Maybe guys like Joe Hand Sr., guys who lose their dads as youngsters, work harder to keep their own kids close. Or maybe, like the successful local boxing promoter, they just get lucky.
Joe Hand Promotions might be the quintessential Philly enterprise -- a sports-related business founded by a streetwise ex-cop in the basement of a Jackson Street rowhouse and run by a management team that mirrors the family tree.
As this Father’s Day approached, with his company preparing for both a major relocation and a 50th anniversary, Hand, the preternaturally gruff 83-year-old, choked up contemplating the unlikely professional relationship he has maintained with his two children.
While Hand didn’t plan it that way back in 1971, son Joe Hand Jr. is his president and alter-ego, daughter Margaret Hand-Cicalese his vice president. Nephews, nieces, grandchildren, and his wife, Patricia, are also among the 30-plus employees.
“We’re a family business. If you don’t believe it, just sit in my office for half a day,” the elder Hand said. “It’s, ‘Hey, Grandpa, what do you think of this?’ Or Uncle Joe, what about this?' Or ‘Hey, Dad, I’m working on this.’ I know my mother, who worked so hard after my father died, would be proud.”
The company recently sold its nonprofit gym near Third and Spring Garden. Soon it will consolidate the gym, its offices, and all the boxing-related memorabilia it has accumulated in 49 years into a 23,000-square-foot former bank building just a half-mile from the current headquarters in Feasterville, Bucks County.
“Our office is only about 5,000 square feet now,” said the younger Joe Hand. “And we keep growing.”
At the new site, as at the old, the father’s chief aides will be a son who once wanted nothing to do with the business and a daughter who never wanted anything else.
“I get teary when I think back on it,” said Hand-Cicalese. “In our eighth-grade yearbook, it asked us where we thought we’d be in 25 years. And I said I was going to be in business with my dad.”
Like her brother, she had grown up watching boxers, sportswriters, and promoters pop in and out of their Northeast Philadelphia home.
“I loved it,” she said. “It was all so exciting.”
But when she graduated from high school in 1979, her father remained unaware of that goal.
“Margaret had always helped us with the office work,” he recalled. “But after she graduated, I had connections with the carpenters union, so I thought I’d get her a job there. I told her that one night at dinner and all of a sudden I saw her crying. I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And she said, ‘I always thought I’d work for you.‘ ”
Joe Jr. held no such ambition. A basketball star at La Salle High, he had won a scholarship to Kings College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where his sister followed him three years later. Drafted by the 76ers in the 10th round of the 1980 draft – as a favor from his dad’s friend, Sixers coach Billy Cunningham -- he figured he wasn’t NBA material. Instead, he hoped to travel to Europe and play professionally there.
“We knew Dad’s business was getting big and successful,” he said. “There were stories in the newspaper. We were meeting Joe Frazier. But I guess I was too young and too dumb. So I was like, ‘Nah, I don’t think so. It’s not what I want to do. Let my Dad do his thing and I’ll do my own.‘ ”
Before the criminal-justice major could depart for Europe, though, his father asked him to assist in the company’s preparations for a June 20, 1980, fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran.
“Dad was recovering from heart issues and he said, ‘I’ll make a deal with you. Just come in and help and I’ll make you my partner on this fight.’ I was just about to get married and needed the money, so I agreed. Anyway, we do the fight and it’s a gigantic winner. He comes and puts a check in front of me. It was for a lot of money.”
When Leonard and Duran agreed to a November rematch – the famous “No mas” bout in New Orleans – Hand again sought his son’s help.
“I remembered that check and said, ‘Absolutely!‘ ” the son recalled. “I figured, I can do one more fight. That’s turned into 40 years.”
Father-child relationships can be complicated. In a work environment, over several decades, with lots of money on the line, they can be volatile. But the three Hands insist they’ve been able to work smoothly, fist in fist, in a sometimes shady industry.
“Margaret has a mind of her own,” he said, “so we’ve had … discussions. Joseph and I have never had any disagreements. My wife said, ‘You know why? Because he just does what you tell him.’ … Margaret’s not that kind. She makes up her mind and that’s it. She does a great job in a man’s world. She doesn’t get pushed around.”
They’ve both observed as their father, who followed his dad into the Philadelphia Police Department and had absolutely no business experience, learned the ropes, bringing closed-circuit and pay-per-view boxing, pro wrestling, and now the UFC into arenas and bars.
In 1967, Hand borrowed $500 from the Police and Fire Credit Union and became an initial investor in Cloverlay Inc., the coalition of Philly businessmen who financially backed future heavyweight champ Joe Frazier.
“I had no idea what a profit-and-loss statement was,” he said. “But one of the men from Cloverlay was a senior vice president at Ernst & Ernst. He spent weeks teaching me the mathematics of the business.”
I’m 62 now and I’ve realized that if I’m going to make 1,000 mistakes, I’ve probably made 500. And that’s only because the advice Dad’s given me has saved me from those other 500. The 500 mistakes I’ve made? That’s when I didn’t listen to him.
Four years later, Hand was ready to apply that knowledge and formed his company. Whatever wisdom he has accumulated since has been passed on to his offspring.
“You realize how fortunate you are to work in a business with your father,” his son said. “Every day he’s educating you, coaching you, mentoring you. And you get to ride the coattails of the great relationships he’s created with people in the industry.
“Dad is adamant about how we treat customers,” he said. “People say, ‘Oh my God, you do business with Don King? Were there big problems?’ Never. We held the money after big fights and Dad was always adamant that if someone had a dime coming, they didn’t get nine cents, they got a dime.”
Sunday afternoon, the Hands will gather for a barbecue and swimming at the patriarch’s Ocean City home. Except for some UFC bouts, their business has been stalled by the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We’ll be fine,” said Joe Jr. “It’s just going to take some time to get things ramped up again.”
Regardless of what’s going on in the wider world this Father’s Day, the Hands will probably talk business anyway. And if it’s reassurance they need, they’ll likely get it from their dad.
“It’s always Father’s Day for us,” said Joe Jr. “I’m 62 now and I’ve realized that if I’m going to make 1,000 mistakes, I’ve probably made 500. And that’s only because the advice Dad’s given me has saved me from those other 500. The 500 mistakes I’ve made? That’s when I didn’t listen to him.”