Top Business Exec Sees Silver Lining In Economy, But Steep Climb

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[Business: Profile]

John Catsimatidis has come a long way from his days in Harlem, where he recalls growing up in poverty.

"I grew up on 135th street in Harlem," Catsimatidis, recalled, in a recent interview.

"And, I remember in those days watching Gene Barry; Burke’s Law. It was about this detective; this wealthy guy who had a Rolls Royce and living on 135th street. I used to say ‘Wow, look at that Rolls Royce.’"

He was referring to "Burke’s Law," a 1960s television series where Amos Burke, a Los Angeles chief of detectives, was also a millionaire with a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. So Catsimatidis, with his eyes on the Rolls says he worked hard to make sure that he could get the better things in life; he wanted to escape his condition. It’s paid off; as CEO and Chairman of the Red Apple Group, he’s one of the wealthiest New Yorkers and the biggest backers of charitable causes.

"I think it’s so very important that people have hope; to be able to escape their ghettos," he added. "Whether it’s a Spanish ghetto; a Black ghetto; a Chinese ghetto; ghettos are sometimes ghettoes; even a Greek ghetto in Astoria."

"There is no substitution for hard word," Catsimatidis continued. "You have to think things out; but you have to be able to realize in your mind that you are going to have to sacrifice."

Catsimatidis was born in Nissirios, Greece, in 1948. His parents emigrated to the United States when he was six months old. After attending high school in Brooklyn, it was on to New York University, to pursue his love of engineering. While still a student, he already had a stake in a failing supermarket business which he turned around; eventually he started working on the business full time, turning it around; the NYU degree remained shy by a few credits.

"I worked seven days a week while my friends were going on ski weekends," he recalled. "Sure, I would rather go on a ski weekend, but I wanted to better myself and I wanted to get to the next step and to make my parents get out of the ghetto too."

In addition to working hard, it’s also critical to be innovative and ahead of the competition, Catsimatidis emphasized. "You know all stores in those days were open six days a week," he recalled. "And boy the competition was mad as hell when I decided to open seven days a week."

Then he paused for a laugh as he traveled back through memory lane: "You know why I opened up on Sundays? I gave out checks on Fridays; and if I didn’t get that extra day’s sale on Sunday, those checks might not have been good on Monday."

Catsimatidis made another innovation with the supermarket. In those days, most supermarkets closed around 8 p.m.
"I said I'm gonna work harder. We are gonna open until midnight because I know people who go out. They want to shop after they come home," he recalled.
"So being open at six in the morning; open until midnight; open seven days a week--being there when the customer needs you."

All that is in the past. He now oversees a company with 8,000 employees and more than $4 billion in annual sales. In addition to supermarkets and real estate, Red Apple Group is invested in such diverse fields as oil refining and aviation.

Catsimatidis says he works hard from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m; then he enjoys the rest of the day with his family and doing philanthropic work. On Tuesday, April 28, Catsimatidis will be honored by St. Francis College in recognition of his many years of support to various charities, at the school’s 48th Annual Charter Award Dinner at The Plaza, at 770 Fifth Avenue, College officials said.

"Since attending Brooklyn Tech High School, Mr. Catsimatidis has never forgotten his Brooklyn roots and for decades has been a vibrant part of the Brooklyn community," noted Richard Silverman, class of 1964 and Vice Chairman, Bank of America Global Wealth & Investment Management and a member of the Board of Trustees.

"He is a strong supporter of research into Juvenile Diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease as well as the Outward Bound program and has also worked for religious freedom around the world. All of which is closely aligned with the Franciscan Mission of the College," Silverman added.

St. Francis’s Charter Award Dinner is the main fundraising event of the year for the College. Last year’s Dinner, honoring former St. Francis College President Frank J. Macchiarola, class of 1962 raised more than $2 million to support scholarships.

Roger Hertog, Vice Chairman Emeritus of Alliance Bernstein, L.P. and Chairman Emeritus of the Manhattan Institute committed $1 million of that total.

Catsimatidis says Macchiarola has been his friend for 25 years; the school’s new president is Brendan J. Dugan. "When Brendan asked me to help I said ‘Of course; I’m going to help’" Catsimatidis recalled.

"He’s told me that The diversity in the school has grown tremendously and I remember St. Francis because of the days I went to Brooklyn Tech High School and St. Francis was a choice of a lot of my friends."

In addition to hard work, Catsimatidis says he owes his success to the solid education he had. "I went to one of the finest public high schools in New York City," he said, "so that gave me a little bit of a difference in escaping, and then I went to New York University, and that completed the evolution of my wanting to escape."

Again there was a pause and a laugh.

"And you know after I escaped why I worked so hard? You don’t want to go back. As a matter of fact, after we escaped, I made sure I took my parents with me."

Even though the nation’s economy is now in "deep doo-doo," as he puts it, Catsimatidis says he is praying that President Obama’s recovery plans succeed. "He’s going to be president for the next three-and-half years," he explained. "What's the use for praying for his failure? He's gonna be president for three-and-a half years. We all live here."

Catsimatidis credits the Obama Administration for making the bold statement that it will not allow any of the major banks to fail in creating some stability. Even then, danger still looms.

"The Banks haven't opened up the purse strings to let the money out," he said. "They are so scared about their own survival that they are hoarding money. So unless the banks loosen up; and I'm not saying they should make bad loans; they have to open up and make prudent loans to the American consumer and business otherwise we're not going to get out of the recession."

The climb will be very steep, Catsimatidis, observed.

"We have destroyed a lot of our American industries; we have destroyed the Airline business; we’ve destroyed the automobile business--There has got to be a balance," he said.

"I think the Republicans and Democrats in Congress have to work together towards a balance, and work together as Americans versus going in opposite directions."

As for New York, Catsimatidis believes that if the State raises taxes it could end up driving its tax base away to places like Connecticut and Florida.

Even though he’d started his own moves for a mayoral run, he decided not to move forward when Michael Bloomberg decided "he didn’t want to leave the job" he said. But should Bloomberg for whatever reason change his mind about running, "I’ll be in the bullpen; and the Yankees have a pretty good bullpen."

Otherwise there is always a future date, he added.

Catsimatidis says he never forgets the road he traveled. The charities Catsimatidis supports include: The Juvenile Diabetes Research; Alzheimer's Association; Parkinson's Disease Foundation; Children's Tumor Foundation; Federal Law Enforcement Foundation; Diabetes Research Institute Foundation; Brooklyn Technical High School; Police Athletic League; Health Corps; Outward Bound; Hellenic Times Scholarship Fund; Boy Scouts of America; and many others.

Catsimatidis's wife Margo is also active with many groups including the Alzheimer’s Foundation, Parkinson’s Foundation, the Tolstoy Foundation and plans the annual Police Athletic League Holiday Party. The couple live on Manhattan’s Upper Eastside with their two teenage children.

Finally, what makes Catsimatidis happiest of all?

"To see all my friends happy."

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"Speaking Truth To Empower."

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