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June 2004

Fred B. Saia
His Success Story - A Triumph Over Handicaps

by Joseph H. RADDER

Seated behind his desk at the Oneida Group in Lackawnna's Gateway Center, Fred Saia exudes self-confidence. And well he should. He's overcome two handicaps. First, he's had polio since age two and still walks with crutches. Second, he had to fit into the real world as a minority businessman. You see, even though Fred Saia's father was an Italian-American, his mother is native American. Since the Seneca Nation is a matriarchal society, Fred is also Native American.

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Father Mariano and his parents- 1943 Mother Geri and her mother- 1996

Thirty years ago, in 1974, Fred Saia founded Oneida. The company started out as an installation company, installing humidifiers and other appliances under contract from Sears. He had majored in geology in college and had planned to enter the oil industry, but because of the recession in 1974 he was unable to do so. He had worked as a Sears installer during college, so it was natural to make a full-time business out of it after graduation.

"The last paycheck I got from somebody else was in 1974," he says proudly. "I've been self-employed ever since." Eventually, Oneida became Sears' largest installer in western New York. By that time, their work included installing fences, so it was a natural for Oneida to go into the fence business, building and installing chain link, wooden, and vinyl fencing.

Fred Saia was in the first class of the Center for Entreprenurial Leadership at UB. "This course made us focus on where we were going, where we wanted to go. In other words," he said, "it made us fine-tune our business. Through that class," Fred remembered. "There was an opportunity to open a Ready-Mix plant. So we went out and borrowed a million dollars, we bought three trucks (the rotating concrete mix kind you see on the highways). and all the equipment we needed, we put the plant up, and it was onward and upward from that day forward."

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Father Mariano and Fred in 1956- age 4 Mother Geri and Fred in 1956- age 4
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Fred at one year old with his father’s mother- 1953 Fred on one of his many camping trips- 1967
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Home in N. Buffalo on Wingate Ave. where
Fred grew up 1967-1988

Oneida added the Iroquois Bar Corporation later, to provide the reinforcing and structural steel needed in construction. The company's newest enterprise is Heron's Landing, a smoke shop, gas station, and restaurant on route 20 in the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation.

Some of the Oneida Group's major projects have included the HSBC Arena, the Buffalo Niagara International Airport,, the renovations at Ralph C. Wilson Stadium, West Valley Nuclear Services, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and the American Axle plant. Major clients include J.W.. Danforth Inc., Louis Ciminelli Inc., the Quackenbush Company, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Graphic Controls, Niagara Mohawk, the City of Buffalo, New York State DOT, and several others. Oneida's biggest project this year was supplying 30,000 yards of concrete for the General Motors plant expansion on River Road.

Fred Saia was born on February 9, 1952 in Batavia, New York. His father, Mariano Saia, was general manager for the Holland Furnace Company in Batavia. Later, after a short stay in Pittsburgh, the family moved to Buffalo where his father founded the Kalamazoo Heating and Cooling Company and later Bel-Air Construction.

His mother, Geraldine (Geri) Washburn, was a full-time mother and raised their family of three in the Saia family's comfortable home on the west side of Buffalo, and later to Amherst and Voorhees in north Buffalo.

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Celebrating Mariano & Geri’s 50th Anniversary with the entire family- June 1998 Danielle, Ann Marie, & Maggie- Christmas 2001

Saia went to elementary school at St. Mark's, then to high school at Canisius. His college education began at St. Bonaventure, and was completed at UB in 1975 when he graduated with a degree in geology. "That's an easy way to see the world," he said smiling, "become a geology major. You go on field trips everywhere. I spent two summers in research in Mexico, and in Mazatlan in the Pacific Ocean. I liked to study tiny minerals, which is another way of saying I liked to study sand on the beaches."

Fred has one brother and one sister. His brother, Tom Saia is an executive in the Oneida Group and president of the Iroquois Bar Corporation. His sister Lyn lives with her family in Miami Beach, Florida.

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Fred & Donna’s Wedding- April 6, 1984 Fred & Donna- 1996
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Ann Marie, Donna, Danielle, Fred, and Maggie- 1995

Fred Saia and Donna Carey were married in Buffalo in 1984. They have three daughters, Danielle is 24 and in her second year at UB Medical School. A graduate of Nardin Academy, she earned her four year degree at Clarkson University. Maggie is 18 and a freshman at the Environmental Sciences and Forestry School at Syracuse University. Maggie is also a graduate of Nardin. Ann Marie is 15 and a sophomore At Nardin Academy.

A question about Fred's hobbies and recreational activity brought a quick smile and a one-word answer: "Fishing!" He then produced a photograph of himself and two friends holding the biggest salmon you can imagine. Where does he fish? "Anywhere I can." The Saias have a summer home at Sturgeon Point where he enjoys fishing in Lake Erie all summer long. On other occasions he fishes for salmon in the lower Niagara River and Lake Ontario, and on vacations goes for striped bass in Lake Mead.. "We won the Pro-Am in Oswego last summer," he says. He may fish very early in the spring or late in the fall, but he draws the line at ice fishing. "I look at these guys," he said, "and I give them a lot of credit for being out there, but…" Buffalo Bills paraphernalia in his office tell us that Fred Saia is also a loyal football fan. And his daughters all play sports…soccer, lacrosse, basketball and riding. You can be sure he's on hand for many of those events as well.

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Fred & Dave Peters in Buckhorn State Park- 1967 Never enough fishing- 1972
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Walleye fishing in Lake Erie- 2000 With Mariano in Northern Quebec- 1997

Awards and honors are numerous. In 1992 and 1996 he was nominated by the SBA as the Small Business Person of the Year. For three years in a row, in 1996, 1997, and 1998 Oneida received INC. magazine's award as one of America's fastest-growing private companies. In 1998 Oneida received the Outstanding Employer award at the National Indian and Native American Employment and Training Conference. Again in 2000 he received another INC.magazine award, this time its Inner City 100 award. He was also nominated twice for Ernst and Young's Business Person of the Year award.

Fred Saia has been an entrepreneur as far back as he can remember. When he was in high school. He began making and selling leather belts. When he was in college, this became quite a lucrative business. Yet he found time to work part-time for Sears in customer service.

This, of course, was the basis for his own appliance installation business and eventually Oneida.

Fred Saia is on a number of boards of directors and trustees…the Buffalo/Niagara Partnership, the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, the New York State Rehab Board, and the UB Center for Entreprenurial Leadership, to name but a few.

His humility shows when he says "I'm not a home-run hitter. I like to hit singles and doubles. For a person who has suffered from the effects of polio for 50 years, we'd say even singles would be great achievements in the business world as they would be on the baseball field.

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On a family trip with Ann Marie & Maggie- 2000 Boating with friends on the St. Lawrence- 1996

He doesn't speak much of his polio, but when prodded to do so he remembers how his mother taught him to avoid self-pity. "I walked to school every day," he said. "I never knew until much later that I could have taken a bus. That was her way of teaching me that I could do things without help. Oh sure, it took me a lot longer to walk the four blocks to school and back than the other kids, but the important thing is that I did it, and did it every day." Fred has had orthopedic corrective surgery fifteen times.

"Polio victims, as a class, are over-achievers," he said. We had never thought of it that way, but when one thinks about the polio patients who are doctors and lawyers, even president of the United States (Franklin D. Roosevelt), that truth becomes clear.

Because of his polio, his dad wanted him to go to law school, but Fred chose a geology major instead. One wonders if he would have been as successful as a lawyer as he has in his diversified business. We daresay he would have. Indeed, his sharpness and articulate use of English would have served him well in the courtroom.

Saia is an achiever outside business as well. He is the founder and board president of the Charter School of Applied Technology in Kenmore with an enrollment of 940 students, the largest Charter School in New York. "Our academic numbers are increasing every year, our waiting list is increasing every year, and we're opening up our high school in September. We're a career driven school, and our motto is 'every day is career day'."

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Building and working the business

Optimism is a built-in characteristic of Fred B. Saia, probably the result of a lifetime of success in the face of handicaps. For example, he's very optimistic about Buffalo/Niagara. He agreed that our image is improving at the national level, citing positive reports in publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlanta Journal. "A lot more has happened in the last two years," he says. "You can't tell by the (local) papers, but the positive is catching up on the negative here."

On the other hand, he feels strongly that Buffalo/Niagara citizens have to get rid of the inferiority complex that has gripped this area for so long "Sometimes we're our own worst enemy.

As far as the Oneida Group is concerned, "We've had five or six good years in a row. And that's a pretty good run. But as a businessman I know that you've got to save money for when it rains, because I know it's going to rain again."

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Mother Geri receiving House Garden Award from Buffalo’s Mayor James Griffin- 1993

"We've built a good solid business here. We have more than 50 employees now" he says handing over a very impressive looking brochure summarizing the activities of the Oneida Group…Oneida Concrete, Oneida Fence, the Iroquois Bar Corporation, and now, Heron's Landing. Reading the brochure we learn that Oneida became certified as a Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) in the State of New York. Since then, Oneida has been certified as a minority business in the states of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Maine, New Jersey, and New Hampshire .

Only a small minority of people, most of whom have no handicaps, have accomplished as much as Fred B. Saia has done as a minority businessman, with polio ever-present throughout his life.

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Fred’s brother Tom, sister Lyn and Fred- 2002

Joseph H. Radder, a frequent contributor to Living Prime Time, is author of a new book, Young Jesus, the Missing Years. For more information, phone 1-888-280-7715 or visit www.istbooks.com

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