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John Catsimatidis, so the story goes, has a couple of jets he wants to sell. But the market is tanking, so the only place to go is Africa. It's 1996. He and a couple of aides—and his longtime pilot, Jim Wilbert—fly to Mali to do the deal.
Catsimatidis is mainly known for his supermarket chain, but at the time he had this side business leasing and selling jets.
"I figure, shit, I want to get out of here alive," he recalls. "So I had pictures of me and Bill Clinton [taken] the week before. If anything happens, they're going to send in the Marines. My exit strategy had to be as good as my entrance strategy."
Well, for some reason the buyers decide they want a discount, and seem to think they can make a small down payment and still get the jets. They show Big John their grandiose plans for an all-Africa airline and say they'll pay him back when the whole thing gets off the ground, so to speak.
Come on, Catsimatidis replies, that's not the way this works. This is a business. So what do the buyers do? They actually take Wilbert hostage, put him in a hotel and won't let him go. For two weeks. Much fulminating occurs. High-level phone calls, etc., etc.
"They were going to let him go if we lowered the price for the airplanes, but we had promised the bank a certain price," Catsimatidis says. "We ended up getting the bank to reduce the price; they wired the money, released Wilbert, and life goes on."
All right, so: On the way out, Big John and his people file past hundreds of not-so-friendly onlookers, board their plane, and get out of Mali—but not before wondering for an uncomfortable moment whether someone has stuck a bomb on the jet.
"I don't know how the hell we ever got back," he says. End of story. (Well, not quite: In 2004, Wilbert turned around and sued him in a federal court in Tennessee, claiming that his boss had abandoned him in Mali. The case was subsequently dismissed.)
Catsimatidis, 58, the city's latest mogul who would be mayor, tells this story in his war room on the third floor of a brick building on Eleventh Avenue. Periodically, he wrinkles his brow at the disco music thumping through the ceiling from the recording studio upstairs—which, for all his money, he hasn't been able to expel.
"The good news is, they don't wake up until 4 in the afternoon," he says about his noisy neighbors. "And their lease is up."
He's dressed in a suit and puffing a cigar, keeping one eye on the stock ticker flashing across a flat-screen television hung on the far wall, as well as the buzzing BlackBerry that he says contains 9,000 phone numbers. The room has three desks, each one stacked with paper. The walls are covered (and we mean covered) with pictures of Big John and famous politicians—Clinton, Gore, Reagan, Bush I, Hillary—many of whom have made a pilgrimage to this very office to kiss his ring (read: beg for campaign cash).
"Those are my memories," he says. "After all is said and done, what do you have? Memories. What else are you going to put on your walls?"
You think billionaire, and you picture high-story offices in glass-and-steel cathedrals. You think Bloomberg and his immaculate outfits for every occasion. The horsey set.
But that's not Catsimatidis's style. You could call him the rumpled billionaire. He insists on running his business empire from his cluttered offices. He clearly relishes playing the hardscrabble kid almost as much as he likes telling old war stories. "I don't have to be on Fifth Avenue to prove anything to anyone," he says. "I know who I am."
Catsimatidis lives on the Upper East Side with his wife and their teenage son and daughter. His main holdings include 50 Gristedes supermarkets, 371 gas stations in three states, $500 million in real estate, and an expanding oil business for which he just raised $450 million in an IPO. He employs 7,800 people. He's worth about $2.2 billion. He's on the board of the Police Foundation and the Police Athletic League and is involved with a bunch of charities.
In fact, Catsi—another of his nicknames—is something of a walking conflict of interest. His supermarket and real-estate interests are thoroughly embedded in the city's fabric. His firm is constantly interacting with city agencies and slugging it out with other companies here.
This is a guy who fought the big-box stores, who went to war over untaxed cigarettes, who is seeking city tax breaks for his big high-rise in Brooklyn. So what's he going to do as mayor when the same kinds of issues come up and he's required to be relatively fair about them?
"Look, first he has to make the decision that he's going to run, then he has to be elected. We'll deal with that issue at the appropriate time," Rob Ryan, Big John's spokesman, tells the Voice.