At age 78, taxi tycoon and real estate investor Jesse Gaddis could easily afford to retire, hopping on his small plane to relax at his vacation homes in the Bahamas and North Carolina.
But the straight-talker who grew up poor on an Indiana farm, built Broward County's largest cab company and finances South Florida real estate holdings prefers to spend weekdays at his modest office on Oakland Park Boulevard, refining his 200-employee business and seeking out new deals.
This year marks half a century since Gaddis started in Broward County helping his brothers at a gas station. He developed what became at one point the largest ground transport company in the U.S. southeast, complete with a monopoly on taxi service at Fort Lauderdale's international airport.
Few entrepreneurs can claim his longevity in Broward, and few command as much respect and controversy as Gaddis. Critics claim he has wielded outsized political influence, been aggressive with rivals and can be obstinate. But even those who differ with Gaddis admit he's hard-working, smart, disciplined and passionate - qualities that continue to bring him success even in today's tough times.
"He wouldn't be as successful as he is, if he weren't a hard-driving businessman," said Kent George, Broward's aviation director who wants to revamp ground transport services at the airport.
Gaddis recalls simpler times when he started in Broward in 1960. The county had 300,000 people, versus 1.7 million today. "I-95 wasn't here. University Drive was a just a country road back then. Alligator Alley wasn't completed. The airport had only Eastern" and a couple of small carriers, Gaddis said.
Gaddis, then 28, began by buying up taxis that couldn't pay repair bills at his family gas station and slowly consolidated the local cab business, making political friends along the way. He helped write the county's taxi rules and landed the exclusive contract for taxi service at the airport for 25 years until 1999.
Today, his Yellow Cab system still owns, leases or dispatches most of Broward's cabs: roughly 550. His Go Airport Service spans 150 limos and shuttles. And his B&L Services group has the sole contract to dispatch cabs, limos and shuttles at the airport - a thorn in the side of many smaller cab companies that also now service the airport.
"It's big-time conflict of interest," said Ivalier Duvra, a taxi driver and part owner of Ambassador Taxi of Fort Lauderdale, with 20 cabs. The dispatcher should not be able to own or lease cars and limos it dispatches, Duvra said: "We have nothing against Gaddis. All we want is a fair share of the pie."
Aviation director George also wants an independent dispatcher at the airport to end what he calls "inherent conflict of interest.'" But he praises Gaddis for running a top-notch operation. Since the 1980s, Gaddis has pioneered computerized systems to dispatch cabs and maximize their use. He trains his drivers well and keeps rules to ensure cars are clean and well-maintained, Kent said.
"He must be doing something right when the majority of the independent cab drivers in the entire county work with him," said Kent.
A skilled poker player in his youth, Gaddis parlayed his multi-million-dollar Broward taxi business into related companies: insurance, buses, parking, taxis in West Palm Beach, Philadelphia and Tallahassee - most of which he's sold off in the past decade to business partners.
Some of the earnings he's donated to Broward non-profits - hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Center for the Performing Arts, community college and Boys and Girls Club, among others.
But he keeps investing in real estate. He now owns a majority stake in the 200,000-square-foot Harbor Shops mall and at least one square block off Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, along with hundreds of acres near Lake Okeechobee and other South Florida holdings. For a decade, he's also been making loans on properties based on what he considers their foreclosure value - not their market price. That conservative approach let him weather the real estate slump and even capitalize on markdowns.
"I've never had a tax loss - not in 20-something years" in real estate, said Gaddis. He refused to say where he's buying property now, but offered this tip: "If you're in the market for a home, now's the best time I've ever seen to buy one. You're buying way below construction costs."
Some Broward veterans say Gaddis is misunderstood. "People overstate his political influence," said County Commissioner John Rodstrom Jr., who has known Gaddis almost all his life. "Politics don't matter a whole lot, because he's put the infrastructure in place" for his business - from buying taxi licenses to communications systems and even insurance providers.
Many people underestimate his business savvy, his love of reading and research and his resilience, added publicist Chuck Malkus, who has served on many tourism boards with Gaddis. "He took risks when others didn't," said Malkus. "And he won't throw in the towel during tough times."
Others say they've learned from Gaddis to stay focused. "He's a very tough person to deal with in business," said Nicki Grossman, a former Broward Commissioner and now the county's tourism chief. "But he taught me a lot about how being pig-headed can get you what you want and what you need."