MIAMI – At a time when bankers are being pilloried on Capitol Hill as heartless and greedy, Leonard Abess Jr. stands apart.
After selling his bank for a fortune last fall, he quietly handed out $60 million in bonuses from his own pocket – and not just to top executives. In all, 471 employees and retirees, including tellers, clerks and secretaries, were rewarded, receiving an average of about $127,000 each.
“I think everybody was surprised. But knowing Leonard, the type of person he is, I can believe him giving it away,” said retiree William Perry, who spent 43 years at City National Bank of Florida, rising from janitor to vice president. Perry, 78, got $50,000, which he is using to help his son pay for law school.
For his generosity and humility, Abess was singled out for praise by President Barack Obama in his congressional address Tuesday. Abess attended as Obama’s guest.
Abess, 60, did not return several calls for comment Wednesday. He never wanted to make a big deal out of his largesse; he didn’t even show up at the bank when the envelopes were distributed in November. It wasn’t until he mentioned the bonuses in a recent interview with the Miami Herald that they became publicly known.
Abess’ father founded the bank in 1946 and he began his career in the print shop, working his way up the corporate ladder. His family sold the bank in the early 1980s to an investment group, which in turn sold it to a Colombian coffee magnate. When the magnate was convicted of fraud, Abess bought a majority stake out of bankruptcy in 1985 for $21 million.
The bank, under his ownership, grew from $400 million in assets and seven offices to $2.75 billion in assets and 18 offices.
While other bank CEOs passed out million-dollar bonuses to their cronies as their institutions failed, Abess kept City National profitable and received no money from the federal bank bailout. When he sold an 83 percent stake to a Spanish bank for $927 million, he decided to share the bounty with his 399 employees and 72 retirees.
“Those people who joined me and stayed with me at the bank with no promise of equity, I always thought, ‘Someday I’m going to surprise them,’ ” he told the Herald. “I sure as heck don’t need” the money.