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Success Tips From a Real Estate Tycoon: Larry Silverstein

New York

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As soon as we step into his stunning office on the 38th floor of 7 WTC overlooking the city, American real estate tycoon and World Trade Center developer Larry Silverstein gives us his first lesson of business. By taking our coat. “This is a costly space,” he says as he hangs it next to his. “What’s the best way to amortize cost of space? You use it!” 

Since starting at 25, Larry has developed a real estate franchise—earning him the moniker of “Mr. Downtown”—fulfilling a personal dream at 84, en route to a billion-dollar empire. Today we bring you inside scoop on his secrets to success.

Bisnow: How do you set your vision and achieve your goals? 

Larry Silverstein: You need to set your sights on a goal using intelligence, good judgment and good reasoning with respect to choosing that goal, but once you’ve chosen it, then your focus has to be total. It’s important not to be swayed from it, set your sights on it, and go for it. 

So, early on, I remember, a couple of days after 9/11, I talked to the governor, and he said, "What do you recommend we do?" And I said "Governor, to let it lie fallow would be a terrible tragedy." 

This was an attack not on the World Trade Center, it was an attack on America and everything America stands for. So not to put this back would be an absolute tragedy, from that standpoint.

From the other standpoint, whatever we put back, we’ve got to make it bigger and better than what was there before. Not just like-kind; let's go for the bigger and better. Number two. No. 3, let’s do it as quickly as possible. Because the Twin Towers were the locomotive of all economic activity in Lower Manhattan before they came down. 

Bisnow: With distractions and naysayers, how do you maintain that focus without giving in?

Larry: I stopped everything else to get [the World Trade Center] rebuilt. That’s all. The single focus of my life, because there was no way to divert my time to anything else, impossible. 

There may be many people who say foolish, many others who say “dumb, you’re crazy” or stupid or whatever, but at the end of the day, once you’ve set your sights on something that is valid, that is purposeful, that is meaningful, that has substance, then by golly, go like hell to achieve it. 

Bisnow: With a challenging, long-term project, how do you keep your eyes on that goal, knowing the obstacles, as well as the timeline, ahead?

Larry: On the way, you also have to be able to take a very long view, have to be able to take risks—that’s part of it. You can’t look for immediate gratification; that gratification will not come for a long period of time.

If the goal is worthy, it's going to take time to accomplish. And to overcome all the obstacles will take a lot of determination, a lot of guts, a lot of resolve, but at the end of the day, if you really want to accomplish it, go for it, by golly, and don’t stop until you achieve it.

When I signed in 2001, I was 70 years of age. I signed a 99-year lease, so that took a little bit of courage, because when you’re 70 years of age, you know your not going to live for another 99 years. But I said to myself, “OK, this is an interesting opportunity to own the Twin Towers and to do well with it, financially well.” 

Bisnow: How do you maintain that drive and stop from throwing in the towel, especially when things aren't going your way?

Larry: Determination, above all else you’ve got to keep going. And don’t get dissuaded. So you’ll find on the road to that goal many bumps, many changing currents, many obstacles, lots of naysayers, don’t be dissuaded by them, by any of that, set your sights on what you want to achieve and go like hell to accomplish it. Which is essentially what we’ve been doing here the last 14 years in rebuilding the World Trade Center. Simple. Very simple.

Bisnow: What was the workload like during this period—and were you ever at risk of burning out?

Larry: Huge, massive! The time, the energy—it was 24/7, you never stopped, Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, it’s irrelevant. How did I keep from burning out? I had a great senior partner right by my side in my wife. She was the best, she was terrific.

I tell young people all the time, that is the most important decision you make in your life, is to marry the right spouse. Because the wrong one is a disaster.

The right one, there isn’t anything you can't do with your life when you’ve got a solid relationship with your partner, because together, whatever it is you’re going to do, you’re going to do together. 

You’re totally dependent upon her, and she’s totally dependent upon you, and together is the way you function, and you know she’s always there for you and she knows, I’m always there for her, so it’s a togetherness, it's solid as a rock. 

Also recognize you have to understand that nothing worthwhile comes easily in life; the harder the goal, the more difficult it is. The longer it's going to take, the greater the obstacles. But you have to be willing to accept challenges and succeed. 

Bisnow: What are some of the biggest obstacles you've faced and overcome? 

Larry: I look back now, and I realize I’ve been through all kinds of very difficult times—a recession in the late '50s. And then in the '60s, we had economic problems in the City of New York, and in the country, and then in the '70s, 1973, the Arab oil embargo and the world changed.  

And it meant you couldn’t get money, it was an extremely difficult time. Once that happened, prices of everything began to rise, terrible inflation, so the prime rate, the borrowing rate went to 17% to 18%. It was unbelievable. So that was in the '70s. Then in the early '80s, there were some problems. Financial problems. 

Bisnow: What's the best advice for someone in this position to get beyond that and get out on the other side successfully?

Larry: One of the ways we survived [downturns] is that we developed a superb name and reputation for integrity. Absolute integrity. You gave your words to somebody, you stuck to your word. You made a commitment, you fulfill your commitments. 

Once you blow your name, your reputation, to try to get it back is almost impossible because everybody becomes disappointed in you. And as a result of that disappointment, you’re chopped liver, you’ve had it, you’re done.

So, I realize I’ve spent a lifetime building a solid name, building a solid reputation, based on absolute integrity. Never, never screw that. Never change that. Don’t play with that. 

And people said, “Well, how do you know you’re making a mistake, how do you know you’re not making a mistake?” And I always tell them—I learned a long time ago—if you can put what you’re about to do on the front pages of the New York Times in bold print, and not be embarrassed about it, go ahead and do it! 

But if you put it on the front page of the New York Times and question yourself, maybe, would I be embarrassed if I saw that? And if the answer is you’re going to be embarrassed, don’t do it. Don’t do it if you have any question at all. That’s how you protect your name. 

This is the first in a new series of exclusive Bisnow interviews titled “Success Tips From a Real Estate Tycoon.” To kick of the series, we sat down (twice!) with the owner and developer of arguably the most iconic, and important, dvelopments in the entire world, living legend Larry Silverstein. 

Don't miss real estate titans Larry Silverstein, Tony Malkin who'll be keynoting Bisnow's national full-day Office Leasing, Development and Investment event on Dec. 1 at 4 Times Square in NYC. Sign up here!