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From war orphan to altruistic entrepreneur

A shrewd businessman and investor. A fair and honest boss. A lackluster golfer with a weakness for doughnuts.

That is how relatives and associates remember William Konar, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who established one of the first U.S. chains of discount drugstores after enduring forced labor, hiding in ghetto attics and being wrenched from his mother and sister.

Intellect and grit fueled Konar’s rise to the top, but he was not single-minded along the way.

“He sometimes confused people because he would pursue two or three different avenues at once that seemed to be mutually contradictory,” says his son, Howard Konar, president of Konar Properties and a former partner at Boylan Code LLP.

Born around 1930, William Konar came to Rochester in 1946 to live in a foster home linked to a war-orphan resettlement program. He graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School and became a rack jobber, stocking grocers’ shelves as a middleman between the manufacturer and the retailer.

After following an IGA franchisee to Michigan and leasing a warehouse there, Konar learned of the franchisee’s plan to omit the middleman and buy health and beauty aids directly from manufacturers. Saddled with merchandise, Konar rented a storefront for a few weeks and expected to put the experience in the rear-view mirror.

But when customers snapped up the discounted goods in only two days, Konar felt certain about his next move. Grabbing four hours of sleep each night, he launched Clinton Merchandising Inc. By 1968, the discount chain had sales totaling $12 million.

That year, Konar took Clinton Merchandising public. Melville Corp., parent company of CVS drugstores, came courting in 1972, and Konar sold the 84-store chain for $21.5 million. His role as a senior vice president at CVS lasted eight years.

“When he sold to, ultimately, Melville Corp., he kept his warehouse on Commerce Drive (in Henrietta), and he added to it, and it went from about 84,000 square feet to 196,000 square feet,” Howard Konar says. Leasing the space to two tenants—CVS and Xerox Corp.—led to the founding of William Konar Properties.

Howard and his father worked together at the real estate firm for four years before the elder Konar developed Alzheimer’s disease.

“Before he had a conversation with somebody in any kind of serious situation, he would think about it for days and days—sometimes a couple of weeks,” Howard Konar says. “And then he would turn it over in his brain. He would think about all the different consequences; he’d think about all the different possibilities of what could happen, and he chose his words very, very carefully.”

Known for sometimes speaking in clipped phrases, Konar was cautious with money his whole life. While he did not have any notable business failures, he still second-guessed himself on occasion. Passing up the chance to buy South Town Plaza in Henrietta, for instance, needled him for years and even caused him to shake his head whenever driving by the property.

“Of the decisions he actually made, there were very, very few things that didn’t pan out for him,” Howard Konar says. “But then again, he thought long and hard before he bought something, and he researched it, and he approached it very carefully.”

Adds Konar: “I asked him, for instance, one day, ‘How did you learn math?’ and he said, ‘Well, I would just look at the (blackboard), and I’d look at all the numbers and see how they turned out.’ And sometimes I could show him a column of figures … they would be in the hundreds of thousands … and he could add them to within 10 percent.”

Unwinding from work was not much of a priority for Konar, but he followed professional football and relished playing worse-than-bogey golf.

He also surrounded himself with advisers he trusted, including attorney Harry Messina Jr., now retired from Woods Oviatt Gilman LLP.  When meeting Konar for the first time, Messina was struck by how different he was from other high-flying executives.

“I found him very easy to talk with,” says Messina, who was Konar’s business and personal lawyer for decades.

Konar’s agile mind helped him enormously in whatever he tackled, but he also had plenty of heart.

“He was a founder of the Holocaust Museum (in Washington, D.C.) and a substantial contributor,” Messina says.

As a trustee of the William & Sheila Konar Foundation, accountant Don Nowill continues to have a close view of Konar’s legacy and interests in health care, education and poverty alleviation.

“He gave a lot money over the years to various charitable organizations while he was alive,” says Nowill.

He adds: “I think he would like to be remembered as a very nice, thoughtful and altruistic and giving individual, which is what he was.”

Sheila Livadas is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

9/30/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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