Celebrities. Private jets. Million-dollar construction contracts.
Welcome to the world of Vincent Wolanin.
According to those who know him, this friend of rock stars is a
brilliant thinker and killer negotiator with a dash of Mr. Mom.
IN PROGRESS: PrivateSky
Aviation Services chairman and CEO Vincent Wolanin stands in
the new 75,000-square-foot building under construction at
Southwest Florida International Airport. Once complete,
PrivateSky will be able to service 12 Gulfstream jets at a
time. CLINT KRAUSE/The News-Press
Click on image to enlarge.
Though he’s a millionaire entrepreneur, this big guy with the
shaved head looks more like a bouncer than your typical dark-suited
CEO. More Stone Cold Steve Austin than Steve Case.
Yet there’s another side to him that only his friends and family
Wolanin is a paradox. On one hand, Wolanin is a hard-driving
businessman who never stops. He wants it done today and wants it
done right. On the other hand, he is extremely generous, giving to
charities, volunteering in his community and endowing scholarships.
As his friend Brian Howe, a former singer with the rock band Bad
Company, puts it: “He is Mister Softee with his family, but in
business you’d swear you’re dealing with Attila the Hun. It’s either
Vincent’s way or the highway.”
Add to the list: champion of underprivileged kids, generous giver
to charities, devout family man, caring husband, and — from buddy
Howe — “at times ... a grumpy S-O-B.”
He’s chairman of PrivateSky Aviation Services — and a dozen other
companies, including one that is building a massive repair center in
Fort Myers for private jets from all over the globe, along with a
snazzy terminal for their owners.
Bob Ball, director of Southwest Florida International Airport,
where PrivateSky is located, calls Wolanin “a great guy, a very
unique character ... but he has difficulty dealing with government
structure and codes.” He said he’s had to intervene a few times when
Wolanin got too zealous with airport staff.
But Ball lauds PrivateSky, saying it is bringing a much-needed
service to the airport, and a lot of jobs. And he admires the man
behind it, despite their different styles.
Family and community man
Wolanin lives a relatively modest lifestyle — albeit on Sanibel’s
He once fought fiercely to win a lawsuit — then gave the
settlement money to charity. He wouldn’t give details about the
Rockin’ Christmas Party
WHAT: Rockin’ Christmas Party to benefit the
Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, featuring
corporate jet display, all-star band, decorated tree
sale and silent auction WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7 WHERE: PrivateSky Aviation, Southwest Florida
International Airport ADMISSION: $150 per person, with corporate
tables available. Call Lee Memorial Health System
Foundation at 437-1840 for tickets or sponsorship
Besides giving away money — he endows at least two college
scholarships, among other things — he also volunteers in the
community. Wolanin is a big supporter of the Children’s Hospital of
He’s a voracious reader and thinks the Internet is the best thing
since sliced bread because it’s available all hours — but he doesn’t
have much patience.
Wolanin tried golf but found it took too long. Instead, he lifts
weights and plays basketball with his two daughters. He doesn’t have
a home gym. He works out at the city’s rec center.
He starts work at 4:30 a.m. — “when Europe opens for business” —
yet he happily hangs out for hours playing sports with his kids.
“He’s a very complex mixture of people,” observes Howe. They
lunch together a couple of times a week, and Howe, who lives on Fort
Myers Beach, credits Wolanin with helping him through tough times
when he left Bad Company by “sorting out a million legal problems.”
Ask Wolanin and all he’ll say is, “I helped him get the use of
his name to tour. I can read a contract as good as any lawyer.”
British-born Howe is not the only entertainer Wolanin counts
among his friends, but he’s no name-dropper. The fact that he used
to be involved in TopNotch Entertainment Corp., which manages rock
stars, offers a clue to the scope of his celebrity cohorts.
In fact, he’ll be calling in some favors in December when he
stages a massive fund-raiser for the Children’s Hospital of
Southwest Florida. He’ll use the new PrivateSky hangar, currently
under construction and big enough to hold a dozen corporate jets,
for a $150-a-ticket bash called “Rockin’ Christmas Party,” featuring
an impromptu “all-star band.”
Wolanin aims to raise $250,000, a sum Patti Chlipala, with the
Lee Memorial Health System Foundation, says will rank the event
among the hospital’s top fund-raisers. Neither would name the “all
stars,” but Chlipala acknowledged Howe will be among them. Ball has
heard Wolanin has asked members of Aerosmith and The Who to perform.
Chlipala calls Wolanin “easy to work with and result-oriented. He
wants it done well and he wants it done the same day. He makes you
prove your worth.”
While he gives to charity, and has for years, he doesn’t hand out
“They have to be a bona fide charity and the money has to be
spent a certain way. They can’t use it for overhead expenses. We
check it,” he said.
As a kid, life was tough, which might offer insight into his
charitable giving. He was 14 when his father, a Pennsylvania law
officer, died, and Wolanin, the elder son, pitched in to help the
“Two jobs I hated the most were in a Philadelphia bowling alley
cleaning the ashtrays on league nights. By the time I got from one
end to the other, they were full again. The other was picking up all
the stuff in McDonald’s parking lots.”
After graduate school, he worked as an engineer but found he
didn’t fit the corporate mold. So, he started his own business,
selling construction supplies.
He went from that to start his own construction company, then
just kept starting new ventures.
He shares his success by making donations mostly aimed at
children and young people. Besides endowing a room at HealthPark,
Fort Myers, for children with cancer, he has endowed scholarships in
memory of his father, Vincent J. Wolanin, at Philadelphia
University, his alma mater, and Siena College, Loudonville, N.Y. One
is for students with financial need; the other for students who have
lost a parent.
The rich and famous
He’s a millionaire many times over, but don’t expect Thurston
Howell III. Wolanin’s business garb: open-neck shirt, shorts and
sneakers — with not a designer label in sight.
An imposing figure, Wolanin, 54, is 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds with
a shiny dome. Think Jesse “The Body” Ventura sans suit.
He shaved his head about five years ago, not to hide baldness or
follow the trend, but in exasperation after clumsily trying to trim
off the different shades his hair had turned from long exposure to
swimming pool chlorine.
“My kids cried that night because they didn’t like it. Now they
don’t want me to grow it back,” he said.
One day last winter, when Prince Rainier and his son, Crown
Prince Albert of Monaco, arrived unannounced on their private jet at
Wolanin’s PrivateSky aviation terminal, the royal group’s bodyguards
eyed Wolanin suspiciously.
As Wolanin tells it, he strolled over and struck up a
conversation with the royal visitors as they waited for a car to
pick them up. Before long, the guards realized the beefy Wolanin was
the proprietor and backed off.
The royal travelers were in Southwest Florida, they told Wolanin,
to visit friends and play golf. He gave them some cotton golf shirts
emblazoned with the PrivateSky logo, for which they thanked him
royally in a crested note from the palace once they returned to
their exclusive principality on the French Riviera.
Wolanin can pull strings when he wants. Photographs of the
PrivateSky groundbreaking ceremony earlier this year show Florida
Gov. Jeb Bush in the lineup wearing a hard hat and holding a shovel.
Wolanin’s current office looks over the airport’s main runway,
where he sees the private jets coming and going, giving him insider
knowledge of the movements of the rich and famous. Some use his
facilities, some are just passing through.
He mused aloud one afternoon as a private jet landed smoothly
and, shortly after, took off. The owner, a noted Naples socialite
and benefactor, must be clearing customs in Fort Myers after a trip
to Paris, he speculated.
Thrill of the deal
He won’t discuss his wealth. His Sanibel home has a
million-dollar view of the white sands and the Gulf of Mexico. Howe
says Wolanin doesn’t own a boat, but “he has a nice car and a couple
His business interests include entertainment, banking,
development, retailing, athletic clubs, shopping centers and office
and apartment buildings, besides aviation. Building companies and
investing are his primary interests.
He is president and CEO of Wolanin Companies Ltd. whose 12
affiliates include real estate, building materials and construction
companies in New York, Florida, Utah and Montana.
In many respects, the Wolanins are like a lot of Sanibel
families. Illona, his wife of 21 years, has been president of the
PTA, is a Girl Scout leader, a religion teacher at St. Isabel
Catholic Church, and a fund-raiser for Sanibel Cares Committee of
Lee Memorial Hospital.
She was an elementary school teacher in Albany, N.Y., when she
met him 25 years ago through friends.
“He wrote me some little letters,” she recalls. “We started
dating six months later.”
He “plays Mr. Mom and enjoys it” when his wife’s away. “He loves
to cook and makes great pierogie.”
After all those years, Illona Wolanin says, “It amazes me that
his mind never stops working. He will wake up at three o’clock in
the morning and go to the computer and work. Only on vacation does
he slow down. As he has gotten older he realizes he needs to slow
down and enjoy what he has.”
But the quest for new challenges goes on.
“Money is not my motivator,” Wolanin says. “I just enjoy working.
For me, it’s the thrill of the deal.”