OK, let’s be frank. We should all be so lucky.
Noted builder, philanthropist, dual board member, father, husband, rock-and-roll enthusiast, and workaholic, Frank “Pupie” Raia is a born-and-raised Hoboken institution. Yet few people know the story behind the name. I sat down with the man, the myth, and the legend at Dino & Harry’s restaurant, and while I think there is a certain inherent charm that comes with all conversations with Baby Boomers, talking with Frank Raia is like reading five biographies in one sitting.
One tip: Never go somewhere crowded; this man knows everyone. You will be interrupted at least 25 times before you even order drinks.
Mother’s little helper
Frank Raia’s is a real-life rags-to-riches story. Born at 612 Grand St., he started his first job at the age of 8 to support his mother, a single mom with six kids. He delivered milk locally for a whopping $21 a week.
“I kept one dollar and gave my mother 20,” says Raia.
From there, he began washing cars in Union City and then built his own shoeshine box, to shine shoes at bars in Hoboken. Raia was willing to take on any odd job to keep his family afloat.
So how did he go from milk trucks to a million bucks?
By high school, Raia was working in a textile factory. “I was one of the smaller kids in high school, so I couldn’t play ball,” he says.
That “small” fact may be what changed Raia’s life. Having been “skipped three times,” Raia graduated from high school at age 16. From 14 to 16, he cut samples in the textile factory to sell to international chains. “I made $1.25 an hour,” he recalls.
But he wanted to do more. “I pushed to pack the orders and then I wanted an opportunity to sell to the West Coast,” he says. “I told my boss, ‘You pay the sales guys 3 percent, I’ll take 1 percent.’”
He began calling a small 35-store chain. You may have heard of it, a little store we know today as Wal-Mart, which started as Walton’s Five and Dime.
Unfortunately for little Raia, no one was returning his calls. And just like that, he approached his boss with yet another plan. This one was far bigger than his prior plans and practically unheard of for a 16-year-old.
“I told my boss I needed $4,400,” Raia recalls. “I told him, ‘I want to buy 400 shares of stock. If I lose I pay you back, if I make money, you keep it.’”
Yes, Walmart at the time was about $11 a share.
The second part of Frank’s plan was to fly to Bentonville, Ark., the home office of Walton’s Five and Dime, Wal-Mart’s flagship store.
“If he didn’t see me, I was going to jump on his desk,” Raia says.
Raia did fly to Arkansas, with “dungarees” on. He wound up screaming in the office of Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club.
“A man came out and asked what the problem was. I told him, ‘I’ve been calling this guy and he won’t see me. [The company] is losing money. I can get you .50 a yard cheaper,’” Raia said. “I’m a shareholder of this company, and I want the business.”
The “man” was Sam Walton. Raia got the account. And Sam Walton became Raia’s mentor.
Raia became one of the most successful sales managers in the country, and he was only a teenager. He continued to promote the integrity of his brand and insist that it wasn’t cut with cheaper fabric.
“The rule of thumb for success was if you can turn your inventory four times. I was turning inventory 29 times,” Raia says.
Luckily, his boss was stashing his commission checks in the bank for him, and his Wal-Mart stock splits didn’t hurt either.
I can’t get no … satisfaction
“In life you get to the point where you are the best at what you do and you ask yourself is this it,” Raia says. “I wanted to do something else.”
A property soon went up for sale on Hudson Street for $92,500, and Frank and a partner each put $25,000 down. From there, Frank bought buildings—a lot of them—and later even brought ShopRite and Bow Tie Hoboken Cinemas to town.
“Then my school [The Citadel at 450 Seventh St.] went up for sale at auction,” Raia says. “At the time it was the highest-priced building at a million two. Everyone thought I was crazy. I wanted to live in my school.”
From then on, Raia has been paying it forward, giving back to his hometown. In 1983, former mayor Steve Cappiello needed to fill a vacancy on the board for H.O.P.E.S, a local nonprofit that provides social and educational programs. Raia is still on the board, serving as chairman. He has sponsored recreational teams, served two terms on the Board of Education, is a current board member of HoLa, the Dual Language Charter School, filled interim seats on the city council, coached Hoboken kids for a goodwill baseball tour to Russia, and served 22 years and counting on the North Hudson Sewerage Authority.
He continued reinvesting in real estate and learned what it took to build and provide affordable housing. Today, Raia has built 500 affordable-housing units in New Jersey, 115 of those in his hometown.
Raia is a husband and father, and somehow juggles it all. His all-star son, Ryan, recently graduated from Rutgers. But Ryan isn’t the only child Raia has raised.
He raised his nephew, Nicholas, and two other children.
It’s only rock and roll
But the absolute best thing about Frank Raia? How down to earth he is.
Notorious for stealing the mic from any band when any Rolling Stones song comes on, Raia has seen the Rolling Stones in concert 82 times.
“Music is my hobby,” he says.
He belonged to New York nightclub Galaxy 21 with David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix. He frequented Studio 54 in “elephant bells, snakeskin platforms, a maxi coat, and a brim hat.” He’s held birthday parties yearly since 1988 in Sinatra Park with national acts. He went to Woodstock.
Raia’s rock rolodex goes on for days, and he will gladly share his tales. The only thing he may not share is where the name “Pupie” comes from.—07030