Renaissance Man: John Catsimatidis Talks Brooklyn Development, Politics And Media Empire
To truly get to know Red Apple Group chairman and CEO John Catsimatidis—who'll be speaking at Bisnow's Brooklyn New Frontiers event at the William Vale Hotel on Aug. 17—we asked him about his upbringing, views, successes and predictions for NYC's hottest borough.
John has worn many hats over his career—Gristedes Foods CEO, radio show host, mayoral candidate, newspaper owner and development giant—so pinning him down to just one topic wouldn't give you a full sense of the head of Forbes' 153rd-largest private company in America.
Bisnow: Tell us how you got your start.
John Catsimatidis: My parents wanted me to have a little bit of religion and made me serve as an altar boy for our local church when I was 12. As I grew up, I eventually worked for the Archbishop of the Americas, controlling the finances of 11 dioceses across North America. I also reported to the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Istanbul. In many ways, I believe I'm doing my duty to God and my country.
Bisnow: Why is serving your country important to you?
John: Well, my grandfather came to America in 1913, while my father was left behind in the old country to take care of his mother and sisters. When he came here with my mother and myself, he and his two brothers agreed that they would work hard to support themselves and not be a burden to American society. So I try to follow that example.
Bisnow: So which presidential candidate do you believe is best for America? You're a registered Republican, but have close ties with the Clintons.
John: It's tough, because Donald Trump has been a friend of mine for over 30 years. We worked on the Police Athletic League of NYC together and were always worried about inner city kids. I wanted them to have a better life in America, give them a better education so they could escape like I escaped Harlem. But I do consider President Clinton a good friend, and I think he did a tremendous job. But Hillary and Bill are some of the smartest people I know.
Bisnow: Speaking of improving the lives of the less fortunate, Brooklyn's many neighborhoods are being transformed with this new wave of development, but some are resisting these changes, fearing gentrification. Have you had any experience with this resistance? How have you tackled it?
John: I have [dealt with it]. I went to Brooklyn Tech High School in Fort Greene Park, and wanted to build homes there. When I looked into it, I conflicted with the local councilwoman, but when we sat down and discussed solutions, we grew to be friends and realized that the development would improve housing and give jobs to locals, which was important to her. I think a lot of things can be solved when smart people sit down and talk things out.
Bisnow: Do you agree with the MTA's decision to close the L Train for 18 months in 2019? How do you think it'll affect Brooklyn development? Would you have done something else?
John: Look, I love Brooklyn like many people do, and it's gone through tremendous growth. If it was a city, it'd be the fourth-largest in the US and may soon be the third. But the announcements about transit raise a lot of questions. If there’s a better way to keep L line open and get the work done, I don’t know, but I know that Brooklyn's main tenancy is young kids who can't afford Manhattan, but can access it within minutes given the transit system. So there needs to be some thought about if the repairs will cut them off.
Bisnow: Do you think these young people will still be able to afford Brooklyn, given how quickly rent prices are rising?
John: Brooklyn's developed a movement on its own. People look at Brooklyn as a symbol of the life you want to live, with young people and being adventurous. So I think it's always going to attract that element, regardless of price.
Bisnow: So where are you looking to develop in Brooklyn?
John: Coney Island. It's right on the ocean and you have beautiful views. Every time I go there on a sunny day, I fall in love with it all over again.
Bisnow: Looking outside NYC proper, you've recently involved yourself in acquiring the Seneca Tower in Buffalo, mentioning that you'd consult Sen. Chuck Schumer for help. What drew you to the tower, and why do you need the senator's help?
John: It's a beautiful building and a symbol of Buffalo making it. We've done a considerable amount of investment in the Buffalo area, so we want to make the tower a success. But I don’t want to be a lone ranger, so I want to work together with Schumer to make it work.
Bisnow: You have a little media empire, with the Hellenic Times and your radio show. Why did you get involved in these ventures?
John: Well, my wife ran the Times, and we sort of got into that by accident. People told me it was my responsibility to keep it alive, so we pumped a lot of money into it over the course of 30 years. As for the radio show, I think I just like the truth to get out there. A lot of people had respect for Walter Cronkite 30 years ago. When he spoke, people believed him and knew it was good for America, but no one believes reporters about anything these days.
Bisnow: Another venture you've put a lot of money into is Gristedes, which hasn't been as profitable. Why do you keep the chain open? Sentimentality?
John: No, it's more along the lines that we're winding it down. We had 200 stores at one time, and now we'e down to 28 or 30. But some of these employees has been with us for 25, 30 years. So we're just gonna operate it and whatever happens, happens.