Pool-toy entrepreneur has history of fund-raising for GOP

By JOE STEPHENS Staff Writer
Date: 04/21/96 16:37

AVON, Mass. -- On the outskirts of this tiny town south of Boston, semitrailer trucks rumble by, straining under loads of plasterboard and ball bearings.

They stream through a no-frills industrial park, where among the windowless buildings squats a warehouse filled with swimming pool toys -- and a dozen workers who each gave $1,000 or more to Bob Dole's presidential campaign.

The corrugated-metal headquarters of Aqua-Leisure Industries makes an unlikely political nerve center. Until, that is, you consider its chairman.

Simon Fireman, 70, is a globe-trotting entrepreneur who divides his time among Boston, Cape Cod, Palm Beach, Fla., and Hong Kong. He founded Aqua-Leisure in 1970 and developed it into a nationwide distributor of inflatable pool toys and physical fitness equipment.

Today, the privately held company distributes a large share of the world market in swimming goggles and flippers. A business directory estimates annual sales at $9.2 million.

Fireman is largely unknown outside eastern Massachusetts. Yet acquaintances call the hard-charging businessman anything but shy.

In fact, Fireman recently supplied the Cape Cod Times newspaper with a two-page biography that describes him as "a man for all seasons... a man for all reasons."

The profile lists his honorary law degree and many civic honors. It notes that he has been appointed to community boards by the mayor of Boston and by the governor of Massachusetts.

The biography says Fireman served as an adviser to three presidential administrations. And it stresses that he has "bonds of friendship" with the vice premier of China.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan named Fireman to the U.S. Advisory Committee for Trade Negotiations. That led to a stint as a director of the federal Export-Import Bank.

In 1992, Fireman served as a national vice chairman for finance for President George Bush's re-election campaign. He helped plan a $5,000-a-person dinner benefiting the Victory '92 committee. And then-Vice President Dan Quayle attended a fund-raising r eception at Fireman's summer home.

Business acquaintances said Fireman openly coveted a foreign diplomatic post.

"He made no bones about it," said Malcolm King, a former sales manager for Aqua-Leisure. "He wanted to be the ambassador to Russia."

On a muggy afternoon last August, Fireman demonstrated his devotion to Dole by holding a $1,000-a-person fund-raiser at his summer home in Hyannis Port, just down the road from the Kennedy family compound. A Boston newspaper predicted the event would "take in at least a half-million dollars."

Aqua-Leisure workers and their relatives mingled with the reported 200 party-goers, who ate hors d'oeuvres and sipped cocktails around a kidney-shaped pool while awaiting the Kansas senator.

But Dole never showed. Contributors had to settle for a last-minute replacement, former Sen. Warren Rudman.

Dole called, however, and his remarks were piped through poolside loudspeakers. He thanked the contributors and apologized that Senate business kept him away.

Four months later, Fireman and a couple dozen other major fund-raisers and GOP politicians did meet Dole -- at another $1,000-a-head fund-raiser, this one at the Boston Sheraton Hotel.

The celebration, ostensibly to honor Dole's 20th wedding anniversary, reportedly attracted about 150 supporters and raised almost $250,000.

Fireman made headlines in Boston a few weeks later by giving $2 million to local hospitals.

He also hit print last summer, when The Boston Herald reported that a swank restaurant banned him for pushing and yelling at workers. In addition, the owner accused Fireman of booking reservations under the name "Mr. Fireman from Reebok," in ref erence to his better-known nephew, Reebok International Ltd. Chairman Paul Fireman.

As restaurant workers escorted Fireman out, the newspaper reported, he tried to make amends by passing out $20 bills.

All content 1996 The Kansas City Star