The Real Deal New York

Steve Witkoff

By Lauren Elkies

Founder and CEO of real estate investment and development firm the Witkoff Group, which owns 20 buildings, including the Woolworth Building.

What is your full name?
Steven Charles Witkoff.

When is your birthday?
March 15, 1957.

Where do you live?
On the Upper East Side.

Do you have a second home?
Yes, in Southampton.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in the Bronx and grew up on Long Island in Baldwin Harbor and then, later, Old Westbury.

What was the first job you ever had?
When I was 17, I was an ice cream salesman. I had a truck and a route.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Success belongs to those who believe in it the most. I don’t remember who told me that. It might have been my father.

Who do you look up to?
I would say my father was my No. 1 mentor. He was a manufacturer of ladies’ coats in the city. He instilled in me a desire to be in business.

From an industry perspective, I would say that the person that I always sort of looked up to is Lenny Litwin [owner of Glenwood Management, one of the biggest owner-developers of rental buildings in the city]. I did legal work for them when I was a lawyer at Dreyer and Traub.

I’m certainly not comparing myself to him. He is one of the largest and one of the most admirable real estate people out there. He wasn’t a mentor to me, but he’s certainly somebody who built a business on his own terms in an honest and highly ethical way.

What would you do if you weren’t in real estate?
You know what, it scares me to think. I hope I wouldn’t be a [practicing] lawyer. Personally I didn’t find it redeeming.

What was your greatest professional gaffe?
I began buying office buildings in the mid-1990s because New York City was at its low, and we were buying very, very cheap. I sold a big chunk of office properties from 1999 to 2000. That was probably my greatest mistake, not holding onto them, because they’ve soared in value.

How much money do you have in your wallet right now?
I’m not going to talk about my net worth here.

What kind of philanthropic work do you do?
I’m very active in a lot of different things, [including] any police-related cause. I try to be heavily involved because I’m a big believer in the police department in New York City.

What was your greatest professional achievement?
I tell you honestly, I think it’s buying my first building, 164 Sherman Avenue in Washington Heights. This is 21 years ago, and there seemed to be such large obstacles to getting into the business, so [after] buying and closing on my first building, I was able to say, “I did it.”

What was the biggest obstacle on your path to success?
When they changed the tax laws in 1989, and real estate was really a dirty word out there, we managed to maintain our portfolio and not lose any buildings, and then we continued to buy as well. Those were very difficult times for many people that I know — friends of mine, smart people with great portfolios — lost their properties in the early 1990s. We were able to sort of skate through, and, as I look back, it was much about luck.

Also, I think I worked hard. I’m not sure I took a vacation in the first five years I was in the business.

What do you read every day?
I read a lot. I read the Post, the [Daily] News, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, New York Times, Barron’s, every business magazine, and then, on top of that, I read books. I just finished Robert Rubin’s book ["In an Uncertain World: Tough Choices from Wall Street to Washington"], which is fascinating. And I finished “Charlie Wilson’s War: [The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History," by George Crile], which is another fantastic book.

What kind of car do you drive?
I don’t drive a lot. I really walk everywhere in the city. I do not have a driver, but when I drive, I drive a Mercedes.

How old are your children?
Three boys who are teenagers.

Do you think they will follow in your footsteps?
Maybe, but I certainly don’t push them. My mantra for raising my kids is just to give them self-esteem. To me that’s the most important thing I can give them. Then they can choose wherever they want to go.

What do you think you could do better?
Maybe I could improve on how I was as a father. Maybe I could’ve spent more time with them, which is actually what I am starting to do now. All my kids play sports. I don’t miss a game now.

What would you want people to say about you after you die?
I was a good guy.

Interview by Lauren Elkies

 

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