The Billionaire Who Chose Naples
New york’s high taxes have become a windfall of sorts for Southwest Florida. They were the impetus for billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist Tom Golisano, three-time candidate for New York governor, to become a permanent resident of Naples last year. Despite his passion for the topic, he remains relaxed and soft-spoken when explaining that he would simply rather give his money to causes of his choosing.
Golisano, founder and chairman of the Rochester-based payroll company Paychex and owner of the Buffalo Sabres, is well known for donating millions to benefit health and education in upstate New York. His generosity has already been felt in Southwest Florida through a $4 million donation for Ave Maria University’s field house and a $5 million matching grant to the newly renamed Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples (C’mon). And he’s researching other worthy local organizations in need of a benefactor.
A snowbird in Port Royal for the past decade, Golisano now spends a little more than half the year—the legal requirement for residency—in Naples. He is accompanied by his soft-coated wheaten terrier, Bailey, who is more than happy to do a trick or two for treats. When the weather heats up, Golisano returns to upstate New York to his two children, six grandchildren and a lifetime of ties to the Rochester community.
He shyly admits to being single, and his sense of humor is apparent when he pauses to answer a business call on his cell phone. The ringtone:
a quacking duck.
Q: It’s been well publicized that you came to Florida for more than its fabulous sunshine. Tell us about your decision.
A: New York State is one of the highest—if not the highest—taxed populations in the country. With the budget issues the last few years, they decided to raise taxes. It made the situation worse. It has the highest migration out. I decided I’d rather give my money away [than have it taxed]. New York and Florida populations are about the same, but New York’s budget is double.
Q: Why did you choose Naples?
A: I looked on the East Coast first. One day, Paychex had a sales conference on Marco Island. I had half a day, so I came over to Naples. I looked around, and I liked it. Plus, a lot of my business associates are down here.
Q: What do you like about Naples?
A: It has the sense of community within a fairly close proximity, as opposed to Jupiter or Palm Beach, where you’re driving a lot. One of the things I appreciate about Naples is when I was reading letters to the editor [of the local newspaper], people are knowledgeable about what goes on in the community. And the activity level is very high—Fifth Avenue car shows, Philharmonic activities, music night on Third Street.
Q: How does Naples compare to Rochester?
A: They’re not major metropolitan areas. I like that.
Q: You have deep roots in Rochester. Will you be able to develop the same sense of community in Naples?
A: It seems like I already have. Getting involved with Ave Maria and with the [Children’s] Museum, I’ve created some friendships and ties. I met [C’mon board members] Shelia Davis socially, who introduced me to Joe Cox and Simone Lutgert. They made a presentation to me, which got my interest. It took me two months before I made my final decision. I toured, looked at their financial statements. In Rochester, there is the Strong children’s museum. It’s probably the most popular tourist attraction. It started out small, too. A lot of people worked very hard getting [C’mon] off the ground. I thought it very worthy to be finished. It’s a great supplement to public education.
Q: Why did you opt for a challenge grant at C’mon instead of a straight donation?
A: I thought it would provide a good incentive for the members of the community to get involved.
Q: How did you get involved with Ave Maria University?
A: [Ave Maria founder] Tom Monaghan visited me in Rochester a few years ago. He told me what he was doing, but nothing seemed to fit. Then one day I visited with my sister, and he and my sister hit it off. I made the mistake of asking him, “What’s the university’s biggest need right now?” He said, “We need a gym. We need a field house.”
Q: What do you think about the controversy surrounding your support of Ave Maria and your views on abortion?
A: Never did I guess I was going to get all this publicity over abortion. When I ran for governor in 1994, a reporter asked my views on abortion. I said, “It’s the law of the land. If I’m governor, I have to enforce it.” It was interpreted that I was pro-abortion, and I’m not. A couple of dissident people decided to use that and say Ave Maria was taking money from a guy who was pro-choice. In my opinion, it shouldn’t matter.
Q: What other philanthropic projects are you getting involved with in Southwest Florida?
A: The director of my [B. Thomas Golisano] Foundation and I are looking at different things going on with the mentally handicapped. We think it’s a natural progression to get involved in the Naples area and Southwest Florida.
Q: Your list of philanthropy is so impressive. What are you most proud of?
A: Having the two children’s hospitals bear my name [in Syracuse and Rochester] is probably the most rewarding. I get phone calls and letters from people telling me the impact I’ve had on their youngsters. That’s very gratifying.
Q: Having run for governor as an Independent three times in New York, do you have any plans to get involved in politics in Florida?
A: I do have a passing interest in politics down here, but I sort of like it when politics are not involved. Even though Bill Clinton was a Democratic president of the United States, my involvement as a founding sponsor of the Clinton Global Initiative has nothing to do with the Democratic Party. It’s been a lot of fun getting to know him. It doesn’t matter to him that I’m a registered Republican. In my opinion, the survival and flourishing of the parties have become more important than solving the problems of the country.
Q: How did you become the owner of the Buffalo Sabres? Were you a big hockey fan?
A: Before I bought the Buffalo Sabres six or seven years ago, I had seen three NHL games. I wasn’t a real fan of the sport. But the team was bankrupt. The community had such an investment in the arena. If the team left, it was going to be a disaster. After talking to the league commissioners, I decided I could break even. We went from 5,000 season ticketholders to 15,000 in two years.
Q: How were you able to turn it around so quickly?
A: The team had gone through an era of instability. They never knew if they were going to exist. I brought a new stability and a new management partner. I made some decisions about ticket prices and concessions that turned out to be a plus.
Q: If hockey isn’t your true passion, what is?
A: I played organized baseball for over 40 years—Little League, high school, semi-pro, recreation. Nothing professional. I played outfield.
Q: Would you consider starting up a sports team in Southwest Florida?
A: One athletic team is enough.
Q: What activities do you participate in for fun?
A: I play tennis, bicycle ride.
DAY IN THE LIFE
Q: What is a typical day for you?
A: I am in the office a couple of hours a day. I’m still on the board of Paychex. I’m still invested in eight or 10 companies—specialized broadcasting into nursing homes, fingerprint scanning, medical and airport security, wind turbines ... I have daily conversations with the Buffalo Sabres.
Q: What is your business philosophy? How did you reach your level of success?
A: I think working for somebody else is a bigger risk than having your own venture. You can be a success, but that company could fail or that department could fail. You can’t sell that company or give it to your children. It’s riskier. The notion of cradle-to-grave security working for large companies is past-tense. It doesn’t exist anymore.