The Closing: Charles Cohen

Charles Cohen (photo by Ben Baker)
Charles Cohen is the president and CEO of Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation, the company founded by his family in the 1950s. CBRC owns and manages more than 12 million square feet of office space and design centers across the country, including 623 Fifth Avenue, the Decoration & Design Building and the Pacific Design Center — designed by Argentine architect César Pelli — in West Hollywood, Calif. He was also the coproducer of the film “Frozen River,” which in 2009 received Oscar nominations for best original screenplay and best actress.

What is your birth date?
February 8, 1952.

Where did you grow up?
In Harrison in Westchester County. [In high school], I wrote and acted in plays, captained the tennis team and was also on the soccer and swim teams.

Where do you live now?
In Manhattan and in suburban Connecticut. [In Manhattan], I live in a co-op apartment along 57th Street, just a short walk from my office, furnished in a French Directoire style.

You’ve developed a number of major design centers. What are the unique design elements of your homes?
[In Connecticut] I have a movie theater modeled after the Paramount [in Times Square] in the 1930s. I wanted to do a home theater and when I started to develop that project back in the early ’90s, I met a home theater designer who was able to take it one step further. I get caught up in the design of something, and follow it through to the nth degree.

How did you meet [second wife Clo Jacobs Cohen]?
Lady Caroline Wrey, a dynamic woman known as the “Martha Stewart of Britain,” who had done some lectures at the D+D building, threw a small dinner party in London for me and invited my future wife. I had told her I was a “softie” for women with English accents. Boy was I.

Do you have kids?
Yes. [They] range in age from 1 to 25. I have a 1-year-old boy, a 3-year old boy, a 21-year-old son and a 25-year-old daughter.

What is it like having a 1-year-old child at this point in your career?
It makes you feel great about life, being able to see the world through the eyes of a 1-year-old.

How did you end up in real estate?
I wanted to be a film director. I did some shorts when I was in high school and college. I went to law school because I thought that would give me a good practical background and profession. I thought I would start my law career as an entertainment attorney, but found the employment options in New York City very limiting. I had always been involved in real estate through my family, working summer jobs, and I guess just some osmosis. And it was a natural connection for me. … I’ve been here now for over 30 years.

What lessons did you learn from your father about the business?
How to delegate responsibility and build strong relationships with your employees that enable your company to continue to grow.

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How did you get involved in “Frozen River”?
The wife of someone I worked with developed the script based on a short she made, and asked if I could help with raising the financing for it. When I went out to look for some investors, it was very poorly received. I believed in it enough to take on most of the investment myself [and ultimately invested $340,000].

Did you ever think it would be Oscar-nominated?

I don’t know, probably not. I’m just very happy, particularly happy for the filmmaker [Courtney Hunt], that she was able to begin a new career and to help take me along for part of that journey.

Are you looking at new movie projects?
Yes. There are some things I’m talking to people about right now. We’ll see. But my day job is real estate, design centers.

What made you want to write the movie quiz book “Trivia Mania” in 1985?
At the time, no one had done anything like that. I thought I would try something different that married the passion I had for [film] with an opportunity to do something businesslike.

How did you come up with more than 1,000 pieces of trivia for the book?
I did it in the evenings every night for three to four weeks.A lot of it was from my own experience, but I did check some reference materials and did some other research. A thousand questions — that’s a lot of questions.

Are you still pretty good at movie trivia?
I don’t look at it as trivia. I look at it as facts. [laughs] One man’s fact is another man’s trivia, right?

Is it true that your employees are only allowed to wear white shirts?
It’s light-colored shirts. Just not black shirts, and dark brown or navy blue shirts, because I think it looks less than professional.

I think the image we create for the people we want to do business with is very important. I’m not going to come into a business meeting in a pair of blue jeans and a T-shirt because that’s not the image that I want to project. Do I do that on the weekends? Of course. But am I shaking hands with the bank representative or a financial institution that wants to lease a substantial amount of space? No.

What’s something people don’t know about you?
I’m actively involved in signing every check and negotiating every contract and signing every lease.

If you look back at your career, is there anything you wish you could do over again?
Probably all the things that didn’t work out, but I try not to second-guess things. … I believe in fate and destiny.