Ronald Geary, 67, has done a bit of everything. During his very decorated career, he’s been a certified public accountant, a lawyer, served in a Kentucky gubernatorial cabinet, been the president of a bible college, and CEO of ResCare, a very successful, Forbes Magazine-recognized health care services company. And even after retiring in 2006, he didn’t stop. He bought Ellis Park, determined to make it a crown jewel of Kentuckiana, and a few years later, started a minor league hockey team, the Evansville IceMen.
As with seemingly everything Geary touches, each has grown exponentially under his leadership. Ellis Park now draws as many as 8,000 people on its busiest days, and the IceMen are enjoying national recognition in the East Coast Hockey League, a 28-team league with a national footprint playing premier AA hockey.
We sat down with Geary, a Louisville, Kentucky, native now living in Henderson, to talk about his professional success and the future of the IceMen and Ellis Park.
Why horses and hockey?
(Laughter) Well, I’m a Kentucky boy, so I really enjoyed horses as a kid. And I always wanted to buy horses. I have a brood mare operation. I bought a couple of wonderful mares, and my son researched stallions. We have eight horses now that we’ve raised. Some have been good, some not, but all of it was fun. And as for the hockey, people are always bringing me investment opportunities, many of them from nontraditional niches. So when a young man brought the idea of hockey to me, told me about the success of Swonder Ice Arena, about single A hockey, something I knew nothing about, I dug into it. And like many packages that have come to me, I decided it was something I could do in stages. I felt like it would be a great thing for the community. There isn’t much to do here in the winter, and I believed that Evansville really wanted a good, winning professional team of some type.
The IceMen have evolved much over the last few years. How do you see this latest ECHL affiliation providing even further benefit?
If you would have told me six years ago, when we were just a single A team, that we would be in one of the top three leagues in the country and Evansville would have a national reputation for being a hockey town, I would have said you were crazy. It’s just one of those things, everything has fallen into place, and a lot of it is because Tri-State residents, mostly Evansville residents, are really proud of their team, proud of the fact that we have a nice arena, great fans, a respectable growth-oriented franchise. I think we have some exciting times ahead of us.
You’re around professional athletes a lot. Do you enjoy that?
Yes, I think they are a special, rare breed. I like them. They’re competitive, which I am, too. They always find a way to do their best. You’ll see players, some maybe not as good as others, but they find ability from desire. They have an uncanny way of finding a way to win just because they want it more than the other guy. And that’s what life is all about.
What changes have you seen at Ellis Park since purchasing it in 2006?
We immediately set out to get national attention. So we bid on and won the chance to host a National Claiming Crown (in 2007). For that one day, the best claiming horses in the country came to Ellis Park, a whole day of racing. And on that day, we had the biggest day at Ellis Park ever, almost $700,000 in purses and $5 million in bets. It was the first time Kentucky had hosted the Crown and that got everybody back to thinking about Ellis Park on a national scale. From there we did everything we could to expand our coverage. And at the track we tried to do some new things to attract people, make it more fun, family-oriented. We set up picnic tables with umbrellas, tents, trying to give it a county fair feel. We added the popular camel and ostrich races, wiener dog races. And since then we’ve gone up substantially in attendance every year.
What does the future hold for Ellis Park, and how do you make sure it continues to compete with riverboat gambling?
We think the instant racing machines we now have can be the key to accomplishing that. We are close to getting a referendum on the ballot that would allow the people of Kentucky to vote to allow casino gaming at racetracks. Indiana Downs in Shelbyville and Hoosier Park in Anderson called themselves racinos with both slot machines and electronic gaming. They’ve done quite well, and we’re hoping that would allow us to continue being competitive.
Of all the roles you’ve held, which has brought you the most pleasure?
It has to be a tie between ResCare and working in public service. ResCare because it helps people with disabilities, and its mission was so strong, to help people live the best they could, be as independent as possible. It was such a wonderful thing to see so many of the clients we served lead more fulfilling lives. But I also enjoyed the public service aspect of being in a gubernatorial cabinet and being a secretary of revenue for Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. I loved that he was fiscally conservative. He said he wouldn’t raise taxes, and even though his administration led during a massive recession, he still kept his promise and just allowed us to run government like a business. We cut expenses and did a better job of collecting delinquent taxes. I just loved that. I felt like we were doing what was best for the state of Kentucky.