By Gunjan J. Sewhani
Photography by Getty Images/Andrew Walker
Margo Catsimatidis welcomes us into an apartment that spans the entire floor of a classic Fifth Avenue building. The apartment is cozily reminiscent of a home that has been nurtured by a family for generations. Knick-knacks and framed photographs line the walls and daintily stand atop a grand piano as well as next to rows upon rows of encyclopedias on bookshelves. His two children are featured in most. As we wait for John, Margo offers us snacks and shares tidbits of the couple’s days on the campaign trail.
Mayoral Candidate John Catsimatidis enters the room a few minutes later with a countenance that puts you at ease. He is simultaneously grand and avuncular. At this point, our knowledge of Catsimatidis is rather incomplete—hardly going beyond the numerous pieces documenting his professional accolades and articles emulating his Forbes magazine profile. From these, the world has come to know him as one of the roughly 1500 billionaires on the globe. He is the current owner of the largest grocery chain in Manhattan, Gristedes, and is involved with a range of other industries from aviation to real estate to oil.
But as we sit down with John and Margo, the views of Central Park gleaming through their draped windows, we are surprisingly transported to 135th Street in Harlem to what he calls a “back-apartment.” We hear a story that we have heard before—one that many Americans, and New Yorkers especially, have both heard and lived. In Harlem, Catsimatidis’ family growing up lived in a six-room back apartment that they paid $48 a month for in rent. His parents had just emigrated from Greece after his father lost his job working at a lighthouse. Catsimatidis speaks of the hardship and desperation of his recently wed parents: “They came to America and had to sign the dotted line for immigration that if he couldn’t earn a living and feed his family, they would have to go back.”
Hence, his father worked several jobs as a bus boy and waiter—allowed to work at an Italian restaurant that is still there in Astoria to this day simply because he spoke Italian. Catsimatidis says matter-of-factly: “He fed his family, sent me to schools—he always believed in education.”
Consequently, Catsimatidis thrived in the public school system within New York City—attending Brooklyn Technical High School and then New York University. It was while he was a student at New York University that he first entered the grocery business: his bread and butter for many years and the foundation of his empire. He turned a failing grocery store into a success and when he was just eight credits short of earning his degree, he dropped out of college to pursue the business full-time. His parents were outraged. But, he says, “I worked hard and had a knack for things.” He continued to grow his grocery business and had built ten stores by the age of 24: “I always wanted to give our customers the best deal, and that was the beginning of the success.”
The grocery stores mushroomed into a real estate business as a young Catsimatidis worried about the leases on his stores ending. And the timing couldn’t have been better. He tells us of the market at the time: “Real estate values were in the toilet and I started buying real estate because I figured, worse come to worst, I could put a grocery store in them…Then I woke up one day and all of a sudden they were worth a ton of money.”
And so his real estate business boomed—making way for his passion for aviation. He had always had a desire to go to air force camp and become a jet pilot but, being a son of immigrant parents with an immigrant’s hustle to succeed, survival in New York City took precedent. When his aviation business took off, he finally had the opportunity to get his pilot’s license. Atlantic City Airport in New Jersey opened up in 1977 and he spotted an opportunity for aviation transportation to and from Massachusetts and Connecticut to Atlantic City for the weekends. This was the beginning of Net Jets, later sold to Warren Buffet.
While Catsimatidis loved the airplanes, he flew them solely for pleasure. And you can tell by the sound of his voice: his intonation shifts, his brows are not furrowed and his eyes no longer as serious as they were when he was discussing his upbringing. Until this point his story has been one of a first-generation American’s struggle to make it in this country and to not let his hopeful parents down. Now, there is a sliver of pride bubbling—the jet airplanes are the first mention of a passion in the name of leisure itself in Catsimatidis’ life. He nostalgically recalls of his aviation success: “I had teardrops in my eyes when half the British Airways Terminal at Kennedy Airport was ours; we used to be able to jump on the Concorde anytime we wanted because the officers of the airlines were able to fly each others’ airplanes.” He glances at Margo: “She was my co-pilot.”
Margo smiles. While she has not said much so far, her occasional smiles and understanding nods as Catsimatidis recounts his family’s journey evinces her support and admiration for her partner.
Together they have reared two children: a daughter who also attended his alma mater and a son. He alludes to a West Point nomination he received as a high school student and tries to explain his path: “I always felt, as they teach you at West Point, that you always take care of your family—and after that your obligation is to your companies and community and church.” Having been appointed as the highest layperson possible in the Greek Orthodox Church, Catsimatidis was in charge of eleven dioceses and 526 churches around the country. He collaborated with the Jewish and Catholic communities to foster unity.
Within the community, Margo and he feel particularly attached to kids’ charities. He refers to their work with the Police Athletic League and the League’s importance in terms of getting children off the streets. He is frustrated by the number of children hanging out on the streets after school because they simply have no place to go and tells us: “We can’t save all of them, but we can save another 10 or 20 percent of them. We believe in giving back and creating hope. That’s what I want to do with these kids: give them hope that they too can escape and do well.” Margo and he are also involved with the Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Foundations.
Politics is a natural next step for Catsimatidis. His candidacy for mayor is almost extension of the responsibility he feels one has for his community: a culmination of the traditional values with which he was reared as well as his love for New York City. He walks us to a wall packed with photographs of some of his favorite moments and points to a photo of him with Bill Clinton. He tells us: “I admire Bill Clinton; he was one of the smartest Presidents I ever met.” In fact, for his mayoral candidacy, he refers to one of Hillary Clinton’s strategies in New York City during the senatorial race: “I am doing what Hillary did. I’m visiting every one of those little towns—every part of the city, I’m visiting people, talking to people and relating to people. New York City is a big city but it’s made up of 75 little towns. It’s made up of 192 ethnicities.”
It’s not difficult for Catsimatidis to relate to the New York City population. Within these 75 little towns among the five boroughs, 37% of the current population has emigrated from other countries. Communities in New York City are permeated by immigrants who have fled from economic hardship and other forms of adversity in their home countries. The mayoral candidate is onto something when he alludes to the diversity of the city: it is impossible to pinpoint an ethnicity or a background to attach to the “real” New Yorker. In Harlem and Astoria, where Catsimatidis’ roots lie, as well as throughout the rest of the city, people are living the immigrant struggle that his parents fought through and the quest to fulfill first-generation hopes as he did. He refers to his ability to relate to New Yorkers struggling to find jobs and make a living in the city: “My father was a member of the union; I understand and I feel for those people.”
Hence, his top three policy matters hit the core of a New Yorker’s concerns as well as strive to maintain what he is most proud of in the city. He speaks of keeping the city safe and his support for Police Commissioner Ray Kelley: “In Detroit you have 64 murders for every 100,000 people, in Chicago you have 20 murders for every 100,000 people. You know how many there are in New York? Less than five for every 100,000. Ray Kelley has kept our city safe.”
Bred in the New York City public school system and then one of New York’s most prominent universities, it is no surprise that Catsimatidis places a huge emphasis on education. The mayoral candidate proposes teaching students a trade to battle dropout rates—he argues that guiding students to specialize in trades will “give them a chance to the middle class way of life instead of making them prisoners of poor neighborhoods.”
The third policy matter he feels strongly about is reinstating a World’s Fair in New York City—a staple of Fiorello H. LaGuardia’s tenure as mayor and a way to bring jobs, companies and tourists to New York. He views the World’s Fair as an opportunity to let the city shine and grow economically. This is hardly the only aspect of LaGuardia’s mayorship that Catsimatidis admires. He refers to the famed mayor as his hero and proudly quotes him: “It’s not about being a Republican. It’s not about being a Democrat. It’s about being a real New Yorker.” •