The Real Deal National

Inside Stephen Ross’ massive empire of gyms, condos, coffee and more

Through Related and RSE Ventures, the billionaire has invested in 30+ companies
By E.B. Solomont and Katherine Kallergis | August 08, 2019 06:12PM

Related CEO Stephen Ross (Credit: Getty Images, Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter)

Related CEO Stephen Ross (Credit: Getty Images, Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter)

The backlash over hosting a Trump fundraiser has been swift for developer Stephen Ross.

Within 24 hours of word getting out, Equinox members and SoulCycle devotees have threatened to boycott both brands, which are owned by Ross’ Related Companies. (In San Francisco, some staged a protest.) Miami Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills publicly criticized the team owner for agreeing to host the event at his Hamptons home. And in a joint statement, the CEOs of Equinox and SoulCycle tried to distance themselves from the fracas and Ross himself.

“We believe in tolerance and equality, and will always stay true to those values,” they said. “Mr. Ross is a passive investor and is not involved in the management of either business.”

Not only is Ross the owner of those brands, but the real estate billionaire’s investments reach far wider.

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The 79-year-old developer — worth an estimated $7.7 billion, according to Forbes — founded Related in 1972 with a focus on affordable housing. Today, his empire has $50 billion in assets owned or under development, including the 28-acre mega-development Hudson Yards. The company’s investment arm, Related Fund Management, has raised $5 billion to date. Ross also owns a minority stake in Jorge Pérez’s Related Group. And in 2012, he co-founded RSE Ventures, a venture capital firm that describes itself as “part investor” and “part incubator” that’s backed 17 startups to date. Through Vayner/RSE, a partnership between Gary Vaynerchuck, Vayner Media and RSE, Ross has supported dozens more.

Ross released a statement Wednesday night describing himself as an “outspoken champion of racial equality, inclusion, diversity, public education and environmental sustainability.”

“I have known Donald Trump for 40 years, and while we agree on some issues, we strongly disagree on many others and I have never been bashful about expressing my opinions,” he said. “I started my business with nothing and a reason for my engagement with our leaders is my deep concern for creating jobs and growing our country’s economy.”

Business backlash
Fallout over the fundraiser is still threatening to take a toll on Ross’ many businesses — including luxury condos.

Related is actively marketing apartments at 70 Vestry Street and at Hudson Yards, as well as 520 West 28th, where a penthouse is asking $48.75 million. The optics of the fundraiser, which is at Ross’ Hamptons home, are “very, very bad for business,” said one brokerage source, who said a client who recently inked a deal at Hudson Yards is now having second thoughts.

In West Palm Beach, the developer owns CityPlace, which it recently rebranded as Rosemary Square. The mixed-use property is currently undergoing a $550 million redevelopment. Last year, Related secured approval for a 21-story apartment building on the site of a former Macy’s building at CityPlace.

Ross also owns the Miami Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium, which in addition to now hosting the annual Miami Open tennis tournament will be home to the Super Bowl in 2020.

Kenny Stills, a wide receiver for the Dolphins, criticized Ross’ decision to host a fundraiser for Trump.

Christina Tosi, founder of Milk Bar, also went on the offensive. “Milk Bar is in no way affiliated with the Trump fundraiser,” she wrote in a letter posted to the company’s website. “Stephen Ross is one of many investors in our company, all of whom come from different perspectives.”

Yoga, catering and rental cars
Outside of development, Related itself has spawned subsidiaries, including some through Equinox, which in addition to SoulCycle owns Pure Yoga, Blink Fitness and Rumble. Over the past seven years, Related also took a stake in Danny Meyer’s Union Square Events and CORE Real Estate, a boutique residential brokerage that handles Related’s resales. In 2017, Related bought an $80 million stake in Ladder Capital, one of the Trump Organization’s biggest lenders; a year later, it attempted a takeover bid, but was rejected.

In recent weeks, Related also invested in an airport car rental company called Conrac Solutions, and it acquired Pioneer Railcorp, owner of short-line railroads, in partnership with Brookhaven Rail Partners and Stephen Capital Partners. Earlier this summer, it said it would partner with Uber to build a skyport for Uber Air vehicles.

Neither is Ross’ first foray into transportation.

Until last year, Related also owned Citi Bike through a subsidiary called Bikeshare Holdings LLC. In 2014, Bikeshare acquired Motivate (formerly Alta Bicycle Share), which operated Citi Bike. Motivate was acquired by Lyft for a reported $250 million in 2018. This year, RSE Ventures, the fund co-founded by Ross, bet $1 million on a drone racing league.

The Detroit native is also among the biggest donors to the University of Michigan, where he earned an accounting degree in 1962. To date, Ross has committed $378 million to the university, according to reports, including a $100 million gift to the business school, which was named after him in 2004.

In 2018, a Detroit Free Press investigation cast a shadow over those gifts after it found the University of Michigan has invested in the companies of its donors, including more than $140 million in five funds through Related Fund Management. Ross and a group of partners also ended up in court after claiming a $33 million charitable tax deduction, which the IRS called a “tax avoidance scheme.”

New ventures
In all, Ross has knit a web of more than 30 companies with overlapping interests in sports, entertainment, hospitality and technology — both through Related and its subsidiaries, as well as through investments from RSE.

To date, RSE has backed 17 companies, according to Crunchbase.

They include companies like Outstanding Foods, which creates plant-based food; and Omaze, which connects influencers and charities. In June 2018, RSE invested $20 million in Bluestone Lane, the Australian coffee chain. It bet $19.5 million on &pizza, a chain that started in Washington, D.C.

The common thread is obviously real estate.

Related’s Hudson Yards, for example, will house Equinox’s first hotel. Bluestone Lane is a tenant in the Hudson Yards Mall. Equinox and SoulCycle are both tenants at the Related Group’s SLS Brickell, a twin-tower, 690-unit luxury condo development in Miami. Pérez’s Related Group sold the commercial spaces leased to the fitness tenants to Related Companies last year for $12.2 million, financing the deal with a loan from Ladder Capital.

Restaurants backed by RSE (of which there are many) will have spots in Hudson Yards. And media company VaynerMedia and the public relations firm Derris — both backed by RSE — work with several other companies the fund has invested in.

In 2014, RSE also partnered with Gary Vaynerchuck to form Vayner RSE, a $25 million seed fund and incubator that lists a “family” of 79 startups on its website, including Snapchat; Pillow, a hospitality company that deals with rentals; and Pixel Press, an app that lets kids make video games on an iPad.

Ross is a master of “connecting the dots,” RSE co-founder Higgins told Eater last year.

Higgins, a former press secretary to Rudy Giuliani, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But in 2016 he was among a group of Republicans who publicly stumped for Hillary Clinton and told USA Today he struggled to explain Trump’s rhetoric to his son. “I’m willing to set aside any views I might have about taxation or anything else,” he said, “because I think preservation of the republic is more important.”

See below for a list of Ross’ personal holdings, as well as holdings through Related and RSE:

(This list does not include 79 startups backed by Vayner/RSE)

  • &pizza (pizza chain)
  • Banza (nutritious food brand)
  • Bluestone Lane (Australian coffee chain)
  • Crossfield Digital (mobile app developer)
  • Derris (communications firm)
  • Dog City (doggy daycare)
  • Drone Racing League
  • Fanvision Entertainment (hardware and software for sporting events)
  • Fuku (fast casual chicken from Momofuku Group)
  • Hard Rock Stadium (sports venue)
  • International Champions Cup (soccer tournament)
  • June (smart appliances)
  • Krossover Intelligence (coaching tools; acquired by Stack Sports in 2017)
  • LOLA (feminine care products)
  • Miami Dolphins (football franchise)
  • Milk Bar (bakery)
  • Momofuku (Asian restaurant)
  • New Hudson Facades (architectural façades)
  • NextVR (virtual reality)
  • Omaze (platform to connect influencers and charities)
  • Outstanding Foods (plant-based foods)
  • Pocket Living (homes for first-time home-buyers)
  • Radiate (creator of two-minute video lessons; acquired by NYSE in 2018)
  • Relevent Sports Group (soccer events and media)
  • Resy (restaurant software)
  • Skout Cybersecurity (cloud-based analytics and cybersecurity)
  • Snark Park (exhibition space)
  • Starry (internet service provider)
  • Student Sports (event and grassroots marketing for student athletes)
  • Vayner Media (digital agency)

Correction: This story previously listed Prime Sport as part of RSE Ventures.