As a junior in college, John Catsimatidis was living at home, working as a clerk in the family grocery store and studying electrical engineering at New York University. It fitted the smart scrappy New York immigrant who lived in Harlem.
One day his fortune changed when his uncle asked him if he would like to “take my half of the store.” He knew it was a great opportunity, but he didn’t have the money to buy in. He decided on sweat equity — basically working without pay in exchange for learning the business and earning a percentage. This was one of the best decisions he ever made.
And as John “Cats” said in his new book, “How Far Do You Want to Go? Lessons from a Common-Sense Billionaire,” he had “confidence and youth, which are a powerful combination.” Within less than a year, he was making $1,000 per month. “That was a lot of money in 1969.”
“I learned a lot from that store,” he wrote. No kidding. By age 24, he was making $1 million a year. It was this first work experience that helped him develop guiding principles for his future business experiences: “Focus on the product, keep customers happy, and get employees to work well together.” While these common-sense principles sound simple, they are hard to achieve, and they became his foundation for “building a successful business – any kind of business in any field.” It all comes down to the product, the customer and the team.
From start to finish, this book has two sentiments integrated into Mr. Catsimatidis’s successful life. He is overwhelming grateful for all his accomplishments and for the privilege to be an American. On the book’s first page, he dedicates the book to the many people who “enriched my life” with “the wisdom to succeed” and exudes gratitude for the “very fortunate life” he has lived. Throughout the book his wife plays a central role in decision making: “the love of my life and great partner, Margo, my sunshine, who makes me smile every day.” After 35 years of marriage, it doesn’t get much better than that.
It’s often said that one of the secrets to happiness is being introspective enough to express gratitude. Catsimatidis has this down to an art. He repeatedly downplays the importance of money while emphasizing his gratefulness in being able to make a difference in people’s lives through job creation, philanthropy and thinking of others.
In every chapter Catsimatidis’s immigrant background and belief in America are central to his rags to riches success. “I wrote this book because I want to give back to this wonderful country that gave me so many great opportunities. The American dream was real for me, and it can be real for everyone.” He continued by saying, “I believe in the promise of America” and hope “to inspire others to be the best that they can be.”
Despite success, by the end of the book Cats expresses eagerness for new business opportunities, new experiences and new chapters in his already well lived life. He acknowledges he’s “still looking for new opportunities” and like many people still “trying to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life”.
At 74, it’s this drive and enthusiasm for new experiences that makes him different than other success stories. He refers to himself as a “hurricane” of energy who doesn’t want to sit around and “play golf” all day. His company, the Red Apple Group, is rated by Forbes every year as one of America’s largest privately held companies. He went from a grocery clerk to a store owner to the creator of a sprawling empire in real estate, energy, sports, finance, and media.
Catsimatidis’s book is an American success story filled with common-sense advice and words of wisdom that can help anyone “Go as Far As You Want To Go.” He ends the book with a list he’s been working on perfecting his whole life, and they are worth the read.
Secrets of Success:
- You can’t win if you’re too afraid of losing.
- Know your products, your customers, and your vendors better than they know themselves – and treat them all like family.
- Hire people who know more than you do and inspire them to do their jobs.
- People do what you inspect, not what you expect.
- Mentors are hugely valuable – but take only the best from each of them.
- Always be seeking the next opportunity.
- Own real estate.
- Great success comes with great effort – outwork everyone.
- Take reasonable risks – somewhere between reasonable and risky.
- The right time to negotiate is when the other person needs the deal.
- Seek allies in unexpected places and dream up mutually beneficial ideas.
- Time is the most precious commodity – use every second purposefully.
- Failure is not an option – ever.
- Help others at every opportunity. You’ll benefit as much as they do.
- Dedicate everything to the people you love the most.
- Have fun.
Richard Weinberg is a former Justice of the Supreme Court of State of NY, former General Counsel for the NYC Council and General Counsel to the Red Apple Group.
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