Say his name, and it will call forth strong – and widely differing – reactions. Some people love him, saying he saved the Sabres and kept them in Buffalo.
Others say he could be hard to deal with, or an outsider at times.
But B. Thomas Golisano, the man who made a fortune out of Paychex, the former owner of the Buffalo Sabres and multiple-time gubernatorial contender, is all right with that.
“It’s part of the game,” Golisano said on Wednesday, during a visit to the campus of Niagara University for the grand opening of a new science building he contributed $10 million to help build.
Golisano knows he casts a large shadow around here.
He knows, too, that when he says things, people will pay attention – including a remark on Wednesday that he might someday take a look at owning the Buffalo Bills, if the team were ever in danger of leaving town.
“Sometimes it’s harder to give it away than to make it,” he said, with a laugh, about his money.
The business leader – a Florida resident now, though he said he still lives part of the year on 38 acres outside Rochester – joined university officials in cutting a ribbon to open the new B. Thomas Golisano Center for Integrated Sciences on the campus.
The $10 million contributed by Golisano was a major part of the $32 million total cost of the new center, said the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., the university president. The gift from Golisano was first announced in 2008.
“He wants to make a contribution to the people of Western New York,” Maher said of Golisano. “It’s a perfect match.”
Golisano made lighthearted remarks at the event, including about how he had purchased a purple tie – the Niagara color – especially for the day.
“My tie doesn’t match my suit, but it is a purple tie,” he joked, at the podium under a tent set up outside the new stone- and metal-facade center.
Golisano told the audience that he was “very pleased I could play a part in the creation of this new science complex.” He got two standing ovations during his remarks.
He also told the crowd he gave credit to the employees of Paychex, who helped him build the company that led to the wealth that enables his philanthropy.
“Also, the Sabres helped a little,” he added.
His remark on that point – the Sabres – drew attention to Golisano’s larger presence in the upstate region.
Golisano has to this point been known in Buffalo Niagara largely for two things: He owned the NHL hockey team for eight years, and he ran for governor a few times.
Yet Golisano’s impression on the upstate region has been deeply bifurcated, observers said.
Many people love him – especially in the Rochester area, where his philanthropy has been directed to colleges and universities, as well as organizations serving those with disabilities and much more.
“We consider him a titan of industry, because of Paychex,” said Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks, who has known Golisano for years. “But truly, what doesn’t get as much play, but probably should, is that he is a titan of philanthropy.”
Golisano has donated millions to a wide variety of institutions and causes. Much of his giving has centered on the Rochester area and Florida. The Niagara University gift marks an important moment in Golisano’s image as a philanthropist in Buffalo Niagara.
University officials are among those hoping this won’t be the end of his generosity.
“We expect to have a continuing relationship,” Maher said.
Brooks said people need to realize that Golisano could direct his millions anywhere – and yet prioritizes this region.
“He has chosen to spend tens of millions of dollars in upstate New York,” she said. “He has been able to enrich our quality of life, in ways that government can’t.”
Others said Golisano is remembered for the way he came to Buffalo as owner of the Sabres, at a time when the future of the team was uncertain.
At that time, Golisano seemed to be seen by some in the business community as an outsider, observers said.
“There isn’t any question about that,” said former State Sen. Dale M. Volker. “He was.”
Andrew J. Rudnick, the former president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said the relationship between Golisano and some in the local business community was not close.
“I think there was just a distance,” said Rudnick, who now lives in Alabama. “I don’t believe there was an engagement between him and the Buffalo business community.”
It was a “turbulent time” for the region, when Golisano owned the Sabres, said Volker.
“The way I look at it is, he did save the Sabres,” said Volker, “but he was a businessman.”
Golisano could be “a bit arrogant” in his style, the former state senator said but added that Golisano’s image is always tempered by his generous giving.
“All that aside – let’s forget the sports – he was very generous,” said Volker. “I think people will remember, more than anything, the donations.”
“Sports ownership is a lot of fun,” he said, “but it can wear you down.”
Outside the new science center, Golisano ended his public remarks at the grand opening on a thoughtful note.
“One more thing,” he said, before leaving the podium. “The only wealth you get to keep is that you give away.
“I’ll let you think about that one.”