Harlem’s John A. Catsimatidis

April 25, 2014

john c in front on grants tombJohn A. Catsimatidis (born 7 September 1948) is a Greek-American businessman. He is the owner, president, chairman, and CEO of Gristedes Foods, the largest grocery chain in Manhattan, and the Red Apple Group, a real estate company with about $700 million to $800 million in holdings. Catsimatidis also owns the Hellenic Times, a Greek-American newspaper based in Manhattan. He is also the chairman and CEO of the Red Apple Group subsidiary United Refining Company.

The Red Apple Group also has holdings in aviation and real estate interests in New York, Florida, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He was a Republican mayoral primary candidate in the 2013 New York City primary mayoral election.

John Catsimatidis was born on the island of Nisyros, Greece on September 7, 1948. He came to the United States with his parents when he was six months old.

john c near harlem homejohn c at 6 when he became an americanjohn cats in west harlemThe family moved to West Harlem, where Catsimatidis grew up. Catsimatidis’ father had to start over and began work as a busboy in New York. Catsimatidis graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1966. He received a congressional nomination to West Point, but chose to study electrical engineering at New York University instead.

While in college, Catsimatidis worked for the uncle of a friend, Tony, in a small supermarket on 137th Street which Tony and his uncle owned. While Catsimatidis was still in college, Tony sold his half of the store to Catsimatidis. Catsimatidis completed four years of college, but dropped out eight credits short of graduating.

john c in front of big appleIn 1971, Catsimatidis opened his first store, at Broadway and 99th Street. Shortly thereafter, he purchased another grocery store on 87th street just west of Broadway, naming it Red Apple. Among his business innovations were staying open late seven days a week, offering free delivery, and cashing checks for customers. Catsimatidis has stated that by the time he was 24 years old, “I built up ten stores and the business was doing $25 million a year, and I was personally earning a million dollars a year.”

By the summer of 1981, Red Apple had 27 stores in the Bronx and Manhattan and annual sales of around $40 million. These grew to $110 million in sales in 1985.

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In 1986, Red Apple purchased 36 Gristedes supermarkets and 11 affiliated Charles & Co. specialty-food stores from the Southland Corporation[3]. Today, the Gristedes supermarket chain consists of over 30 stores operating throughout Manhattan and a single store in Brooklyn and Scarsdale, making Gristedes the largest supermarket chain in New York City.

A certified jet pilot, Catsimatidis has been involved in the airline industry since the early 1970s. His holdings in the aviation industry have included a fleet of leased commercial aircraft operated as C&S Acquisition and Capitol Air Express. His corporate jet company, United Air Fleet, operated as many as forty corporate aircraft.

In 1987, Catsimatidis purchased United Refining Corp. (“URC”) of Warren, PA., a company founded in 1902, for $7.5 million after the company had declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings and was in danger of liquidation under $120 million of debt.

Operated as a subsidiary of Red Apple Group, United, as of December 2012, filed annual profits of $190 million and employs over 4,000 people. The refinery processes 70,000 barrels of oil a day providing fuel to the company’s 375 Kwik Fill/Red Apple food marts and gas stations, as well as associated motels and truck stops, in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. URC emphasizes that the oil it processes and distributes comes from North America.

The employees of the Warren refinery are represented by the International Union of Operating Engineers.

In October 2009, Forbes Magazine reported that United Refining Energy Corp., a publicly traded special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) sponsored by United Refining, was purchasing “privately held Chaparral Energy in a deal worth roughly $1.6 billion.” However, United Refining Energy Corp. shareholders did not approve the deal and it was terminated in December 2009.

As of December 2013, the Red Apple Group ranked 98th on Forbes list of largest private companies with revenue of $4.2 billion and 8,000 employees. (This compares to its 2008 and 2009 rank, both at #100, 2010 at #78, 2011 at 98th, and 2012 at 97th).

In 2008 Catsimatidis became engaged in efforts to take over SemGroup LP, a bankrupt oil, gas, and asphalt trading, storage and transportation company, headquartered in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Catsimatidis gained control over a majority of the company’s management committee, but his efforts were met by opposition from the company’s existing management, who argued for selling off at least some of the company’s assets, while Catsimatidis stated his intention to keep the company together.

On February 11, 2009, Catsimatidis was sued by a group of SemGroup executives, seeking removal of Catsimatidis and his allies from the committee. In July Catsimatidis reached a settlement with SemGroup, pursuant to which he acquired a piece of SemGroup’s asphalt business and dropped his competing plan for the company’s proposed reorganization.

Catsimatidis and his wife have made contributions to a variety of both Republican and Democratic campaigns. Among Republicans, the Catsimatidis’ contributed over $60,000 to the Republican National Committee, and have also made significant contributions to the National Republican Congressional Committee, National Republican Senatorial Committee, Mitt Romney, Eric Cantor, Olympia Snowe, Richard Lugar, and others.

Among Democrats during the Clinton administration, Catsimatidis was one of the top fundraisers in the Country for the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates including Carolyn B. Maloney, Charlie Rangel, and Jerrold Nadler.

In local New York City races, Catsimatidis has given to Bill de Blasio (while he was a city councilman), Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz, and Staten Island borough president James Molinaro. In the 1992 Democratic primaries, Catsimatidis contributed $150,000 to the campaign of fellow Greek American Paul Tsongas.

Catsimatidis put on a fundraiser in 2006 with Michael Bloomberg for Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut to support his run as an independent after he lost the Democratic primary nomination for reelection to the Senate.

Catsimatidis has been described as a “longtime,” “loyal,” and “high-level Clinton donor.” Catsimatidis donated a significant sum to the Clinton Presidential Center, thought to be between $100,000 and $500,000. Catsimatidis was a member of the Hillary Rodham Clinton finance team during her 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, stating in February 2007 of Clinton: “She’s unstoppable. She’s got such a machine.” Catsimatidis hosted a number of fundraising dinners with Bill Clinton at his home in New York that in total raised well in excess of $750,000 for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Catsimatidis has stated that he is friends with Bill Clinton and that the former president “often” has flown in one of Catsimatidis’ two airplanes. Hillary Clinton attended Catsimatidis’ daughter’s wedding.

Catsimatidis has stated that the US presidents he most admires are John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.He has said that the New York City mayor whom he most admires is Fiorello La Guardia.

Catsimatidis ranked #458 on Forbes magazine’s March 2013 list of world billionaires, with an estimated net worth of $3 billion, up from #634 and $2 billion the previous year. Similarly, in the March 2014 list of the Forbes “Richest People in America,” Catsimatidis ranked as the 161st richest person in America, with an updated personal worth estimated at $3 billion.

A donor to Bill Clinton during the Clinton years, Catsimatidis, while still enrolled as a Democrat, considered making a bid in the 2009 mayoral election as a Republican. In May 2007, he was reported to be “systematically wooing local Republicans,” attending various Republican fundraisers in Queens and Staten Island and stating that he would “probably have a press conference” to announce his intentions “sooner rather than later” and would consider spending between $30 million and $40 million if he ran.

In 2008, Catsimatidis was widely viewed as a potential mayoral candidate, along with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Representative Anthony Weiner, businessman Richard Parsons, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, City Comptroller William Thompson Jr. (the eventual Democratic nominee), and state Senator Martin Golden. By July 2008, Catsimatidis had formed an exploratory committee of advisors and operatives, including Robert Ryan, Alan Bernikow, Lawrence Mandelker, and Jose Ithier. McLaughlin & Associates was the committee’s polling firm.

In 2009, Catsimatidis spent nearly $300,000, much of it on polls and consultants, to explore a candidacy. He said he only agreed to drop out after Mr. Bloomberg informed him of his plans to seek a third term. Once the city term limits law was changed to allow Bloomberg to run for a third term, Catsimatidis quietly withdrew. The exploratory committee was officially shut down in May 2009.

During the spring of 2012, Catsimatidis described his dismay over the quality of the announced as well as the presumed candidates. He suggested that he would support New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, but as Kelly repeatedly denied any intention to run, Catsimatidis expressed his own interest.

In December 2012, Catsimatidis established an exploratory committee to consider running for mayor. He also filed paperwork with the New York City Campaign Finance Board on January 3, 2013. On January 14, he told the New York Post that he had just written his own check for one million dollars to seed his campaign.

Catsimatidis announced his campaign for the Republican nomination for Mayor of New York City on the steps of City Hall January 29, 2013. Catsimatidis vowed to fight for common sense and honest government in every borough of the City.

Starting as an unknown business man with less than 3% standing in the polls, Catsimatidis waged an aggressive campaign from the onset. Topping the list of his many supporters was Former Governor George Pataki, followed by Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis and State Senator Andrew Lanza, both from Staten Island, the borough which Catsimatidis carried.

During the campaign, Catsimatidis often spoke of his underprivileged childhood and his success after escaping the neighborhood. Catsimatidis repeated over and again, he would create jobs for the City, well paying jobs. He expressed interest in adjusting the education system to be more favorable to young people seeking careers at all levels of …the economy.

As idiosyncratic as some of Catsimatidis’ ideas, “Monorails on the Long Island Expressway,” “Carriage horses retiring in Central Park,” Catsimatidis also employed not so ordinary campaign tactics to meet voters.

Catsimatidis held over 100 “Friendraisers”, not fundraisers, to meet voters face to face. Among these fundraisers were a number of performances of the Off Broadway, one man play, “The Little Flower,” a production about former New York City Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia, someone Catsimatidis greatly admired and promised to emulate while in office.

Catsimatidis also produced several concerts by recording artist Jay Black, formerly of Jay and The Americans. Black had 37 hits between 1962 and 1971, and still filled theaters in Staten Island, Brooklyn and Town Hall in Manhattan’s Theater district with voters for Catsimatidis.

However, even after establishing beach heads in every borough, Catsimatidis was caught in a City trending in the opposite direction. From the onset, Catsimatidis steadfastly supported New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and the police tactic known as “Stop & Frisk,” the practice of stopping and searching citizens for contraband, especially guns. Dividing the City along racial lines, minorities banded in unison to stop the practice because of its lopsided targeting of young men of color. Catsimatidis never wavered and supported the practice pointing to the reduction in crimes during the period, especially murders. Often noting 75% of shootings occurred in two precincts in the city, “Stop and Frisk,” was meant to protect everyone.”

In the end Catsimatidis came up short. Coming from 3% name ID in December of 2012, Catsimatidis earned over 40% in the final count but short of opponent Joe Lhota, former Mass transit official backed by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (2003 – 2011) who finished at 52%. In the end Catsimatidis became the “antiestablishment candidate and was defeated by a trends in voting away law and order issues. Catsimatidis’ future plans remain unknown as of this writing.

Early counts (absentee and other ballots are still in the pipeline) from the Republican primary of Sept. 10th, 2013 showed Joseph J. Lhota with 29,807 (52.5%) of the vote, with Mr. Catsimatidis getting 23,108 (40.7%).

Catsimatidis rested for the next two days, and then on Friday announced that he would not use his two other electoral lines but was withdrawing from the race.

On October 2, 1988, Catsimatidis married Margo Vondersaar at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York. Margo met Catsimatidis when she was his secretary beginning in 1972. Catsimatidis had a previous marriage that ended in divorce and has stated that he was “sometimes” together with Margo while still married to his first wife. At the time of their marriage, Margo led her own advertising agency, MCV Advertising Associates in New York, and was president of The Hellenic Times.

Catsimatidis and his wife have two children, Andrea and John Jr. Andrea graduated from New York University, and married Christopher Cox, grandson of former President Richard Nixon, on June 4, 2011, at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, “before a church packed with family members and political powerhouses,” including Hillary Rodham Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Rudolph Giuliani, Charles Schumer, Ray Kelly, and Robert M. Morgenthau. An elaborate black-tie wedding reception for 700 guests was held at the Waldorf-Astoria. Catsimatidis stated that he spent “in excess of $1 million” on the wedding.Senator John McCain of Arizona was not invited, although Cox had worked on his 2008 presidential campaign, because McCain did not endorse Cox when he later ran (unsuccessfully) for Congress. Catsimatidis told the New York Post that “I thought that was low. I was just disgusted.”

Catsimatidis is involved in philanthropy. He is one of the largest donors to the G&P Foundation for Cancer Research He founded and was co-chairman of Brooklyn Tech Endowment Foundation, benefiting his alma mater. Catsimatidis funds the John Catsimatidis Scholarship Fund at the New York University Stern School of Business, which has since 1988 awarded two scholarships each year. Catsimatidis was for five years president of the Manhattan Council of the Boy Scouts of America. He also served on the board of directors of the Police Athletic League of New York City. Catsimatidis was also on the board of directors of the Drum Major Institute.

Other organizations with which Catsimatidis has been active are the National Kidney Foundation, Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, Young Men’s Philanthropic League, and Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. Catsimatidis was the vice-chairman of the Ellis Island Awards Foundation of the National Ethnic Coalition Organization (NECO), and received an Ellis Island Medal of Honor from that organization. (source).

Photo credit (top down): 1) John Catsimatidis as a young man standing front of Grants Tomb. 2) Catsimatidis and his family near their home in Harlem. 3) Catsimatidis at 6 near the time he became a citizen.

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