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Mobster Louis Ferrante shot people, went to jail, became a Jew, and then an author. Now he has a few lessons for executives
The beeping in Louis Ferrante's borrowed Lincoln SUV won't stop, so he finally snaps in his seat belt. "Don't tell anyone," he says. "No self-respecting gangster ever wears his seat belt." Ferrante, who served eight and a half years in prison for crimes he committed as part of New York's Gambino family, believes the Mafia offers even more useful lessons than not wearing seat belts. His new book, Mob Rules: What the Mafia Can Teach the Legitimate Businessman, offers these primers in 88 succinct chapters. They include: "Don't end up in the trunk of a car: Avoiding office politics" and "It's good to go to a funeral as long as it's not yours: The power of networking."
In a nod to the management genre, Ferrante, 42, employs the case study method to go over decisions made by, among others, "Fat George" DiBello, "Fat Pete" Chiodo, and "Fat Tony" Salerno. Mob Rules, which draws heavily on history, begins with "In ancient Sparta" and goes on to recast complex events with insights such as "There was a wacko Roman emperor named Caligula, who whacked everyone." Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote the books that inspired the mob classics Casino and Goodfellas (and co-wrote the screenplays with Martin Scorsese), sees the utility of wiseguy wisdom. "I'm surprised at how some equity fund guys don't read the room," he says. "They could learn from Louis Ferrante. It doesn't hurt them. They wouldn't shoot anybody."
Ferrante, who stands just 5 feet 5 inches and has the darty energy of a Joe Pesci character, is certainly a qualified teacher. He started , was running a Queens chop shop before he was old enough to drive, and eventually had his own crew. Now he's merely the latest mobbed-up entrepreneur trying to cash in on America's endless infatuation with La Cosa Nostra. After finishing a jail stint in 2003, he quickly discovered that legitimate business wasn't his thing. "I can't sit somewhere every day. I still have the street in me. I need to be out," Ferrante says. "I found what I do good, which is write." He subsequently scored a $250,000 advance from HarperCollins to compose his 2008 memoir, Unlocked: A Journey from Prison to Proust, about how he read his first book in jail—and then read nearly the entire Western canon. In addition to promoting Mob Rules, Ferrante is currently working on an Edward Gibbon-style history of the Mafia and sniffing around for other media spinoffs. "I'm surprised I don't have a show," he says.
Regardless of whether he gets one, Ferrante is poised to profit from an iteration of the mob industrial complex that's far different from the one popularized by Pileggi and Scorsese in Goodfellas. In recent decades the Mafia's business model has stagnated: The big industries, such as garbage collection, have been replaced by smaller rackets such as phony car insurance claims. Along the way the business lost its clout. "When I went to court," remembers Ferrante, leaning against his borrowed SUV and smoking a Gurkha cigar, "I asked up in the family to see if we had anyone in the court system. We didn't. Maybe the building department or the DMV. That's all you get now." And with the loss of clout came the decline of standards. While other mobsters came to support him during his trial, Ferrante remembers being embarrassed by their wives. "They'd say, 'I told my wife to dress up,'" Ferrante recalls, "but she'd look like a five-dollar whore, wearing a tank top. This is the best you could do? Read a magazine!"
Sitting inside Francesca's, an Italian restaurant on Staten Island with a terrific cash-only offer on the menu, Ferrante admits that the mobsters he knew were always pretty tacky. "Even when I started, they weren't in three-piece suits anymore. They were wearing shorts and fat sneakers," he says. "You think a local politician is going to sit down with a guy now? They think they're buffoons. In my world, I'm amazingly polished. I'm like a f---ing aristocrat."
The good news for Ferrante is that the mob's tackiness might actually be its best business plan—especially when it comes to marketing books with 88 chapters. In the Jersey Shore era, the public's somewhat incomprehensible appetite for trashy culture has given rise to a new Mafia economy. In addition to bronzer, velour jogging suits, and pinky rings, it includes Danny Provenzano, a nephew of the late North Jersey mobster Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano, who became a bit player on The Real Housewives of New Jersey; former Colombo family honcho Michael Franzese, the author of I'll Make You an Offer You Can't Refuse: Insider Business Tips from a Former Mob Boss; and the irrepressible sometimes-writer Victoria Gotti, the matriarch on A&E's now-defunct Growing Up Gotti.
These players are part of a larger market that thrives on the shortage of Corleone-esque glamour. Even the $25 million Las Vegas Mob Experience museum at the Tropicana Hotel—home to historic artifacts such as the poem Meyer Lansky carried in his wallet—is cheesed up with actors in pinstriped suits handing out envelopes of fake cash to other actors in pinstriped suits. VH1's reality series Mob Wives—which follows a gaggle of deeply tanned Staten Island women as they make scary faces, put ice cubes in their wine, and talk about jailed family members—isn't helping, either. Perhaps the only appealing depiction of mob life presently in circulation is HBO's Boardwalk Empire—and it takes place in the '20s.
Over a kosher meal of sea bass, the restaurant's owner tells Ferrante that Mob Wives taped a scene in the restaurant a day earlier. The news prompts Ferrante, who converted to Judaism in prison, to declare that the Mafia lost its sheen when Gambino family underboss Sammy "The Bull" Gravano snitched on the family's don, John Gotti, in 1991. Fittingly, in the shorts and fat sneakers era, Gravano's daughter is now the star of Mob Wives.
These days, Ferrante is learning to embrace the less glamorous aspects of a post-Gotti age. Ferrante, who's engaged to a librarian, says the women who approach him in his new life as an author are "still intrigued by the mob s--t." More important, they're intrigued by how unglamorous the lifestyle seems. "Our viewers are glad to see that everything that glitters isn't gold," says Jennifer Graziano, daughter of jailed former Bonanno consigliere Anthony "The Little Guy" Graziano and the creator of Mob Wives, which was recently picked up for its second season.
That's the point. "It isn't glamorous. That's the message I'm trying to put out there," says co-star Karen Gravano, who spent three years on probation for being involved in a drug ring. "In the outside world, they think it's cool," says the daughter of Sammy "The Bull." "That everything is so glamorous. The movies portray it that way. Every time my father was on TV with John Gotti, I had more friends. It's not cool." Gravano is getting used to the fans who comment that her habits are un-Godfatherly. "I guess I'm not gangster because I put ice cubes in wine," she says.
Ferrante hopes to ride the ice-cube-and-wine wave by showing that being a mobster isn't all that different from being an office drone. In Mob Rules, he offers simple suggestions for building trust within an organization, delivering on promises, establishing corporate rules, and never, ever putting information in e-mail. He also offers easy-to-remember nuggets of management advice such as "On the way up, you can put up with a few farts, but never let anyone s--t on you." In the end, however, what may help Ferrante succeed in the new mob landscape is his ability to learn from his past. "I was in jail when I read that someone died after getting shot in the leg," he recalls. "I said, 'There's an artery in there? Holy s--t! I shot people in the leg all the time!' "