This ‘Big-Hearted Banker’ Emerged From the Collapse a Billionaire

Leonard Abess gave $60 million to his staff and shot to fame. Now he’s a billionaire who avoids the spotlight.

As the 2008 financial crisis raged, one Miami banker briefly shot to fame, not infamy, by selling his company and showering $60 million on people below him, including the clerks and tellers.

That act made Leonard Abess an aberration of the era, a banker so good or lucky he escaped an industry on the brink of collapse with both fortune and reputation intact. Within months, Barack Obama praised Abess in his first address to a joint session of Congress, prompting a standing ovation.

Then Abess disappeared from the public eye.

Orion Jet Center in Opa-Locka, Florida. Photographer: Scott McIntyre/Bloomberg

Orion Jet Center in Opa-locka, Florida.

Photographer: Scott McIntyre/Bloomberg

On a recent Wednesday, Abess agreed to meet at a small Florida airport just northwest of downtown Miami and, sporting a gray beard and unbuttoned collar, opened up about what he’s done with his wealth. He leases and operates part of the airport, where celebrities such as Lebron James and Justin Bieber reportedly touch down and refuel private jets.

Two companies dominate the global pinball market, and he’s the lead investor in one of them. He owns thousands of acres of farm and timberland, where he produces award-winning maple syrup. He’s leading an effort to show limes can be grown commercially again in South Florida.

Abess, who has never before appeared on an international wealth ranking, quietly tends a fortune that totals $1.3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. One of his biggest investments is in a portfolio of debt, where the 68-year-old financier uses his expertise to make purchases. But his other holdings are as unconventional as his exit from the industry.

During the interview at his Orion Jet Center in Opa-locka, Abess expounded on that strategy almost a decade after he sold City National Bank of Florida for $1.1 billion.

“I didn’t sell this bank and decide to take this money and quadruple it—it was enough, more than enough,” he says, nibbling on an egg salad sandwich made with eggs from his own chickens. “We continue to give it away. We invest it, and we’re fortunate the investments have done very well. But we don’t make them looking at a balance sheet.”

Presidential praise

After Abess shared some proceeds from his bank’s sale with 471 current and former employees, Obama gave him a shout-out during the national address, calling Abess a reminder that “hope is found in unlikely places.” Lawmakers turned to applaud, and Abess gave the president a thumbs up, smiling and shifting his jaw nervously.

He also made the Time 100 Most Influential People list in 2009 (his profile was written by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush) and excitedly recalls sitting with the Obamas and Oprah Winfrey at a dinner hosted by the magazine. But he says he was uncomfortable in the role of “preacher” against Wall Street’s sins. He felt the $60 million gift spoke for itself.

To be sure, City National Bank has met with some controversies over the years. In the 1980s, it fell into the hands of a young Colombian coffee baron who later went to prison for fraud related to his coffee business. He fled U.S. custody in 1993, but hasn’t exactly gone into hiding: he penned a book, became an inspiration for a popular Colombian telenovela character, and told a Colombian tabloid in 2013 that he’s building an eco-resort in Cartagena.

Abess says bankers must “have a soul.” One reason he bought the airport business was to bring jobs to a depressed part of Miami-Dade County. Some 500 people are employed directly and indirectly by the jet center, he says. But he bristled at the suggestion he’s adopted a socially responsible investment philosophy, because his family places its money first and foremost “where we think it’s a good investment.”

The venture makes money by pumping millions of gallons of fuel a year and by hangaring and servicing aircraft. (Rapper Lil Wayne once famously endured an inspection of his plane at the airport by the Drug Enforcement Administration.) The location also has sentimental value for Abess. In the 1930s, his aunt learned to fly there, earning her pilot’s license at a time when women didn’t do that. He and an investor group leased the land in 2006, but Abess didn’t start pouring money in until after he had left the bank.

Abess also is the main investor in one of the last companies still producing pinball machines. Jersey Jack Pinball is, according to Abess, the world’s second-largest designer and manufacturer after Stern Pinball Inc. Other producers moved on to slot machines and video games because almost nobody is buying pinball for arcades anymore. But Abess says he’s found a niche, providing machines for collectors in a $50 million market.

Restoring the bank’s image

Abess alongside a Wizard of Oz pinball machine. Photographer: Scott McIntyre/Bloomberg

Abess alongside a Wizard of Oz pinball machine.

Photographer: Scott McIntyre/Bloomberg

Abess’s father co-founded a precursor to the bank in 1946. In the early 1980s, Colombia’s Alberto Duque, known as the “Boy Coffee King,” bought a controlling stake from a group of shareholders. Scandal followed as Duque’s own U.S. business filed for bankruptcy. It turned out he had used falsified bills of lading to misrepresent his coffee holdings. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for what prosecutors called an unprecedented fraud.

The scandal left a cloud over the bank, even though its business wasn’t hurt, Abess told the New York Times in 1983, speaking then as president of the firm’s holding company. But the affair also presented an opportunity. Abess bought Duque’s stake, combined it with other stock, and worked to restore the firm’s image, including merging with a healthier bank.

In the decades that followed, the bank’s assets multiplied several times over, thanks in part to a key client: real estate developer Jorge Perez, who was himself an emerging billionaire, now known as Miami’s condo king.

“Leonard is old school in that his word is his bond,” Perez said in an email. For many years, Abess was his go-to lender, he said. They remain friends, and so do their wives.

City National’s assets reached $2.9 billion by 2008, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data show, when Abess began selling the company to Spain’s Caja Madrid in two installments. But soon, Spain’s banking system was embroiled in a crisis of its own, and City National was sold for a lower price to Chile’s Banco de Credito e Inversiones.

For years, Spanish authorities examined whether Caja Madrid, a regionally owned bank, had overpaid. At one point in the probe, one of its leaders was even jailed overnight. But Abess says they paid what they had to, because he had another offer at that price. (Neither the bank nor anyone at Caja Madrid was charged, though a Spanish court later cracked down on company officials’ credit-card abuses.)

Abess said in an email Saturday that he was always focused on turning around the bank and ensuring its financial well-being.

“That is what I worked for and when we got to the top we sold,” he said. “The money just happened and I will never forget or take for granted the amazing people who carried me to the finish line and made me look good.”

Somewhere in between the saga of the fake Colombian coffee king and the Spanish buyer’s about-face, the man lauded in the press as Obama’s “big-hearted banker” made out alright. He helped oversee the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s Miami branch and chaired the University of Miami’s board of trustees. And he collected hundreds of millions in dividends, bought one of Miami’s biggest mansions from actor Sylvester Stallone and scooped up 12,000 acres of farmland in Florida, Vermont and Maine.

But even as he manages his holdings, the banker-cum-farmer-cum-pinball magnate swears that he isn’t obsessed with profits. “If you plant with perfection and focus on the planting,” he says, “the harvest will take care of itself.”