The Sultan of Swap

He's a hillbilly boor, a promotional genius, a political trickster, a lovable rogue, and a control freak. Preston Henn is also the owner of one of the biggest flea markets in the world.

"Why politics?" asks a South Florida political consultant. "That's easy. He's got a relatively objectionable business in an already congested area. He has to pull a lot of strings to keep the place functioning. Politicians want to stay on his good side because he's a significant player with substantial assets involved, and no one knows exactly the extent of them. It's about as blunt as that."

Until 1992, when he finally spent $1 million to build an elevated walkway over Sunrise Boulevard linking two disconnected parking lots, the road in front of Henn's Swap Shop had the highest rate of auto accidents in Broward County, due to customers scurrying across six lanes of traffic out front. While Henn pats himself on the back for building the skywalk, his enemies claim he was able to delay fixing the traffic hazard for years because of friends in high places.

Henn has been close friends with and a political supporter of former Broward sheriff Nick Navarro. Ditto for Ken Jenne, current sheriff. Henn says he met Jenne sometime around 1979, and not without a good reason. At the time Steve Pajcic, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, had proposed a $10 up-front sales tax levy on flea market vendors. Jenne, Henn says, "introduced me to the right people in Tallahassee, and pretty soon my problem was resolved."

The tax issue resurfaced this spring. Concerned that flea market vendors were dodging state sales taxes, a bill came before the Florida Legislature that would have forced Henn to pay the tax himself. To Henn it was nothing more than a conspiracy of retail-industry competitors seeking to destroy his Swap Shop money machine. This time Broward County Commissioner Lori Parrish appeared before state lawmakers on Henn's behalf. It was a logical choice of lobbyists, since Parrish was already working for him as an "efficiency expert" and continues to do so to this day.

Parrish vehemently denies any conflict of interest in her two jobs, but she's keenly aware of appearances. So keenly aware, in fact, that her secretary at County Hall refuses to take phone messages for her in her capacity as a Swap Shop employee, or even give out the Swap Shop phone number.

An observer of the relationship, speaking on condition of anonymity, explains it this way:

"Preston routinely gets rid of top staff. He acts like a jerk most of the time. He's a bully. He treats his employees like shit, and he treats his vendors worse. He'll fine them for sitting down or getting to the Swap Shop late. If you work for him and you want a Coke while you're on the job, guess what: You gotta pay for it.

"He probably thought he was going to get some political patronage out of [Parrish]. Instead he got an extremely competent manager. He got someone he can't get rid of, because she creates a critical balance between common sense and his own abusive eccentricity. She routinely opposes him, and it's a good thing."

Henn bristles at the suggestion that he's anything but a fair manager of people. Fair, but hard. Asked if he has a hero, he names "Neutron" Jack Welch, the legendarily ruthless CEO of General Electric. Why? "Because he was a tough business manager, and I admire toughness in people. He came in and fired everybody. The buildings were still standing, but all the people were gone."

And politics, as far as Henn sees it, is really just another side of commerce: "I think anybody in business today -- well, let's say I owned the Broward Mall. I would recommend to whoever the hell owns the Broward Mall to be active politically. In other words, to give money to the different people so that when you have a problem, then at least you've got somebody you can call. I think any business owner, no matter how big or small, needs to be active in the political process. Its a case of survival."

Henn continues to occupy a post on the board of directors of the Florida State Fair. The fair takes place in Tampa, where Henn has another flea market. Here at home he serves on Broward's Tourist Development Council. He claims to want less rather than more civic and political involvement. One source suggests that Henn's taste for invisibility might be a case of hurt feelings. He may feel he's not gotten the respect he deserves.

For years Henn's Christmastime float in the Fort Lauderdale boat parade was the grandest of all -- a fantastic series of barges filled with twinkling lights and elephants and tigers. But Henn canceled his entry after animal-rights activists raised a ruckus. Two autumns ago Henn sent giant bouquets of lilies, roses, and hydrangeas to every county commissioner, including four newcomers to the dais. The attached cards read: "Congratulations from the 'flea' office." Reporters wondered in print whether the gifts exceeded the $100 statutory limit. The Swap Shop sits on land in unincorporated Broward County, and its continual renovation and expansion requires all sorts of county permits; were the flowers a ham-handed shot at influence-buying, or a courtly gesture from Broward's last great rogue eccentric?

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