John Catsimatidis emigrated to the United States from Greece with his parents when he was 6 months old. By the time he was 24, he was a millionaire.
A billionaire today, he owns the more than 300 Red Apple Kwik Fill gas stations, United Refining Company, the Red Apple Group real estate and aviation company, and Gristedes Foods, the largest grocery chain in Manhattan. He also hosts a talk show that airs locally on AM 970.
He will speak at Daemen College at 4 p.m. Monday as part of its Distinguished Leaders Lecture Series. The event is free and open to the public. To reserve seats, email OfficeOfThePresident@daemen.edu.
Q: We have a strong Greek population here. Do you still feel connected to Greece?
A: Well, I’ve got some third and fourth cousins there. I’ll tell you this: I was at the correspondents’ dinner in Washington, which was on Greek Easter, and to honor my mother and father, I went to St. Sophia Cathedral at midnight Mass instead of going out partying.
My two grandfathers came to America in 1913 when all the immigrants were coming. My father’s two brothers came in the 1920s but they left my father in the old country to take care of his three sisters and his mother. My father was a lighthouse keeper. We came to America in 1949. I’m the only child. He worked two jobs so he can have food on the table, pay the rent and send his son to the university.
Q: What did you study?
A: I went to NYU and I studied engineering but I was a failure because in my junior year I ended up going into business. I was eight credits short and I never graduated.
Q: Your parents were probably not happy about that.
A: My mother? She cried. My father? He yelled. “We sent you to the university to become a hamali?” That’s an old Greek or Turkish word for someone who carries crates on their back.
But then I used my education, I used my American know-how and went from 135th Street in Harlem to 182 on the Forbes 400 list.
Q: What was your big break?
A: My first store, when I was a junior in college, the guy that became like a big brother to me sold me the store. He said, “I can’t stand doing business with my uncle. You’ve gotta take it over. I argue with him every day. I’m gonna die from these arguments.” And he gave me the store for nothing but $10,000 in notes – $1,000 a month for 10 months.
So that’s my first mentor. He taught me how to run a store and hustle for the money. And I was still a junior in college. So when it came time to graduate, I was making $1,000 a week and the electrical engineers were making $129 a week.
Q: Do you think if you were just starting out today you would have the same odds for success?
A: I was very lucky. I think it’s harder today. Things are different. Money was looser, people trusted people more.
I remember my first lawyer, his brother was chairman of [grocery chain] Food Fair. They knew the supermarket business and every time I wanted to build another store, he’d call the wholesale company, “Give John more money, he wants to build another store.” His name was Sam Stein. He loved me, trusted me. He was another of my mentors.
Before I knew it, at the age of 23, 24, I had 10 stores making almost $1 million a year. When my father came here, he worked as a busboy for $100 a week.
Q: It sounds like your mentors were key.
A: I worked very hard and I had a lot of mentors. And I listened and I learned from them. I took a few risks here and there. One of my mentors said, “Work hard and you’re gonna wake up one day and find that you’re very successful.” I always remembered that. People got to like me and people trusted me and they knew I wasn’t gonna do the wrong thing by them.
Q: A lot of people work hard and have mentors but don’t become billionaires. What do you think made the difference?
A: The one big, big break I had, it goes back to 1969. I was in the supermarket business, the real estate business, and then I got into the airplane business. In 1985, Ron Perelmen sold me his Pantry Pride supermarkets in Florida. He took my money and bought Revlon. So we both made out. I made a lot of money on that Pantry Pride deal in Florida.
We had Capitol Airlines and sold it. The people we sold it to went bankrupt. We had to go to bankruptcy court to recover our airplanes. We were the 11th largest carrier. We got our airplanes back and we started the third-largest airline in Canada. And I also bought United Refining which was in bankruptcy at the time. I bought the oil refinery and I saved 5,000 jobs. I became chairman. The lead creditor was Bank of America and three insurance companies. Then JP Morgan companies came to me and raised money for me to pay back those banks. They raised $100 million, are you ready for this one? Unsecured! Because they trusted me.
Q: So you just happened to buy the oil refinery because they were in bankruptcy court the same day you were there?
A: The trustee that had the airplane deal had the oil refinery deal. So at the same time, I bought Pantry Pride, I bought the oil company in bankruptcy, then J.P. Morgan helped me get it out. Then we started the airline in Canada, we started the company that became NetJets, eventually. And we bought Gristedes supermarkets, all within 18 months.
Q: You didn’t finish school. How important is a college education to success?
A: I think they’re robbing students for $200,000 to go to college. For students to have a debt of that much, it’s not for everyone. I’m not a Bernie Sanders fan, but what’s going on with our students and putting them in that kind of debt is not right.
Q: Your Red Apple gas stations sell only North American oil?
A: I made a deal with Canada, we get all Canadian crude oil and we get it through our pipeline. It’s made by American workers. So our oil is 100 percent American-made oil.
Q: Why are you able to do that and other companies don’t?
A: Well, we have a pipeline that goes all the way to Alberta, Canada. Everybody else gets a little bit from Chavez, a little bit from BP, a little bit from the Saudis. What I’m pushing some of the presidential candidates to do is to declare Independence Day 2020, where Canada and the United States will declare oil independence from the Middle East.
Q: Who will get your vote for president?
A: Well, you know, I’ve known the Clintons for 30 years. I’ve known the Bushes for 30 years but they’re out. And Donald Trump is a friend of mine for 30 years. So you tell me what I do.