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.
"He's a brilliant banker, which I think is obvious because of how well the bank has done all these years. And, obviously, a very generous man," said Ginger Nunn, a managing senior vice president. "He can not only set an example for other bankers but for any businessperson."
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, all of it borrowed, and then acquired the rest for $6 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.
But others persuaded him that dropping such large checks on the employees without warning wasn't a good idea.
Abess, who remains the bank's chairman and chief executive, made a video telling the employees a bonus would be coming with the sale and assuring them it wasn't severance. A vice president, Linda Naughton, contacted some retirees and told them they would be getting a letter from Abess and should "sit down before they opened it."
Joyce Andrews, who has spent 57 years at City National, including a stint working as a secretary for Abess' father, has known Abess since he was a toddler. On Tuesday night, the 75-year-old woman said, she was so proud she felt like his mother.
Andrews would not say how big her bonus was, but she said she invested it for her retirement.
"It's so unbelievable. I think it has to be the best feel-good story of the year. Don't you? When a man shares that much, $60 million. The fact that he could even do it or thought about it," she said. "There are people that get money that don't do a thing. It's theirs, you know? I think it was a wonderful thing."