehorses. In 2009, the 51 wins of Repole Stables made him the leading racehorse owner in New York, and he also led the owners’ standings at Monmouth and the Meadowlands. Given his background, it’s not surprising that many of his horses are named after family members, including No Shopping Maria (named for his wife), Lights Off Annie (for his mother), Benny the Waiter (for his father) and Nonna Mia (for his grandmother). His racing silks are colored blue and orange, reflecting the colors of his beloved New York Mets.
“As a kid growing up, I was always fascinated with racing and trying to understand the information available about the various horses. For me, reading a racing form was like trying to predict the future – as much of an intellectual exercise as anything else. One of my courses for my major at St. John’s was Racetrack Management. Of course, I loved it!”
Repole is genuinely grateful for the blessings he has received in life, and has embraced the Vincentian values of caring and concern for others that have always marked the uniqueness of the St. John’s experience. Happy to share his success with others, he has established the Nonna’s Garden Foundation to reach out to individuals and organizations with special needs. The foundation is named in honor of his maternal grandmother, and reflects her lifelong passion for cultivating a loving garden for the members of the Repole family.
“To me, Nonna’s Garden is about the nurturing of causes that are important to me and my family,” he said. “When I was starting the foundation I asked Grandma what causes she thought it should support. She thought about it for an entire day, and finally told me that she wanted it to support poor and sick children. My grandmother grew up poor and she lost a daughter to what today would be an ordinary childhood illness, so her suggestions were understandable and really meaningful to our family.”
Nonna’s Garden also supports causes that have impacted the Repole Family, such as St. John’s University and Holy Cross High School, as well as those that hold a special significance for colleagues and friends. Repole acknowledges that his goal is to “…get more involved in the foundation, with my time as well as my money. A hundred years from now, when I’m not around, I want Nonna’s Garden to be around. I want people to know the story of my grandmother. That’s a great legacy for her, and she deserves it.”
A loyal alumnus with a lifelong affection for St. John’s, Repole received the President’s Medal at the University’s 2009 commencement ceremonies on the Queens campus. The President’s Medal is awarded to an individual who has achieved exceptional personal and professional success and/or rendered outstanding service to the University or society. Repole qualifies on all counts.
He admits that his connection to the University began even before he set foot on campus. “As a kid I was always a big fan of St. John’s basketball. I remember getting onto packed trains and going into Madison Square Garden for games. It was great when St. John’s made the Final Four in 1985, and I really look forward to those glory days coming back. The basketball program can do so much for the University. It’s our front porch. There are so many people all across the country whose only knowledge of St. John’s is our basketball program, and if that’s not offering a good and successful image, the awareness of the entire University suffers. It’s unfair, but that’s the way it is.”
He is excited about a resurgence of the program under new Head Coach Steve Lavin. “Lavin was a great choice. He’s a motivator, a mentor and a teacher as well as a coach. He can rally the alumni to come back to St. John’s just because of the success of the Red Storm.”
Repole recognizes the importance of giving back and is committed to staying even more connected to alma mater in the days ahead. “I don’t want to just give back financially,” he remarked. “Anyone can write a check, but for me it’s also about hiring St. John’s students as interns and graduates in my businesses and talking to the current students. I want to impress upon them that they can be like me, and that if they put their mind to it and are willing to work hard, they’ll be successful. I know that I relate really well to young people, and I’m looking forward to doing whatever I can to inspire them to follow their dream. My favorite poem is “Success” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I read it every day, and it’s all about how real success isn’t about making money. It’s about feeling good about yourself, earning the respect of others, finding the best in others and leaving the world a bit better. Those are the values that mean a lot to me, and the ones that I want to share with others.”