Can Larry Silverstein’s Heir Apparent, Marty Burger, Rise to the Occasion?
Daniel Geiger July 10, 2012, 7 a.m.
During a ski trip to Colorado several months ago, Michael May, an executive at Cantor Fitzgerald, remembers his eagerness to hit the slopes. He rose at the crack of dawn and found his friend Marty Burger, who had organized the trip, waiting in the lodge with the same idea in mind.
Traveling with a large group of executives, they skied all day. Mr. May remembers being exhausted, but Mr. Burger convinced him to join him and few others for some indoor tennis back at the hotel. A couple of games, at Mr. Burger’s urging, turned into a couple of sets.
Even after all that, Mr. Burger still wasn’t done with the day’s physical exertions. He arranged to take everyone back out to the ski trails, where they rode specially rigged snow bikes down the slopes with headlamps to see in the darkness. Then it was time to get to dinner. Mr. Burger planned a dining extravaganza and later insisted his 80 guests all go out for drinks, which stretched well into the night.
The next morning, Mr. May recalls staggering out of bed, sore from head to foot. Mr. Burger looked refreshed.
“He was up at 5:30 in the morning for a conference call with some investors in China,” Mr. May recalled. “But that’s Marty. I can get four or five hours of sleep for a few nights, but he’s one of those rare people who just doesn’t get tired when they don’t sleep, who just never crashes.”
Stories of Mr. Burger’s energy and endless work ethic abound among people who know him, and it’s these kinds of descriptions that Larry Silverstein must have encountered when, about four years ago, he quietly began asking friends and contacts in the real estate business for candidates to succeed him. Of course, Mr. Burger’s résumé would also check out. He’s had a charmed career working at Goldman Sachs’s vaunted Whitehall real estate investment fund, at Blackstone and, later, The Related Companies, where he became one of Steve Ross’s top deputies.
“I had spoken to a number of people who have high regard for him, and I appreciated his background,” Mr. Silverstein recalled during a recent interview. “Here was a guy who is talented at many areas of the business and has a lot of experience.”
Indefatigability, however, was a trait that Mr. Silverstein, a legendary negotiator who took the Port Authority into all-night bargaining sessions to try to hammer out various World Trade Center agreements, could particularly appreciate.
“He reminds me a lot of myself as a younger man,” Mr. Silverstein said.
In December 2009, Mr. Silverstein’s real estate company, Silverstein Properties, hired Mr. Burger as an executive vice president. The decision was at once surprising and yet also somewhat expected. Mr. Silverstein’s steely resolve and endurance through a WTC redevelopment fraught with seismic setbacks and conflicts had given many in the real estate business no reason to doubt he might very well keep a firm hand on his real estate business for years to come. Most, of course, also knew his tenure leading a firm involved in such an ambitious slate of development and investment activities couldn’t last indefinitely.
“I’m 81 and I can see the huge difference of where I am today and where I was 10 years ago,” Mr. Silverstein said. “All-night negotiating? Those days are gone. I don’t have the energy level. At the end of the time, I’m tired. It’s not for me anymore. So working with Marty is an absolute dream.”
Although Mr. Silverstein wanted Mr. Burger to fill his shoes, he felt it was best to have a feeling-out period, hence Mr. Burger’s initial title of vice president when he was hired in December of 2009.
“The plan was let’s live together for a while and see how it goes,” Mr. Silverstein said.
The feeling-out period suited Mr. Burger.
“It was a huge opportunity but there was a risk there as well,” said Michael Fascitelli, chief executive of Vornado who became friends with Mr. Burger when both worked at Goldman and who Mr. Burger has looked to for advice during his career. “Larry is 81 and he’s not going to change much. So how are he and Larry going to click? How is he going to fit with the whole organization?”
Mr. Fascitelli was, of course, alluding to Mr. Silverstein’s children, Roger and Lisa, and also to Janno Lieber, a top executive at Silverstein Properties who has long been Mr. Silverstein’s right-hand man and who, at one point, many expected would become his heir to the company.
But the potential for any fractionalization in the organization didn’t play out.
“Roger is in charge of office leasing in the company, which is a huge job—we have millions of square feet,” Mr. Burger said. “Lisa is involved more on the residential end of our business and has several philanthropic endeavors she’s involved in.”
Mr. Lieber, a lawyer by training who tenaciously fought for the company’s interests at the WTC site during tense standoffs with the Port Authority and withering pressure from various government officials, meanwhile, has continued to focus on that development.
“If I had to deal with overseeing the WTC project, it would be all of my time,” Mr. Burger said.
“Janno works very closely with Marty, and Marty with Janno; you couldn’t ask for a better relationship,” Mr. Silverstein said. “The collegiality with which we function here was important. We have people here who have been here for 25 years. This is my extended family and I don’t want to change that, and Marty got that.”
Mr. Silverstein envisions a future in which Mr. Burger will oversee the company’s overall operations while Mr. Lieber will focus on particular projects, including, perhaps, large-scale developments that the firm is planning in China.
And so late in 2011, after two years with the company, Mr. Burger was promoted to co-chief executive of Silverstein Properties, a title he now shares with Mr. Silverstein. It is expected that in a little more than a year, Mr. Silverstein will shift to the role of chairman, handing the top spot in the firm solely to Mr. Burger. The move will cap Mr. Burger’s ascension to power at one of the city’s top real estate companies, but it will be poignant, too, marking what is perhaps the end of one of the great careers in New York City real estate.
“Larry is 150 percent aware of everything that we’re doing,” Mr. Burger said. “But he does like to spend time on his boat and with his grandkids, and I think there’s a certain point we reach where any of us would want to focus on those things.”
The challenge left for Mr. Burger is how much and also how fast he can put his own mark on a company whose business has been tended for so long solely by the hand of its founder. For now, Mr. Burger is focused on a pipeline of projects he inherited from Mr. Silverstein: finding financing for a large Four Seasons Hotel and residential tower that the company wants to build in Lower Manhattan, more residential development on the West Side and lending the company’s construction expertise to various projects around the world.
Though he rose through the ranks of the real estate business at big-name firms, Mr. Burger is not a man without a sense of individuality and vision. In Las Vegas he founded and ran his own real estate company after leaving Related, a firm called Artisan Real Estate Ventures. But his plans to develop were stymied there by the recession.
“He had his own firm and he thought long and hard about stepping away from that,” Mr. Fascitelli said.
China would appear to be key to his ambition. There, he says, he is working on developing a project that will be twice the size of the Time Warner Center, the large mixed-use tower he helped finance and build in the early 2000s when he was at Related.
“It will be Time Warner’s five million square feet times two, with a seven-level retail base in a city that has 33 million people,” Mr. Burger said. “Whatever is happening there in terms of an economic slowdown, it’s still a train that’s moving. They have 1.4 billion and there’s tremendous demand, there is a growing middle class that is so brand conscious and wants American and European products. Silverstein Properties is a name there that has been well received.”