“"Many years ago, our company founder, Al Conklin, sold a new twin-engine business aircraft to a very successful entrepreneur. He had established a bit of a rapport with the individual and, after the sale, asked him straight out, 'How can you justify the cost of this airplane?' His reply? 'What is the cost of a divorce?'"–David Wyndham, president, Conklin & de Decker”
Michael Pascucci wanted to go to Florida. Never mind that he was only 13 and supposed to be in school. He bought an old Ford from a neighbor for $45; taught himself to drive; skipped out of classes in Manhasset, N.Y.; and, along with three friends, headed south.
The brakes started to fail in Maryland and, in Washington, the police spotted the kids and sent them back home. But Pascucci never stopped thinking big, and his subsequent endeavors have proven a whole lot more successful than that teenage joyride. Most notably, in 1974 he started Oxford Resources Corp., an auto-leasing firm that became a giant in its field. When Barnett Banks Inc. of Jacksonville, Fla., bought the publicly traded company for $570 million in stock in 1997, Pascucci and his family reportedly pocketed almost half the proceeds.
Some people would have used the money to fund an early retirement, but today, at age 70, Pascucci seems busier than ever. Among other things, he is chairman of WLNY, a Long Island, N.Y. commercial television station that he founded in 1985. He is also the driving force-and financial power-behind Sebonack, a luxurious private golf club that opened last year in Southampton, N.Y.
Instead of an old Ford with failing brakes, Pascucci gets around these days on one of the three jets he owns or co-owns. And, oh yes, he did finally make it to Florida, where he now has a North Palm Beach home next door to Jack Nicklaus, who co-designed Sebonack.
I understand your dad finished only three years of school.
He went to third grade, but he became a contractor and did very well. He did tens of millions of dollars of work for Abraham Levitt, who created Levittown. He did road work, landscaping, shopping centers. And all with no contract-all on the honor system.
I sense that he was a big influence on you.
Well, he was hard working, high integrity and believed in the value of the working man. And he backed me [financially] when I was 23 and started my own company.
What got you into auto leasing?
My idea was that I would like to do some finance thing with individuals. I didn't want to loan money to a company and roll the dice. I wanted lots of little onesies and twosies. That way, if somebody failed [to pay], it was insignificant to the business.
At the time, though, few people were leasing cars. What made you think they would start doing that?
We saw the generational change. I like to buy and own. But I could see the mentality was, "Listen, I'm going to pay $250 a month to drive something. Whether I own it or lease it, I don't care. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't mind leasing because at the end of three years, I don't have to worry about selling." And because of the leasing, you don't have to pay for the whole car, only for the portion you're driving. So you can get more bang for your dollar and it's more convenient.
How did you get into television?
In the late '70s, I was helping the local Catholic diocese with their cable television operation. And I said, "Wouldn't it be neat to own a television station?" So I built WLNY from scratch. It took me six years to get the license and the tower site.
Aside from the TV station, your big project these days is your golf course. How did that come about?
Probably 10 years ago, I was in Florida as a guest at [businessman and Miami Dolphins owner] Wayne Huizenga's private course. That's where I started thinking I would love to have a course on Long Island. So I started looking for waterfront property. I figured the worst case, I'd have a nice house with a private course like Wayne. That was my fallback mentally.
I hear the initiation fee is $650,000.
I really don't get into that. Let's put it this way: we're trying to divide the [cost by the] number of members. So if you divide a roughly $140 million project by 200 members...[you get $700,000.-Ed.]
I read that you first got involved with golf as a business decision.
Golf is a great equalizer. You get a different relationship when you go out there with somebody and you humiliate yourselves together. Having a meeting in an office is different from playing golf and sitting around later and chit-chatting. My business would not have developed to the extent it did if I didn't play golf.
When did you first fly privately?
I'm one of these guys who flew coach until I had offices around the country. A lot of them were in spots that made it difficult for me to do business. I once did a road show for the company and flying commercial was a nightmare-trying to get to meetings in Minnesota and California and Chicago and Cleveland. [When] I had to do the next one, I said, "We're gonna charter a plane." That's when I saw the financial benefit of chartering versus going commercial.
So I bought a Lear 55 about 12 years ago. I got a local company, Northeastern Aviation, to manage it-maintenance, hangar it, provide the pilots and so forth. And it's a terrific airplane.
So you went pretty rapidly from flying coach to full ownership? You never even flew first class?
Rarely. I didn't want to waste the money. Maybe if I went to Europe, I'd go first class or business class.
What airplanes do you have now?
I still have the Lear 55. When I realized its range limitation, I bought a Gulfstream III about 10 years ago. Northeastern Aviation is my partner in that plane. And then I have a friend, [real estate investor] Steve Witkoff, who had a position on an Embraer Legacy, so I bought that with him. It's got a big cabin and Rolls-Royce engines, and having a second large airplane gives you flexibility for the charter business. We put it in the fleet at the end of April. Very, very popular-people love it.
You told me the first time we talked that your own flights actually cost you nothing because charter more than covers your expenses.
It does. My flights cost me less than tickets on JetBlue!
Conventional wisdom says that charter can offset some ownership costs, but never all of them.
Well, we're cash-flow positive, plus we have the depreciation [to deduct]. We didn't plan it, but lo and behold, I found we were making money with the charter of the Lear, so we added a second plane and we're making money with that airplane.
Even taking into account your acquisition costs?
Absolutely. You know, [owning an aircraft] is not passive. It's not like you say, "Well, I'm just gonna call up and reserve my plane for tomorrow from the fractional guy." It's more work than that, but it's way more economical and it's nice knowing that you have your same pilots and with your own airplanes everything's familiar to you.
Are you surprised at how well you've done in business?
No question about it. I mean, I struggled at Bucknell [University]. I wasn't prepared. I didn't read in high school. I didn't do homework.
And after college, you didn't set your sights on becoming a multimillionaire?
No, nothing like that. You know [Home Depot cofounder] Ken Langone? I'm going out with him next week to play golf and I'm getting a ride in his just-delivered Global Express. It's funny: Langone had two cents growing up. He and I ended up at Bucknell together. Neither one of us you'd ever expect to amount to anything. He became a billionaire. And [I was] least likely to have any kind of success. I've just been blessed. Right place at the right time.
It couldn't have all been luck.
I think you've got to pick a business that provides value to the individual. Second, don't go into a business with tight margins-there's no room for error. I've also tried to hire the best people and pay them more than they'd make anywhere else that will allow them to have the luxuries if they work hard or smart or they're just lucky. If you can hire those kinds of people, they make the business successful.
So you've had low turnover?
No turnover. My turnover is the guys in the car leasing business who made so much money that they retired young or did something else that was their dream.
There hasn't been much turnover in your personal life, either. You've lived in the same town for more than 35 years and been married for 50.
Five-oh. Right. They threw a surprise party just last week.
I read that you said you never had another date. Meaning after you met your wife or ever?
Ever! We started going out at 15.
Do you still have turkey on whole wheat nearly every day at the same diner?
No. I graduated from turkey on whole wheat. Now I'm having broiled filet of sole if I eat at the diner, which I do probably three or four days a week. If not, grilled chicken on whole wheat.
Name: Michael C. Pascucci
Home: Locust Valley, N.Y.
Occupation: Chairman, WLNY-TV. Also oversees Internet and real estate projects, including Sebonack Golf Club, and serves as chairman or trustee for several charities.
Education: Bucknell University, degree in finance. New York University, MBA
Aircraft: Learjet 55, Gulfstream III, Embraer Legacy
Hours flown: 100 to 150 annually
Personal: Wife Jocelyn, four children, 11 grandchildren