It’s with a certain contempt that Manhattan’s developer class admits that among its most prominent family names—Rudin, Rose, Stern, Tisch, Durst—only one is a household word today: Trump.
Of course, Donald Trump’s real-estate empire is full of the kinds of dramatic reversals of fortune that have always attracted ink in this town.
And then, no matter how many deals the other guys make, there’s a certain television show ….
“It’s the jobs,” Mr. Trump told The Observer. “We’re building buildings all over the world … and you get into the public eye that way. There’s no conscious effort.”
Anyone who’s seen The Apprentice might well scoff. But, to be fair, what started decades ago when the son of a barber from the outer boroughs began to play the real-estate game has now turned into a firm whose name will be plastered onto projects from Hawaii to Dubai.
And the Donald had certainly crawled out of the bottom of the loser pit well before he met Survivor producer Mark Burnett.
Donald Trump basically went bankrupt in the early 1990’s, and, according to several accounts, including Timothy L. O’Brien’s in The New York Times, his three living siblings—brother Robert and sisters Elizabeth Grau and Maryanne Barry (a Clinton-appointed federal appeals judge in New Jersey)—bailed him out with money from the trusts bequeathed to them by father Fred Trump.
In 2003, Mr. Burnett presented him with the idea of a reality-show competition based on the premise that to work at Mr. Trump’s firm was to participate in the very top rung of the Manhattan real-estate game.
Millions of viewers later, the Trumps have changed the real-estate game in Manhattan forever.
“Everyone is pushing to get the Trump name on their building,” said Barbara Corcoran, founder of the real-estate brokerage giant the Corcoran Group. (She now does TV production and consulting.) “He’s got a very smart and very easy business proposition; he takes far less risks than if you’re developing. He comes in for the slice of the top, and it’s ingenious, it’s really ingenious—and I really hate saying that. And now his kids are in on the game, too.”
See, there’s Donald, Donald Jr. and daughter Ivanka staring out from the inaugural New York issue of high-end real-estate magazine Haute Living (deliberately pronounced incorrectly by the magazine’s marketers as “Hot Living”), which is strewn about the 26th-floor foyer of Trump Tower. There’s the three eldest children (Eric, 22, now in tow) in a flashy, splashy New York magazine spread in late 2004. And, oh yes (you know you do), there’s millions of people watching them on The Apprentice, season five, and ready to watch them again on season six this winter.
There’s Ivanka, 25, by herself, barely dressed on the cover of Stuff—and then smartly dressed on the covers of Golf for Women and Forbes. (In perhaps an unprecedented dynastic synergy, there’s Ivanka on the cover of Trump Magazine, which also carried an interview with Donald Jr.)
And it’s Donald Jr. giving the keynote address at the international Cityscape Conference 2006 in the chic sheikdom of Dubai three weeks after the Times style section ga-ga’d over him and his pregnant wife, Vanessa, stepping smartly onto the Manhattan Scene before jetting back to the family estate in Palm Beach, Fla.
From there, he told The Observer this past Saturday morning that, yes, he’s tired from the travels, but that, no, he doesn’t mind. In fact, later that Saturday, he, his father and his sister would be beamed into a panel at a real-estate conference in Israel.
“I always avoided the public eye until I got into the business,” Donald Jr., 29 this month, said matter-of-factly. He’s now executive vice president of development and acquisitions at the Trump Organization. “If I can create free value for the product when I’m in it, if I don’t take advantage of that, it’s pretty stupid.”
His younger brother remembers a sit-down with his father.
“He certainly sat us down and said, ‘Yes, you’re going to take over this name,’” said Eric Trump on Monday morning, seated in a 26th-floor conference room of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, surrounded by Brand Trump: seven of his father’s books, one Newsweek cover of his father and two giant posters of Mr. Trump. “But what he’s really tried to get through when raising us is to try to instill values in us, give us the best educations, all the instruments we would need to carry a brand.
“The power of any brand,” Eric says, “is—especially in this day and age—the most powerful instrument for selling real estate or really any other product.”
But that was hardly a new lesson for the Trumps. Fred Trump, whose father was a barber from Germany, built his real-estate fortune in apartment blocks in Brooklyn and Queens.
Backslap-happy and well-connected, Fred earned a reputation both as a frugal businessman and a bit of a blowhard. According to author Wayne Barrett, Fred would boast of building more homes than he actually had and would talk up projects before shovels even hit the dirt.
This brew of bravado and self-promotion served Fred well, and he was able to leave a comfortable fortune in the low nine figures to the next Trump generation.
Now more than ever, and perhaps forever, partners slip in line for the chance to slap the Trump name on a project, regardless of the family’s actual clock-punching efforts on the project’s behalf. In Soho, where a condo hotel is expected to rise off Spring Street 45 stories, Mr. Trump partnered with both the Bayrock Group and the Sapir Organization. In Toronto, Mr. Trump has a minority stake in what’s slated to be the tallest residential building in Canada, but it will still bear the brand as the Trump International Hotel & Tower. (At least 11 towers worldwide already bear or will bear the name Trump International Hotel & Tower, including the original on Columbus Circle.)
And, in the summer of 2005, in what was the priciest land deal in New York City history, Mr. Trump sold dozens of prime acres on the far West Side for $1.76 billion—with several partners from Hong Kong. Mr. Trump had a 30 percent stake in the 77 acres, so it’s unlikely he truly cleaned up on the deal.
But so what? So what if the money now comes in from TV shows, vodka and bottled water rather than from bricks and mortar?
“Once you’re out there,” Donald Jr. said (and he meant in the public eye, though we think “out there” is a fair description of the whole Trump dynasty), “it’s never easy to go back.”