Leadership By the Book

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Most churches run their churches like a business. I run my business like the church should be run,” says Tony Leopardi, who after 30 years in the homebuilding and remodeling business in Southwest Florida—and several before that in New York— started a restaurant in November.

Leopardi’s Italian Restaurant opened in the castle-like building off U.S. 41 in south Fort Myers that housed, among other eateries, Dwyer’s Irish Pub and the Tilted Kilt. And then sat empty for more than two years. In fact, it’s been considered a troubled space.

Leopardi is undaunted. “When you walk with God, nothing is impossible,” he says.

It’s clear from a discussion with Leopardi that running his business like a church usually means relying on Scripture as a leadership tool. He didn’t always manage that way, but once he started to, he believes, the results were obvious.

At first, “I’d interview 25 people [for a job], hire a guy and he wouldn’t show up.

“Now, unless you walked alongside of me, you’d think I was crazy. We haven’t run an ad for help in maybe 30 years. I committed with God that I would pray for help, and he would send it, and they would walk through the door.”

He attributes that phenomenon to a Bible passage in the book of Matthew about people worry- ing where their clothing, food and drink will come from. It ends with Matthew 6:33: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Leadership skills come from the same source, according to Leopardi. “If you follow the Scriptures, Jesus taught in parables in Matthew 5, 6 and 7, he gave people guidelines about how to live. This simple teaching is what I apply to my life,” he says.

“Forgiveness is a big, big issue with me. I can be very upset with someone, sit down and scold them, and then it goes away. True forgiveness is putting it in the past,” Leopardi says, citing Psalms 103.12: “As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us.”

Not everyone who works for Leopardi shares his Christian faith, and that’s OK with him. And he doesn’t mind if sales staff members talk about their faith on the job. He admits that sometimes it offends customers. “But that’s their problem. I follow my principles but I don’t expect my customers to follow my principles,” he says. On Thursday mornings, Leopardi and eight or nine staff members hold a prayer meeting.

Leopardi’s father, a carpenter, died when his son was just 5 years old. Tony Leopardi wanted to be like his father and worked in a lumberyard after high school. Then he joined the Navy at 17 and spent 21⁄2 years working on a ship that had a cabinet shop. He says he joined the carpenter’s union and started his own business in his native Long Island, N.Y., but struggled for several years. Not coincidentally, he believes, he was a “nonpracticing Catholic” at the time.

In addition to becoming a practicing Christian, he says he has turned into a “delegator.” “It’s about empowering others. When someone comes up with an idea, I like to say, ‘Run with it.’”

Although Leopardi had the notion to open up a restaurant that celebrated the family’s Italian roots— his grandparents emigrated from Abruzzo, Italy—“my wife was not in on the agreement. … Recently she decided she would allow me to do it,” he says. Gina Leopardi is also Italian, and her family was in the restaurant business in New York City.

“And then I went full speed ahead,”

Leopardi says. “In the remodeling business, my responsibilities shrunk. … We have a phenomenal management team and they do their jobs very, very well.

“The same goes into building a restaurant; You do it with solid people to where I’m not needed all the time either.”

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