Who’s Here: John Catsimatidis, Businessman and Politician

John Catsimatidis, who has had a house in the Hamptons for more than 30 years, is running for Mayor of New York this fall. A billionaire several times over, he received the Liberal Party endorsement last month. He hopes to have the Republican nomination after winning the primary in September. Mike Bloomberg, the current Mayor, won with these two endorsements. Catsimatidis, a businessman like Bloomberg, hopes to follow in Bloomberg’s footsteps.

“With Mayor Bloomberg, more than $100 million in new jobs flowed into New York City. With my experience, I can keep that flow going,” Catsimatidis says.

John Catsimatidis’ life is a true rags to riches tale. Born on the small Greek island of Nisyros, just off the coast of Turkey, he was brought to America by his mother and father when he was six months old. His father’s two brothers were already in America. But they had to vouch for their third brother and his family before they could be let in.

“There was no government safety net then,” John says. “If my father ran into debts, his brothers would have to pay them.” His father’s first job? “He became a bus boy at Longchamps Restaurant on Lexington Avenue. Because his native language was Italian.”

He spoke Italian, coming from a Greek Island off the coast of Turkey? This required an explanation. John gave it.

“Nisyros was originally a Turkish island that, at the beginning of the 20th century got gifted to the Italians,” he said. “After the Second World War, which the Italians lost, the island was gifted to Greece. This happened in 1948, the year I was born. Turns out that I was conceived an Italian, but then nine months later, I was born a Greek.”

Thus an Italian man, who had worked for 30 years for the Italian government guarding a lighthouse on the island, fathered a Greek son who he brought to America to become an American citizen. Only in America.

John attended Brooklyn Technical High School, graduated in 1966, then went to NYU, where he studied to get a B.S. in Engineering. His goal was, while at NYU, to be an astronaut and go to the moon. (In 1962, President Kennedy vowed to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and he did, but it was not to be John.) What happened was that to pay for college, John took a job in a grocery store on 137th Street in the Bronx owned by the uncle of a college friend and got interested in the grocery business. He decided, at the age of 20, to open his own grocery store and he did, buying an existing store on 99th Street and Broadway which the former owners had called Seven Eleven. It was not related to 7-Eleven. But, as the former owners told him, “if 7-Eleven came to New York, they’d have to buy us out.”

A year later, John opened another store, on 87th and Broadway, which he called Red Apple. And from there he began to expand.

“By the time I was 25, I had ten stores and was making a million dollars a year in profit. At first, my vendors helped me open the stores by offering me credit. I did not use banks. Later on though, I did.” We were talking in John’s offices, which occupy the third floor of a building on Eleventh Avenue, between 56th and 57th Streets. “One of the vendors who gave me credit was just up here last week and I showed him around. He’s in his 80s now.”

John got interested in flying. He became a licensed jet pilot, taking instruction at the Ramapo Airport upstate when he was about 25. After a while, as a rich young man at the time, he hired a pilot for his planes. Then, in 1977 when he was 29, Atlantic City opened as a gambling resort to rival Las Vegas.

“I thought, well, here is a business opportunity. People from New Jersey or New York would take the bus down to Atlantic City. But people from farther away would want to fly down. I talked to my pilot. We’d go into business ferrying people down from Connecticut and Massachusetts.”

John began buying airplanes. There’s a picture on the wall of one of his first airplanes, a twin engine jet, that his company United Jet Fleet used.

“You see the letters RD on the side?” he asked me. I told him I did. “That plane was built for Roy Disney before I bought it.”

Soon afterwards, he bought Capitol Air Express and was operating more than 40 airplanes on numerous routes around the country and around the world. That company today is known as NetJets.

John also began to buy commercial real estate. He had all these food stores.

“But these businesses were only as good as the land they were on. If they were on leased properties, you had nothing. I wanted us to own the land the food stores were on.”

In 1986 when he was 38 years old, he purchased the Gristedes supermarket chain of 50 stores and changed the names of all his other stores to the Gristedes name.

The following year, he took what was probably the biggest business gamble of his life. He’d wanted to get into the gas station mini-market business and found a firm in upstate New York that consisted of a string of 300 mini-marts and gas stations backed up by the United Refining Company of Warren, Pennsylvania, which was also part of the business.

This business was going into bankruptcy. It owed more than $100 million in debts, which were unsecured and would go away in the bankruptcy. Once in bankruptcy, though, he was able to buy it out of bankruptcy for $7 million.

“I borrowed the money from J.P. Morgan using the real estate I owned as collateral. And then I discovered the value of the oil company. The mini-marts and gas station were just the tail on the dog. The oil company, if I could put in leadership and get it in the right direction, could be worth a fortune.”

When John bought the company in January of 1987, he met with the creditors committee. They had no security. After the bankruptcy, he had no reason to pay them. But he said he would do his best when the profits came in.

“I met with them monthly. In June, I was able to tell them we had a $7.5 million profit. I could begin to repay them. I had now gained their respect. They said keep it up. And I did. Soon, I was able to pay back the whole $100 million. I paid them 100 cents on the dollar. This was unheard of. But I did it. I also saved 6,000 jobs.”

Last year, the oil company did $6 billion in business and made $500 million.

In 1988, John married his longtime secretary, Margo Vondersaar. She had been his first secretary (he hired her when he was 29) and had been with him through thick and thin, including an earlier marriage that did not work out for John.

Margo Catsimatidis, who is one of New York City’s prominent philanthropists, continues to work with him. Born of Russian and Polish heritage, she grew up in a poor family in Indiana and studied to be a ballerina. At age 12, she was the youngest ballerina to be invited to perform with the Bolshoi Ballet. But soon thereafter, she suffered an injury that prevented her following this career path.

Today, she supports many of New York City’s charities, and is on the steering committee of the Alzheimer’s Association and the Board of the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. She and her husband are patrons of the National Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and Chair the Police Athletic League’s annual Holiday Party for over 1000 needy New York City children. Margo is also a member of the West Side Chamber of Commerce, and under her direction turned a small block party into one of the City’s largest public events—the Columbus Avenue Festival. The Catsimatidises are also big supporters of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons in Southampton. They’ve also hosted many dinners in their home for Presidents, Vice Presidents, Governors and other politicians. Margo is, along with her husband, the Publisher of the Hellenic Times, the largest Greek American newspaper in the United States. She and her husband have also given generously to John’s former high school, Brooklyn Tech, which now has a $10 million endowment for new programs there.

Margo and John have two children, daughter Andrea, who married Christopher Cox, the grandson of Richard Nixon, last year. Andrea is a graduate of the Stern Business School at NYU. Margo and John’s son is John Jr. 20, who is a sophomore at NYU.

In the 1980s, John and Margo bought a home in Westhampton Beach. In recent years they have built an oceanfront home in East Quogue, but they have kept their old family home in Westhampton Beach, which is often used by their grown children and their guests. I asked Margo what she loved most about being out here and she said it is a place where everyone can relax, especially her husband. She loves to cook and entertain.

“Truth is, I never know who John is going to bring home for dinner. It could be three people or it could be 30. So I’m always ready for 30.”

Running for mayor, John Catsimatidis proposed that high schools in New York City offer non-college degrees in such things as electrical work, plumbing and steel work. He says “I think we owe it to our youth to teach them how to make a living and earn the American dream.” He also wants the older men in these trades—a 64-year-old electrician, for example—to be empowered to teach the kids what they know. This proposal was recently embraced by Mayor Bloomberg.

John wants to bring the World’s Fair to New York City in 2015, just as Mayor LaGuardia did in 1939 and Mayor Lindsay did in 1964.

He is a supporter of safety on our streets and safety against terrorism and is an admirer of NYC Police Chief Ray Kelly. He wants to offer incentives to bring more computer jobs to “Silicon Alley” in the meatpacking district of Manhattan.

John does not think it matters that he run on one party line or another. He quotes Mayor LaGuardia.

“It’s not about being a Democrat or Republican. It’s about being a New Yorker.”

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