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People of the Year

17 Leaders who have stood out as Western New York has become increasingly a more exciting and interesting place to live

Photos by kc kratt except Jacobs photo by Nancy J. Parisi, courtesy Delaware North


It takes a village, they say, and we don’t mean to overlook the fact that positive change in any region results from the hard work of dozens of constituencies, including government, business, nonprofits, and many other sectors, including hardworking ordinary citizens. But certain leaders—of every variety—have stood out over the last year to eighteen months, as Western New York has become increasingly a more exciting and interesting place to live. In this month's issue, we talk to seventeen of those leaders.


Here's a sample of what you can find in this month's Buffalo Spree:


Sam Savarino: Creating neighborhoods



He studied to be a history teacher, but Sam Savarino was raised in the family business, ADF Construction. Summers were spent working on construction and carpentry projects and in his father’s office, where he learned the business of building and building management. Today, he is at the helm of multifaceted Savarino Development, which, for the past fifteen years, has built a development portfolio that ranges from general contracting and construction management to planning and financing. It is perhaps best known for high-profile renovations that have transformed threatened historic structures into 500 Seneca, White’s Livery Apartments, Buffalo Ironworks, Cobblestone Lofts, Artspace, and many others. Now Sam Savarino and his team are poised to complete a list of ongoing renovations and new construction initiatives.


Your Buffalo River Landing, a luxury residence, is set to open in January 2017. Why here, now?

When we consider projects, the first rule is, it has to be doable, and this is an attractive location along the Buffalo River near downtown. It took a while—it’s a historic site, the old Erie Freight House was located here, a huge timber-frame warehouse that dated from the mid-1800s. We went through a rigorous review process before we did anything, eventually tearing it down. The wall along the water is all that is left of the original structure, and it is being transformed into a promenade. We are finishing seventy-eight apartment units and two office spaces in the new building. It is located at 1 South Street at Ohio Street along the corridor connecting Buffalo’s inner and outer harbor. We took over when there were no projects going on, and now Ohio Street is a real link to other developments.


It seems like you seek out the unusual—the pioneer project appeals. 

It’s not easy to be the first in an area, but it is gratifying to see things stitching in, and people working together. That’s why I look up to people like Howard Zemsky, who really envisioned and transformed the Larkin area, creating a neighborhood, which is what we did at Cobblestone. That’s where I live, and our offices are on the edge of the Larkin District. We developed a mixed-use facility at 500 Seneca Street, the former F. N. Burt Paper box manufacturing plant, which was the largest brownfield project in Western New York. We are starting work on a new project at Smith and Elk, the old St. Clare’s Catholic School, a funky building we are transforming into residences. It’s in the Valley, part of the old First Ward, another Buffalo neighborhood with a storied past. And we have other projects on tap—we will soon be redeveloping a brownfield site in Batavia.


Do you get to name your projects?

Uh, no, we have someone who helps us do that. Well, actually, Buffalo River Landing was my first idea, and the name we finally settled on. And I wanted to call the 169 Elk Street project St. Clare’s, but the Diocese of Buffalo wouldn’t let us. So we are naming it McDermott, after the bishop who was in charge at the time the school was operating.


What’s your favorite part of what you do? The beginning, middle, or end?

When a project comes together, and you know it’s coalescing—partners come onboard. It’s great when someone else has faith in you. Listen, I love what I’m doing. I couldn’t work for anyone else. I stay busy, and I consider myself a lucky guy.


The Jacobs family: Homegrown international success

Lou, Jeremy, Jerry Jr., and Charlie Jacobs


The Jacobs family of Buffalo, now into their third generation of business and philanthropy, are a committed clan.


Their strengths lie in their closely held ownership of their company, Delaware North, an ever-expanding conglomerate with interests spanning the globe, and their deeply rooted connection to Buffalo, where they've headquartered their company since its inception as a two-man snack vending operation in 1915. They also make serious gifts and support the community. Notable is a 2015 $30-million gift to the University at Buffalo to complete construction of the new downtown medical school.


The newest physical headquarters, momentously completed in 2015 by Uniland, is a flagship building at the corner of Delaware Avenue and Chippewa Street; its curved glass façade gazes over the city and beyond, offering 360-degree views. There, the company occupies 110,000 square feet within the top four and a half floors. The building also holds a Delaware North property, the Westin Buffalo, as well as the swanky Patina restaurant.


The company is chaired by Jeremy Jacobs Sr. His sons, Jeremy Jr. (Jerry), Louis (Lou), and Charlie are co-CEOs. Spree spoke with Lou Jacobs about the breadth of the company’s businesses, and what makes them such a cohesive family.


Why is your family so connected with Buffalo?

Our company’s history is interwoven with that of the city of Buffalo and the Western New York community. Buffalo is not so much “where we’re from” as “who we are.” That connection is part of our identity.


Why was it important for you to be in this building, at this location?

We feel like we’re at “Main Street and Main Street.” It’s a very visible corner of downtown Buffalo. This location ties the company, the family, and the community all together, which is very important to us.


What are some recent family and/or company accomplishments?

We’re experiencing growth at an accelerated rate—it’s about resources and capital allocation. More scarce is the human capital. Our biggest challenge is getting the best, most capable people to be part of our team. We’re always trying to build the team. This building helps—to have a work environment that people are excited to go to and a place where they want to spend their career. We are proud of the team that we’ve put together in this office, the people we go to work with every day.


Can you talk about any turning points for you, the family, and the business?

We’re proud of the legacy businesses, those that people associate with us, like Sportservice, founded by my grandfather. And we’re moving into exciting new businesses—like the Patina Restaurant Group, a high-end restaurant company with large presence. Disney is an important partner of ours—we’re in Epcot, downtown Disney, and Anaheim. We’ve moved into social gaming with a company called Ruby Seven Studios. So it’s not just organic growth—we’re happy to be able to branch out.


What are any future goals?

To a large extent, we’re reinvesting in the business. We’ve also made a departure to get into different components in the hospitality space. And, we want to grow our traditional business into new geographies—and with the team here; all our people working together, it comes together quite nicely. We’ve got a foothold in Southeast Asia with the Singapore Sports Hub. We have soccer stadiums across the United Kingdom; in Perth and Sydney, Australia, there are cricket grounds.


What keeps you all in “the family business”?

We have a lot of fun. I go to work every day with my brothers! We have a blast—we’re doing cool stuff, going to national parks, the World Series, great restaurants. For thirty-plus years we’ve been partners. It’s a great collaboration, and it informs our sense of who we are.



Candace S. Johnson: Growth, innovation, and a community partnership


Candace S. Johnson, PhD, is Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s (RCPI) first female president and CEO, titles she’s held since early 2015. Johnson has worked at RPCI in increasingly responsible roles since 2002; her other current roles include Wallace Family Chair in translational research and professor of oncology in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics.


RPCI, founded in 1898, is Western New York’s only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center. It provides care to approximately 34,000 patients annually and employs more than 3,200 people. Its mission is to understand, prevent, and cure cancer. Johnson was previously deputy director of basic research at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and professor of pharmacology and medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.


What are some recent achievements?

We’ve recruited some incredible people; I’m very proud that Shirley Johnson, from City of Hope in California, is moving to Buffalo to become our head of nursing—it’s so important in cancer care. She’s one of the country’s visionary nursing leaders, and she’s excited to join us.


One of the things that distinguishes Roswell in the state is our innovative therapy trials. We’ve recruited Dr. Igor Pusanov from Vanderbilt University; his reputation in leading early clinical trials is great. He’s bought a house in Buffalo, to move his family here. We’ve added researcher Dean Tang as our chair of pharmacology. He works on developing new therapeutic approaches.


I’d been working to bring Marc Ernstoff here from Dartmouth; he’s joined us as the chair of medicine. And Kara Kelly from Columbia has become our head of pediatrics. It’s a collaborative chair position; we’re partnering with UB and Children’s—their president is Allegra Jaros. Three exceptional women!


We’ve been criticized for being an “ivory tower” silo; we’re working on playing better in the community sandbox, especially with local physicians.


What was a turning point?

As RPCI’s first female CEO, and especially as a PhD, as opposed to an MD, people said things like, “What does she know about medicine?”—I actually do know quite a bit—and “Can she recruit high-powered physicians; she’s a woman after all.”


We did it; once a couple come, everyone starts noticing. It snowballs. In the first year on the job, we’ve had lots of leadership shifts, which can be scary to people for a variety of reasons. Now we’ve settled in to the team. Going forward, I will set my sights even higher.


Speaking of going forward, what’s next?

My real excitement is, now that we’re all here, let’s blow the roof off this place. We have amazing opportunities for bringing innovative immuno-therapies to cancer. We’re poised to be the country’s leader in this hot area. We need to perform.


What keeps me awake at night is the nation’s changing healthcare landscape. How are we going to fit in and succeed when the payers aren’t being as generous to providers with reimbursements? We’ve initiated a strategic plan and enlisted help, so over the next year, we will be in the best place to address this issue.


How has the mission been forwarded?

By its nature, “the Roswell experience” is traumatic. To walk through those doors and hear a physician say, “Sorry, you have cancer” is very hard. We try to bring patients and families through this journey in the best way possible. From nurses to the people who clean the rooms at night, we want to make the quality of our service better. Yes, we want to cure disease; we also have a lot of other work to do.


What makes you happy/hopeful?

The quality of life in Buffalo is amazing. The medical campus, people wanting to live in the city—the mayor is doing a great job trying to improve the education system and make things better for everyone. The future is really bright, and Roswell is going to be a positive part of this renaissance of bringing Buffalo back.


In late October, you and Governor Cuomo announced a clinical trial with CIMAvax-EGF, a groundbreaking immunotherapy for lung cancer developed in Cuba. This makes Roswell Park the first American center to receive FDA authorization to sponsor a clinical trial offering a Cuban-made therapy to U.S. patients. How does this fit in with your mission?


We are so proud to be able to bring this therapy to the United States, and to our patients. Governor Cuomo was way ahead of the curve in making a trade mission to Cuba when he did, in April of 2015. No other state had done anything like it, so I mean it when I say it was groundbreaking. Our participation in that mission — both Dr. Kelvin Lee, our chair of immunology, and I were part of the trip — really set this whole effort in motion and gave us great momentum. This is exactly the kind of work that our mission — to understand, prevent and cure cancer — charges us to do. We have to explore and advance the most promising ideas in cancer research, treatment and prevention, and this new clinical trial holds tremendous promise in each of those areas.


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