The Closing: Michael Stern

The JDS wunderkind on getting kicked out of yeshiva, his latest projects and the truth about Billionaires' Row

DOB: June 13, 1979
Hometown: Five Towns, Long Island
Family: Divorced; two children

Michael Stern is the CEO of JDS Development Group, a firm with 11.5 million square feet under development in New York City and Miami. In New York, residential developments include Walker Tower in Chelsea and Stella Tower in Hell’s Kitchen, as well as the forthcoming ultra-skinny tower at 111 West 57th Street, which is set to top out at over 1,400 feet. The firm has co-developed many of its recent projects with Property Markets Group. Stern launched the company in 2002 and today has around 225 employees.

Where do you live?

Walker Tower. I have a home in Florida as well. I’m probably in Miami every 10 days or two weeks for work.

How long have you lived at Walker Tower?

Since we completed it in late 2013. I was living in Hewlett Harbor [Long Island] and I got wiped out during Hurricane Sandy. My house took in six feet of water. Walker Tower was just about finished, but my apartment there was still being renovated. So I bounced around for a few months, waiting for my guys to finish my apartment.

What were you like as a kid?

I was a pain in the ass. According to my mother, I used to go around knocking over [store] displays and kicking old ladies in the shin. I was rambunctious.

When did you outgrow the rambunctious stage?

When I had my daughter [who is now 11] and I realized I’d have to figure out a way to make a living for her. Actually, a little before that, in fairness.

Was school your thing?

I got kicked out of a couple of schools and went to four different high schools. After I graduated [Lawrence High School], I basically went right to work.

Why were you kicked out?

I went to a bunch of [Jewish] yeshiva high schools that didn’t like my leather jacket, didn’t like my attitude.

Did you go to college?

I never went to college. I went to work in the construction industry. I was a project manager for a developer in Florida, learning the nuts and bolts of how to build buildings.

How did you get that job?

Through family friends. After three-and-a-half years, I started doing single-family spec homes on the side, then townhomes, mid-rises and high-rises. When I came to New York, I followed a similar path. We did hundreds of low-rise houses in the boroughs in the early 2000s.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t worry about making money in the short term. Make decisions that are a little more long-reaching and you’ll do better overall. When I started in the business, I worked for free. I went to learn.

Do you make enough money now?

I won’t directly answer. It’s a loaded question.

What’s your proudest accomplishment?

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Walker Tower was a bit of a breakout job for us. It was a diamond in the rough. Everybody who walked the building didn’t know what to do with it.

What do you do in your spare time?

Hang out with my kids. I also have a car collection, even though I rarely drive because I live in Manhattan.

How many cars do you have?

I’m not quite sure, a couple of dozen. I keep them in various locations — New York, Miami, Pennsylvania. I have a lot of late ’60s muscle cars, vintage German cars and modern sports cars like an Audi R8 Spyder and a Mercedes AMG GT S. As a child, my dad owned an auto body shop. To be fortunate enough to play around with some of the cars that I fantasized about — and were so out of reach as a child — is a lot of fun.

What are your vices?

I’m a workaholic. I probably work 15-plus hours a day, easily. I don’t really drink or smoke. I don’t have any of the conventional vices. How boring is that?

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about you?

That I’m very young and sort of showed up overnight. I don’t think they realize I’ve been grinding it out since I was 20 years old.

You’ve butted heads with union leaders for using non-union laborers. What’s your take?

Look, the union leadership has a tough challenge of maintaining their market share. I get what they’re up against. But we’re a merit shop, so sometimes the winning bidder is union, and sometimes it’s [not].

Is Billionaires’ Row getting crowded?

It’s a funny question. If you look at all the units on the corridor and add them up, it’s only a few hundred units. They’re very tall towers, but they’re relatively boutique. It gets outside attention, but the reality is, it’s a very limited number of units and the assemblages are all gone.

What do you read or watch in your spare time?

I’m a bit of an engineering geek. I read a lot of engineering books. I also read a lot on the history of war — everything from World War II to Middle East history to every Israeli war.

What’s the last thing you purchased?

Do buildings count?

What’s something you can’t live without?

My phone and email. The volume of email I get is epic. I’m pushing close to 1,000 a day. After a natural disaster you categorize the injuries; that’s kind of what my email is. I triage during the day and then answer email in the middle of the night.

If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?

I’m always going to go with my kids because they’re my kids. I’d be happy to eat pizza bagels with my kids; that’s my favorite meal.

What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

Buy real estate earlier. If you buy real estate that’s even decent and you wait long enough, you’ll do great and you’ll look really intelligent.