The Closing: Richard Born

The boutique hotelier on getting bored being a surgeon, making $1M his first year as a broker and getting starstruck by Nicole Kidman

Richard Born (Photo by Studio Scrivo)
Richard Born (Photo by Studio Scrivo)

From the March issue: Richard Born co-owns the largest portfolio of independent hotels in New York, with an empire spanning 28 properties and 5,000 rooms in Manhattan and Brooklyn. BD Hotels — which Born founded with longtime business partner Ira Drukier — owns, operates or has stakes in trendy hotels such as the Bowery, the Ludlow, the Jane, the Greenwich and the Maritime, as well as a slew of others. The duo has been at the forefront of the city’s boutique hospitality scene for the past three decades and is currently pioneering the micro hotel movement with their Pod brand. BD is also partnered with Hollywood A-lister Robert De Niro and his residential power broker son, Raphael, on the Greenwich. And it’s joined forces with fellow boutique hoteliers, including Ian Schrager, André Balazs, Sean MacPherson and Eric Goode, on some of its New York properties. The company employs between 2,000 and 3,000 hotel and restaurant workers, but its real estate operation is lean, and the two partners famously work out of separate offices — with each spearheading his own projects. Drukier is stationed at the famed Chelsea Hotel, which the firm is redeveloping. Born and one of his daughters, meanwhile, work out of an office in Midtown’s Wellington Hotel.

Where did you grow up? In Forest Hills, Queens. Ira, who is about 10 years older than me, also grew up in Forest Hills, but I didn’t really know him.

Your fathers were business partners, right? They were both Holocaust survivors and each came to the States in the early ’50s. They put together some residential and hospitality properties in the ’50s,’60s and’70s.

What was your childhood like? We grew up very comfortably. My father drove a Cadillac. Once a month, we went into Manhattan and ate in very nice restaurants. My parents were very European and they wanted us to know how to dress properly, sit properly and order properly.

What kind of student were you? I was a lackluster student, and I did reasonably well but didn’t do any work. I was an A-minus student without working.

You were a doctor before you got into real estate. What was that like? I was an M.D. for four years. I loved being a resident and I loved being at Bellevue Hospital in the ’70s and ’80s. It was just crazy — the emergency room, emergency surgery.

Did you actually operate on patients? I probably did 1,000 operations. On my first one, there was a shootout and they brought in a bunch of cops and robbers. There weren’t enough senior [doctors], so they said, “You take the robber.” I also operated on a ballet dancer and removed a Kaposi sarcoma from his neck before AIDS was discovered. I did gallbladders; I did hearts; I did livers; I did kidneys. I did it all.

Why did you leave medicine? In 1985, I got bored with surgery. I had a year of training to finish. You don’t do creative work as a surgeon — you do repeat work. I was offered a job at Mount Sinai and I said to myself, “Do I want to do this for the next 40 years and do these same eight operations over and over again?”

So, what happened next? I took a two-year leave of absence [from medical residency] and got a job as a broker doing investment sales and hospitality with a fellow named Ed Lewis. I made four or five deals and probably made 1 million bucks in my first year. I started out with a metal desk, a phone and a phone book. There were no fax machines.

How did you do it? I sold the Dorset Hotel to Sol Goldman. I picked up the phone book and called the hotel’s owner and said, “Are you interested in selling for $50 million?” He said, “I’ve never fielded a call like this. I don’t even know why I’m saying this, but for $60 million, you have a deal.” Then I picked up the phone and called Sol and said, “Are you interested in buying the Dorset for $60 million?” Sol said yes. I then said, “Sol, listen, here’s the story: I’m not going to get paid a fee from them because I didn’t represent myself as a broker. I need you to say you’re going to pay me a million dollars if I make the deal.” And he said fine. But he said, “I’m not going to pay you a million dollars now. I’m going to pay you half a million now and half a million in a year.” I said fine and he made the deal — and we got half a million dollars.

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Did he eventually pay you the other $500,000? So, I went to go visit his daughter Jane four of five months after he died. And I knew Jane — not from the real estate business — I knew her because we pushed our kids in the strollers in Central Park. I said, “Jane, your father owed me half a million dollars.” And she said, “Do you have anything in writing?” I said no, and she kind of scratched her head. Jane’s a tough girl, and she said “I’ll pay you $250.” I said, “Jane, there are two possibilities here. Either you think I’m lying or you think I’m telling the truth. If you think I’m lying, don’t pay me a penny. If you think I’m telling you the truth, you should honor your father’s obligations.” As soon as I said that I wanted to pull those words back and just say I’ll take the $250. But she paid me $500,000.

When did you buy your first hotel? After the Dorset and a couple of others, I put together a partnership [with Ira] and bought a Howard Johnson’s at Newark Airport. It was an absolute disaster. Shortly after that, the stock market crashed and Continental Airlines went broke. But we kept the hotel and, I actually  just sold it two years ago.

Have you sold other hotels? We’ve only sold one [other], which we regret selling. That was the Stanhope Hotel, which we purchased 20 years ago, redeveloped and sold within less than two years. We paid virtually nothing for it, and somebody offered us what we thought was a crazy price. It was a very quick and huge profit, but it was 20 years ago and if we held it today… I’d [get] three times what we sold it for to get it back.

What’s your partnership with Ira like? People look at us sometimes as a united front, but we always argue different sides of the coin. I think that’s important. I had lunch at a Chinese restaurant recently and my fortune cookie said, “When two partners always agree, one is unnecessary.”

Do you get starstruck? Yes, the answer is yes. I’m absolutely starstruck. I was starstruck the first time I met De Niro. I met Ralph Lauren the other day and I just couldn’t stop talking about it. The elevator opens at Perry Street once and I’m walking in and Nicole Kidman’s walking out and I thought yeah, I’m definitely star struck.

What’s been your worst deal? I bought a piece of property in Far Rockaway. They have a beach you can get to by subway. There was a little vibe going, but not enough to really develop something, so we donated it to a charity. That’s the best way to bail out of a deal.

What was the strangest thing you’ve seen at one of your hotels? A man walking into the Maritime at about 2 a.m. with a highway cone in front of his crotch but otherwise naked. He came in slurring his speech and said, “I lost my clothes.”

What will the Chelsea look like when it’s done? We’ve chosen to make it democratic, because I don’t want everyone who stays there to be paying $750 a night. Then all I’m going to have is richer, older customers. The hotel itself will probably have about 125 hotel rooms. Then we’re going to have about 30 hotel apartments, which one can rent furnished for 30, 60, 90 days — or a year if you like — with or without service.

Have you developed any extended-stay type hotels like that? No. But I didn’t do a hotel before I did the Howard Johnson’s. And before I operated on that gunman’s heart in Bellevue Hospital, I had not done that either. Every once in a while, you do something for the first time.

Edited and condensed for clarity