The Closing with Stephen Ross

The Related chairman talks about getting fired from two jobs, selling tax shelters and yachting in the Mediterranean

Stephen Ross (photo by STUDIO SCRIVO)
Stephen Ross (photo by STUDIO SCRIVO)

Billionaire developer Stephen Ross is the chairman of the Related Companies, the firm behind Hudson Yards, the mega-project on Manhattan’s Far West Side. The $20 billion project will include 16 skyscrapers and total 17.4 million square feet of office, residential, retail and community space. The firm has also developed over $22 billion in real estate and has a $15 billion portfolio nationwide, including 6,000 luxury rental units, 9 million square feet of commercial properties and 45,000 affordable and workforce housing units. In New York City, the company has built massive projects like the Time Warner Center and a slew of high-end residential and mixed-use properties. Ross, who also owns the Miami Dolphins, founded Related in 1972.

Name: Stephen Michael Ross

Born: May 10, 1940

Hometown: Detroit

Marital status: Married

Children: 4

What were you like as a kid?

I was a free spirit. I was in trouble a lot. School was kind of secondary. The principal told my parents, “He has a strong personality. You’ve got to discipline him, but don’t break him.”

What did your parents do?

My dad was an inventor. He was a hard worker, so I didn’t see him much, probably about as much as my kids see me. He was very creative, but he wasn’t a good businessman, and he didn’t have much success economically.

What did he invent?

The coffee vending machine was probably the first big thing he invented. He had patents for it and sold them. But he went with the wrong company. By the time he found out [the company] wasn’t successful, other companies had already caught up.

Why did you move from Detroit to Miami Beach?

We moved for my dad to manage a hotel my grandfather owned. It was hard; it was the middle of freshman year [in high school], and I’d just established myself at a new school.

Didn’t you always want to go to the University of Michigan but didn’t get in at first?

My parents took me to a football game in Ann Arbor when I was about eight years old. I was so enamored.… I started at the University of Florida, but worked hard because I knew it was my last chance. I ultimately got high enough grades to transfer.

When did you come to New York?

I came to New York after law school [at Wayne State University] to get a master’s in tax law at NYU. It was really the first time I’d spent any time in New York. Being single and looking to really work hard and play hard, there was no greater city in the world.

Where do you live now?

In the Time Warner Center, which I built.

You work there, too. Are there days you feel like you never leave the building?

When the weather’s bad, I’ve gone for two or three days without going outside. I eat at the restaurants and go to Dizzy’s [the nightclub at Jazz at Lincoln Center].

Do you have other homes?

I spend weekends at our home in Palm Beach, and I have a place in Southampton.

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How long have you been married?

I first got married when I was 40, and that lasted for 11 years. This time? Twelve years.

You left marriage until late in life then.

I was enjoying single life, but more importantly, I was intent on establishing a career and building a company.

How did you meet your wife, Kara?

On a blind date. She was a jewelry designer and had her own company.… Since then, she’s really built a brand, and she sells in Bergdorf’s and other great retailers. She has a store now on 60th Street, just off Madison.

How many kids do you have?

Four. I have two girls, and she has two. I’m way outnumbered.

How did you get your start in real estate?

I got fired from two jobs, at Bear Stearns and [investment bank] Laird all within a two-year period. You had all these young people vying for the top. Everyone thought they were the masters of the universe. At Bear Stearns, the person I was working with had an inferiority complex. He wanted me to be totally subservient and that didn’t work for me. I knew I couldn’t go back for another interview so I made a business plan.

What was the business plan?

I started in affordable housing so I could learn the business using my skills as a tax attorney. Meanwhile, I was selling the tax shelters that accompanied the projects to wealthy investors. The financial arm eventually became the largest supplier of debt and equity for affordable housing.

The likelihood of success without money or a family history in real estate must have seemed slim.

I look back and see where I am today and I can’t believe it. I have to pinch myself.

When did you know that you’d made it?

I don’t know that I’ve made it yet.

Has it been hard to watch what’s happening in Detroit with the bankruptcy?

I was there recently and it brought tears to your eyes to see how much it deteriorated. That was the same time that we had the harassment issue with the Dolphins. It all shows you what racism can do to this country.

What are your hobbies? Do you collect anything?

I took up golf about 10 years ago. I play with an old friend from Boston and with [Bloomberg L.P. CEO and one-time deputy mayor] Dan Doctoroff. [We also go] out on our boat in the Hamptons. It’s a 38-foot speedboat. I also have a modern outdoor sculpture collection.

What kind of car do you drive?

A Maserati. It’s dark blue.

Did you like cars as a kid?

My parents tell me the first word I ever learned was “car.”