Big Bad Wilf: Did Zygi’s Stardust Take It All Too Far?

Judge cites real estate family for ‘fraud, bad faith, conspiracy, racketeering’

Survival and Success

To understand the Wilf empire, you have to know a bit about the phenomenon of Holocaust builders, the class of survivors who emigrated to America just after World War II and literally built the Northeast suburbs. In the 1950s, families with names like Wilf, Zuckerman, Pantirer, Halpern (no relation to the plaintiffs in the New Jersey case), Burstyn, Salsitz, Pomerantz and Kushner transformed New Jersey from farmland into the suburban idyll that’s still recognizable today. (Disclosure: The Kushner family owns The New York Observer.) These men, known as “greeners,” worked constantly, donated generously and planted roots from which sprang thriving Jewish communities. They also largely stayed out of the limelight, having fled a world in which attracting the attention of the authorities could be a death sentence.

SidebarAn article in the New Jersey Jewish News that interviewed Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum speculated, “Survivors learned to take risks in life … so they were not daunted by the risks inherent in the building industry. Add to that the natural desire to acquire the American Dream at its hour of greatest cultural relevance, and the stage is set.

The Wilf family exemplified that spirit and success. At the outbreak of World War II, the Russians deported the family from Jaroslaw, Poland, to a Siberian labor camp. Oscar Wilf, his wife, Ella, and sons, Harry and Joseph, survived the war. Daughter Bella perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. Thwarted by pogroms from returning to their home, they made their way to the American occupied zone of Germany in 1946. In 1950, the family settled in the United States.

Oscar was a baker. Harry and Joe started a used car lot in Queens and then bought a few lots of land in the Union County, N.J., town of Clark. They dug the foundations and built new homes, and Garden Homes was born.

According to one source who once worked for the Wilfs, “Harry was the legitimate brains behind the organization and the one everybody went to for advice and guidance. Joe was more the yeller and screamer and hatchet man.” It was a healthy division of roles, and the brothers built Garden Homes into a giant. Harry had one son, Leonard. Joe had three sons, Zygmunt, Sidney and Mark. Sidney passed away in 1989, and it was up to the remaining cousins, Zygi, Mark and Lenny, to grow atop the foundation that their fathers had poured.

Soon enough, the operational structure took shape. According to one former employee, the sons assumed the roles of their respective fathers. Lenny, like his father, Harry, is regarded as smart and smooth, while Zygi, following in the footsteps of his father, Joe, is “a yeller, screamer, very impatient, difficult … very quick to formulate an opinion.”

The model was simple and effective. The Wilfs would ask people from their tightknit community to bring them deals and then partner with whomever brought them the deal, divvying up the ownership stakes.

Concluded another former Wilf employee, “To Zygi’s credit, he did devote a lot of time, more so than Lenny did, to the workings of the business. We used to sign checks. Initially, it was every week, then it was every other week, so whenever you went in to sign checks with Zygi, it was always a war to get stuff signed or ‘you’re paying too much, you don’t know what you’re doing!’” One woman who enjoyed her career with the Wilfs told The Observer, “When I was hired, I was warned that Zygi yelled a lot, but I gotta tell you, he was always very nice to me, and when I left after a couple years, he called me and said ‘good-bye’ in a very gentlemanly way.”

Reporting this story was a challenge. The Observer spoke to more than 20 sources with knowledge of the Wilf family and business practices in Minnesota, New Jersey and New York, including current and former employees and close friends. Those who know the Wilfs well were universally reluctant to discuss their personalities or provide color to these very private men. Some of that can be attributed to the family’s long record of litigious retribution, but even those who like and admire the Wilfs respect their intense desire for secrecy.

According to one source who knows the Wilfs well, “If you need something, they’ll take your call.” This source described his sister needing an apartment in the Wilfs’ West Mill Gardens across the street from St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., a project that the Wilfs built that is perennially rented with a long waiting list. “I called Zygi, and he picked the phone up and made it happen.”

This same source confirmed the dynamic of Lenny as the even-tempered cousin and Zygi as the get-it-done yeller, but he admires both of them and Zygi’s brother Mark, saying of the three, “They’re good guys, simple guys, more than people realize. They’re reasonable.”

Reasonable or not, this source cited one thing that would drive the Wilfs crazy and shut down any conversation. “Never make Lenny or Zygi feel like you’re selling them. They want the facts.”

One current Wilf employee The Observer spoke to and emailed with worked closely with Mark and Zygi. Her recollections of Zygi paint a picture of a man with very little patience for errors but also a man who would could be “the nicest, most generous guy in the world.” For example, she went on, “Besides his donations to charities, which are well known in the community, he could be very generous with employees. An employee at Wilf (whose name has been redacted to protect the financial and medical privacy of this employee’s family) walked into Zygi’s office one day and asked for a loan to help with medical expenses for her mother that weren’t covered by insurance. Zygi told her not to worry about it and took care of all the medical expenses. On the other hand, another long-time employee (whose name has been redacted to protect the former Wilf employee’s job prospects) made an accounting error that Zygi discovered. Zygi called his brother Mark into his office and told Mark and Mark’s No. 2 to fire the woman immediately, which they did.”

The Observer heard nearly identical descriptions from three former Wilf employees. Said one: “Zygi would yell and scream and storm out of the office and then the next day act like nothing happened. He wouldn’t apologize, but he wouldn’t hold it against you either—until he unilaterally cut your pay or increased your obligations.”

Another former employee told The Observer he wished to speak openly about the Wilfs but expects to enter litigation with them soon, and “I’ve seen what they do in court: kill people. That’s what they do to people they perceive not to be their equals; they manipulate them.”

This person characterized the culture of the firm. “Zygi would work a few hours until he got bored or frustrated and then would just leave. Lenny wanted even less to do with the day-to-day operations. Blowups were regular occurrences, and Zygi loved to yell and scream.” But contrary to the impression of many The Observer spoke to that Zygi was driving the ship, this former employee said, “Lenny was equally important, and the decisions were made together.”

Beth and Leonard Wilf at the Met’s spring gala, 2010. (Photo by Patrick McMullan)
Beth and Leonard Wilf at the Met’s spring gala, 2010. (Photo by Patrick McMullan)

One longtime Wilf employee characterized the brothers and their cousin as very close in a “finish each other’s sentences” way. This person said that the Wilfs were “good to their employees, if not overly generous.” This person described a holiday party at Short Hills Caterers at which she asked to meet a prominent partner who had been abrupt on the phone. “Mark made the introduction in a very gentlemanly way.”

One employee said, “The office was pleasant enough. The wives never came around; I never saw them at the office once, though Joe Wilf used to bring his wife, Suzie, around all the time, which was nice.”

Another source worked for years in the building next to them on Morris Avenue in Short Hills and grew very friendly with all the Wilfs, especially Lenny. “Lenny wants to be one of the guys, and he wants people to see him as having achieved things in his own right. He doesn’t want to be viewed as having got where he is because he was in the right guy’s balls.” In keeping with that “regular guy” image—in addition to Georgetown Law Review, Lenny lists “skiing, golf and deep-sea fishing” on his Vikings bio page—Lenny has a sense of humor as well. He was fond of saying, regarding the fact that three life events happened literally within days of each other, “I was divorced, married and had a baby all in one week.”

Lenny’s divorce from the respected educator and philanthropist Dr. Marcia Robbins-Wilf is legendary in New Jersey for having taken 12 years and a combined $20 million in fees for lawyers and accountants. One person who used to work for Garden described the battle as epic and ferocious but says that even the way they met—on a commercial flight—was emblematic of Lenny’s regular-guy persona.

Lenny belongs to Mountain Ridge Country Club in West Caldwell, which is a lovely spot but doesn’t send the “I’ve made it” message of the Ferrari-filled lot at Baltusrol or Trump National or Somerset Hills or a dozen more elite clubs in northern New Jersey. According to someone who has played with him, “Lenny is a good golfer. He says he breaks 90. He doesn’t, but he does regularly break 100. Zygi doesn’t golf; he has no time for such foolishness.”

The golf course plays a role in one anecdote that reveals some of the personal backstory that has been so hard to fill in, despite the months spent reporting this article, and it also reveals the deep interconnections that exist between all of the greener families.

Mel Gebroe and Morris Hammer started a realty firm that emerged as a dominant brokerage in the New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania corridor, in part by finding properties for the greener guys to buy. Morris Hammer’s son, Alan, became a prominent lawyer and owned a bunch of apartments in his own right; Mel Gebroe’s son, also Alan, started a business maintaining laundry rooms in the basements of—you guessed it—multifamily apartments and built Spin Cycle into a giant with a staggering 7,000 machines.

Alan Gebroe was golfing one day with a foursome that included Lenny. It was known Lenny’s first marriage had dissolved when he caught his wife in bed with her trainer, who happened to be female. Lenny went on to marry a much younger woman, Beth, who remains his wife today. This was well after Lenny had remarried, and one of the other golfers joked to the effect that Lenny was only mad about the discovery of his original wife in bed with another woman, because “you didn’t get in on the action,” and stuff like that. Rude, sure, but not out of the ordinary for guys being idiots on the links.

“Lenny went nuts,” according to someone who witnessed the scene. Lenny told the joker to “shut the fuck up.” In other words, a perfectly normal, regular-guy reaction.

Little by little, the ethic established by Harry and Joe of quietly accumulating a fortune started to erode. Instead of sticking to modest homes in Nowheresville, N.J., the Wilfs started to invest in higher-profile assets and indulged their interest in sports by buying a minority interest in the Yankees. In 2005, the Wilfs led a group that paid $600 million for the Minnesota Vikings, whose broadcasts frequently depict Zygi, who became the team’s chairman, strutting the sidelines in a creamy bespoke trench coat.

The acquisition of the Vikings came out of the blue and mystified many Garden Homes employees. They knew the Wilfs were sports fans (they were already minority investors in the Yankees), but becoming the public face of a far-away franchise was another matter. Nevertheless, from 2005 on, the Wilfs became sincere and rabid Vikes fans to the point where, according to one employee, “Zygi insisted that the holiday party be decorated in purple, white and gold.” She also said every employee knew that in the office they were expected either to become a Vikings fan or not mention football in the office, despite the presence of the Giants and Jets, who play their home games in East Rutherford, just a few towns over from Short Hills HQ. A different former Wilf employee says that one of the four private planes the Wilfs keep hangared at Morristown Airport is painted purple and gold: “That’s the one they sent to woo Brett Favre up to Minneapolis for the 2010 season.”

Big Bad Wilf: Did Zygi’s Stardust Take It All Too Far?