I. Michael Kasser: Super Achiever
Real Estate Mogul, Avid Athlete, Philanthropist
By David Pittman
From the January edition of BizTucson
I. Michael Kasser has many interesting accomplishments to his name after 80 years on this planet.
His greatest business success is unquestionably Holualoa Companies, a Tucson-based real estate investment and development firm he founded and guided from the ground up. Today, the business oversees a diversified international portfolio of office, retail, industrial, apartment and hotel properties and land worth more than $3 billion.
Kasser has worked hard and over-achieved his entire life.
He was born during World War II – Dec. 9, 1940 – in Budapest, Hungary, to Alexander and Elisabeth Kasser. After the war, his family escaped to Mexico City before moving to the U.S. and bouncing between Trenton, New Jersey; Philadelphia and New York City, and finally landing in Montclair, New Jersey.
In Hungary, Kasser’s father was an executive at one of the country’s largest paper mills. By the time the war ended, the family had lost everything,” said Kasser. “When we arrived in the United States we were broke.”
As a youth, Kasser exhibited genius – skipping three grades and entering Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the age of 15. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1960, he went on to earn a master’s degree in chemical engineering from MIT in 1961 and a doctorate in engineering at the University of Grenoble (France) in 1964.
Kasser speaks six languages fluently – Hungarian, Spanish, English, French, German and Italian.
After getting his doctorate in engineering, Kasser went to work for two years with his father, also an engineer, at a small paper mill in Quebec. “My father built the mill from old spare parts and it really worked,” Kasser recalled. “We made toilet paper from waste paper. After wrapping and boxing the individual rolls, I’d load them in a truck and sell the boxes to nearby grocery stores.”
Kasser eventually left to attend Harvard Business School, where he earned an MBA in 1968. Following his Harvard stint, he went to New York City to begin a job as a financial analyst for W.R. Grace, an international chemical company. After a few years, Kasser went out on his own and purchased, “for no money down,” a couple of saw mills in upstate New York.
Like his father, Kasser was a sports enthusiast. His father played professional soccer for the Peugeot team in France.
Kasser began running while in New York City and he’s been running ever since. He ran his first marathon – the New York City Marathon – in 1976. “I’ve run more than 100 marathons over the years,” he said. “I really got into it.”
Kasser met his wife, Beth, when they shared a ride with a mutual friend to the Yonkers Marathon, where they both competed. They were married in 1984 and the next year moved to Hawaii, where Kasser launched Holualoa Companies.
An outstanding triathlon competitor, Kasser completed the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii eight times. A photo of Kasser wearing an Ironman sleeveless t-shirt was featured on the cover of the April 1984 edition of SPORTSWISE magazine, which declared him “The Renaissance Athlete.”
The prosperity produced by Holualoa Companies enabled Kasser and his wife to become influential philanthropists who’ve donated millions of dollars to local charities and various other causes – including the Tucson Museum of Art, the Arizona Theatre Company and several projects benefiting the University of Arizona. Kasser is also a venture capitalist who has directed Holualoa capital resources to early-stage, innovative companies in a wide range of business sectors.
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