In his senior year at Skidmore College, Gene Freidman intervened when two female students were being harassed at a bar. He took a beer bottle to the face. Surgeons used 400 stitches and barely saved his left eye.
Hospitalized for a month, the carefree, skirt-chasing kid from Queens emerged serious and driven. “It was time to grow up,” he says. He went to law school and returned to his native Russia to work in venture capital for billionaire Sam Zell. “I learned how money is made,” he says.
Apparently so. Back in New York, he transformed the modest taxi business begun by his father, a thermonuclear engineer who had emigrated in 1976 with his wife and 5-year-old Gene to escape Soviet anti-Semitism. Starting with 60 yellow cabs, Mr. Freidman now has more than 800—the city’s second-largest fleet. Revenues have exploded to $120 million, from $2.5 million in 1996.
Mr. Freidman took risks, snapping up hybrid and wheelchair-accessible cabs that others shunned. He’s expanded his holdings to real estate, buying 16 buildings across the city in recent years, and is bringing French clothing brand Arthur to Madison Avenue. (The venture sprang from a chance visit to a store in Cannes to buy a stuffed bear for his son, Dylan, 3.)
Mr. Freidman’s drive owes much to his humble beginnings. “The problem with being an immigrant,” he says, “is you wake up every morning in a panic that you’re going to lose everything.”
Rival fleet owner Ron Sherman says: “Our industry represents the American dream. You can work hard and with little money down, buy a medallion. What Gene’s done is take that to another level.”