The trio started working together in 2007, and formally created a company called CMZ in June 2008. They planned, according to the initial partnership agreement and employee accounts, to create a billion-dollar fund to invest in distressed properties when those were still hard to come by.
Times proved very good indeed. Mr. Zackson moved a staff of half-a-dozen into a 25th-floor office in Mr. Cohen’s Paramount Building at 1501 Broadway. “At first I thought Brad was like a god,” said another former employee. “There was Paul and Arthur, and I thought, ‘Wow this must be, like, big time.’”
From early on, the power dynamics were unsettling, employees say, with the polished Mr. Manafort making only rare appearances in the office and Mr. Cohen providing only a trickle of funds. Mr. Zackson had a car and driver and a Lincoln Square spread, but groveled for money for day-to-day office expenses. “Everybody feared Arthur Cohen,” said one former employee. “Brad would just kiss his ass and do all of the work for their deals. ‘I need money for my wife,’ he’d say. He was living this big, high lifestyle and couldn’t afford it.”
With property prices about to peak, CMZ began bidding with frantic ambition. By then, they were in contract for Eleuthera Island and also began seriously eyeing a sprawling Soho development, encompassing three full city blocks, on the site of the St. John’s Terminal right on the Hudson River. It was going to be a four- to five-star MGM Mirage hotel, with 600 rooms and a five-acre private yard.
Everything else halted for the biggest prize of all, the former home of the Drake, at 440 Park Avenue, where CMZ wanted to partner with Harry Macklowe to build a soaring 65-story hotel/residential/office tower. Then the tiny acronym CMZ would finally pack a global punch.