After college, I was a teacher for a few years, and I was accepted to a hospital administration program. I was required to take an accounting course, and I was bartending on weekends at a restaurant where the owner’s son-in-law was a CPA. He knew me and said, “I heard you’re taking an accounting course. Come with me, and I’ll teach you all you want to know.” I said, “I don’t really want to know anything about accounting.”
This CPA was starting his own firm in Rutherford, N.J. He told me about Fairleigh Dickinson University having an MBA program for non-accounting majors. It was 60 credits. I went crazy when I saw the syllabus and what I had to do. He said, “Look, take nine credits a semester, go in the summer, go in the intersession—you’ll be done.” I said, “Tom, this’ll take me three years. In three years, I’ll be 27.” He said, “In three years, you’ll be 27 anyway.” That was the greatest line. Time’s gonna pass no matter what you do; you may as well do something worthwhile.
After I got certified, I went out on my own. I knew an elderly gentleman who had a storefront CPA practice a block or two from the Little League field in Secaucus, N.J. I had three boys. I said, “This is perfect.” I called him up, and the first deal was done on a napkin. We became partners. I was able to walk down to the field for games. It really was great to be local.
I took to refereeing like wildfire, starting in college. I did it for 37 years. I’m past president of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials (IAABO), which has 16,000 members. Locally, I’m a rules interpreter and a new applicant instructor for North Jersey Board #33.
My days on the court were rewarding and educational. The rewarding part was being in the midst of the competition, able to be around the game and see high-caliber players. It was really all about the game. You were paid $25, and you’d go out afterward and spend $30, so I never made a nickel refereeing.
I had to make choices, especially because basketball season crossed over with tax season. “Do I go to Bayonne to referee, or do I stay here with these 22 tax returns?” I also had three boys in activities, so the easiest thing to give up was on the court. If basketball was during the fall, I would have had more games.
I basically became a fixture in Hudson County basketball. I remember a game, about 3,500 to 4,000 people were watching at St. Peter’s College, and one guy stands up and says, “Felix, you missed that same call last year.” So that’s when I knew it was time to move on, so I spread out into northern New Jersey. But I stayed with the inner-city ball. That’s where I thought the excitement was.
When dealing with fans, you have to have the confidence that the parent screaming knows less than you do. You also have to remember that a fan’s histrionics are tolerated a lot more than if an official loses his cool. You have to learn to maintain your composure under pressure. I think that has helped me in business and in life, that training. You have to have a certain demeanor in your business and personal life.
There is a financial advisory firm that I do a lot of work with, and they like the fact that I’m a referee, because they can see my objectivity if I’m sitting with their clients. One guy will always introduce me as the referee. “He’s very objective, not partial to anything.” I think that has helped my business side, of being able to view both sides.
In estate planning, I often tell people it’s about 10% financial and 90% emotional. We’re sort of a coach in that respect. My wife is the psychologist in the family, and I tend to think I’m a financial psychologist at times. We’re trusted advisers that the clients rely on and respect.
—As told to Neil Amato,
a JofA senior editor.