Steve Kalafer, one of the state’s most widely known business leaders having built a successful group of auto dealerships and a winning professional sports team, died of cancer April 21 at the age of 71.
Kalafer, the founder of Flemington Car and Truck Country, and the Somerset Patriots minor league baseball team, was also an Oscar-nominated documentary film producer and a widely respected philanthropist.
“We are completely heartbroken by Steve’s passing,” Patriots President and General Manager Patrick McVerry said in a statement. “Everyone who ever came into contact with him over the years knows just how special a person he was. He built his dealerships and this team from the ground up with the customers, employees, his family, and the communities served always as his top priorities. He taught us all the value of doing things the right way, of taking the time to build long lasting relationships, and making a difference wherever you can. To say that he will be missed is an understatement. Everything we have here is because of his tireless efforts. We were fortunate to have such a wonderful chairman, father-figure, and friend. We know his sons Jonathan and Josh will help continue his legacy and our staff will strive to make him proud every day because we know he will always be with us, guiding our path and showing us the ways to succeed.”
Kalafer started in the car business in 1973, eventually presiding over a sprawling group that sold 16 brands from every major manufacturer. He brought baseball to Somerset County in 1999 with the founding of the Patriots, which last year was named the AA-level affiliate of the New York Yankees, a team Kalafer loved.
In a December interview with NJBIZ, Kalafer spoke excitedly about what the association with the Yankees would mean for the Central New Jersey economy. “We are the hallmark of Somerset County,” he said. “We are in the epicenter of Bridgewater. This is going to mean business, and not just for the Patriots, but it’s going to mean business for restaurants and retail stores post-COVID, it’s going to create jobs and it’s really going to become something very special to our community in Somerset County and I’m very proud of that.”
Kalafer hired former Yankees great Sparky Lyle as the Patriots first manager. Lyle led the team for 14 years and won five league championships. “There is no one like Steve Kalafer,” Lyle said in a statement. “From the first day I met him, I loved him. He treated everyone like family and made you feel like the most important person in the world.”
Among many other honors, Kalafer was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2020. And he was a member of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association’s board of trustees for more than 20 years.
“Steve was many things to many people across the state and beyond. He embodied the true spirit of entrepreneurship through his many impactful endeavors that boosted New Jersey’s economy, all while dedicating himself to corporate stewardship and philanthropy with incomparable enthusiasm,” said NJBIA President and CEO Michele Siekerka in a statement.
Kalafer’s philanthropic activities included fundraising efforts for Somerset Medical Foundation, for which he served as chairman emeritus, and RWJBarnabas Health, for which he served on the board of trustees.
Kalafer is survived by his wife, Suzanne, two sons and five grandchildren. The Patriots said services will be private and that the team will honor his memory at its TD Bank Ballpark later this year.