The Closing with Ofer Yardeni

Ofer Yardeni <em> (photo by STUDIO SCRIVO)</em>
Ofer Yardeni  (photo by STUDIO SCRIVO)

Ofer Yardeni is the cochairman and CEO of Stonehenge Partners, a Manhattan-based real estate company that owns and manages 27 residential buildings and commercial properties in New York valued at roughly $2.2 billion. Yardeni formed the company 18 years ago with his business partner, Joel Seiden. But the company has been especially active lately. Last spring, Stonehenge partnered with SL Green Realty and retail mogul Jeff Sutton to buy a $416 million retail and residential property portfolio that includes eight prime Upper East Side properties. More recently, Stonehenge bought a residential building at 103 East 86th Street for $76 million in November. The company is also converting a former staff-housing site at St. Vincent’s Hospital into a 180-unit luxury residential building at 555 Sixth Avenue.

What’s your full name?

Ofer Jacob Yardeni, but my wife calls me “the Big ‘O.’ ”

What’s your date of birth?

March 6, 1960. I’m a Pisces.

Do you believe in star signs?

Absolutely. [Pisces] is the only sign that has two animals; it’s two fish. For me, it’s about being able to … move and go with the flow [like a fish]. When I meet people, I always ask them when they were born.

Where did you grow up?

In Israel in a town called Bat Yam. It’s on the Mediterranean, south of Tel Aviv. It’s like Queens to Manhattan.

What did your father do?

He was a steelworker. If you asked my kids, they would say, “You were poor,” but growing up, I felt I was the richest boy in the world. I did not miss anything. I had my ocean. My mother made me cakes and the best food. We felt we were the happiest, best family in the world. I talk to my dad once or twice a day still. He lives in Israel. My mother passed away.

Did you finish high school?

[Yes, but] I was kicked out. The reason was that in the morning on my way to school, the school was to the right and the beach was to the left. I used to go to the beach. I had a bathing suit in my school bag. The new school I went to was like the reject school. On the first day, my mother, who was a professor, cried. But I thought it was the happiest school.

Why did you decide to move to the United States?

I was studying history at Tel Aviv University. When I was getting ready to graduate, I realized that I would have to work, but I wasn’t ready. I was watching a movie called “Animal House,” and I saw the life of American students on campus. I said, “That’s where I want to go.” I came to study Middle Eastern Studies at NYU. I thought I would just come to the United States and have some fun and then go back to Israel and become a teacher or a professor.

You were in the Israeli army. What was that like?

I was in the army for three years. I think that it was the best thing that could have happened to me at that moment of my life. It took a kid like me — I don’t know if I was mischievous, but I was a contrarian — and showed me discipline. A lot of things that I have today are because of the training I got in the army. It put me in line.

How did you get into real estate?

Completely by default. I was single in New York and every woman that I met, her parents were in real estate. Very early, I realized real estate in New York is like the celebrity in L.A. We are consumed by it. People wake up in the morning and talk about real estate. When they have sex, they talk about real estate. Even if you have only a cheap apartment, you talk about real estate.

How did you get your first real estate job?

I started taking business courses at NYU, and it came easy to me. I was introduced to a broker at LB Kaye. I went in to interview with a woman. It was almost like we were dancing the tango. It was a sexual flirtation. She gave me the job, and I became a broker at the firm. I met my wife [who was an assistant to the brokers] there. We got married in 1989.

What did she see in you?

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I had beautiful wavy, curly hair. I would always play with it, but I started to get headaches. I cut it shorter and shorter, and then started shaving it 20 years ago. I felt liberated. I’m the opposite of [the Biblical figure] Samson. If I have hair, I feel like I don’t have the same strength.

Where do you live?

On Long Island, in Upper Brookville. It’s 30 miles from Manhattan. I’ve lived there 16 or 17 years.

Do you have any other homes?

We have a place in the city in one of our buildings, the Olivia, which was named after my daughter. We rarely stay there because we love our bed at home. I also have a place in Beaver Creek, Colo. It’s in the Ritz-Carlton.

Do you ski?

I love skiing. Usually there is a bet in the office on whether I’ll survive the season. For the last seven years, almost every year I broke something: I’ve broken my leg once and my shoulder twice.

How many children do you have?

I have three beautiful kids. Max is almost 21, Josh is finishing high school and Olivia is 14.

How did you meet your Stonehenge partner, Joel Seiden?

I met him when I was a broker. I brought a buyer to a deal and he was the seller. He was a big owner in New Jersey. One year later, I was walking down the street and I ran into him. He was coming out of his Rolls-Royce. He said to me, “Hey, Ofer, what are you doing?” I said, “I’m going to open my own company.” He said, “Let’s do it together.” I don’t think with Joel it’s a matter of money. He’s a wonderful human being, and we’d connected very much on a spiritual level. The fact that we’ve made a lot of money only helps.

What was your first acquisition?

I bought the note on 240 West 72nd Street for $400,000 [in 1995.]. It was a small building that was being foreclosed on. I kept it for a long time, but decided to sell in 2003. I wanted to show everybody that worked in my organization that you don’t fall in love with real estate. I didn’t want to be too attached. I sold the building for $3.5 million, which was a great return. But I must admit that the day after I sold it, I called the buyer and asked if he’d sell it back to me.

Are you religious?

I’m very religious. I keep kosher, but I don’t go to temple because it doesn’t fit in my schedule. I’m very spiritual. I pray every morning. I have the bible in my car and at my house. I have on my phone a chapter from Tehillim [a Hebrew book of Psalms].

You were one of Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto’s well-known followers. What was that relationship like?

I loved the rabbi dearly. Other than my wife and my partner Joel, he was the person who helped me be where I am. … He helped me become a better husband, a better father and a better leader in my community and in my company. In my early 40s, when I was making so much money, I started to think I was God’s gift. … The rabbi was able to show me that the most important thing in my life was my wife, and the reason I succeeded was because of my wife.

How do you feel about his arrest?

Sometimes there are things that happen and we don’t understand them when they happen. What we see right now is only a chapter. The truth will come and everybody will understand. … I was sad to hear the stories, but inside I believe in the rabbi.

Who are your heroes?

There are two people who’ve influenced my life who I’ve never met: Michael Jordan and Madonna. Michael Jordan was able to achieve the highest levels in basketball. Madonna is my age and look how she was able to transform herself from one style to another style to another style. Thank God I never met them. If I met them, I would see all their flaws and realize they’re the same as you and I.

What hobbies do you have?

In the summer, I cycle. I will go out and ride 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 miles with groups of 10 or 20 guys. I play golf sometimes, but I recently decided that I’m only playing up to 80 strokes. I reach 80 shots and I leave. Why would I play more than 80? For me, there is life more than just chasing a ball.