After graduating from high school, John Catsimatidis wanted to spend the summer of 1966 much like any teenage boy would — watching TV and lounging around on his parents’ couch in upper Manhattan.
But fate had other plans for the Greek immigrant, who came to the States as an infant in 1949.
Catsimatidis’ mom, Despina, couldn’t stand idly by and watch her son — a standout student at Brooklyn Tech HS, where the average IQ was around 140 — be a couch potato.
So, she dragged John down to a neighborhood grocery store and got him work stocking shelves and doing everything under the sun to earn an honest paycheck.
His mother’s insistence that he get a job that summer was integral to Catsimatidis becoming a self made, billionaire business mogul, he writes in his new memoir “How Far Do You Want to Go?: Lessons from a Common-Sense Billionaire” (Matt Holt), out Tuesday.
“Life would have been quite different if my mother never pushed me off the couch,” Catsimatidis told The Post.
After that summer, Catsimatidis started New York University enrolled in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and with engineering as his major, but remained uncertain about what he really wanted to do in life. With six credits left before graduating, he did the unthinkable and dropped out of the prestigious school to team up with “Cousin Tony,” the neighborhood man who had once hired him to work in a grocery store. Tony, a fellow Greek immigrant who may or may not have been a blood relative, was looking to sell his share in the store, which he owned with his uncle Nick.
He offered his half to Catsimatidis for nothing upfront but instead $1,000 monthly payments down the road. Catsimatidis agreed to the deal, horrifying his parents.
“We sent you to the university to become a humali?” his dad, a chef and waiter, said, using a slang term for a crate carrier.
His mother, meanwhile, thought he “was throwing away not only my education but also the family’s whole life-changing journey to America,” Catsimatidis writes. “I tried to tell her that the truth was exactly the opposite. Why work for for someone else when I could have my own business? Wasn’t that the essence of the American Dream?”
In 1969, just nine months into their business venture, Catsimatidis and Nick were pulling weekly profits of $1,000 — electrical engineers were then making just $129 weekly — and things were looking up. Then, “a neighborhood tough guy” tried shaking down a store employee. Nick told him to buzz off, but the ruffian returned.
So, Catsimatidis brought a handgun to work and pulled it out when the hustler returned.
“I didn’t hesitate a second. I walked straight over to the man. I pulled the pistol out of my jacket and pressed the steel barrel against the man’s head,” he writes. “‘You come within three blocks of this store again,’ I said calmly but directly, ‘I’m going to blow your head off.’ He didn’t say another word.”
By 1974, Catsimatidis and Nick’s grocery business — then named Red Apple — had expanded to several locations throughout NYC. Catsimatidis was just 24 year old.
“I was making a million dollars a year but I still lived at home with my family,” he said. “That’s the way I wanted to do it.”
As his profits grew, so did his yearning to pursue an adolescent passion.
Not long before his 30th birthday, he got his pilot’s license and bought a jet from Walt Disney’s brother Roy.
“I wanted to attend the Air Force academy when I was younger so that brought me to this,” Catsimatidis said. “I really did love to fly, especially on Tuesday afternoons.”
He ultimately got into the air travel business, shuttling people to Atlantic City with a fleet of 20 planes in the early 1980s.
In 1986, he sold the plane company to an associate of Warren Buffett, who would later use it to launch NetJets.
That same year, Red Apple acquired Gristedes, making it the largest supermarket chain in New York City.
As the decades went on, Catsimatidis dabbled in politics. In 2013, he ran for New York City mayor in the Republican primaries but was ultimately beat out by former deputy Mayor Joe Lhota, who went on to lose to Bill de Blasio.
These days, Catsimatidis oversees Gristedes Foods, a grocery empire with over 30 stores in New York City. He also manages some 2 million square feet of real estate throughout NYC, Florida and elsewhere in the US, and operates United Refining Company, a Pennsylvania oil refinery.
In 2020, he acquired WABC, where he shows off his gift for gab every weekday at 5 p.m. on the “Cats and Cosby” radio show with Rita Cosby. Forbes estimates his net worth to be $4 billion — not bad for a college dropout.
“You can’t win if you’re too afraid of losing,” he writes, adding, “Great success comes with great effort — outwork everyone.”
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