TRUMPING DONALD TRUMP
An interview with Don Wood,
CEO, Federal Realty Investment Trust
How many people in Washington can say that, in real life, they were hired—and fired—by Donald Trump? And went on, long before The Apprentice, to survive and prosper from that firing? Don Wood can. He’s now the immensely successful head of one of the country’s largest REITs, based in Rockville. Among Federal Realty’s 17 million SF are six million here, including such local icons as Bethesda Row, Congressional Plaza, Mid-Pike Plaza, Federal Plaza, Rockville Town Square, Cleveland Park’s Park & Shop, DC’s Friendship Heights Center, Loehmann’s Plaza, Pentagon Row, the Village at Shirlington, and more. Founded in 1962, Federal has 500 employees. Wood, from northern New Jersey, joined Federal in 1998 as CFO, became COO in 2000 and CEO in 2003. He devotes a great deal of time to raising money to find a cure for Cystic Fibrosis, for reasons explained below. His route to Federal started in the 80s when he worked seven years with Arthur Andersen.
How did you come to work for Donald Trump?
I had a lot of cool clients at Andersen, and one of them was the Trump organization. Trump had an amazing scope of activities. He had bought Eastern Airlines. He was buying the Plaza Hotel. He was buying casinos throughout Atlantic City. And he didn’t have a financial staff, so Arthur Anderson was it. And I was lucky enough to be the manager on the job. I spent a lot of time in Trump Tower working with him, and one day he said, “You know what? I really want to buy a casino in Atlanta City called the Taj Mahal.” So we were the team that went in and did the staff work. Once we acquired it, he said to me, “I want you to come down here and be vice president of finance. And I can pay you $100,000 a year.”
How old were you?
I was 28. Getting that much was like making me the governor of New Jersey. It was unbelievable. It lasted 16 months, and then he fired me.
Why did he fire you?
Well, in building and trying to open the Taj Mahal, things didn’t go very well—for me, for him, for anybody. In fact, the opening of the Taj was a disaster. April 4th, 1990.
You remember the date.
I remember. This was big stuff. Michael Jackson was there. And we couldn’t get gambling on the casino floor because they wouldn’t give us a license to open up. So with the problems at the opening, Trump fired the president, he fired me, he fired everybody. And he brought in his team from Trump Plaza to fix the thing. And the other team didn’t work out either.
Have you ever seen the Donald since?
I have not seen him, although I think I should be getting royalties. That was the original Apprentice.
Was there a good part of the experience?
In some respects there is nothing better that could happen to a 28-year old than to have gone through what I went through. Sure, it’s easy to say that as a 46 year old now. But what happened was, I eventually realized it wasn’t the end of the world. In fact, by being in Atlantic City, I met my wife, and today I’ve been married for 17 years and with four great kids. And leaving Trump allowed me to get back to New York, where I went back to work for ITT. That worked out amazingly well for the next eight years and got me here.
Have you watched The Apprentice?
Oh sure. It’s great entertainment.
How does it compare to your real-life experience?
It’s nothing like it.
Are you saying it’s not authentic Trump?
I’m saying it’s great entertainment. Entertainment should never be confused with the trenches of a business decision where millions of dollars are being made or lost. That situation brings out the real people.
What is it that doesn’t come out in the television show?
It’s not nearly as polite as on TV. It’s not nearly as unilateral. There are so many more complications. It’s very pure on television. These people were put together to come up with some new product or some new idea. They did or they didn’t, and so they’re fired. In real life there are employees who have to be considered when a person is fired. There are peers who have to pick up that job, or do it somehow differently. It’s so much more difficult a decision.
How did you get to Federal Realty?
My youngest daughter was born with cystic fibrosis. It changed a lot in terms of our priorities. On my gravestone will be the word “balance,” because I think it’s the most important thing in life. In 1996, I was asked by ITT’s president to be CFO of Caesar’s, an ITT division. And that meant moving to Las Vegas. My wife and I got on a plane and brought Rachel out there to try to see how we felt about the care for CF in Las Vegas. We walked into a small size waiting room and there’s 35 people. We got in to see the doctor, and I said, “I’ve got to ask you. It’s Clark County Nevada, 6,000 people a month are moving in. How are you going to handle the patient load?” And he looked at me and said, “I have no idea.” I’ll never forget the plane ride home. My wife and I, lumps in our throats, really not saying anything but knowing, “We’re not going there.” We were not going to raise our Rachel there.
So you didn’t go?
Well, ITT kept making the deal better and better and finally said, “How about commuting? Two weeks a month in Vegas, keep your family in New York and see how that works out.” I gave in to that for two years. I got on Continental Flight 1671 every Monday morning and took a ride back on Thursday night. Meanwhile, Steve Bollenbach, the head of Hilton, came after ITT, making a hostile bid in 1997. We fought that for a year and found a white knight in the Starwood Group. By Starwood paying a big number for ITT, I was able to cash in, take a bunch of money off the table and say, “You know what, Stace? Let’s stop this cross-country stuff. Let’s get the family together, let’s aim for a better quality of life.”
And Federal appeared.
Yes, the opportunity came way sooner than I thought, in early 1998. I hadn’t even left Caesars yet when I had an interview at Federal. I said before the interview, “What the hell is a REIT?”
But you came and interviewed.
Yes, and it was an unbelievable experience. I came down to meet the CEO here, whose name was Steve Guttman. Steve is an amazing guy. And he came in and started to talk to me. And he kept getting interrupted and taking phone calls. I said, “You know Steve, we can do this another time.” He says, “No, no. Let me tell you what’s up. You see, I’m trying to buy a new car. And I’m not getting to where I want to be.” And I’m a car nut. So I say, “Really? What are you looking for?” And he told me. I said, “You know, Steve, there’s a brand new model called the Jaguar XJ8 that you really should take a look at.” He said, “Yeah? Let’s go now.” Remember, this is my first interview. We get in the car, go over to Manhattan Jag in Rockville. And he’s talking to me on the way. He says, “Let’s see you negotiate a car for me.” Which to me is like asking a golfer to see if he can putt something. That’s as good as it gets for me. I got the job, and it’s been an absolutely wonderful ride. :)
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