Trainer Mick Ruis built Kentucky Derby run with head, hands and huge heart

As the final details in a $78 million business deal rushed toward dotted I’s and crossed T’s, Mick Ruis made a single demand before allowing the ink to dry.

The March 2016 transaction to sell 80 percent of American Scaffold, the company he launched with six employees just east of downtown San Diego, simply waited for a signature. The business rocketed from No. 5 in San Diego to the largest worldwide supplier for the U.S. Navy, operating in five states.

The high school dropout who grew up in the Rios Canyon area of El Cajon, duct-taping shoes together and folding over the front of socks when toes poked through, built the company after Quality Shoring — which he started with $3,000 and a fax machine — sold for $2.5 million.

The deal-breaker now? The new majority owners had to maintain the taco parties that rewarded employees for safety — food, music, alcohol and all.

“Wow, that’s a lot of liability,” said Ruis, rewinding the mild protest from the other side of the table. “You know what I told them? I said, my guys hang 150 foot in the air. You don’t call that liability? You know what we have for them? Insurance, right? So you’re going to get insurance for my taco parties, because we’re going to keep having them.”

The owner and trainer of Bolt d’Oro, a one-time favorite in the May 5 Kentucky Derby who remains in smart-money conversations, provides a complex study in wits, sweat-soaked hustle and entrepreneurial gumption.

Ruis, a former dishwasher at an El Cajon pizza restaurant, gained a love for horse racing and number-crunching during weekend visits to Agua Caliente in Tijuana. In 1979, the teen who would sneak drinks from a tequila fountain at the track won his very first bet.

Most of his waking hours, however, focused on learning the scaffolding business — first as a worker, then as the youngest manager in the company, and finally as a savvy, detail-oriented owner.

Ruis said he would visit competing job sites in the dark to figure out how many employees they used and the amount of work they finished each day. The math allowed him to tinker with costs and efficiencies, crafting bids that were impossible to match.

Many days, Ruis said, he and his crew would sleep at the site or office if necessary, to maximize time.

At a recent American Scaffold taco party, employee after employee rushed to greet Ruis with the kinds of hugs reserved for life-long friends, not some distant or detached economic engine behind a business empire. As the Brooks & Dunn song “Hard Workin’ Man” blared from a makeshift DJ booth, Ruis sipped from a cheap plastic cup as he mingled.

Ruis is a jeans and T-shirt guy, despite a bank account that would allow wardrobe options challenging Justin Timberlake. When Bolt d’Oro — named after Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt — was nominated for a prestigious Eclipse Award based on his strong 2-year-old season, Ruis had to buy a suit for the January event … because he didn’t own one.

Wendy, Mick’s wife, had a strategy session with a sales person at a Los Angeles-area Men’s Wearhouse.

“Mick said if he could pick something out in 15 minutes, he’d go,” she said. “I told the guy, ‘You have 15 minutes with him. Do the best you can.’ It was like $300-something for the whole thing. He threw in the shoes for the price.”

At the point Ruis had amassed $5 million worth of scaffolding material, he continued to drive a rattling Nissan Sentra with 350,000 miles on it.

“To me, I hope it doesn’t sound corny, but it’s the great American story,” said Daryl Priest, a successful home developer and close friend since the two attended Greenfield Middle School. “It’s what the country’s about. If you’re willing to work hard enough and dedicate yourself to something, that’s what Mick is about.

“When you come from that kind of background, you appreciate things. A lot of people have things given to them, but they don’t appreciate it because they didn’t have to work for it.

“And he’s amazing generous. Those guys you saw hugging him (at the taco party), he’s loaned them money and bought something for them and you’re never going to hear about any of that stuff.”

Grateful town asks, ‘Who is Mick Ruis?’

The town of Columbia Falls, Mont., sits a 20-minute drive from Ruis’ ranch where Bolt d’Oro ran among moose, elk and pine-lined trails so “he could just be a horse” for five months.

Ruis initially had moved to the area as a divorced father of three with $6,000. Once the business savvy and hard work of Ruis found successful roots, he thirsted to ensure the future of the town of less than 6,000 known as the “Gateway to Glacier” — the national park’s sleepy front porch.

First, Ruis built the 25,000-foot Cedar Creek Lodge so visitors had a reason and place to stay in the town while supporting other businesses. Ruis called the initial bids “ridiculous,” suspecting companies heard he had money and stretched construction timelines to 18 months.

Ruis simply started his own company and built it in seven months, a project that nearly doubled in cost to $10 million as he “Mick-enized it” by adding convention, fitness and business centers. After just four months, he sold it for almost exactly what it cost — essentially gifting the town its first hotel at the cost of his time, effort and seed money.

Then he reinvested all of it into condos, while buying up about 2.5 blocks worth of dilapidated, unused downtown space to launch other mom-and-pop businesses.

A November 2015 newspaper story in the Flathead Beacon under the headline, “Who is Mick Ruis?” explained the game-changing dominoes that had started to tumble: “A hotel and convention center. A sports bar and restaurant. A pie factory. Not everyone in Columbia Falls knows the developer behind these projects, but they’re about to.”

Though the pie factory never materialized, far more did.

When he heard that the local sawmill, a key employer, was shuttered, he and former Halliburton CEO Dave Lezar swooped in to save the jobs. When he caught wind of a company called Connector Tech flagging in the nearby town of Kalispell, Ruis bought that, too.

“I bought it through a foreclosure auction, so we could keep the 65 employees,” said Ruis, pronounced ROO-is. “We’re hoping to ramp it up to 120 employees in 12 months.”

Ruis, 57, easily could walk into the sunset, counting his money.

Not a chance.

“That’s not him. It would never happen,” said Mary Olivo, Mick’s youngest sibling who handles the books for “every nickel” of his businesses after sharpening her math skills while accompanying Ruis to Agua Caliente.

“We have so many people (among the 290 employees at the San Diego-based office of American Scaffold) nobody else would hire. And here they are. He’s constantly giving people chances and second chances because he has so much faith in people.

“To Mick, ‘I’m helping all these people.’ But not only that. He thinks in his mind, ‘That’s 290 families that I’m helping. Yeah, the company’s doing good. I’m doing great. But there’s 290 families out there now making it.’ ”

Between California and Montana, Ruis said he’s currently building 62 condo units to spark more construction work.

Starting at 3:30 a.m. each morning allows Ruis to juggle it all. He calls the early-rising American Scaffold contacts on the East Coast first before heading to the track. Mid-day, he connects with West Coast operators until he returns to the track.

Back and forth, Ruis bounces — an economy-driving, horse race-loving pinball. When asked to estimate the number of jobs he’s created in his life, Ruis paused.

“Whatever I’ve done, I want to triple it, quadruple it, make it five times more,” he said. “I wouldn’t have to work another day in my life, but I don’t think that’s why I’m so fortunate so far.

“What I like to keep doing with my money is creating jobs. It seems like every job I create, we keep getting blessed even more. I have the energy. I love doing it. It’s almost not like work. I’ve got good help. Why not?”

Somehow, Ruis also found time for love.

While visiting a home he considered buying in Montana, a picture of the owner hung on the wall. Ruis asked the realtor about the woman in the photo. It was Wendy, a widowed mother of two.

When Ruis sets his mind on something, it happens. He set his mind on Wendy, wrangling a phone number from the realtor. He called and left a message. They talked by phone for weeks, without meeting face to face.

Eventually, a lunch date happened. They married three weeks later.

“I always tease him, ‘You stalked me,’ ” Wendy Ruis said.

She saw something … or sensed something, more accurately.

“Mick has the biggest heart,” Wendy said. “He’s the most generous person I know. The thing I love about him, for the most part, nobody knows what he does or what he gives. He’s all about giving back.

“He came from nothing. He grew up very poor. He feels a responsibility to each and every one of his workers — and their families. That’s how Mick operates.”

From kitchen to Kentucky Derby

About 40 years ago, Joe Brunetto hired an eager Ruis to wash dishes at Marechiaro’s on old Highway 80 in El Cajon.

The spark existed, even then.

“He was a hard worker,” said Brunetto, who owns the Italian restaurant. “I remember he was ambitious. He was going to do stuff. He had that drive.”

Ruis, who primarily lives in Arcadia near Santa Anita Park, darts into Marechiaro’s whenever he’s in the area. He rates the pizza the best he’s had, from North Park to New York.

Despite the visits, the former El Capitan High School student rarely boasts about Bolt d’Oro qualifying for the Derby.

“It’s in the Derby? No kidding?” Brunetto said. “Mick’s so down to earth. It’s never about the money. He’s always the same old Mick to me. Well, he definitely gets a free pizza if he wins.”

As long as it’s not the same night as a taco party.

bryce.miller@sduniontribune.com; Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller

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