The Closing: Kenneth Fisher

The Fisher Brothers partner on his Bronx childhood, missed opportunities and family tragedies

Ken Fisher (Photo by Marc Scrivo)
Ken Fisher (Photo by Marc Scrivo)

DOB: October 12, 1958 (age 58)

Lives in: Manhattan

Family: Married, three children

Kenneth Fisher is a partner at Fisher Brothers [TRDataCustom], a century-old, family-run real estate firm that owns and operates more than 5.5 million square feet of property in Manhattan, worth at least $4 billion. He also serves as chairman of the Fisher House Foundation, which builds comfort homes for families of injured veterans. A third-generation Fisher, and grandson of one of the original partners, Larry, Kenneth oversees marketing and leasing of the firm’s portfolio, which includes the office towers 299 Park Avenue, 605 Third Avenue and 1345 Avenue of the Americas. Due to an investment partnership with Morgan Stanley, Fisher Brothers was prohibited from building in New York for many years. But the firm is now back in development mode, with projects such as 111 Murray Street, a Tribeca luxury condo with a projected sellout of $973 million, and a luxury rental in Murray Hill.

Where did you grow up?

Riverdale, New York. I remember the old historic Yankee Stadium. In those days, you could walk out on the warning track. I used to take the dirt and throw it on my shoes, and then never wear them again. My father, Arnold, spent the first 12 years of his business life as a laborer. He came up the hard way. He didn’t become a “suit” until the mid-60s. When I first came into the business, I was so thick, accent-wise, I actually took speech classes.

What was your first job?

I was the office boy down at the Bankers Trust Plaza. I was 16. In those days, when you walked on the job, the union guys were aware of who you were and had their fun. And you had to take it. That was the rite of passage. There was a guy called the Alligator. He called me and he said, “C’mon up. I’ll teach you how to lay the floor.” It was the same year that Philippe Petit crossed the Twin Towers. Sal Fino, our super for many years, called me up on the walkie-talkie and asked me where I was. Me, not knowing much, I said, “Sal, I’m up on 16, laying floors with the Alligator.” He screamed at me and told me to come down, so I dropped everything and ran down the stairs. All the workers were in the stairway, and I had to pass through this gauntlet of union guys laughing at me like you can’t believe.

How did you meet your wife, Tammy?

She managed the VIP room of a nightclub that I was a big owner of, the Roxbury, in Beverly Hills. It was the Studio 54 of its day. In L.A., you got special treatment if you were a movie star, if you owned a club, or if you dabbled in the illegals. She wouldn’t date me. I had to marry her, because it was costing me a fortune in flowers — I was sending her two dozen roses every week, for god’s sake.

Did you have game at the time?

Yeah, I was pretty good. But that was a different day.

You’re working with a long legacy behind you. Do you ever feel like you would have wanted to go it alone, or start from the bottom?

Every generation in a family business has the opportunity to shape the skyline. What I look at is that you have an open door: You have a business you could come into, but you work hard like everybody else and, in a lot of ways, you pay dues that nobody understands. You live in a fishbowl. Everything you do is watched, criticized — you don’t have the luxury of making too many mistakes when you’re a family member. People look at you as if, “OK, you’re going to run this place? Show me what you got.”

What’s the working dynamic like between you and your father?

The final decision rests with him. When deals get done, we go in and have to have them blessed.

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Your cousin, Anthony Fisher, died in 2003, in a plane crash, the same year that your brother Steven’s son Michael died in the hospital, at the age of 12. Another cousin, Richard Fisher, died three years later of cancer. How do you digest that?

You don’t come back from something like that. There was a decision, while we were getting through this rough patch, to keep it simple: Just keep the ship sailing straight and wait for some more Fishers to get in. One of the nicest letters I got, though, was from Bobby Kennedy Jr.

For a long time, because of the Morgan Stanley partnership, Fisher Brothers wasn’t allowed to build in New York. Was that frustrating?

There were some opportunities missed, no question. Before the crash in ’07, there were some amazing deals being done. It was tough, but we had made the commitment. It was frustrating because with the fund, as it turned out, we had our ups and downs. But at the end of the day, everyone was made whole.

Your joint venture with Sheldon Solow to develop the former Con Edison site on First Avenue didn’t go so well.

It’s always difficult between two developers. We just had different philosophies. It’s something we turned the page on a long time ago. I know they’ve now started to develop. I think it would have been a phenomenal success then. But one piece of advice I was given: “Sometimes the best deals you ever do are the deals you never do.”

You’ve been a big donor to both Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, who are often diametrically opposed. What’s your thinking there?

Who can understand politics? The mayor and the governor have issues. All I know is that you weigh your options and you make the best decisions you can make. We think Governor Cuomo is doing a good job. The mayor is having some challenges.

There is so much to love about this business. But what is it that you wish you could change?

I don’t like the present zoning. I don’t like these tall, sliver buildings going up 1,200 feet. I think there has to be more attention paid to what’s going on in the city.

How important is money to you, personally?

I’m in business for a reason. But I would tell you that I don’t value it as much as I appreciate it.

What’s your greatest personal extravagance?

About 20 years ago, I bought myself a 1969 Shelby GT500. Red with yellow stripes. Tammy gave me a hard time. There’s a series of checks and balances in my marriage.

What would you want people to say about you when you’re gone?

That I really did care. That I didn’t just take up oxygen and space. I don’t want to leave this world and have nobody know I was here. I can’t be content that way. I don’t need them to know what I did — just that I gave a shit. 

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized Kenneth’s relationship to Anthony, Richard and Steven Fisher. Anthony and Richard were his cousins, while Steven is his brother.