LeFrak became president in 1975 and took full control of the firm in 2003 after the death of his father, Samuel. Today, the Manhattan-based business owns more than 40 million square feet of residential, office, retail and hotel properties in New York, Los Angeles, London and Miami.
Locally, the LeFrak Organization controls seven Midtown office towers, including 40 West 57th Street and LeFrak City, a massive 20-building apartment complex in Queens. Since 1986, the family has been developing a Jersey City project called Newport, a waterfront community that has eight office buildings, 13 apartment towers, a mall and two hotels.
What’s the origin of your family name?
My father’s father came from Belarus. It’s pronounced le-FRACK. But if people say LEH-frack, I ask, “Which part of Brooklyn are you from?”
Did you always want to join the family business?
It was predetermined from when I was 6 years old. When I was very young, my dad would take me to the office on weekends. I was given the same speech, or propaganda, depending on how you look at it, of, “I’m doing this for you. This is going to be yours one day.” Frankly, when I went to [Columbia Law], my father said to me, “Why are you wasting your time?”
Why did you go to law school?
Everyone [at Amherst College] went on to graduate school. It was during the Vietnam War. There was a lot of political turmoil and it influenced my thinking. I wasn’t into politics, but I could see how young people’s futures were being questioned. People were being asked to go to Vietnam and get shot at.
Were you drafted?
I was, but I failed my physical. I’ve been asthmatic my whole life. I had a lot of friends who went. It raised my antennae about people’s fears.
In 1985, your family paid $54M for 400 acres in Jersey City. Is it frustrating that it’s still not done?
Sure. We went through four or five dips in the market, but we had enough capital and the commitment. The fact that it will be there long after I’m gone is very exciting. The money is just a byproduct of that, especially at this point in my life. I’ve got plenty of money. Whether I have a little more or a little less doesn’t mean a damn thing to me.
Forbes estimates you’re worth $6.6 billion.
I always ask, if I don’t know how much money I have and I don’t care, why should they?
You really don’t know?
I’m completely clueless. It’s like trying to estimate the value of all the property I own. Why bother? I’m not selling it.
Is that why you’re not a fan of condo development?
I’ve done condos, but I consider it the stupidest form of real estate investment that exists. Do you ever do something and start liquidating it right away? If you go through pregnancy and labor pains, would you put the baby up for adoption as soon as it was born? The way you create wealth is to hold onto the asset.
You’re a close friend of presidential hopeful Donald Trump. Is the Donald you know the same one we see on the campaign trail?
More or less. He’s always been a showman. It’s just a different kind of show. But he’s always on.
How long have you known each other?
Close to 50 years. We met when we were kids starting in business, although we chose different paths on how to move forward. He’s running for president, I’m not even running for dog-catcher.
Would you accept a position in his cabinet?
I’m not sure I want to answer. He’s a dear friend. If he asked me to do something, I would be open-minded. Is it on my bucket list? No.
Your father was described as “flamboyant” in his obituary. How are you different?
He was much more of a showman. My dad was a visionary character. He was 65 when we bought in Jersey City. The place was derelict, and he picked up the phone and said, “Richard, I’ve been dreaming about something like this my whole life.”
Do you have vices or guilty pleasures?
My grandchildren. I spoil them. I like a nice bottle of wine every so often. I have my own jet. Is that a guilty pleasure?
How did you meet your wife?
My aunt and uncle are best friends with her parents. We met when I was 17 and she was 14 and got married when I was 25. You know the saying, opposites attract? My wife is an artist, children’s book author, dog breeder and composer. So we have a bricklayer and a composer, but it works.
What’s the last thing you bought online?
Kiehl’s soap. We were too lazy to go to the store, which is about six minutes away.
Are you active on social media?
No. I don’t tweet, and I don’t have a Facebook page. I’m not looking to find friends from high school who have been avoiding me for the last 50 years.
How do you get around the city?
I have a driver. The house car is a Tesla. But I walk to work every day.
I see you’re wearing a Jawbone [fitness tracker].
It’s like a nanny. It’s an effective way to remind me to get off my ass, although I’ve always been self-disciplined. My younger son is an accomplished marathoner and his wife tried out for the Olympics. So it’s a family trait — self-abuse in the name of discipline.
What do you want your epitaph to say?
It’s too morbid, I never thought about it. But when I die, whatever age I am, I’ll die thinking like a young man.