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By the time his electrician father, Samuel, decided he'd had all the northeastern cold weather he wanted and moved his family to West Palm Beach, Florida, 13-year-old Romano was devoted to the work ethic he'd inherited from his late dad. "He was a wonderful role model," he says. "He worked hard, took good care of his family and at the same time was always generous to others. I can remember going with him to the coffee shops where he and his buddies would meet, and he would point out those who never offered to pay or leave a tip. He'd lean down and whisper to me, 'That guy must have fish hooks in his pocket; that's why he never puts his hand in there.'"
Romano has never shied from the work and financial risk-taking that have made him wealthy. By the time he enrolled in Florida Atlantic University, he was already buying all his own clothes, had purchased a car and had a growing portfolio of U.S. savings bonds he'd begun purchasing in his paper route days. And even as he pursued the academic requirements necessary to one day become a teacher and football coach--in high school and later at the semi-pro level he'd been a better-than-average linebacker--he constantly sought new ways to be self-supporting. In the evenings, after college classes, he operated a couple of karate schools. Then, after becoming friends with the owner of a local private investigative agency who expressed the need for an assistant, Romano applied for the job. "Most of the guy's work was divorces and insurance fraud," he recalls. "What he had to do was go out and get the evidence that would prove some guy was cheating on his wife or playing golf when he was supposed to have a bad back. He needed some help gathering the proof." With his linebacker's build, the young Romano perfectly fit the role.
He laughs as he reflects on what he admits were the zaniest days of his professional life. "Sometimes," he says, "we'd do what was called a 'crash job,' rushing through a motel door to take pictures of some cheating husband and his girlfriend in a compromising position. It was a little dangerous, but the fee, which we'd split, was $5,000."
The routine was simple: Romano would burst through the door and his boss would quickly follow, snapping photos. It wasn't always easy. Once, he remembers, a startled man bolted from the bed and jumped out of a second-story window. On another occasion, Romano had to fight off a stark-naked man who had chased him out of a motel room and down a hallway. "He finally cornered me and began pounding away. Trying to defend myself, I took a swing at him. He ducked, and my fist went through a window."
Soon, Romano was in search of a gentler occupation.
"The father of one of my karate students was opening a little Italian restaurant called Gladiator and was looking for a partner. The only thing I knew about that kind of business had come when I briefly had a job delivering ice to bars and restaurants, but the idea appealed to me," he says. Romano withdrew his savings, dropped out of college, sold his karate schools and bought into the business that would become his life's work.
It wasn't long, however, before he and his partner parted ways. "He was a real jerk," Romano recalls. "We couldn't agree on anything, so, six months later, I offered to buy him out." But to do so required more money than the 22-year-old college dropout had. Romano went to his father, who agreed to mortgage the family home to help raise the $8,000 his son needed.
It took Phil less than a year to repay the debt.
"The first thing I learned," he says, "was that I liked the idea of working for myself. I fired the chef, elevated the dishwasher to cook and handed him a bunch of my mom's recipes." He put his mother on the cash register and tended the less glamorous jobs himself. "If a toilet got clogged up, I rolled up my sleeves and took care of it," he remembers.
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