On October 10, the Queens Chamber of Commerce will honor four remarkable individuals at its annual Business Person of the Year awards at Terrace on the Park.
This year’s Hall of Fame honoree is John Catsimatidis, president and CEO of Red Apple Group.
“I ran for mayor in 2013, and I don’t know if I’ll run for mayor again, but the one thing I found out when I was running was how many neighborhoods there were and how many great people there are in the outer boroughs,” Catsimatidis said of being honored. “Once in a while, I’ve got to get out of this ivory tower and go to the outer boroughs and hug a few people.”
The other honorees are Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, founder and executive director of Hour Children, Nick Tziazas, president of Lyons Mortgage Services, Inc., and Christopher Horch, associate partner at JB&B.
Fitzgerald said she’s humbled by the recognition, but ultimately, “it’s not about me.”
“It’s for the mission,” she said. “I will stand there representing all of the people here who make life go and work. Especially the women whose lives are serviced, I do it for them.”
Horch said he has a fast-growing relationship with the chamber and fits well with their culture.
“I grew up in the Midwest, so we’re not used to accolades and things of that nature,” Horch said. “To be honest, it’s humbling. It’s very exciting, and I’m very appreciative of it.”
Tziazas credited the support of his family for helping him achieve everything he has for the community.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “My wife, Kalina, and two kids, Nicholas and Kristal, have been great supporters for me.
“It makes me feel good, but I don’t want to make this award all about me,” he said. “I’m a strong believer in teamwork. I owe a lot to my partners George Sophocleous, Edith O’Donnell and the entire staff, many who’ve been with Lyons for a long time.”
BY JEN KHEDAROO
John Catsimatidis exemplifies the American dream. But instead of just a picket fence, he’s created business after business, each with its own identity.
Born on the Greek Island of Nisyros in 1948, Catsimatidis and his family moved to Harlem when he was just six months old. The son of a busboy and a stay-at-home mom, Catsimatidis attended Brooklyn Technical High School and later New York University, but wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life until he started working in a grocery store.
He dropped out of NYU to pursue the grocery business full-time, and soon after he became owner of his first store on Broadway and 99th Street. By his 25th birthday, Catsimatidis had opened 10 Red Apple supermarkets along Broadway on the Upper West Side. Today, he’s known for his dozens of Gristedes supermarkets throughout Manhattan.
His success didn’t stop at grocery stores; Catsimatidis built an empire. His diversified corporation, Red Apple Group, has holdings in the energy, aviation, retail and real estate sectors.
He dabbles in everything from building high rises to hosting a talk radio show, the Cats Roundtable, interviewing some of the most important and powerful people in the city and state.
Along with wife Margo and children Andrea and John Jr., the family steers the ship of one of the most successful businesses in the city. He recently spoke with This Is Queensborough about his success.
TIQ: You’ve been able to accomplish so much since your early 20s, from opening your first grocery store to heading a large and diverse corporation. Do you think someone can accomplish similar achievements in today’s business climate?
JC: I started when I was 21 and going to college at the same time, you just have to be very careful. What I did was unusual because I was in the retail business. When I was buying real estate, if we didn’t have a tenant for the building we were buying, the worst case scenario was we would open a supermarket.
We take vast wastelands like in Coney Island and have the courage to say “we’re right by the ocean, it’s beautiful.” We’re building something that’s beautiful. My philosophy is that we’re building the “wow” effect in real estate. What is the wow effect? It’s when you look at it and go “wow, I want to live there.”
TIQ: Do you have any plans to invest in Queens?
JC: We’ve invested over a billion dollars in Brooklyn. I love Queens, we’d love to invest in Queens. I’m hoping I’m not too late. I have a lot of mentors, and one of them had a great expression, “well bought, half sold.” So if you bought it well, you could sell it anytime at a profit. I’m just hoping I’m not too late in the cycle in Queens.
When I ran for mayor, I used the expression “transit-oriented development.” If you have a subway system that you can never replace and you build around it, people will come. Why? Because they’re able to get to their destinations, they’re able to get to their jobs, and they’re able to go anywhere. When they redid MetroTech in Brooklyn, the whole area around it became alive. When you create something like that, it helps the whole area develop.
The only disadvantage of Queens versus Brooklyn or the Bronx is that there’s less transportation, and you can’t build subways right now. When I ran for mayor, I suggested the city build monorails versus building more subways in Queens.
One advantage is that it’s cheaper to open a business in Queens, which gives you a start. Queens has a great borough president in Melinda Katz. She knows about real estate, she knows about zoning. You go up FDR Drive and Queens has a skyline all of a sudden. I think a lot of it is because of her. New York City needs smart people to run the boroughs.
TIQ: What advice do you have for small businesses either looking to start or to grow?
JC: My advice is to take something that’s broken and fix it, and have the attitude that failure is not an option. That’s the attitude I went out with. I planned to work eight to ten hours a day, but if I have to work 20 hours a day, I’d do it.
TIQ: Who are some of the people who have inspired you?
JC: I have had about 20 mentors. One of them was Reuben Mattus, who invented Haagen Dazs Ice Cream. Isn’t that the best ice cream in the world? He had a vision and he created something that the whole world loves.
I had mentors in the food business and mentors in religion, in finance and in politics, like Jerry Finkelstein who owned the New York Law Journal and was known as the Joe Kennedy of New York. I’ve had mentors in every sector of life, I try to learn a little bit of everything. I was never an expert in anything, but I got involved with charities, politics and religious institutions. I believe in people.
My proudest achievement is my children. When my son and my daughter speak to me, I tell them that the only thing I want is for them to be better than their father. They both graduated from NYU Stern Business School and are now working in the company.
TIQ: Do you think it’s important for businesses to be involved in the local community?
JC: Being involved is very important. I was involved with the West Side Chamber of Commerce, and I created the Columbus Avenue Festival. The whole budget for the West Side Chamber of Commerce before I got there was $20,000 per year. After the Columbus Avenue Festival, it became $200,000. And then, five years later, I created the Amsterdam Avenue Festival.
I think it’s a responsibility of successful people to give back to the community. I’ve done it on a citywide basis, I’ve done it on a nationwide basis, and I’ve done it on an international basis. I’ve been a supporter of the Police Athletic League. It’s important to be a people person. The joke in the company is that nobody gets fired. My three assistants, one has been here 40 years, one has been here 30 years and one has been here 20 years. One started as a nanny for my kids and then worked her way to the office after the kids no longer needed a nanny.
I had a birthday party the other day, and we had people from my grammar school class, a couple of tables for my Brooklyn Technical High School class, and tables for people who I knew when I went to NYU. The joy in my life is being able to maintain old friends and see them whenever we can and hug.