Billionaire investor Kenneth Langone told a small audience at Adelphi University's Performing Arts Center Wednesday night that he considers income inequality to be among the nation's biggest problems.
As chief executive and founder of investment firm Invemed Associates LLC, Langone, 79, originally of Roslyn Heights, is best known for co-founding home improvement giant The Home Depot. Langone, who lives in Sands Point, ranked No. 714 of 1,826 on Forbes' global billionaires list earlier this year, with an estimated net worth of $2.6 billion.
Speaking to reporters before his speech -- part of a lecture series at the school -- Langone brought up what he called the problem of income inequality.
"People can't live on $7.50 an hour," said Langone, who said when he was young he worked as a day laborer digging ditches during the construction of the Long Island Expressway.
"Now you're going to find that hard to believe, [coming] from a capitalist, but if we don't do something about helping these people on the lower end of the pay scale, I think we're setting ourselves up for serious problems," he said.
Langone said that when he and other co-founders of The Home Depot established the company, they focused on compensating and motivating workers in the stores.
"Not one of them was ever paid minimum wage," he said, even in entry-level jobs. "We took the position we wanted our people to be better than minimum wage, so we're going to pay better than minimum wage, and we still do that."
As a way to motivate employees, Langone said it was a founding principle that every associate would have an avenue to be a stockholder. "We have 3,000 people that started there [in entry level positions] that are, tonight, multimillionaires" as a result of their stock in Home Depot, he said.
The Home Depot has 36 locations throughout Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Langone said that when he examines potential investments, he focuses on one factor: the people behind the product.
"You can have a phenomenal technology with bad people; you're not gonna have much success," he said. "You can have mediocre technology with great people; they'll figure out a way to make a buck."
Shifting gears, Langone said New York State's high taxes were a "de-incentivizing" factor in attracting new talent and companies. And he decried what he called a lack of return on the state's Start-Up NY program of tax-free zones for small, growing companies.
Aside from providing tax breaks, "this advertising campaign is all about we can do this and we can do that. Well, I don't see any great rush into New York State," he said.
But even though states such as North Carolina, Texas and Florida continue to attract both young talent and companies, Langone said he remains a big fan of New York.
"I'm here and I love it here and I'm gonna stay here," he said. "I'm going to pay these outrageous taxes because I can afford to and it's like another charity" to him.