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The billionaire next door

It was my first sit-down with a multi-billionaire. I wasn’t sure what to expect. When you’ve got that much money (and the power/influence that goes with it), I figured there might be a teeny bit of ego involved.

Not with Kim Pegula.

As half of Pegula Sports Entertainment, the company that owns the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres (among other interests), Kim is unassuming, down-to-earth and just, well…nice. Though her net worth with husband Terry reportedly stands at $3.6 billion, our conversations over the course of two meetings were similar to those I’d have with any of my girlfriends — what the kids are up to, how work is going, our skin care regimen, the latest movies.

The lack of pretense seems to have a lot to do with her upbringing.

She spent her early childhood in an orphanage in Seoul, Korea, and was adopted by a family in Fairport, outside of Rochester.  She doesn’t remember the day she stepped off the plane, at age 5, to live with her new family, but she does know she didn’t speak a word of English (and her new parents didn’t know Korean). At that point, her life changed dramatically. Kim describes her middle-class upbringing — the daughter of a school superintendent dad and a piano teacher mom — as “a fairy tale” — living the American dream. “We went sledding, we played kick the can in the summertime — it was that kind of neighborhood,” said Kim, 45.

She spent most of her life in Fairport until senior year, when her dad got a job in Ithaca; she then attended Houghton College in the Southern Tier.

Their story

Kim had just graduated college when she met Terry Pegula at the Old Library restaurant in Olean. She was interviewing for a job; Terry was at the restaurant having lunch. She caught his eye, and after learning she was looking for a job, he offered her an interview at East Resources, his natural gas company headquartered in Olean. She got a job in media relations, and the two eventually developed a relationship.

They married in 1993. Terry had two children from a former marriage: Michael (then 16) and Laura (then 11). They settled in Orchard Park to be near them, where the kids lived with their mother. As in many blended families, Kim admits it wasn’t always easy. “Obviously divorce on kids is always hard – especially when you’re in those teen years, and you’re going through a bunch of other things,” said Kim. “But I knew what I was getting into. You just have to spend the time with them. Kids get older and start seeing things differently. And time heals everything.”

They went on to have three kids of their own — Jessie (now 20), Kelly (18) and Matthew (15). For the Pegulas, it was always about family; they moved a lot in those early years, twice for the kids. In 1997 they followed daughter Laura’s tennis coach to Vestal (outside Binghamton, NY) so she could pursue a tennis scholarship. Kim stayed with the kids while Terry slept on a cot at East Resources headquarters in Olean, coming home on weekends. Years later they moved to Hilton Head so daughter Jessie could also pursue a career in tennis (she is now a professional).

Today, they live in Boca Raton, Florida, where youngest kids Kelly and Matthew are finishing high school, with a condo in Buffalo to accommodate their frequent visits. Now that the kids are older — and the business has shifted from natural gas to sports/entertainment, Kim is taking a larger role in the Pegulas’ business interests.

“As we got more into the sports, that’s where my interests lay — fan experience, marketing and branding. I didn’t have any expectations. [The Sabres purchase] kind of went fast — we didn’t really put much thought into [what our specific roles would be]. We just gravitated toward the areas that we like best, and developed from there.”

Kim said she and Terry have a good balance.

“He’s not into computers or emails, but I am. He’s talking about the draft, the players – I’m talking about the wives and their kids. But the important things [in life and business] we are very alike on. The big things – like moving to Hilton Head, or buying the team – we’re always very much in agreement on.”

Many people can’t imagine working with their spouse. But the Pegulas have been happily married, and working together at some level, for 22 years.

“It just works. Some of it is the age difference,” said Kim (they are 18 years apart). “Being younger, I was kind of this clean slate, I had no expectations or baggage.”

Religion also played a big part in their early lives. Kim’s parents were very religious; she and her two older brothers attended Houghton, a Christian college, where her father now works. Terry was raised Catholic. Kim points to that as something that keeps them grounded.

“I grew up in a very faith-based household,” she said. “I think a lot of the fundamentals of your faith can be seen at work and at home — it doesn’t necessarily have to be how many times you go to church. The same values that I grew up with at home, that I learned at church, that I learned at college — they’ve been a very important part of everything we do, from business to family life.”

Their reputation for being great employers backs that up. Kim is easygoing and friendly with office staff. She’s not a prima donna; she offered to help carry photography equipment during the photo shoot for this article (in a dress and 3-inch heels).

“If you surround yourself with the right people, they make you look so much better. [Over the years] Terry has been really lucky to be surrounded by a lot of really good people who he has faith and trust in, who’ve been very loyal to him, which allowed us to move to different states and raise our family and do the things we’ve done.”

Kim also points out that their financial success is still relatively new; they sold their company, East Resources, in 2010.

“It happened later for us. It’s not like we grew up that way — separately, and even together, since we’ve been married,” said Kim. “It’s all new to us.”

In reality, they’ve led fairly typical lives until the last four years, when they were thrust into the spotlight with their purchase of two major sports franchises – and promptly deemed the saviors of Buffalo. While Kim appreciates peoples’ gratitude and acknowledges the attention that goes with owning two teams, the adoration is not something either she or Terry are entirely comfortable with; they are used to operating under the radar.

“It’s embarrassing,” said Kim, of all the attention. “I never know what to do or say.”

Moving into the future

Kim acknowledges the Pegulas have a role in the future of Western New York.

“Terry saw Pittsburgh go through its renaissance, and the sports teams were a big part of that. He’s seen how sports can really galvanize a city, and from that, grow in other areas,” said Pegula. “If you’re not into sports, you wonder about all the money spent on sports. What does it mean? But I think it’s more of an attitude or an optimism. If you have it in a town or a city, it can do a lot.”

“There’s a lot of potential for sure. It’s happened in Cleveland. We’ve seen it in a lot of other cities. I don’t see why it’s not possible in Buffalo.

Interview Outtakes

Kim's favorite restaurants...
Tempo. Sinatra’s. Barbill (in East Aurora) for wings and beef on weck. And, of course, (716) Food & Sport (the restaurant they own in HarborCenter).

On building a new football stadium...
"It’s a partnership with the state, county, us — and the fans and the community. We are part of it, but it’s something the group has to go through. It’s going to be a long process. I feel like everyone thinks it’s going to happen next year."

On the secret to a successful marriage/ business partnership...
"If I knew what it was, I’d bottle it up and sell it to everybody on Match.com."

On her family’s Australian Shepherd, Sidney (named after Sidney Crosby)...
"He’s obsessed with Terry. He’s the best dog, and he’s really smart — he can open the door."

On finding her birth parents...
"South Korea just seems too far away. It seems so daunting — it’s just not something that’s on my list of things to do right now."

What Kim does in her free time...
"I love action movies. Terry doesn’t love movies so I go with my son, although now he’s getting too old and doesn’t want to go with mom anymore."

On her anxiety at daughter Jessie’s tennis matches...
"I pace. I walk around. I eat. I don’t enjoy it at all. Now I do all the back-end stuff. Going to a tournament — that’s Terry’s job."

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