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Miami, FL - Jewish Philanthropist Shares His Wealth Of $60 Million With All Of His Employess

Published on: February 16, 2009 08:57 AM
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Leonard Abess just gave away $60 million to his employees after selling the bank to a Spanish bank. The bonuses came to tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is Leonard Abess, CEO in the lobby of the bank.Miami, FL - Lots of bosses say they value their employees. Some even mean it.

And then there’s Leonard Abess Jr.

After selling a majority stake in Miami-based City National Bancshares last November, all he did was take $60 million of the proceeds—$60 million out of his own pocket—and hand it to his tellers, bookkeepers, clerks, everyone on the payroll. All 399 workers on the staff received bonuses, and he even tracked down 72 former employees so they could share in the windfall.

For longtime employees, the bonus—based on years of service—amounted to tens of thousands of dollars, and in some cases, more than $100,000.

At a time when financial titans are being paraded before Congress to explain how they blew billions on executives’ bonuses even as they received a taxpayer bailout, the big-hearted banker’s selfless deed stands out.

‘‘I retired seven years ago, and all of a sudden I get this wonderful letter and phone call,’’ said Evelyn J. Budde, who spent 43 years at City National Bank of Florida, rising to vice president.

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‘‘I was shocked,’’ said William Perry. In 43 ½ the years at City National, he climbed from janitor to vice president. Like many longtime City National employees, he forged an unbreakable bond with the bank that continued into retirement. Perry returns regularly for the annual employees’ dinner.

Abess didn’t publicize what he had done. He didn’t even show up at the bank to bask in his employees’ gratitude on the day the bonus envelopes were distributed. He was inundated with letters soon afterward.

Asked later what motivated him, Abess said he had long dreamed of a way to reward employees. He had been thinking of creating an employee stock option plan before he decided to sell the bank.

‘‘Those people who joined me and stayed with me at the bank with no promise of equity—I always thought some day I’m going to surprise them,’’ he said. ``I sure as heck don’t need [the money].’‘

In exchange for an 83 percent stake in the business, the Spanish bank Caja Madrid paid $927 million in November. Abess retained a minority share and is still the board chairman and chief executive officer at City National.

Even before the sale, Abess wasn’t hurting for money. He bought his 11.8-acre, $23 million estate in Miami’s Cliff Hammocks neighborhood from actor Sylvester Stallone in 1999.

Abess’ father, Leonard L. Abess, founded City National in 1946 with Baron de Hirsch Meyer as one of the first postwar commercial banks in the region.

[Editors Note: Leonard Abess was born in Providence, Rhode Island to Romanian Jews. Leonard moved to Miami in 1925 to open an accounting firm inside First National Bank, where he was an independent auditor. In 1949, when local hospitals refused to hire Jewish doctors, Leonard and a group of Jewish residents pooled their resources to form Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach.]

Abess Jr. started his career in the bank’s print shop, which made forms and documents. Working his way up the ladder gave him an appreciation for the role that employees play in the success of an enterprise.

‘‘I saw that if the president doesn’t come to work, it’s not a big deal,’’ he said. ``But if the tellers don’t show up, it’s a serious problem.’‘

Many people presume that Abess inherited the bank from his father, but he didn’t.

In fact, in true Miami fashion, the bank has a colorful history. City National was sold in the early 1980s to an investment group that, in turn, resold it to Colombian coffee magnate Alberto Duque.

The dapper and charming Duque was the toast of Miami—until he was convicted of bilking two dozen Miami banks out of about $108 million in connection with his coffee business.

Duque went to federal prison—he eventually fled the country from a halfway house—and City National went on the block in bankruptcy court.

In 1985, the younger Abess bought majority control in the bankruptcy proceedings for $21 million—all of it borrowed, he says—and he later acquired the rest from about 200 investors for about $6 million. Under his hand, the bank grew from $400 million in assets and seven offices to $2.75 billion in assets and 18 offices.

Sharing the wealth with staffers came naturally. Abess and his wife, Jayne, have long been big contributors to local organizations, such as the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and Mount Sinai Medical Center. In 2006, the Abesses gave $5 million to the University of Miami to promote environmental studies.

But he also wanted to reach out to his staff. ‘‘I wonder if I did enough,’’ he recently mused.

‘‘I knew some of these people since I was 7 years old. I didn’t feel right getting the money myself,’’ said Abess, who was concerned that their 401(k) plans had taken a beating in the downdraft on Wall Street last year.

To prepare employees, Abess made an online video just before the merger was completed and explained in it that a windfall was coming soon. He also wanted to make sure that people realized it was a one-time bonus—and certainly not severance pay or a nudge for them to move on.

Three days later, about 2 p.m. Nov. 7, a Friday, a handful of senior employees fanned out throughout the bank’s offices to dole out vouchers that detailed the sums deposited in their payroll accounts. A handful of senior executives got separate payouts.

‘‘We expected a bonus, but the type we received—our mouths are still open,’’ said Carleatha E. Barbary, a 39-year veteran who runs the One Biscayne Tower branch.

Geneva Lawson, a 72-year-old safety-deposit clerk who has spent 51 years with City National, including a stint as Abess’ boss in the print shop, plans to buy a new car—and to save a bit.

Workers were provided with financial counseling and special high-rate certificates of deposit at City National.

‘‘It was like a lottery, only better,’’ Virginia C. Dunn, managing senior vice president, said of the gift. ``Because it came from someone’s heart.’’



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Read Comments (26)  —  Post Yours »

1

 Feb 16, 2009 at 08:34 AM Anonymous Says:

kol hakovud

2

 Feb 16, 2009 at 08:34 AM Anonymous Says:

forward this as a email to all the big snobby ceos & credit card collecters who got a bailout too

3

 Feb 16, 2009 at 08:42 AM robroy560 Says:

He must, obviously, be a very special man. Not just for his chesed to his employees, but also look at the tenure of the people who worked for him. No one stays that long at a bank these days... you're either fired in a merger or downsizing, or you move on to other things.

This is an example of tzedakkah and chesed that began when he was a young boy. Plus he worked for the bank . Daddy did just hand it to him. Although we learn that the son had to buy the bank back.

Kol HaKavod. We should all learn from this.

4

 Feb 16, 2009 at 08:40 AM Anonymous Says:

a yiddishe hartz

5

 Feb 16, 2009 at 09:09 AM mnuez Says:

Very very nice. Especially "bidoisoisuv", this is an almost unparalleled act.

As a side note, I say "almost unparalleled" because I happen to be very aware of Zell Kravinsky.

As a further side note (while aware of the fact that by no means are all great Givers Jewish or all Jews great Givers) Mi K'Amcha Yisrael!

6

 Feb 16, 2009 at 09:03 AM Anonymous Says:

And a very Generous man to Jewish causes as well.

7

 Feb 16, 2009 at 08:59 AM Imagine Says:

What would life be like if everybody was this way. When Mashiach is ruling, this is how it will be..... maybe even better.

8

 Feb 16, 2009 at 09:28 AM Kidush Hashem Says:

Wonder how those who say Jews are greedy will react now. Never heared something as kind as this.

9

 Feb 16, 2009 at 09:34 AM Anonymous Says:

Beautiful.
This reminds me of Aaron Feurstein (sorry if I got that spelling wrong) who continued paying his employees after his factory in Massachusetts burned down (I think they made polartec and other textiles) and the employees couldn't go to work.

10

 Feb 16, 2009 at 09:33 AM BIG JEW Says:

A kiddush Hashem in the financial world..... Lets all follow his lead.

11

 Feb 16, 2009 at 10:33 AM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #9  
Anonymous Says:

Beautiful.
This reminds me of Aaron Feurstein (sorry if I got that spelling wrong) who continued paying his employees after his factory in Massachusetts burned down (I think they made polartec and other textiles) and the employees couldn't go to work.

Yes, he invented Polartec fleece. Unfortuneately, his incredible act of chessed right before x-mas eventually forced him into bankruptcy and he lost the company.

12

 Feb 16, 2009 at 10:31 AM Anonymous Says:

What a kiddush hashem. Finally good news after Rubashkin, Madoff, Merkin, Dreier, etc.

13

 Feb 16, 2009 at 10:27 AM robroy560 Says:

Reply to #9  
Anonymous Says:

Beautiful.
This reminds me of Aaron Feurstein (sorry if I got that spelling wrong) who continued paying his employees after his factory in Massachusetts burned down (I think they made polartec and other textiles) and the employees couldn't go to work.

Yes, he's an amazing guy and a member of the Young Israel of Brookline. My wife and I stayed at a bed and breakfast in Brookline, and when we told the manager, a non-Jew, that we wanted to know how far the Young Israel was, he shook my hand. He spoke volumes of the generosity of Mr. Fuerstein (sp?). What a Kiddush HaShem.

The only bad thing was he never filed a patent of Polartec. But the RSO works in ways beyond our thinking. I'm sure this guy will still have a great seat in Olam Haba.

14

 Feb 16, 2009 at 10:19 AM Kogan Says:

This Jew has to be talked about in every kehila. This is a tremendous kiddush Hashem!

15

 Feb 16, 2009 at 11:18 AM Yashar Koach ! Says:

This is a true family businessman. This also reminds me of David Oreck, the founder of the Oreck vacuum cleaner company based in Mississippi. Do you remember that he kept his factory in Mississippi when all other vacuum makers were moving to China because he felt an obligation to make an american product? Then when his factory and the whole state was half destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, he paid his employees and even bought mobile homes for them to live in immediately in order to keep his business open rather than then abandoning his factory and firing his workforce. Mr. Oreck is an American Yiddishe hero.

16

 Feb 16, 2009 at 11:13 AM Anonymous Says:

it sounds wierd es shtinked

17

 Feb 16, 2009 at 11:20 AM Anonymous Says:

does he have any job opening>?

18

 Feb 16, 2009 at 11:36 AM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #16  
Anonymous Says:

it sounds wierd es shtinked

It shtinks only because you do. If it shtinks to you then it means that you cannot value people enough to reward or give. How sad for you.

19

 Feb 16, 2009 at 11:31 AM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #14  
Kogan Says:

This Jew has to be talked about in every kehila. This is a tremendous kiddush Hashem!

Kiddush Hashem? If we'll learn from him it'll be a kidush hashem. In the meantime it is one swell, unique individual

20

 Feb 16, 2009 at 11:59 AM Anonymous Says:

somebody give this guy my number.

21

 Feb 16, 2009 at 01:01 PM Pashuteh Yid Says:

Amazing. I am proud to be a Jew today. What an incredible kiddush hashem.

22

 Feb 16, 2009 at 12:40 PM koolchossid Says:

BH, Kiddush Hashem!
this is a Yd!

23

 Feb 16, 2009 at 02:43 PM Anonymous Says:

The biggest Nes is that all the comments here are positive.

24

 Feb 16, 2009 at 06:39 PM Avrohom Abba Says:

I am so proud to know he is a yid! Boruch Hashem!
I only hope that word of his great chesed and compassion and kindness will get around to even more non Jews than those who heard about other shameful financial news reports in recent months.

25

 Feb 16, 2009 at 09:00 PM mottel Says:

Reply to #21  
Pashuteh Yid Says:

Amazing. I am proud to be a Jew today. What an incredible kiddush hashem.

You are proud to be Jewish just 'TODAY'????? You have a problem with Judaism? Nisht poshut

26

 Feb 16, 2009 at 09:59 PM moish the jew Says:

(Reply to #23)
Everyone can be positive and appreciate an honest good jew! Don't talk if you have nuthing good to say

27

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