Does the average Mafia don know as much about effective leadership as any Fortune 500 CEO?
Absolutely, says Louis Ferrante, an associate of the Gambino family who relied on his instincts to pull off some of the biggest heists in US crime history. By the age of 21, he had netted millions for the mob—but soon after landed in jail to pay for his crimes.
The same management talents and business acumen that led Mafia bosses to rely on him also led him to find a way to cut his prison sentence short. But while in jail, Ferrante decided that he could thrive in the real world—without being criminal. Two books and a TV series later, he’s proving his theory was right.
It was a pleasure to interview the former don turned legitimate business leader. Scroll down for our Q&A. And click here to listen to our podcast interview on the Inkandescent Radio Network.
Be Inkandescent: In “Mob Rules,” you share that you began stealing at age 12, hijacked your first truck in your late teens, and were heading your own crew within the Gambino family in your early 20s. What led you into a life of crime—especially at such an early age?
Louis Ferrante: My mother and father were good people, but when I left the house I did what I wanted—and I wanted to hang out with the mischievous kids. We would steal cars and joyride around New York. Initially, we would just take a car for the night and do some doughnuts in the parking lot, pick up a girl from the neighborhood, and cruise around trying to impress her. Then we got to be 16 or so, and realized that we could steal cars and parts for money.
We could sell parts to the auto body collision shops in Queens under the table. A lot of the shops were crooked, so if your car was hit in an accident and you took it to an auto body collision shop, the insurance company would appraise it for, let’s say, $10,000 worth of damage, and maybe $5,000 went to parts and $5,000 went to labor. If they were able to buy the parts off me and my friends for a $1,000-$2,000, they would put the rest in their pockets.
One day I realized that the giant toolboxes that the auto workers were using cost about $8,000 a piece, and a guy told me that the truck comes once a week to deliver parts for the toolboxes. I asked how much the truck was worth, and he goes, “Well, it’s probably worth a hundred grand.” So I hijacked his truck. That started me in a new league. I put together a hijacking crew the same way I put together a crew of car thieves.
Soon I was hijacking, and we’re talking trucks all over New York. But just like the IRS is going to find out if you open up a business and start making money, the Gambino family is going to find out if you’re on the street making money. So they came looking for me. But I was happy that they did, because being part of the Mob is a step up.
When you’re an Italian American that’s the ultimate. It’s like if you’re a computer hack fooling around with stuff in your dining room, and Bill Gates is knocking on your window saying, “Hey, why don’t you come work for Microsoft?
Be Inkandescent: How were you finally caught and put into prison?
Louis Ferrante: It wasn’t in my makeup to snitch on somebody, and I figured everyone was like me. I was wrong. My snitch was a guy who went into the witness protection program. He said he feared me at the time, and I was probably a guy who should be feared back then. He agreed to testify against me and my crew, so we all got locked up together, and we all refused to snitch on other people.
I was sent to the penitentiary in Lewisberg, Pennsylvania, the maximum security penitentiary. There was a double homicide my very first day there. Day One and blood all over, guys getting hacked up by homemade prison machetes. So you pay a price when you don’t snitch.
Be Inkandescent: Unbelievable. This a world that most people only read about, especially people in the small-business community. You say in the book that you never informed on friends or associates. How did you regain your freedom?
Louis Ferrante: Just because you got locked up you don’t stop being a mobster; you’re just a mobster serving time. So we were all locked up at a federal prison, playing cards and still living the Mafia life. People would come for visits who were collecting money for us. I still had hijack loads that I had hidden and was selling. I still had a loan shark book on the street. So I was collecting money for the money that I had lent out. Yes, you are in jail, but everything continues and you’re still a mobster.
On one occasion, I went to “the hole” for a fight that I didn’t have anything to do with. Somebody threw an apple at the guard, and it was dark and they thought it came from me in the dormitory. So down I went. They didn’t want to give me my clothes, they didn’t want to give me a mattress; they wanted to make me suffer. When food finally came, I grabbed the guard’s tie through the food slot and it came right off his neck. I didn’t know until then that it was a clip-on. He looked at me and said, “You think we would wear real ties with animals in here?”
He said, “Look at you, you’re an animal. You’re an animal in a zoo. You’re not allowed of this cell unless you’re in chains.” And that was a big wake-up call, because it was true. When you’re in the hole, you’re chained up. You have to push your hands back up to the door, push your hands through the food slot, get hand cuffed and chained and then walk away from the door to be allowed out of the cell. So you really feel like an animal.
I started to rethink things, and when I got out of the hole, I said to myself, “I cannot go on like this.”
Be Inkandescent: What was your next step?
Louis Ferrante: I called up a friend who was the caretaker of mobster John Gotti’s Social Club. His name was Fat George and he had tattoos all over his body, and some of the tattoos were biblical verses, so I figured maybe he read a book. He might have at least read the Bible. I asked him to send me books, and he said “Sure, no problem. What do you want? Big boobs? Big behinds? What do you like?” and I said “No, no, no. I’m not looking for those kinds of books. I want to read a book.” And he said “What do you want to read?”
At the point I had never read a book before in my life. I was literate, I went to school when I was a kid, but I just cheated my way through school, never read a book, never studied. It was always just cheating to get by. I had people do my homework and projects all throughout school. And in my high school years I had a pocketful of money compared to the other kids, so I could pay people to do anything and I always got by.
So now I started to read and I fell in love with books. And that started to open up a new world for me. I thought Chinese people came from Flushing, New York. I didn’t know there’s a huge place called China, and it’s in this place called Asia and that on the coast of China is Hong Kong and Singapore and Malaysia and Southeast Asia. The British Empire started off in this tiny island called Great Britain.
That’s what I did for the next eight and a half years. I just kept on reading.
Be Inkandescent: What made you eventually decide to go straight?
Louis Ferrante: Different thoughts kept floating through my head about the “code” and how it wasn’t really what I was thought it was. The newer generation was dismissing the “code” whenever it was convenient. I believed in the code the way the old-timers did.
Realize that every day of your life in the mob you focus on how to make money; everybody is constantly thinking how to make money. That’s what the Mafia is. It’s an organization that revolves around money. And its called a family, so its like being in a family of moneymakers.
In jail, I realized that what we did wrong was that we had no real moral code. We have a code, but it’s a twisted code. If somebody owed me money, I can’t go to the guy’s house to collect my money because he has a wife and kids maybe, or his mother might be home. How dare I offend his family and the sacredness of his home? But the code is twisted because if I catch this same guy down the block at the pub, I could run him over with my car four times and put him in a body cast, but as long as I don’t do it in front of the family it’s within our code.
Be Inkandesent: It sounds pretty Machiavellian.
Louis Ferrante: Oh, yes. The Mafia is the biggest Machiavelli organization in the world, and no one can out-Machiavelli me. When people try to be slick and sly with me, I catch it immediately. I realized that I could defend myself from someone who might try to do it against me and that I can use all the things I’ve learned on the streets to make money but do it with a moral code. And I knew that if I did that, I would be successful. And that’s what I did.
Be Inkandescent: In your book, “Mob Rules,” you make a case that while mobsters are selfish men who are out for personal gain—so are businessmen. Talk more about that idea.
Louis Ferrante: Well, obviously the Mob guys are greedy. They advertise that and they don’t try to say they’re not. But businessmen are just as greedy. I don’t care if you’re a politician or a businessman or a mobster—the bottom line is the buck. That’s what you’re out for every day.
In the Mob, people put the brakes on their greed because they know there are repercussions. If I’m really greedy and I beat Louie out of all of his money, he just might be waiting outside my house behind a bush one day and could easily shoot me. So why bother with this? Let them have their money.
In the real world, businesspeople don’t care. There are a lot of good businessmen who do live by a moral code and do pay their debts though. Those are the ones who go the farthest. I know quite a few of them. But there are some real louses out there, too.
Recently, in fact, I did somebody a favor and sent somebody to somebody else who made money with that person and it was understood that there would be some sort of commission for me, but it wasn’t in writing. I just took a shot with it. I knew the person and thought they were pretty cool. Done, never got a nickel out of it. That person doesn’t realize that they were very shortsighted. They lose me forever because I’ll never make the same mistake twice. I’m all the better for having seen their true nature.
Now, life is a process of weeding out people who aren’t greedy, who do see the long-term relationship as being more important. Those are the people I like to do business with.
Be Inkandescent: We talk about that in our Trifecta of Small Business Failure—that there are still people out there who only feel they’ve won in a deal if someone else loses. That’s not very progressive, especially in the new world where the Millennials rule, and they want everyone involved in a transaction to benefit.
Louis Ferrante: Right on. But I have encountered a number of businesspeople who will beat you if they can. It’s sad because they only see the short term. If they had any brains they would think, “Why burn this bridge?” But these sorts of businesspeople constantly have to find new people to beat.
Look at the housing market crash. If a guy owed me $100,000, and he told me, “I don’t have the money, Lou”, I’m not throwing him out of his house. How many people got thrown out of their house and got foreclosed on? The banks just said, “Too bad, you can’t make a mortgage payment, you’re gone. Take your 2 year old and your infant and get the hell out.” They didn’t care.
How many banks and mortgage brokers gave these people mortgages knowing that it was an adjustable rate loan and it could go up and they could get screwed. I would never do that. As a mobster I knew what the guy had. “How much do you make a week?” “I make $800 a week.” “Okay, can you afford to pay me $100 a week?” “Yeah, I can.”
Be Inkandescent: Clearly, your message has struck a chord worldwide. “Mob Rules” was also nominated for the prestigious business book award 800-CEO-READ Business Book Awards, was listed as one of Forbes columnist Marc Kramer’s “World’s Best Business Books,” and business skills have been highlighted in publications such as London’s Financial Times, The Times of India, Business Week, and Crain’s New York Business, to name a few. How does this type of success feel?
Louis Ferrante: It feels good. It feels like I know that life is what you put into it. And I felt like while I was in prison, I was paying for the things that I did. What I put into life I got out of it.
I ended up at a prison cell in a cage like an animal. That’s pretty much what I deserved. But I knew from paying and suffering punishments that if you lived right and did right, you would get rewards. And I felt that the universe would owe me an explanation if that’s not the way it panned out.
So I put a lot of hard work into getting somewhere. I’ve read thousands of books. I’m still an avid reader. I still believe in isolation and solitary time when I can just knock out 500-page books. I still do that. Treat people right. Just as I treated people bad and I paid for it, treat people right and that’s got to come back to you, too.
Be Inkandescent: You give back a lot. Tell us a little bit about some groups you work with.
Louis Ferrante: I do a lot of talks with the Young Presidents’ Organization, and the World Presidents’ Organization all over the country, and in Canada and South Africa. I do a lot of keynote addresses for different organizations.
Different companies bring me in all the time. And I love doing it. I keep in touch with the guys and gals that I meet at these places. I establish some really good friendships at these group meetings, so I really love doing these talks. It’s usually based on my book, “What the Mafia Can Teach You.”
Be Inkandescent: Were you ever concerned that the international business organizations wouldn’t take you seriously?
Louis Ferrante: You know it. And I thank God they did, because really there’s a lot to learn. If you read my book, you’ll get Mafia stories, but you’re also going to walk away with a lot of valuable things about how mobsters know how to do business. If you take away the pinstriped suit and the violin case and just measure them by their business savvy, these guys know how to do business.
When the Mafia was running on time, on schedule, up to code, it was a rocking organization. If you got hurt by the Mob it was because you deserved it. Now unfortunately, more and more people get hurt who don’t have it coming, and that bothered me.
Be Inkandescent: Before we let you go, give us insight into what you write about in the epilogue of “Mob Rules.” You advise: “Be a Pizza Eggroll.” What do you mean by that?
Louis Ferrante: Okay, so I have told you how mobsters pride themselves about being Machiavellian. They’ve never read, The Prince, and they’ve never read, The Discourses, and they don’t know exactly what Machiavelli wrote—but they have a sense that it means out-foxing somebody, which it does.
In the metaphor of the Pizza Eggroll, Machiavelli is the pizza. You should know and be able to sense a Machiavellian character. The eggroll is Confucius, who said that by virtue alone you should transcend everyone else. So if you run your company based on core values that you don’t compromise, and you avoid primitive instincts of just making money any way you can, then in the long run, if you abide by the philosophy of Confucius and Machiavelli, you will prevail.
There’s more! Be sure to read some of Louis Ferrante’s favorite Lessons for Soldiers (employees), Capos (middle managers), and Dons (the boss), in our November Entrepreneur of the Month feature.
And check out our podcast interview with Lou Ferrante on the Inkandescent Radio Network.