The Closing with Henry Elghanayan

Henry Elghanayan (Photo bySTUDIO SCRIVO)
Henry Elghanayan (Photo bySTUDIO SCRIVO)

Henry Elghanayan is the CEO of Rockrose Development, the Manhattan investment and development firm he founded in 1970. Elghanayan and his two brothers famously split the company in 2009 with Henry taking the Rockrose name, and his brothers, K. Thomas and Frederick Elghanayan, forming TF Cornerstone. At the time of the split, Rockrose owned 8,000 New York City apartments, nine development sites and nine office buildings. Rockrose kept a third of those assets in the split, and the company currently has $1 billion invested in the Court Square area of Long Island City, where it’s building a 700-unit rental tower called the Linc LIC. Rockrose also has plans to develop three other sites in Long Island City, including another 700-unit rental building at the former Electric Eagle building at 43-22 Queens Street, and a 945-unit rental building at 43-25 Hunter Street. Last year, Rockrose also acquired a nearly 20,000-square-foot commercial development site near Hudson Yards, bringing to completion a decade-long plan to acquire an entire block of Manhattan’s Far West Side.

What is your full name?
Henry Elghanayan. Henry is my middle name. My first name is actually Houchang.

What’s your date of birth?
August 2, 1940.

What were you like as a kid?
Hardworking, as I still am, and athletic. This is an embarrassing question. You’re really asking me to be self-aggrandizing.

Your family moved here from Iran. Have you ever been there since?
I was there once before the [1979 Iranian] Revolution, on a business trip.

How come you haven’t been back?
I can’t. We’re Jewish and that doesn’t work there so well since the Revolution.

Why did your family originally move here?
When I was five years old, my father — who was in the import-export business — traveled to New York for the first time. He landed at the airport in the middle of the night, took a taxi into the city and was amazed when the cabbie stopped at all the red lights even though there wasn’t any traffic. He was so impressed by the civility and orderliness of the American system that he made an on-the-spot decision to emigrate. He called my mother in Iran, told her he wanted to move the family to New York and instructed her to put their house up for sale. Shortly after, our family flew to New York and moved to a house he bought on Rockrose Place in Forest Hills, Queens — hence the [company] name.

Where did you go to school?
When I was five, I went to a private all-boys sleep-away school in Nyack, N.Y. My parents wanted to ensure that I learned English quickly.

Did you enjoy boarding school?
I was a five-year-old on my own. I didn’t speak any English. [But] my big advantage was that I was very strong — physically — and amongst five- and six-year-old boys that means a lot.

Where did you go to college?
I went to Hamilton College, Columbia Business School and then to law school [at NYU]. I was a matrimonial attorney initially, unfortunately. It was a rather unpleasant experience. Often the litigants aren’t really looking for justice — they’re looking for revenge. I decided I couldn’t do it anymore and I switched to a law firm that happened to do real estate.

Is that how you got interested in owning your own real estate firm?
I was working very hard for all these real estate clients [and] … I could see they were making a lot of money. I naively said to myself, “I’m doing all the work, and they’re making all the money.” So I switched to real estate.

What was your first property acquisition?
It was a five-story brownstone at 31 West 16th Street. I bought it for practically nothing because it had a lot of tenants in it. On Saturdays and Sundays, I would have an attaché case full of greenbacks and would go to each apartment to talk to the tenants. I would bring them flowers and gifts and make friends with them. Bit by bit I convinced them to move out. I carried the hundred dollar bills with me so that when they said they were willing to leave, I could give them the money.

Did you get them all out?
I got everyone out. [The last one] was an elderly lady who lived on the fifth floor. I carried all [her] boxes down five flights of stairs, packed her into my Ford convertible, and took her to the new apartment. I installed her, gave her the rest of the cash, and said goodbye. That was the start of the business.

You’ve been married to your wife, Nancy, for 45 years. How did you meet?
When I was in law school, I worked weekends as a rental real estate agent, and she rented an apartment from us. After we went on that first date, it never ended. We’re still on that first date.

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When did you get married?
After about three or four months. I was 25. We didn’t have children for 10 years. It was really nice, but very upsetting for my father. In his tradition, it’s very important to have a son.

What did she see in you?
One of the first things she asked me when I met her was, “What do you want to do with your life?” I said, “I want to be a businessman. I want to make money.” Her immediate reaction was, “That’s not a valid profession. What do you want to do?” To her, that was terrible. She was kind of a hippie.

Is she still a hippie?
I took her once to buy a mink coat. I knew she didn’t want one — not because of animal rights, it just wasn’t her. My sister-in-law was buying one, so I said, “Let’s go along with her just to see it.” We went to the store. The sister-in-law was trying on the coat, so I said [to my wife], “You put it on so we can see what it looks like.” She put it on and started to laugh. She considered it funny that she could ever wear a mink coat. Now she has two. Times have changed.

Where do you live?
I’m about to move into one of my own buildings in Tribeca because we’re doing some work in my apartment on the Upper East Side. I’d rather not say which one. If we really like it, maybe we’ll stay.

Do you have any other homes?
We have a house in Upstate New York. When the children were young, we were there all the time. Since they’ve grown up, we go there a lot less.

Tell me about your kids. You have three?
My oldest son Adam teaches psychology at Princeton. Justin [president of Rockrose] is my second son. My third son, Ben, is a law student at Harvard. I consider them all brighter than me. I also have two grandkids. Charlotte is two and three-quarters, and David was just born. They’re both Adam’s children.

Has Justin’s recent promotion to president changed your relationship at all?
It was a natural progression. I was hoping and expecting that it would happen someday, and it’s happened. He’s earned it.

Why did you initiate the 2009 division of the company?
I’m the oldest of the brothers, and Justin was the oldest child [to be involved in the business.] He was working at the old Rockrose before the break-up, and my brothers’ children were getting older and starting to work occasionally at the company. I looked to the future and said, “There’s going to be some conflict as to who the ultimate successor would be.” I wanted to sidestep that whole thing. I didn’t want that whole confrontation going on when I was gone. [My brothers] were a bit upset at the time. I think they’ve accepted it now.

Were you and your brothers close growing up?
I was away at boarding school. The physical distance between us no doubt created more emotional distance than any of us would have preferred. Once the physical distance was eliminated, we grew closer, eventually deciding to work together.

Are you on good terms now?
It’s not like it used to be. We used to have lunch every Wednesday. That was a bonding experience. We don’t do that now. We’ll have a lunch or dinner occasionally. There’s some tension, but if you think of all the divisions that have happened in the real estate industry, this was a rather smooth one.

What would your late father have thought of you splitting up?
He would have hated it.

Do you need to have a certain amount of ego to be a successful developer in New York City?
You must not only have an ego, you must have a super-optimistic view of life. I have an unnaturally optimistic view on life — it’s a sickness. If you understood the real dangers involved in doing a project, you would never do one.

Who have been your mentors?
I don’t know if I’d call him a mentor, but Bernie Spitzer, Eliot Spitzer’s father. He’s probably in his 80s or 90s by now. When I first started my career, he was in business doing what I wanted to be doing, so I watched him very carefully and copied some of the things he did. I eventually got to meet him and we became tennis partners.

I read that you collect art. Which artists do you particularly like?
Toulouse Lautrec, and I have a few Matisses. I wish I could do more of it, but we’re so busy.

How do you measure success?
I won’t have really made it until I [can] come to work in sandals. That’s tongue-in-cheek to some extent, but it’s true also.