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Area businessman has many facets
Master of the deal generous contributor


Celebrities. Private jets. Million-dollar construction contracts. International deals.

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.

WORK 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 know.

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 Gulf front.

He once fought fiercely to win a lawsuit — then gave the settlement money to charity. He wouldn’t give details about the lawsuit.
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 information.

New terminal targets flying elite

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 Southwest Florida.

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 cash willy-nilly.

“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 family finances.

“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 of aircraft.”

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.”

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