A conversation with Trump

The Donald weighs in on "The Apprentice," the GM building, his net worth and golf

Jul.July 01, 2003 07:00 AM

Donald Trump, phone to his ear, pushes a yellow post-it note across his desk. To his left is a wall full of magazine covers of the smugly grinning billionaire. Behind him, from his office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, is the almost unbelievably lush backdrop of Central Park on a misty day, the kind of perfect view that wouldn’t even occur to a New Yorker who doesn’t have access to this kind of real estate. Trump slides the note across the desk to me. It says, Oscar de la Renta, line 1.

The fashion designer is calling to see if he can use the newly crowned Miss Universe, Amelia Vega, who appeared on the cover of the New York Daily News that day apropos of very little, for a photo shoot. Trump bought the pageant four years ago. He hypes Vega s outer beauty, inner beauty, and her wealthy family before agreeing to the shoot.

He wants to see Miss Universe to be in one of his photo shoots, Trump says, hanging up the phone. Which is great, right?

Just another deal on another day for the iconic New York real estate developer sort of. Trump, who at times has been accused of being a mere front man for financial interests a brand slapped on buildings he doesn’t own is about to take a step further into the world of marketing, public relations and play-acting when his NBC reality television series, The Apprentice begins production in late June. In the Survivor-like show, 16 candidates will vie for a job with the Donald, with one getting fired each week. All I’m supposed to do is be myself, Trump said. That shouldn’t be too hard.

Even though the fixtures going into the renovated Delmonico Hotel might be nickel-plated rather than Trump Tower-brass these days, Trump remains the unreconstructed 80s icon. And despite the critics, he s still a great developer.

Discounting his characteristic exaggerations, his projects from the Delmonico to Trump Place to, increasingly, golf courses are proceeding at an undiminished rate and earning accolades, even with recent setbacks like the ruling that ordered Trump to sell his stake in the General Motors building,which he bought with Conseco in 1998 and which is now on the market. The Real Deal caught up with Trump recently to ask him about his latest projects, whether he will pass the family business on to his sons or consider another run for President, his rivalry with Leona Helmsley and his disputed net worth.

Let’s start off with something recent: The General Motors Building. What do you think of the arbitration panel s ruling [that you have to give up your stake in the building] and do you think there ll be more hope when it comes to New York for an appeal? [A week after this interview Trump and Conseco Inc. announced an agreement to sell the building, after the New York judge ordered Trump to sell his 50% share in the tower.]

It’s in court right now; we’ll see what happens. September 11 put a crimp in that deal, but we’ll see what happens and how the ruling comes out.

I know for the initial situation you put up just a little cash for the building. Does that confirm what detractors say he doesn t put up a lot of money for his buildings?

What I do, mostly I own 100 percent for instance 40 Wall Street and Trump Tower. Generally, I’ll own 100 percent unless it s outside New York.

The Apprentice what are you going to bring to reality TV?

The Miss Universe Pageant got the highest ratings for the week and I own that I m partners with NBC. The Apprentice is going to be, according to NBC, one of their big shows of the year. We ll see how it turns out. All I m supposed to do is be myself. That shouldn t be too hard.

Have they run any of the applicants by you yet?

No, it starts in about a week. They had 129,000 hits on the computer, which is even more than Survivor. As you know, I m doing it with the people that did Survivor. It has the potential to be big.

Do you ever worry about over-marketing yourself? You ve said you want to always be known as a great builder and developer. Do you feel like this would take away from, or dilute that?

I don t even think about it. It s something that was presented to me. All the networks wanted to do it. NBC got the rights. They paid a lot of money. When I bought the Miss Universe pageants, everyone sort of said why is he doing that, and now they re worth over $100 million in a period of four years.

How are things going with Trump Place [project on the Upper West Side] and the Delmonico [Hotel conversion on 59th and Park Avenue]?

Trump Place is a fantastic success. We ve built five buildings, we re going to start another two buildings very shortly. I m building right now one rental and one condo. They are selling and renting like hotcakes.

I know they say about your condos that they generally command an 80 percent premium.

We get higher than anyone else per square foot. That job [Trump Place] is doing over $1,100 and $1,200 a foot per apartment. You know, the great unkept secret was the Hudson River. It took me a long time to get the properties, but we re building that job and it s been a fantastic success.

When you first started doing business in Manhattan, wasn t that the first area you were targeting, some 30 or so years ago?

That was a long time ago. Then I sold it once. And then I got it back, and it took 10 years to get the zoning after I got it back.

As far as the Hotel Delmonico, people are saying you re being more subtle with this project. Is that something you are trying to do in general?

I think I m doing a more conservative approach at the highest level. For instance, we re using nickel faucets and fixtures as opposed to the brass, which I traditionally use, but that s the thing today. Probably its more conservative because that s being dictated by the exterior of the building the only thing we re saving essentially is the frame of the exterior, everything else has been gutted down to the steel. Are you hearing how well that one s doing? It s like the hottest job in the city.

Is [your son] Donny Jr. working on that project?

Don is working on that. He graduated from Wharton [School at the University of Pennsylvania] two years ago. He did finance mostly. I went undergrad there, and he went undergrad there.

Do you see him as carrying on the family tradition, like in most New York real estate families?

Well, I have four children. They re all good children. I think maybe all of them will be involved in the business; they all seem to like it.

Speaking of family, I know your childhood home recently was sold. Did you have any interest in pursuing that at all?

No, I actually sold it. It was in my parents estate and my parents passed away. It was sad, cause that s where I grew up. It was in Jamaica, Queens. It was a very nice house, a beautiful house. My father built it.

I know your parents and family were very into the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale and the power of positive thinking. You ve said elsewhere that it s one of the keys to your success. Is that a big part of your success?

No, I don t think in terms of positive thinking or negative thinking. I think I have a positive outlook on things. Usually, that s better in bad times than it is in good times. You know, hey, I m the biggest developer in New York. I ve done that I guess with positive thinking. But I don t consciously think about thinking positively.

The interview is interrupted as Trump receives a phone call from Oscar de la Renta, calling from Europe. Trump indicates that de la Renta is on the line. The fashion designer is asking if he can use the newly crowned Miss Universe for a photo shoot.

Hello, Oscar, how are you. How you doing? Good. What s up? She s fantastic. She s truly a beauty, Oscar. When do you want her? Her family is very rich. She s 5 she s actually 6 foot 1 and you may want to even feature her in the end of a show or something, because she s Miss Universe and it s become a big thing, as you know.

My people that run the thing, that are really great and really professional, they loved her from the beginning, because she not only had the beauty, she had this great spirit out there. When she walked down the runway, it was like

There is silence for a while as de la Renta talks.

I’ll have them call you and they’ll set that up. That’s an honor. So long, Oscar.

Trump hangs up.

He wants to see Miss Universe to be in one of his photo shoots. Which is great, right? Go ahead.

Barbara Corcoran and probably other people have said that you’re nobody in New York unless the Donald has sued you.

She actually said unless you do business with him. I had heard, unless you’ve done business with Donald Trump . Well, I m honored by that.

Honored that she would say that about business or about being sued?

Only about business. I don’t sue people very often. [In her recently published book, Corcoran did, in fact, write that you’re no one in New York until you’ve done business with Trump].

The casino business. In March you successfully issued $490 million in bonds, which was good news. Earnings were down in the first quarter, but the company had profitability that was the highest in the last six years recently.

The company makes a lot of cash flow. It s very successful. Trump Taj Mahal finished the year number one in Atlantic City, as you ve probably heard, but it s more of a cash flow business than a profit business per se.

One thing that is interesting is how you ve gotten involved in golf courses in recent years. Is that born out of going into the resort business and casinos? Do you see yourself moving more in that direction?

Well, I built a course in Westchester [Trump National Golf Course in Briarcliff Manor], that just rated number one, as you probably have read, and the one in Florida [Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach] is rated the best course in the state of Florida, and now I have another one going up in Bedminster [NJ, also named Trump National Golf Club].

They’re all accompanied by something else. As a private course, Florida gets 350,000 [golfers a year], Westchester gets 250,000. And the piece in California, which is basically this piece, [Trump pulls out mounted aerial photo], Ocean Trails Golf Club, which I just bought, this is Los Angeles right here, and this is two miles along the Pacific Ocean I own, which I think is the best piece of land anywhere in the United States. And on that I ll build something that will be superior to Pebble Beach along with 75 mansions over the ocean.

So, do you see yourself focusing on golf resorts?

No. Mostly what I do is build buildings in Manhattan. I just really finished 40 Wall Street a few years ago, and it s been 100 percent rented. I relatively recently finished the building on Central Park West 1 Central Park West Trump International Hotel and Tower and many others. So, I ve been very busy.

But I enjoy taking land and shaping it. I bought two other sites in Westchester County [in Yorktown and Putnam Valley] and just sold them for a very substantial amount of money. I bought them to maybe subdivide, maybe do something with them, but I was offered a price I thought was excellent and I sold them.

One thing you’ve been involved in recently is charity. You had a $1 million challenge grant on behalf of the United Way. Is charity something you re becoming more involved in?

I really feel I have an obligation to be involved in charities. I give a lot of money to charities. The people that run them do a far better job than I do.

And this is your first real this is the biggest contribution so far?

No, I’ve done much bigger than that. But, you know, I mean you re bringing the subject up, I m not bringing it up, I don t talk about it, but I ve given a lot of money over the years to charity. The Vietnam Veteran s Memorial was my deal. I did that, down in Wall Street where I built it. In fact, these are different things [points to plaques on wall] that I get from charity, etc. etc. [Trump co-chaired the New York Veteran Memorial Commission in the early 1990s and has also made contributions to the Police Athletic League, to the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation, for AIDS research, among other charities.]

I had a question about another presidential run. Now that Hillary is not running in 2004 and 2008, is that something you d consider?

Well I never ran. People wanted me to run. I looked at it, and I just decided, you know, it s not my thing. A lot of people want me to run, even now. I enjoy so much what I m doing right now, that I just don t have the flavor for it right at this moment.

What deals would you like to do next? I know there was talk about a NASCAR stadium down in New Jersey?

Well, I’m looking at a lot of different things. The market in New York has been certainly interesting. It s been great for condos, it hasn’t been great for hotels or for other things, but I m sure it will come back. Lot of people are working very hard in New York to make sure it s in good shape for the future. I m doing deals all over the world. I m building in Korea, called Trump Tower. I m building in Chicago with the Sun Times as my partner which is going to be a terrific building, about 2 million feet. We re doing a great job in Miami, a $600 million development. Called the Trump Grande with an e Grande. But my primary focus will always be New York.

Any suggestions you have for the World Trade Center site?

I didn’t like much the [Libeskind] design, but that s going to be up to them. And Larry Silverstein is a professional, who wasn’t thrilled with the design they foisted upon him either, but he ll make it work.

You’ve had several books in the past. If you had a book, The Art of the Deal, what would it be now?

Well, It might be the Art of the Deal Part II. The publishers are all asking me to do that. Every book I’ve had has been a Number 1 bestseller. One more there would only be one more.

Forbes listed you as tied for 92nd [richest person] in America [in 2002] they put you at $1.9 billion, tied with Leona Helmsley. Which probably isn’t very pleasing to you.

I get along with Leona.

Did they have it wrong? I know you’ve estimated [you’re worth] $5 billion or so.

It depends on when it’s being estimated. I think they do a very professional job, and you know, who knows, I have great property, what can I tell you. That s for sure.

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