A man of deep values and firm beliefs

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Unable to afford college after graduating from high school, John Riedman instead went to work at the Rochester insurance agency started by his father, Frank Riedman Sr. 

John Riedman, who died May 18 at the age of 90, eventually built the local agency into Riedman Corp., the nation’s ninth-largest privately held insurance brokerage.

John Riedman

As the brokerage expanded, growing to a 70-office, 14-state operation with more than $500 million in annual premiums and some 700 employees, Mr. Riedman methodically set aside 10 percent of its profits annually to create a charitable foundation that became a major donor to local causes including Rochester Regional Health and the Rochester Museum & Science Center. 

Of the more than $20 million in charitable donations to scores of organizations that the Riedman Foundation has made to date, the Fish Hatchery at Powder Mills Park—which was saved from extinction by a timely Riedman Foundation infusion of cash—was perhaps Mr. Riedman’s favorite, recalled Father Alex Bradshaw, a longtime close Riedman family friend who presided at a funeral Mass held for Mr. Riedman in May. 

In 2002, the hatchery’s manager had successfully pleaded with him to save the financially imperiled facility with a grant of county cash, recalls former Monroe County Executive Jack Doyle. 

“We were able to come up with some money then, but the next year I had to tell him the county just couldn’t do it,” Doyle says. 

When Mr. Riedman learned of the hatchery’s impending closure, says Doyle, he stepped in, arranging a donation from the Riedman Foundation that kept the facility open and went beyond a one-year stopgap.

The foundation agreed to lease the hatchery and assume responsibility for its operation going forward. The Powder Mills Park facility has since raised and released more than 20,000 fish into Irondequoit Creek each year, primarily steelhead and brown trout. The foundation has provided more than $2.4 million to keep the facility open and sponsors an annual Opening Day Fishing Derby at Powder Mills Park, trout season’s kick-off. 

Mr. Riedman particularly enjoyed the derby, delighting in seeing families enjoy the fruits of the Riedman Foundation’s largesse, recalled Bradshaw.

After the Riedman insurance agency’s operations were acquired in 2001 by Brown & Brown Inc., a Florida-based NYSE-listed firm, Mr. Riedman served as a director of that firm until 2013.  He was Riedman Corp.’s chairman from 1992 and remained in that position until his death.   

Among Riedman Corp.’s notable local building projects were construction of the Riedman Tower, a 79,000-square-foot East Avenue high-rise completed in 1983 that serves as Riedman Corp.’s headquarters. It continues to serve as Brown & Brown’s local office and has other office tenants.

Saving the appellate court

The Riedman Tower sits directly across the street from and is connected by a covered pedestrian bridge to the M. Delores Denman Courthouse, an East Avenue complex that houses the state Supreme Court Appellate Division – Fourth Department. The Fourth Department justices hear appeals from courts in 22 counties spanning three of the state court system’s eight judicial districts. The Rochester-based appeals court is home to the state’s largest law library.

John Riedman and his wife of 66 years, Eileen. (Photo by Kimberly Simpson)

Built on parcels already owned and acquired by Mr. Riedman, the Fourth Department courthouse is owned by Riedman Corp. and leased to the state’s Unified Court System. Doyle, who at the time served as Monroe County executive, credits Mr. Riedman for keeping the state appellate court division in Rochester. 

Before the appellate division courthouse was completed in 1999, the publicly-owned complex, which has Monroe County and state Supreme Courts located in the county, and at the time also the Fourth Department, was bursting at the seams, Doyle says.

Lower-court judges feared the appeals court judges would pull rank and take over some of their space, recalls Doyle, who previously had served as a state Supreme Court justice. Meanwhile, the Fourth Department’s then presiding justice, Delores Denman, for whom the building was ultimately named, wanted to move its headquarters to her home city, Buffalo, where several other appeals court judges also were based.

“I told her, ‘No way,’” Doyle recollects. “The Fourth Department has been in Rochester since 1897 and it’s not going anywhere.”  

But where in Rochester a new structure might go was far from clear. There had been talk of putting a new building on a vast and otherwise unoccupied concrete apron that serves as a sort of plaza adjacent to the state court building. But it turned out that plaza, which is actually the roof of an underground garage, would not support a building’s weight—or as some wags had it at the time, would not take the weight of the Fourth Department’s law library.

“John came to me and said: ‘I’ve got some parcels on East Avenue to build the courthouse.’ I told him no way,” Doyle says. 

Mr. Riedman owned most of the land needed to build the courthouse, but key parcels were in the hands of others. While others publicly floated possible locations in hopes of landing the desirable project, Mr. Riedman quietly maneuvered to lock in parcels needed to arrange his bid, deftly striking deals with billionaire Buffalo real estate magnate Nathan Benderson, the city of Rochester and the owner of a popular music venue to give him the winning bid. 

Riedman’s proposal kept the property on the tax rolls, a feature Doyle still sees as “the best thing about it” and a key to its success.    

Influential figure in politics

Staying mostly out of the spotlight, Mr. Riedman was an influential figure in local and state Republican politics.

In election seasons, scores of politicians and Republican Party eminences regularly trooped to the Riedmans’ Chili home to pay respects and seek Mr. Riedman’s counsel. 

Mr. Riedman served for 18 years as campaign manager for former Rep. Barber Conable, the long-serving Genesee County Republican and GOP gray eminence who after serving as top Reagan-era financial adviser went on to head the World Bank. 

Mr. Riedman also served as co-chairman of former Rep. Thomas Reynolds’ Congressional Leadership Council, chairman of former Rep. William Paxon’s Health Reform Task Force, and co-chairman of Paxon’s Congressional Leadership Council.

A lifelong staunch Republican, Mr. Riedman was far from blindly partisan, recalls Doyle, a onetime Democrat, who says he became a Republican on the advice of his father, Emmett Doyle. Mr. Riedman and his father, a Roosevelt Democrat and sachem of the party locally, were close associates and fast friends, says Doyle, who recalls first becoming acquainted with Mr. Riedman as a youngster observing Mr. Riedman’s and his father’s palavers. 

More recently, Mr. Riedman quietly forged ties with Thomas Richards, a Democrat who served as Rochester’s mayor from 2011 to 2014.

John Riedman with Thomas Richards at the grand opening of Rochester General Hospital’s Riedman Campus.

Richards says his acquaintance with Mr. Riedman began in the 1990s, when Richards was Rochester Gas and Electric Corp.’s general counsel, and continued after 2002, when Richards stepped down as the utility’s CEO. 

A man of good ideas

During Richards’ mayoral term, what had begun as a cordial business relationship blossomed into a friendship.

“We didn’t agree much on social issues, but I came to see John as a friend and an adviser whose counsel I valued highly,” Richards says. “John cared about the city. When you’re mayor, a lot of people want to tell you their ideas. Usually they don’t have a lot to lose.” 

As one of the city’s major property owners, however, “John had skin in the game and he had good ideas,” he says.  

Mr. Riedman, for example, understood the dilemma the city faced with the loss of industrial tax revenue as Eastman Kodak Co. bowed out of its Kodak Park complex. To make up that lost revenue, “I once figured we’d have to add something like 20,000 new residential properties,” Richards says. And in addition to a helpful slant on how the city might begin to cope with that dilemma, Mr. Riedman, “unlike some big property owners, always paid his taxes.”

“I’ve always valued John’s advice,” says Paychex founder and chairman Tom Golisano, a close friend of Mr. Riedman’s for many years.

Now one of America’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, Golisano was an office machine salesman in his mid-20s servicing Mr. Riedman’s account when the two first met. Mr. Riedman had not yet begun to expand to other states and Golisano had yet to found Paychex. As their businesses prospered, Mr. Riedman and Golisano stayed in touch, becoming fast friends.

John Riedman and Tom Golisano

When Golisano embarked on a political career, running three times for New York governor on the Independence Party ticket in the 1990s and early 2000s, Mr. Riedman as an influential Republican personage looked somewhat askance at his friend’s bid.

“We had somewhat differing views on politics,” says Golisano. “He’d say to me. ‘I don’t know why you’d want to run as an independent, when you don’t have a chance of winning.’”

Mr. Riedman “had very strong opinions” and could be “a very intimidating person,” Golisano says. Still, any political differences they had mattered less than their friendship.

Until 2015, Mr. Riedman was a trustee of Rochester Regional Health System. He served on the board of its predecessor, Rochester General Health System, where he chaired the audit and compliance committee, and RGHS predecessor ViaHealth, where he chaired the finance committee. He was a longtime trustee, building and finance committee chair for Genesee Hospital, whose merger with Rochester General Hospital formed ViaHealth. 

The Riedman Foundation has been a significant donor to Rochester General Hospital. In 2011, the foundation donated $2.5 million and helped arrange for the purchase of the hospital’s new facility on Kings Highway in Irondequoit, now known as the Riedman Campus. In 2018, the Riedman Health Center opened, named in honor of a $5 million gift from the foundation.

John Riedman with Sam Huston, former president and CEO of ViaHealth, and Huston’s wife, Ann.

Mr. Riedman drove the health system’s acquisition of the Riedman Campus property. He personally negotiated with its former owner, the ESL Federal Credit Union, recalls Hugh Thomas, executive vice president, chief administrative officer and general counsel at RRH.

“John would pass the property every day on his way to work, and he came to us and said: ‘We’ve got a lot of people all over the place. We’ve got to acquire this property,’” Thomas says.

The 21-acre former ESL site included more than 300,000 square feet of virtually ready-to-occupy office space, enabling the health system to consolidate operations, moving back office and administrative staff from far-flung leased quarters to a system-owned facility. The health system also was able to relocate some medical facilities, moving them from cramped quarters at its main facility, Rochester General Hospital, which is a stone’s throw away.

Thomas’ acquaintance with Mr. Riedman dates to 2001, when Thomas moved from private practice as a member of the Penfield-based law firm Harris Beach to a position as general counsel of the health system. 

Four months after Thomas joined the fledgling system, consisting then of Rochester General and Genesee hospitals, it was faced with having to close Genesee. 

A popular institution with a long history, Genesee also was a financially challenged facility. Its closing left the recently formed health system with tens of millions of dollars in uncollectable bad debt that had for years been carried on Genesee’s books as receivables. 

Mr. Riedman proved to have deft hand and be a sure guide, says Thomas, helping the system recover its financial footing and expand into the financially stable, five-hospital system spanning four counties that is now the region’s second-largest employer.

“In the beginning, John put me through my paces,” Thomas says. “He was a tough taskmaster, but once you earned his respect, he was very supportive. I learned a lot from him. He became a mentor for me. He had an incredible mind for business. I learned from all of it.” 

A modest start

Embarking on his insurance career at the age of 17 after graduating from Aquinas Institute in 1947, Mr. Riedman’s beginnings were modest. 

He and his wife of 66 years, Eileen, met and began dating in high school. They married in their early 20s after Mr. Riedman, returned from serving in a Germany-based U.S. Army artillery unit during the Korean War.

Mr. Riedman, who attained the rank of sergeant, was tapped for Officer Candidate School but bowed out, declining to take part in the program.  

As Mr. Riedman explained to Doyle, the OCS invitation came at a point when Mr. Riedman’s Army hitch would have been over or nearly so by the time the yearlong program was over. 

“We used to kid each other,” says Doyle, who served in an Army unit in Germany a decade after Mr. Riedman. “I’d call him sergeant and he’d call me lieutenant.”

John and Eileen Riedman first set up house in Chili, where they planted a large vegetable garden and kept chickens.

Her mother for a time sold the family chickens’ surplus eggs, delivering orders to customers on Saturdays, when her parents’ only vehicle was available, daughter Susan Holliday recalls. The Riedmans kept the Chili property and maintained the garden for a number of years until ultimately donating it to Heritage Christian Services. 

A man of strong convictions, his father unwaveringly steered a course guided by his own deeply-held values, providing an example that to this day helps him steer his own course, son David Riedman says.

To instill in his children the values that guided him—charity, public service and thrift—Mr. Riedman required his offspring to donate 10 cents of a weekly 25-cent allowance to the church and to save the remaining 15 cents, Holliday recalled in a eulogy delivered to attendees at her father’s funeral Mass.

Among other local causes the Riedman Foundation supported was the lion habitat of the Step Into Africa: Ngorongoro Crater Exhibit at the Seneca Park Zoo, for which it a pledged up to $500,000 in matching funds to help pay for construction. The foundation later donated an additional $500,000 to help close the funding gap for the transformation exhibit.

Giving nationally

Mr. Riedman’s charitable giving was not limited to the Rochester area. He asked branch managers across Riedman Corp.’s 14-state territory to submit proposals for donations to their towns’ and cities’ local charities and community projects.

In 2008, the Riedman Foundation established the John R. and Eileen K. Riedman Professorship in Medicine in the field of Rheumatology at Harvard Medical School, currently held by Michael Weinblatt M.D.

Mr. Riedman served on a variety of boards including the Public Affairs Committee of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce and as a delegate to the White House Conference on Small Business. He was a former commissioner of the Federal Personnel Interchange Commission and a former member of the National Flood Insurance Advisory Committee. He also was former chairman of the Monroe County Airport Advisory Committee, which was responsible for a $108 million expansion of the Greater Rochester International Airport. In addition, he served for eight years as a member of the New York State Thruway Authority and Canal Corp. board.  

Mr. Riedman also was the longtime president of the board of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Foundation. Other community service included two terms as chairman of the board of the Greater Rochester Metro Chamber of Commerce, where for many years he also served as its treasurer. He is a past board chairman at RMSC, a former board member and honorary trustee of St. John Fisher College, and a former trustee of WXXI Public Broadcasting Corp. 

Charitable contributions and public service earned Mr. Riedman numerous honors and awards. Alfred University awarded him with its inaugural Excellence in Family Business Award. The Otetiana Council of the Boy Scouts of America presented him with the Distinguished Citizen Award. 

In 2005, Mr. Riedman was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by St. John Fisher College and he was inducted into the Rochester Business Hall of Fame. In 2007, he received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Aquinas Institute. In 2009, the Rochester General Foundation presented Mr. Riedman with the Agnes Bartlett Curtis Philanthropy Award for his extraordinary philanthropic commitment to Rochester General.

In 2006, the Riedman Foundation made a $1 million gift to RMSC, resulting in a major expansion and creation of the third-floor Riedman Gallery for hands-on exploration of science, invention and the creative process.  

For 15 years, Mr. Riedman served as a member of the board of directors and chairman of the audit committee of Fleet Financial Group, a publicly held diversified financial services company headquartered in Boston, Mass. Before that, he had served on the boards of Security Trust Co. and Norstar, which acquired Security Trust and later was acquired by Fleet. He also served as a director of High Falls Brewing Co.

Indulging in a practice little known outside of his immediate family, Mr. Riedman enjoyed passing on a personally held value—his belief in the importance of a firm handshake—to children he happened to encounter. 

As an aid to instruction in the art of shaking hands, Holliday recalls, Mr. Riedman habitually kept on hand a supply of $1 gold pieces, a coinage produced by the U.S. mint but generally only known to and mostly held by collectors. 

“He’d go up to children and ask them to shake his hand. If they had a firm handshake, he’d give them a gold coin,” Holliday says. “If they didn’t, he wouldn’t give them a coin but would teach them how to give a firm handshake.” 

Once satisfied that the lesson had been well learned, Mr. Riedman would then bestow a coin.

In addition to his wife, Holliday and son David Riedman, Mr. Riedman is survived by daughter Katherine R. Griswold, son James R. Riedman, his sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, 10 grandchildren and two great grandchildren. 

Hundreds, including many local dignitaries as well as other friends and relatives, attended Mr. Riedman’s May 18 funeral Mass. An honor guard of Monroe County sheriff’s deputies including two mounted officers stood watch. Uniformed deputies presented his widow with a U.S. flag honoring his military service. 

Contributions honoring Mr. Riedman’s memory would be welcomed by the Rochester Museum & Science Center and the Rochester Regional Health Foundation.

Paul Ericson contributed to this article.

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