WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Once a local powerhouse, Dan Catalfumo's construction empire is fading rapidly.
Banks are breathing down Catalfumo's neck, a consequence of the real estate recession: His holdings have been slammed in the past two years by lender suits seeking $100 million-plus, several of them naming the highflying multimillionaire builder personally.
Longtime employees have left, and sources close to the developer say the company is down to fewer than 50 full-time workers, a far cry from the reported 300-worker, $300 million enterprise of a few years ago.
Catalfumo is hardly the only local builder to stumble over a tanking real estate market. But he was among the biggest in South Florida, and he is almost certainly the most controversial. With his rags-to-riches success story, his well-known penchant for lawsuits and sometimes lurid court battles with ex-girlfriends, Catalfumo always has cut a larger-than-life profile.
"You rise hard and fast, you fall hard and fast," said one industry observer. Still, he added, " it's kind of amazing" that Catalfumo has dropped off the industry radar so quickly.
Catalfumo stops short of confirming the actual number of employees now on the payroll but, in written responses to The Post, says reductions in staffing kept the company from the fate of builders such as Tousa Inc.: bankruptcy court.
"If you do not react to the reality and reinvent your business to match the market conditions, you are as doomed as a dinosaur," he wrote.
Catalfumo is launching new ventures, but they are far removed from building: a chicken deboning business - EZ Wings - and a recreational scooter business with his children that faces a 54-page lawsuit.
Efforts to reinvent himself come as he faces other symptoms of financial stress. Catalfumo returned his Viking yacht to a lender. The Daniel S. Catalfumo Family Foundation, which received more than a $200,000 contribution from Catalfumo-related enterprises in 2007 and 2008, received $19,880 in 2009 contributions.
The Paragon Foundation, a local economic development nonprofit to which a Catalfumo company pledged $250,000, says it has not received any money. "The reason they have given is they don't have the money," said a lawyer for the group.
Catalfumo, meanwhile, is building a lakeside home near Greenville, S.C., but said he has no intention of leaving Palm Beach County - or getting out of the local construction business. "Building is in my blood," he wrote, "and it is my passion to build things and when the market returns to health I fully expect to be involved as I have been in the past."
Dan Catalfumo has always done it his way.
On the last day of school of his senior year at Forest Hill High School, the Brooklyn native rode a motorcycle through the hallways and spent months in traction after slamming into a car in the parking lot. "He could have killed any number of people," teacher George Wood recalled in 2003.
Working after high school in Danny's Shoe Repair, his father's longtime business, Catalfumo figured he could build his own two-story house. He went shopping at Sears and returned home with a saw, hammers and a tool belt. He did well enough to quit the cobbler business in 1978 to build houses full time; his own home was used as a model for customers to peruse.
From there he moved into commercial real estate. Again, he did it his way: Despite his sprawling construction and development interests, records show he's never been a state-licensed general contractor.
That didn't bar him from plum building deals. West Palm Beach's new city hall, library and waterfront; Legacy Place in Palm Beach Gardens; the Port of Palm Beach cruise terminal; a Palm Beach County government building at Vista Center: All made it into the portfolio of Catalfumo companies.
The real coup came in 1999, when Catalfumo spent an estimated $41 million for 231 acres of prime undeveloped land owned by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. That includes high-profile acreage at PGA Boulevard and Interstate 95 near The Gardens Mall, some of it now home to Catalfumo headquarters, and chunks of it involved in lender lawsuits.
Heading for court
But if the deals fell smoothly into place, business relationships haven't always followed suit.
Take Stephen Fisher. In 2001, Fisher sold his Fisher-Clark Construction to Catalfumo Construction & Development. Fisher, named Catalfumo's senior vice president, eventually left. Catalfumo responded by filing five lawsuits against him. At one point, Catalfumo Construction filed a legal action seeking to make sure four construction companies and four men - three of them former Catalfumo employees - never received any kind of work on Catalfumo's prime northern properties, even if Catalfumo sold the land.
Then there were the girlfriends.
In 1997, he sued Barbie Catalfumo, whom he would later marry, for the return of a 5.3-carat diamond engagement ring. He was arrested following a fight with her; misdemeanor battery charges