The Ups and Downs of Rich Marin, the Ex-Banker Building the World’s Biggest Ferris Wheel

On Big Rich's Wild Ride, what comes around goes around

Mr. Marin spent the next year trying to keep a low profile, doing some consulting work and riding his motorcycles. He was invited to come teach at the Johnson School at Cornell in the fall of 2007, which he continues to do, driving up to Ithaca once a week while class is in session. Mr. Marin points to the invitation as proof that even at his lowest point, he was still valued by a lot of people. He also increased his involvement in CARE, the global anti-poverty non-profit to which he has long donated time and money. “It is my way of giving back since I never followed directly in my mother’s footsteps,” Mr. Marin said.

By the fall of 2008, the economy was following Bear into oblivion. “Maybe we built our bungalow too close to the beach, and we were the first to get hit,” Mr. Marin said, “but even if we had built it halfway up the mountain, we would have gotten slammed. This was a tsunami and there was no escaping it.” Though it cannot be ignored that Mr. Marin and Bear caught a lot of fish before the wave hit, and it wasn’t just the bungalows on Wall Street but also homes and businesses around the world that got wiped out.

That November, Mr. Marin got a call from Izzy Cohen, the chairman of Africa Israel. The two had worked together on a joint venture in Israel, where Mr. Cohen oversaw the global real estate investments for the diamond magnate Lev Leviev. In 2007, at the height of the market, Africa Israel went on a madcap buying spree, picking up 22 marquee properties throughout New York, Vegas, Miami and L.A. for about $3 billion.

Among the projects here were the old Times Building, the MetLife clock tower and the Apthorp, where Africa Israel had initiated probably the most contentious condo conversion in a decade full of them. When Mr. Marin got to the portfolio, it was worth around $2 billion. By the time he had finished refinancing everything one, two, three times over, the debt load had reached a manageable $1.2 billion. “We never went into bankruptcy, we never lost a single building,” said Laurie Golub, Africa Israel USA’s former chief counsel. “Rich was always really proud of that.”

One of the outside attorneys who worked with Mr. Marin on the project was equally impressed. “None of us, none of us thought Rich could do it,” the lawyer said of the rigorous restructurings. “And he did it, every single one.” Among the things powering Mr. Marin through the long nights was junk food. He has a soft spot for Pirate Booty and Riesen Chocolate Chews. Ms. Golub said she even kept a spare piece of the German candy in her back in case of emergencies. “During those long nights, he would throw them at me and say, ‘Keep working. This will help.’” Another coworker describes him as a “Diet Coke addict.”

For all his hard work, Mr. Marin was fired on December 10, 2010, with none of his $1.25 million bonus. The explanation most often given is that Mr. Marin wanted to start growing the business, but Africa Israel had given up on America. Mr. Marin said he was not surprised, given what he sees as Africa Israel’s track record of mistreating its employees. “Maybe I should have been more careful about who I went to work for,” Mr. Marin said. “I went to work for Izzy, because I liked Izzy. I also welcomed the challenge. I didn’t do this for anybody else.”

“He took this huge steaming pile of shit,” said one colleague who worked with him at the time, “and got it down to a nice manageable size so it could be pooper-scoopered away. And how do they repay him? By tossing him into the pile.”