BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Steve Kalafer, who as a young man parlayed a one-car showroom into one of New Jersey’s largest automobile groups; was the founder and owner of the Somerset Patriots baseball team, a prolific filmmaker, real estate developer, community activist and philanthropist, has died from cancer at the age of 71.
A devout family man, he is survived by his wife, Suzanne; two sons Jonathan and Josh and their wives, and five grandsons, Zachary, Broden, Caleb, Tristan and Elliot.
Services will be private. The Somerset Patriots and the Kalafer family will be planning a celebration of Steve’s life at the ballpark at a later date.
Kalafer cherished his family and valued the many friendships and bonds with those he numbered as friends, partners, employees and business associates.
“We are completely heartbroken by Steve’s passing. Everyone who ever came into contact with him over the years knows just how special a person he was,” said Somerset Patriots President/General Manager Patrick McVerry. “He built his dealerships and this team from the ground up with the customers, employees, his family, and the communities served always as his top priorities.
He taught us all the value of doing things the right way, of taking the time to build long-lasting relationships, and making a difference wherever you can," McVerry added. "To say that he will be missed is an understatement. Everything we have here is because of his tireless efforts. We were fortunate to have such a wonderful chairman, father-figure, and friend. We know his sons Jonathan and Josh will help continue his legacy and our staff will strive to make him proud every day because we know he will always be with us, guiding our path and showing us the ways to succeed.”
Kalafer’s love of baseball and the New York Yankees began with trips to Yankee Stadium with his father Milton, a tradition he continued throughout his life with his sons and his grandchildren.
“There is no one like Steve Kalafer. From the first day I met him, I loved him. He treated everyone like family and made you feel like the most important person in the world,” said Somerset Patriots Manager Emeritus Sparky Lyle.
“We became friends when he hired me to manage the Patriots and I learned so much from him about the right way to do things in life and how to conduct yourself in business," Lyle added. "Every time I set foot in the ballpark, I will think of him with an unbelievable amount of love, respect, and appreciation. He was the Somerset Patriots, and it will be up to all of us to carry his vision long into the future.”
Friend and confidant of US Presidents, professional athletes and celebrities, Kalafer touched the lives of everyday families who drove away from his showrooms with the car of their dreams, as well as fans young and old who flocked to TD Bank Ballpark, always grateful for their loyalty and patronage.
He enjoyed inviting strangers he'd meet during his daily routines to ball games, extending the privilege of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before games.
“We’re all equal; I just have a few more cars than most people,” Kalafer said early in 2019 as he began to shift more of the responsibility for his vast holdings to his two sons.
Kalafer moved with ease from the expansive floor of a car showroom to the burnished trappings of the corporate boardroom, but he was most at ease at the ballpark, whether he was taking in a game in his box seat alongside the Patriots dugout or entertaining guests in his second level luxury suite.
Whether addressing a crowd of stockholders, holding forth in a television studio, or mixing in the crowd at a ballpark, Kalafer was comfortable in his surroundings, cordial and admired by those around him.
He was an impeccable dresser with exacting standards; never missing a day of work, Kalafer would leave the house wearing his trademark monogrammed white shirt with tie, cufflinks, suit, wearing one of several hand-made, precision watches from his vast collection of timepieces.
Gracious and demonstrative, Kalafer spoke from his heart and wore his feelings on his sleeve; a hug and a kiss on the cheek - both genders - were the norm for those whose friendship had been earned.
Kalafer trusted his instincts, had a grasp and understanding of the big picture, recognized opportunity and invested the energy, expertise and necessary talent to achieve success. He was a visionary and surrounded himself with people who could help him make things happen.
That’s how the Somerset Patriots came to be.
Kalafer had done his due diligence and was convinced Somerset County in central New Jersey could support a baseball franchise, but he was blocked by restrictive Major League Baseball non-compete geographic rules.
Undaunted, Kalafer went the route of independent baseball, and became a founding member of the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, forging a partnership with Somerset County and breaking ground on a ballpark that was built on a fallow brownfield site in Bridgewater that was once part of the Johns Manville industrial complex.
The Somerset Patriots played on the road their first year waiting for the ballpark to be completed, They set the bar high, winning six championships and leading the league in attendance averaging over 5,000 fans per game.
The Patriots’ public address announcer opens each home game by pronouncing the ballpark as the “Crown Jewel” of the Atlantic League.
If not the “Crown Jewel” of the expansive Kalafer business empire, the Patriots were without question one of Kalafer’s most treasured assets, embodying his love of baseball and his exhaustive efforts to give back to the community. Whether on the field prior to the game, shelling peanuts along the first-base line or entertaining guests upstairs, he was first and foremost, a fan.
He ran his ball club like a major league organization, a business model that has defined the ongoing success of the independent league team.
In late October, his sons and Somerset Patriots Co-Chairmen Jonathan and Josh Kalafer unveiled a sculpture depicting their father, Steve, and manager emeritus Sparky Lyle in front of TD Bank Ballpark a tribute their legacy.
A couple of weeks later, news broke that the Somerset Patriots had been named the Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees. The announcement came from months of communication between the two teams amid MLB’s restructuring of its minor league system.
Kalafer was a huge Yankee fan his entire life.
“This is a dream come true for everyone in the Somerset Patriots family,” Kalafer said at the time. “I’ve always looked at the Yankees as the gold standard in baseball and sports as a whole. It is how we’ve modeled the way we’ve conducted our business since day one. We are forever grateful to Hal Steinbrenner and the entire Steinbrenner family, as well as the management of the New York Yankees.”
Kalafer passed away just two weeks before Opening Day on May 4.
Kalafer took care of his ballplayers, hosting a banquet on the eve of each season.
Kalafer adhered to a regimen of healthy eating and exercise to maintain his health, proving his fitness to the Patriots team and guests at one of those banquets in Florida.
He bet the team that he could drop to the floor and do 20 push-ups; a challenge that was met with a pile of cash betting against him.
Those who knew him didn't dare bet against him because they knew Kalafer's fitness and determination. With little effort, he knocked off the 20 push-ups and gathered up several hundred dollars.
Kalafer had a fervent belief in the American Dream and was a true American patriot. The American flag is the primary element of the Flemington Car & Truck Company logo as well as the stylized Somerset Patriots uniform logo.
Kalafer acted swiftly in the wake of the controversy that erupted when former NFL quarterback Colin Kapernick knelt down during the National Anthem. Flemington Car & Truck Country, pulled its television advertising from National Football League broadcasts over the quarterback’s failure to stand and show respect.
“The National Football League and its owners have shown their fans and marketing partners that they do not have a comprehensive policy to ensure that players stand and show respect for America and our flag during the playing of the National Anthem,” Kalafer said at the time. “As the NFL parses the important nationwide issues of ‘social justice’ and ‘freedom of speech,’ it is clear that a firm direction by them is not forthcoming. Therefore, we have canceled all of our NFL advertising on the Optimum and Infinity networks.”
Influential, charismatic, philanthropic, Kalafer touched thousands of lives in his lifetime: He took pride and derived great personal satisfaction from helping people according to older son Jonathan, with whom he produced a series of short documentaries, traveling around the world.
Though soft-spoken, Kalafer’s words carried weight. He was considered one of the most influential businessmen in New Jersey, and one of the state’s wealthiest individuals by NJBIZ magazine.
He was a frequent guest on network and cable television news shows, where his learned experience on the automobile industry and the economy were eagerly solicited by the likes of Stuart Varney and Neil Cavuto.
Blessed with a work ethic second to none, he was a builder, creating a broad-based network of businesses and investments that opened the door to more successes and opportunities including philanthropy.
The Somerset Patriots Children's Educational And Sportsmanship Foundation, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018, has donated over $5.5 million to various non-profits throughout New Jersey.
Kalafer was a man of faith and his benevolence was felt by the Jewish community.
Kalafer served with distinction on the boards of financial institutions, health care organizations, universities and non-profits throughout his lifetime, including the Actors Fund of America, New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Company, New Jersey Business and Industry Association, Rider University and Robert Wood Johnson/Barnabas Health and the Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation.
Kalafer invited Torre, a close friend and former New York Yankees manager, to be honored by Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Somerville in 2005. One of the rooms in the 35-bed Paul Nardoni wing was named in honor of Torre, a cancer survivor.
Kalafer’s philanthropy was a huge part of the cancer wing, which is named in memory of Paul Nardoni, a former Kalafer employee who was married to Kalafer’s longtime administrative assistant, Ellen Nardoni.
By any measure, Kalafer was the epitome of the American Dream.
An admirer of President Ronald Reagan, Kalafer hosted a dinner in 2018 for hundreds of guests at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster for Reagan’s former personal secretary, Peggy Grande. The two sat across from one another during the dinner sharing anecdotes about Reagan. Each guest had the opportunity to meet Grande, and received a copy of her book, “The President Will See You Know,” as a gift from Kalafer.
Kalafer was invited to the White House by Reagan, and also visited the Western White House in California during Reagan’s presidency and had spent time with President Trump at Trump’s country club in Bedminster, a short distance from his New Jersey residence in Peapack-Gladstone.
A lifetime New Jersey resident, Kalafer had recently moved to Florida, splitting time between his two homes.
Kalafer enjoyed sharing his success with his employees, business associates, partners and complete strangers he’d meet in his everyday travels throughout New Jersey and beyond.
He demanded the best from his employees, shared in their success and rewarded their loyalty.
A popular adage - “The true measure of a leader is how they treat their employees, not their equals” – is given added credence by Kalafer and his affection for his employees.
He awarded each of his full-time employees a $500 bonus when Congress passed a federal tax reform and corporate tax reduction package in following the 2008-09 economic crisis.
“It’s simple Economics 101,” Kalafer said. “We believe this is the right thing to do. Reinvesting tax savings in our employees and our businesses will make our communities and America stronger,” he added.
“The tax cuts were meant to reduce corporate tax burdens so that proper, equitable shares would go to employees and investment,” he explained. “You will have grateful employees, greater profits and the community will benefit.
“Our associates are our most important asset; their commitment is extraordinary,“ he continued. “Should they not be rewarded when your expenses are reduced?”
Kalafer’s journey to prominence began when he took on a Fuller Brush sales route when he was 12 and started reading Variety magazine when he was 14, according to a New York Times report, because he wanted to understand movie industry financing.
Early on in his life, Kalafer developed a keen interest in the Big Screen and filmmaking, a passion that would carry over into his adult life.
He learned his lessons well. As a movie producer, he had been nominated for three Academy Awards for mini-documentaries; each time he was accorded the full glitter and glitz Hollywood treatment, walking the red carpet and attending lavish parties.
He was a card-carrying member of the Actors Fund of America, serving on the Board of Trustees from 1991-2017.
His production company, New Jersey Pictures, produced several documentaries and entertainment projects beginning in 1998 with “More,” an animated short film which won the Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award, followed one year later by the feature film “Dropping Out,” an official Sundance Film Festival selection.
Along with partner Peter LeDonne, Kalafer produced several documentaries: “Curtain Call,” which garnered his second Academy Awards nomination;” “Bottom of the Ninth, Going Home,” and “The Price of Freedom.” “Sister Rose’s Passion” won the 2004 Tribecca Film Festival Short Documentary Award and was nominated for an Academy Award. “The Diary of Imaculee” is a film that revealed the horrific, yet inspiring story of one remarkable woman’s experiences during the horrific genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
“We Love You,” directed by Kalafer’s son Jonathan, was awarded the Best Documentary in the Los Angeles Short Film Festival and Best Short Documentary at the New Jersey Film Fest.
Kalafer also produced “The Soprano State, New Jersey’s Culture of Corruption, Part I,” a documentary inspired by the New York Times best seller of the same name.
Another success for Kalafer was the revival of the award-winning Broadway play “Barrymore,” which he produced, starring two-time Tony Award winner and Academy Award nominee Christopher Plummer.
One of his more recent projects was “Backfire: The Volkswagen Fraud of the Century”
Kalafer also invited hundreds of guests to NYC in 2005 for a special performance of “700 Sundays,” a one-man autobiographical show written and performed by Billy Crystal. Kalafer hosted a reception for Crystal and his guests after the show at Sardi’s.
Kalafer graduated West Essex High School in 1967, and attended Rider College (now University) in Lawrenceville. He graduated in 1971 with a Bachelor of Science in Commerce with a specialty in management and organizational behavior.
One of his classmates was comedian and radio talk show host Joe Piscopo
Those who knew Kalafer well were familiar with the seeds of his success; while attending Rider, he would detail cars and saved enough money to buy a one-car dealership in Frenchtown, NJ, a sleepy All-American town nestled alongside the Delaware River. He was 26.
Ditschmann Lincoln/Mercury/Ford continues to serve as the anchor of the Flemington Car & Truck Country family of dealerships. He moved the dealership to Flemington in 1979.
Savvy business decisions were followed with good fortune, as the Kalafer auto dealership group grew, clustered along Routes 31/202 in Flemington, as well as dealerships in Princeton and Clinton.
In 1997 Kalafer and business partner Byron Brisby sold their "family" to the publicly-owned conglomerate Republic Industries Inc., which operates under the name AutoNation, for $55 million in Republic stock. Even after the sale, Republic kept Kalafer and Brisby on as, respectively, CEO and chief operating officer of the New Jersey operation.
Three years later, Kalafer and Brisby repurchased the dealerships for $65 million.
Kalafer was forced to shed several of those dealerships when Detroit imploded during the economic crisis of 2008-09, with domestic and foreign franchises featured in 18 showrooms and service centers.
An investor and developer of real estate, his portfolio included prime waterfront property in Bayonne, and more recently, a mixed-use residential neighborhood adjacent to TD Bank Ballpark in Bridgewater.
A glass case covered the wall of his office at the dealership, with cabinet drawers below, a shrine of sorts on the life and times of Steve Kalafer - faded black & white photos, autographed baseballs, model cars, correspondence, tributes, mementos and gifts.
The standards by which Kalafer chose to live were reflected in how he ran his business; he had commissioned a pocket coin that was handed out to friends and associates as a good will gesture.
The enamel and pewter medallion, emblazoned with the red, white and blue Somerset Patriots logo, is stamped with the simple goals and guiding principles he lived by daily: