The Closing: Marty Burger

The Silverstein Properties CEO on the rush of heli-skiing, buying a condo in a rival’s building and taking over for an NYC industry legend

Marty Burger (Photo by Studio Scrivo)
Marty Burger (Photo by Studio Scrivo)

Marty Burger is the CEO of Silverstein Properties, which is best known for acquiring the World Trade Center seven weeks before the 9/11 terror attacks and spending the next two decades rebuilding the hallowed site. Burger, 54, joined the family firm in 2009 as an executive vice president to be groomed as a successor to founder Larry Silverstein, who was then in his late 70s. Burger was appointed co-CEO in 2012 and became the company’s sole chief executive two years later as Silverstein moved into the role of chair. During his tenure, Burger more than doubled the firm’s headcount to roughly 400 employees overseeing a portfolio of about 40 million square feet in the U.S. and China. Burger led the company’s expansions into new markets and new lines of business, like Silverstein Capital Partners — its $57 billion lending arm. He’s also spearheaded the One West End luxury condominium on West 59th Street, the Four Seasons hotel in Orlando and the $1.2 billion acquisition of ABC’s campus on the Upper West Side. Silverstein Properties’ largest project in the works is the development of its 2.8 million-square-foot 2 WTC. Talks with Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox to anchor the building fell apart in 2016. The development firm has said it’s contemplating moving ahead without an anchor tenant and building the tower on spec. Prior to joining Silverstein, Burger held jobs at Goldman Sachs, Blackstone Group and the Related Companies. Apart from his day job, Burger’s a member of the Urban Land Institute’s global board of directors, which determines the think tank’s policies, and works with a handful of charities. He’s also an active member of the Real Estate Roundtable, the industry’s main lobbying group in Washington, D.C., and sits on several advisory boards.

DOB: June 6, 1965
Lives in: Upper East Side
Hometown: Plainview, Long Island
Family: Married with two sons, 24 and 21, from a previous marriage and a stepson, 16

How did you get the job at Silverstein? In ’08, ’09 I was out in Las Vegas and I get a call from a headhunter about Larry Silverstein and his company, asking if I can help think through who might be a good successor for him. In the middle of the conversation I said, “I should just come back and interview with Larry, right?” They said, “We were hoping we would get to that point.” Just coincidentally, I met my wife the same week I met Larry, so it was a very good week for me.

How did you meet her? On [the Jewish dating site] JDate in 2009.

Do you remember what your profile said? I don’t know, but I didn’t put my face on it. I put a picture of me in my ski mask. She liked the fact that she couldn’t see my face.

You’re an avid skier, right? I ski 35 to 40 days a year. I do heli-skiing. You can do continuous runs all day long where no one has been. You’re skiing through unmarked, untracked stuff, and it’s just awesome.

Where do you live now? We bought a place in the Carlton House that’s under construction right now. We hope to be living there in September. One of my sons graduated two years ago and lives in one of our buildings, actually, with two of his roommates. [They’re] paying full rent, by the way. My other son is still in school, and we live with my wife’s son. But my stepson I treat as my son, like I have three boys.

What happened with your first marriage? Things don’t work out all the time.

What drew you to the Carlton House? My wife wanted to be near the three “B’s”: Barneys, Bergdorf’s and Bloomingdale’s. Her son goes to school on the Upper West Side at Columbia Prep. I’ve spent most of my time in New York City living in that area. I found it myself on StreetEasy and I negotiated the deal directly with Gary Barnett, who developed the building. Gary was fantastic, and the two of us have known each other through the industry. So we cut a deal very quickly and got it done.

Did you pay the asking price? I didn’t get a significant discount, but I think from where it was five years ago to today, I got a pretty good deal and I’m very happy.

Where were you born? In Jacksonville, North Carolina, on Camp Lejeune. My dad was a dentist in the Navy. We eventually moved to a single-family house in Plainview [on Long Island], where my dad had an office, so his dental practice was attached to the house.

What was your childhood like? I had a great childhood, all sort of sports-related. We played football, soccer, baseball, basketball and deck hockey. I also grew up playing tennis.

When you were playing sports, did you ever have any really bad injuries? When I was three years old, I was walking out of my cousin’s house in Great Neck and my cousin swung a bat and hit me in the head. My head busted open, bleeding everywhere. My mother took me to the hospital, and I ended up with like 16 stitches. In the ’70s, we were in the first grade having a race and I’m looking at the guy that I’m racing. I turn around and I smack right into a brick wall and I busted open my head and got like, I don’t know, 10 stitches. In the ’80s, I was at the top of Jackson Hole and I was learning how to ski bumps. My ski pops off — they had shitty bindings back then — and hits me right in the head and I got five stitches. In the ’90s, I’m playing tennis with my dad indoors. I go back for a lob and I trip, and I go right into a steel beam. Seventy-five stitches; I ripped open the whole top of my head.

Do you know how many stitches you’ve had total by now? It’s well over a hundred.

You play tennis with Jon Mechanic, right? Jon was one of the founders of this tennis game at 7:30 in the morning on Thursdays. When he asked me to join 10 years ago, I was the youngest one in the group and definitely one of the top players in it. Now I’m probably the third oldest and second worst. I always like playing with people better than me because that’s how you improve. I don’t want to be the best in the group.

Are there other real estate people who play? Adam Meister, who works for Howard Hughes Corporation, has been working on South Street Seaport. He’s a great player. There’s a guy named Matt Snyder, who is just joining the group. He used to work for Fortress and now he has his own real estate company called Center Court Partners. He played for Illinois — an unbelievable player. A guy named Jonah Sonnenborn, who works for Len Blavatnik’s company, Access Industries. And Jon Yormak, who has his own company, East End Capital.

Do you get competitive when you play? The skiing is more social and the tennis is competitive, without a doubt. Golf is always competitive, too, because you bet, right? So yeah. I’m not a fierce competitor; I’m a good competitor.

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What’s the most you ever won or lost on a bet? I lost $3,300 one day on the golf course. I probably won $1,000, so I definitely lost more in one day than I’ve ever won in one day.

Where did you go to college? I went to Penn. I remember being a freshman: I’m taking econ and chemistry and I’m joining the economics club and the young medical club because I’m thinking about going pre-med. My father says, “You can’t stand the sight of blood. What are you thinking?” That ended quickly, and I transferred into Wharton.

You bought a rental building in Philadelphia during college. What was that like? It was a six-bedroom house really a two-bedroom house we turned into a six-bedroom, legally or not legally, I’m not sure. We had people living in the basement; they weren’t really supposed to be living in the basement.

When you look back now, are there any learned lessons that you’ve applied? Yeah, don’t live with your friends if you’re also their landlord. I went away to London for a semester junior year, and I would get reports back from the folks in the house: They’re having a competition between the heating system and the air conditioning system to see which one wins. I was like, “Great, thanks, guys.”

Have you ever had tenants as bad in any of your buildings? No, although I’m sure if you ask our head of operations, he’d be telling you some doozies.

What was your first job after school? At Laventhol & Horwath from ’87 to ’89. It was the ninth-largest accounting firm in the world at the time [before it filed for bankruptcy in 1990]. We were just consulting for people. I didn’t like being a consultant because I was only 22 or 23, but I was working really hard for these people and they wouldn’t listen to me. They were like, “Oh, you’re a consultant. You don’t know anything.” They just take your information and they do whatever they want with it and you have no say.

Donald Trump was one of your clients. He was one of my first clients; it was for his Queens Center Mall in Rego Park. We were trying to figure out how to improve it for him.

Did he listen to your advice? He didn’t really get that involved. He had a really tough woman named Barbara Res, who was running his retail group, and that’s who we really presented to and reported to.

How do you compare Trump the developer to the president? I know Eric and Donnie better than I know Donald. What I do know from my past experience competing against him on projects and other things, his actions as president are the same as his actions in business. He says and does what he wants to do, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that his actions haven’t changed. There was no tweeting back then, but he hasn’t changed. He is the same person he’s been. He says what’s on his mind, but that’s the way he’s always been. He’s not acting any differently as president as he did as Donald Trump the business guy.

What did you do when you went to work at Related in 1989? We built a huge mixed-use project in West Palm Beach called CityPlace. We built Time Warner Center in New York City, and we worked on a whole bunch of other projects. It was really fun.

How are Larry and Steve Ross similar or different? They are both visionaries; different personalities. Larry is like your dad or your grandfather. Before you’re going to talk about the deal, he is going to ask you how your wife is or how your daughter is doing or what you’re doing this weekend. He’ll tell you a boating story, whatever. It’s just very personal with him with everything.

Was it hard coming in to work on the World Trade Center midstream?  No, because actually when I started here I was doing everything but working on the World Trade Center, like helping create new businesses or getting us into new markets and bringing in new properties and running our Four Seasons. I created the One West End project up on 59th. I helped execute the Disney and the Four Seasons project down in Orlando. Then I realized that there were pieces of the World Trade Center that I could really be helpful with, whether it was leasing at a very high level or helping with the financing and development of 3 World Trade Center. I’m very involved with all aspects of 2 [WTC]. So I started spending more time with that.

Of all the developments that you have worked on, what do you think is the most rewarding one for you? Well, obviously the World Trade Center is just special. It has a lot of meaning to a lot of people. When people come Downtown, you know, for some it’s remembrance, for others it’s revitalization. I am very proud of my work on Time Warner Center. That was really something special. It was very difficult. We had eight different uses in the building with seven different owners. The fact that we pulled it off is pretty incredible.

You really grew Silverstein Properties’ headcount over the past nine years. Why did you think that was important? It was organically over time. We didn’t have an asset management group when I got here. When I first started here, I took a tour of all our properties and I asked a lot of questions. Most of the answers had to come from Larry. After my first week here I said, “Larry, you can’t be our asset management leader.” Larry knew everything that was going on, but that’s not his job. And it certainly wasn’t his job to have to go report to our partners. Our IT group at the time was like a half a person. Now we have 15-plus full-time people in that group, because everything we do has to feed on technology.

Sounds like it was a smaller sort of family firm before you came on board. You know, so was Related. Related has become this big institutional firm. I vowed to Larry that we would seem institutional to our partners and our lenders and we will remain a family-oriented firm, which we have.

What’s it like working for a growing family company when you’re not a member of the family? There’s always a delicate balance. I would say I’m confident enough in my abilities to do things that some of the family members don’t do. There are family assets, and they look over those. But I’m the only real estate deal guy at the top. Other than Larry, no other family member does that.

Larry is such a big name in the industry. What do you want your legacy to be? I’m not really looking to build a legacy. I don’t even have my name on anything. My goal is to keep a great reputation. It’s one of Larry’s mantras, “Don’t ever do anything you would be afraid to see on the front cover of the New York Times.” He has, for 62 years, maintained a great reputation in the industry. For my thirty-something years in the industry, I’ve done the same and hope to continue that. I’m not here to make the last dollar. I just want to continue the flow of great deals while still being a good person.

—Edited and condensed for clarity.