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Icon: Gus Stavros

Stavros, with kindergarteners at High Point Elementary in Clearwater, has championed financial literacy among schoolchildren. [Photo: Michael Heape]
» My father came to America when he was 14. At the age of 9, his parents sold him to a wealthy man in Athens to be a gardener’s helper. One day he was sent out to run some errands, and he got involved in some other things and he never finished the errands, so he got a pretty bad whipping. He ran away and worked in a factory until he saved enough money to come to America. He came to New York City, went to a Greek restaurant and got a job as a dishwasher. He stayed there until they taught him how to cook. For 50 years, he was a restaurateur. He owned diners.

» At the age of 19, I landed at Utah Beach, about 50 days after D-Day. We went across three campaigns: Northern France, Ardennes and Rhineland. I was wounded on Jan. 19, 1945. That was the last day I used my left hand.

» I was always frugal. My wife, always frugal. When we first got married, we had a budget. At the end of every month, she’d empty her purse, and I’d empty my pockets to be sure we hadn’t misplaced any money.

» We moved to Florida and my parents came down to stay with us awhile to see their grandchildren. My father said to me, ‘Son, I know you want to go into business, so I’ll look around for you.’ This was 1958. After awhile, he said the area was ready for a good hamburger, hot dog, milkshake and soda place, and I told him I didn’t go to Columbia University to open up a hot dog stand. But my father was right, and I was wrong. If I had listened to him, all these McDonald’s you see now would be called Gus’.

» I was one of three who started Better Business Forms. I eventually bought the other two men out, so I was the sole owner. We started with three employees and built it to 550. I used my philosophies of business: Take care of your employees; listen to the customer.

» I remember I transferred a salesman to Tampa, and a company he’d been serving came to me and said they wanted him back. I said whatever you want. That customer was Eckerd Drugs, and that salesman was getting $10,000 a year from them in business. Within a couple of years, he was getting $1 million a year in business from Eckerd.

» I had three salesmen who made more money than I did, and I owned the company. They were on commission. It didn’t matter to me. The company was growing.

» Let me tell you why I sold my company (in 1984). When my wife, a child of the Depression, found out that I owed the banks $11 million; she was very uncomfortable. By selling the company, I paid off the debt, and I got a good amount of money ($12.5 million).

» At Florida State, when they asked me to chair the education foundation, I asked people about the foundation, and they laughed at me. The boosters were the big thing at Florida State. Football. So I went up there and I called the deans together, the president, the boosters, everyone. We all met in a room, and I said, ‘Look, we’re all working for the same university. We have to work together’ — and we raised $302 million.

» When you’re 50 or over 50, you should start thinking, ‘What do you want to be known for?’ I used to think that I wanted to be known for the company, but I’m more proud of Enterprise Village and Finance Park. I’m proud of what I’ve done to promote economic education.

» Once we’ve attained success, then we must prepare to die poor. It sounds strange, but you’ve got to do that. My wife and I have given to charity 150% of what I got for my company.

» When I was a kid, we had comic books, Super-Man comic books, Batman. When I worked at my father’s diner, he would give me a dime, and I’d get a comic book. I had a library of comic books, and I would rent out the comic books to the kids in the neighborhood for a penny each. That was my first entrepreneurial venture. I was 6 or 7.

» I’ve met every university president. They’re dynamic people. They’re intelligent. Their main interest is their own university, and that makes sense. But we can’t work that way in Florida. We have to convince all the presidents to work together for the greater good. If we have one program at one university, maybe we don’t need the same program at another university. We only have so much money.

» The only selfish thing I’ve done, because of my love for baseball, is I’m a 1% owner of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. I didn’t do it as an investment. To me, it’s just the thrill of saying I’m a 1% owner of a professional baseball team. I enjoy it, but I don’t sleep well when they lose.

» My father died in 1969. The company was still small. He didn’t think I was much of a success. He knew I was a good person, but he felt I should have done something different. I wish he were around to see what happened.

» I’m like a father image to Charlie Crist. We’ve talked many times about education. I like Charlie. He’s real people. He speaks from the heart. He wants to do well. He’s got a job that’s so difficult. He has a great attitude, a positive attitude, but there are going to be bumps along the road. There always are.

» The condition of standing still is the beginning of the end, so I never stand still.