The Real Deal New York

The Closing: Robert Merck

The MetLife bigwig on his son’s stint in Afghanistan, powerwatching TV and his $67 billion portfolio

April 01, 2017
By E.B. Solomont

Robert Merck (Photo by Studio Scrivo)

Robert Merck is the global head of real estate for MetLife, one of the largest commercial lenders in the U.S., with a $67 billion real estate and commercial mortgage portfolio. The Georgia native joined the company in 1982 as a 24-year-old analyst and, after working his way up, was tapped to run the company’s real estate investment department in 2003. Since then, MetLife’s real estate business has grown exponentially: It originated a record $15 billion in commercial mortgages last year, up from $3 billion in 2002, and it invested $1.5 billion in commercial real estate globally. In 2005, the company sold its trophy headquarters building at 200 Park Avenue to Tishman Speyer for $1.72 billion. The following year, Merck oversaw MetLife’s historic sale of Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village to Tishman Speyer for $5.4 billion.

DOB: March 27, 1958
Hometown: Macon, Georgia
Lives in:  Far Hills, New Jersey
Family: Married; two grown children

You grew up in Georgia. What was that like? It was just a regular, middle-class life. My father financed cars, and my mother stayed home. But in the mid-1960s, there were race riots in the South. My mother was basically raised by an African-American [nanny] in the 1930s, and she remembers sitting in the back of the bus with her. So from an early age, she raised us to treat all people the same.

You started your career at MetLife, right? Pretty much. I graduated from Emory University in 1980. I was on scholarship. I really hadn’t been around people with so much money. It inspired me to work hard. I got my M.B.A. at night at Georgia State University. I started at MetLife in 1982 as a financial analyst in Atlanta. My father always told me, “Find a good place to work and stick with it.” So I did.

How did you end up at MetLife in the first place? My parents had just moved into a sort of a new house, and somebody who was driving by stopped to look at it. It happened to be a guy who worked at MetLife. My father called me and said, “Write this down, this guy, you call him.”… There were probably five or six of us hired at the same time, and I was the only one left after a year.

One of your marquee deals was selling Stuy Town. Did you know it would be a symbol of the boom and bust? We didn’t know it was the top of the market, nobody knew. But the market was pricing things very aggressively. … At the time, you’re living and breathing it, and it’s stressful. … I was waking up every day wondering what was going to be in the paper. A lot of it wasn’t accurate.

Is there a place in New York real estate for Southern manners? Yes, but I like to joke that when we negotiate these big deals, I turn on the accent more. The initial reaction from people is that you’re not as smart as they are. You can use it to your advantage.

Where do you live? We live out in horse country in Far Hills, N.J. My wife lives in Tampa for eight months out of the year now. People [in the South] don’t know what New Jersey is like. They think it’s the Sopranos and stuff.

Do you have children? We have a daughter, who’s going to be 26, who’s doing office leasing at CBRE. Our son will be 28 this year, and he’s an officer in the Army. He spent time in Afghanistan [in 2014], so that was a little nerve-wracking.

How’d you cope? My wife didn’t sleep much. I felt like he was probably OK. Of course, I’m sitting in a meeting one day and get this text from him and he’s like, “This rocket just blew up like 50 meters from where I am.” And I’m like, “What’s a meter?”

What are you passionate about outside of work? I exercise a lot. And I’m passionate about raising money for rare-cancer research. I’ve done Cycle for Survival [a fundraiser] for the last two years.

Why is that so important to you? I was diagnosed with this rare stomach cancer in 2015. It happens to be this cancer responds to a targeted therapy drug that they discovered in 2001. Prior to that, people lived maybe 15 months. I feel like there’s a reason maybe I got so lucky, so I want to give back.

Did having cancer change your perspective on life? It helped me realize that there’s more to life than who has the most toys.

What’s your workout routine? I run, I spin, I do weight training. When I was 53, I ran the Philadelphia Marathon. I don’t like to run with people. But, of course, my calves started seizing up as I’m walking back to my hotel. I had to sit down on a bench next to a homeless lady. I was almost like, “Can you rub my calves, please?”

What’s something you couldn’t live without? Oh, God. My family. My TV. My man cave. I like to go home and vegetate. I just love Netflix and Amazon shows, where you can power-watch.

What’s the most extravagant thing you’ve ever purchased? How much time do you have? Just kidding.

What’s your most prized possession? I have the Silver and Bronze Stars my father got in the Army. I had no idea how big a deal a Silver Star was and it’s a big freaking deal. It’s something my dad never talked about. I wish I had talked to him about it before he died.

Do you ever think about retiring? I’m only 58, so I’ve got lots of good years left. If I didn’t wake up with 50 emails, I don’t know what I’d do. I have inbox phobia. My goal is to clear out that inbox by the end of the day.

Editor’s correction: An earlier version of this interview noted that Merck’s son was awarded a Silver Star. Only his father received it.