February 1, 2017
INTERVIEW BY CHARLES CURKIN
PHOTOS BY MAGGIE SHANNON
What makes you sad?
Many things make me sad. I always try to find the bright side in everything.
What about another recession?
It will make me sad, but not surprised. What I’ve tried to do throughout my career is time the cycles in the market. I did it successfully in the last two downturns, and I hope I’ll be able to do it again. Every time there’s a slowdown or the market is collapsing, there are opportunities.
How did you get your start in the business?
When I was in college in California, I met with a film producer in Venice Beach who was was running a few apartment buildings in Downtown Los Angeles. He hired me to manage them and just handed me the checkbook. Then I found him and his partners a new building to buy. They bought it and I was a paid with a nice check. That’s when I told myself, real estate is for me.
With so many bombastic showpiece buildings going up in New York City, does subtlety matter to you?
Yes, I’m going for subtlety. I’m not building buildings based on my personal taste. I build for the market. If it’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I spend time with brokers, designers, and architects to create the best building for the neighborhood and meet the demand. The final product is subtle because it fits well within the neighborhood.
What about One Madison, the bizarre glass-and-plants tower designed by Daniel Libeskind that you wanted to build in Manhattan. That wouldn’t have been subtle.
Correct, but it was a very interesting and unique design. Nine years later, we’re starting to see a lot of greenery incorporated into architecture. Glass towers like that weren’t so common back then. It was definitely different from what I’ve done, but I never got to build it.
Nowadays I just want to throw up on glass buildings.
Noted. Why was it never built?
The financial crisis.
Did that make you sad?
Yeah. It’s a lost opportunity. You win some, you lose some.
What are some of your current projects?
One is 277 West 10th Street in the West Village, which has interiors by Gachot Studios. That’ll be finished by early summer this year. And on the Upper West Side, 210 and 221 West 77th Street. I hired Thomas Juul Hansen to design both.
Inside the Naftali Group offices in Midtown Manhattan.
How many square feet are we talking about?
It’s quite impressive.
In my career in New York, I’ve built 1,266 units in 17 projects.
Which one is your favorite?
How can you answer that? Can you say which of your kids you prefer?
In 1992, the Plaza Hotel, which Donald Trump had owned for four years, filed for bankruptcy. You later acquired it. Did you have better luck?
I bought it much later when it was run-down, water damaged. It was in bad shape. They lost money every year operating the hotel. I bought it for $675 million in 2006. It has defined my career.
Old New York hotels are not the easiest buildings to convert because of floor plans and odd plumbing schemes. As a business owner, with $675 million at stake, did the Plaza scare you?
Don’t forget the additional $450 million to renovate.
Okay. So more than $1 billion at stake.
No, it didn’t scare me, but don’t think that I didn’t take it seriously. I worked my ass off around the clock. The financial side was safe and there was a lot of profit to be made. The challenge was to get it done.
The Wall Street Journal reported that your 23-year-old daughter has joined the family business. Are you grooming her?
I never pushed her to go into the family business. I was surprised by her choice. As a dad, you want your kids to be happy. If their dream is to be a painter, great. A social worker, great. You just want them to have purpose in life. I’m not grooming her. She’s doing what she loves.
What advice do you give her about being successful?
There are no shortcuts. If you’re very talented and work hard, you can do it quickly.
That’s a little cliché.
Look at me. I’m not saying I’m the best in the industry, but I’m self-made. At the end of the day, if you work hard and are talent-ed at what you do, you can make it.
Are you happy with the outcome of the U.S. presidential election?
Why no comment? It’s crazy that one of your own is now president, no?
The best model to run a country is to run it as a successful business. There’s nothing wrong with having businessmen running a country. And no one is perfect. I wish Trump well.
And if he doesn’t do as well as you’re hoping, there’s always the bright side.