"My father was a banker," Abess said. "I grew up at the dinner table with tales of the depression and tales of what a banker meant to a community, about responsibility, handling other people's money. And that these are your neighbors, the people you live with, you see all the time and you have to protect their money."
Abess' father started a community bank in Miami Beach in 1946. Since then, City National has grown to include 18 branches and is one of the top-rated banks in the country.
"We're not there for a big profit, you know, we're not there for our egos," Abess said. "We're there to serve this community. We are there as a sacred trust for people, so we are very careful. We lend money to people we know. We lend for the right reasons. We don't make loans to do things that aren't good for community."
His community also includes his employees, many of whom have been with City National for decades.
"There's no better place to work," said Linda Naughton, who has worked at City National for 50 years. She started as a file clerk, rising to the position of managing senior vice president. "It's the only job I've ever had."
Over the years, Abess received numerous offers to buy the bank, but never believed any of the suitors would take care of his customers or his employees adequately. But, in November, when Abess was approached by Caja Madrid, a community-minded, privately held bank that he trusted, he sold a majority stake in City National, turning a good profit.
"I never ever once thought that this success was, you know, about me," said Abess, 60, who remains as chairman and CEO. "I know what it's about, it's about 400 wonderful, decent people. When I sold the bank, I didn't want the money so I gave $60 million of it to my employees. And I feel really good about it."
Using a formula of longevity plus merit, Abess distributed much of his profits to the bank's 399 employees, and 72 former ones. Although he gives bonuses every year to every employee, these checks were far bigger, totaling anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars to more than $100,000.
Abess Honored Guest at Obama's Address
"Most everyone, including myself, blinked a few times when they opened up the voucher," said Virginia Dunn, a City National senior vice president and 41-year-long employee.
Abess, a long-time philanthropist, says he wanted to thank his employees for their dedication. They are the reason the bank has been so successful.
"I couldn't bring myself to go to work that day because I knew how emotional I'd be and I just didn't think I could do it," he said. "So I went a few days later and the joke was they were going to break my ribs I got so many hugs."
Although Abess meant for his gesture to go unnoticed, his generosity was impossible to ignore. Soon enough, he got a call from the White House.
"He said the president of the United States would like you to come up and be the guest of the first lady at his address," Abess recalled. "And I said, 'Oh, come on, you've got somebody better to call.' And he said, 'Nope, we've got you.'"
Abess, along with Geneva Lawson, a 51-year employee of the bank, watched President Obama's address to Congress Tuesday from the first lady's box. Obama applauded his generosity.
"I think about Leonard Abess, the bank president from Miami who reportedly cashed out of his company, took a $60 million bonus, and gave it out to all 399 people who worked for him, plus another 72 who used to work for him," Obama said in his speech.
"It was an amazing moment," Abess said. "I was humbled and amazed; it was really something. ... I just felt I was in the presence of a man who is going to point the way."
Abess' values, instilled at the family dinner table, have carried him, albeit reluctantly, into the national spotlight.
"I'm amazed by the attention that this has gotten," Abess confessed. "I'd prefer to live in a world where this is ordinary and didn't need to be mentioned to anybody."