IN-SPEYER-ING: Tishman Speyer President Rob Speyer on REBNY

In July, the Real Estate Board of New York announced that Rob Speyer, 43, president and co-CEO of Tishman Speyer, would succeed Mary Ann Tighe to become its youngest chairman ever. Stepping in this month, he is the third successive generation of his family to hold the post—also a first in the organization’s 117-year history. Though he might have a reputation as being media-shy, Mr. Speyer’s success in real estate is no secret—his company has completed $6 billion in new transactions and raised $4.5 billion of new equity since 2010. Mr. Speyer sat down with The Commercial Observer last week for a rare interview to discuss his new appointment, his agenda for REBNY in 2013, following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps, and the best way forward for New York City as global competition ramps up.  

Rob_Speyer_webThe Commercial Observer: What were you doing when you heard the news that you had been appointed as REBNY’s youngest chairman, and what did you think?

Mr. Speyer: I remember it precisely. I was in China. I was in a hotel in Shanghai. It was somewhere between 6:00 and 6:30 in the morning, and I was on my way to the gym in the hotel when my cellphone rang and it was Steve Ross. Steve Ross said, “I’m calling on behalf of the past chairman of REBNY, and I have some great news—we would like you to be the next chairman.” Obviously it stopped me in my tracks. I never made it to the gym that morning. Needless to say, it was a wonderful way to start my day in China.

Did you see it coming?

No. There are so many industry leaders that are part of REBNY. I would not have expected this honor, especially at this age. It’s an honor I didn’t expect, and it’s a challenge that I look forward to taking on. It’s a room full of wisdom and experience, and people are very generous with their time and their involvement, and I will look to capitalize on that.

What was the response like from your colleagues at Tishman Speyer?

My colleagues here are also among my closest friends, and we love to celebrate each others’ personal and professional successes. None of this would be possible if we didn’t have an incredibly talented group of executives at the company. We’re a very tight-knit group.

Why do you think you were selected? 

We run a global business. I spend a good deal of my time outside of the United States, in some of the fastest-developing economies in the world, and I think we’ve developed a unique set of perspectives on what is working in other major cities. And I think that bringing those perspectives to New York and to REBNY should have a positive impact on our ability to help shape New York.

New York faces a significant challenge for the 21st century. We are in effect a victim of our past success, and cities around the world are trying to capture the spirit that was essentially created in New York in the 20th century. We need to keep innovating to stay on top. We need to keep attracting and retaining the most talented people. People are more portable in the 21st century. They can choose to live in Hong Kong and London and Shanghai and São Paulo, and New York has to keep upping its ante to be the magnet for the most talented people in the world.

What are some of the ways New York can achieve this?

I spend a lot of time in Beijing and Shanghai, and the flights between the two cities were fairly unpredictable, just like they are between New York and Washington, and New York and Miami. And so they built a high-speed train to connect the two cities. It now takes you five hours to get from the center of Beijing to the center of Shanghai. It’s completely predictable and it’s incredibly comfortable, and they got it done in a matter of a couple of years. The ability of the Chinese to create massive infrastructure improvements has been the wonder of the world. The United States is going to have to keep innovating on the infrastructure front.

I think working with our next mayor and continuing to work with our great governor on infrastructure programs is a critical component for New York’s agenda. Train transportation is just one example, which is the most dramatic that I can think of.

New York starts with the most important advantage, which is that people love to live here, and every year it attracts the best and the brightest from colleges and universities across the United States. Human capital, among all the variables, will be the biggest determinant in New York’s future success. Human capital leads to innovation, innovation leads to economic growth, economic growth leads to jobs, and it becomes a self-reinforcing dynamic.

Are some of the city’s initiatives in terms of new universities a step in the right direction?

I think the Cornell Technion venture will be one of the mayor’s most important legacies. My family has created an endowed professorship in the name of my grandfather—the Robert V. Tishman Founder’s Chair—that will be the university’s first. We wanted to do everything we could to support that initiative. But it’s the kind of initiative that’s going to spur innovation, generate economic growth and ultimately create jobs.

So what’s your agenda going in as REBNY’s chairman, and what are some of the things you’d like to accomplish?

We’ve been blessed with great leadership and strong leadership in City Hall, and we are going to work very hard as an industry to help the next mayor achieve that same level of success. The city still faces some difficult challenges. Our unemployment rate is nearly 10 percent. Issues of job growth and economic development aren’t just important to the real estate industry, they’re important to every single citizen of New York. We are going to work hard to help shape that agenda with the next administration. We’re going to work with labor; we’re going to work with the corporate community. There’s a larger shared agenda among New Yorkers than many people realize.

Do you glean lessons from your father and grandfather? What does a successful REBNY chair do or accomplish while holding that post? 

It wasn’t in my grandfather’s nature or father’s nature to think about it that way. I think they went into the job thinking about the best interest of the industry as a whole. The REBNY leadership and executive committee is a group of strong-willed and talented individuals, made up of some of the industry’s icons. It moves by consensus and by shared interests, and you try to harness those talents and those energies for the best interest of the industry. One of the things that I love about the real estate industry is that your competitors are also your friends. And while you compete for transactions, you also work hard together to lift the industry and try to better the city as a whole.

On that note, do you feel any pressure following in your father and grandfather’s footsteps? 

It’s a path I’ve forged before in business, and it’s a path that started with my great-great grandfather Julius Tishman in 1897. I’m the fifth generation in our family’s business, so I’m familiar with the dynamics of succeeding great men who happen to be relatives. Both my grandfather and my father are defined by their humility and selflessness when it comes to civic matters.

I was at a dinner two nights ago, and I was approached by a man who used to run facilities for Montefiore hospital in the Bronx, which was one of my grandfather’s pet philanthropic projects, and he chaired the board for a time. This gentleman, who I had never met before, said, “Your grandfather convinced us 30 years ago to build a cogeneration plant at the hospital. At the time, nobody understood the potential benefits, but we had great trust in your grandfather’s judgment, and we had that trust in his judgment because he never acted out of self-interest. We knew he was only considering the best interests of the hospital, and you can’t even imagine how many millions of dollars that saved the hospital over the past 30 years.” I never knew about that. My grandfather would never talk about that. He never would talk about the things that he did. He just would do them.

What about your own philanthropic endeavors—which are the most important? 

I’m the co-chairman of the construction committee for the renovation at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, our neighbor at Rockefeller Center. I’ve been privileged to work with the cardinal [Timothy Dolan] and the archdiocese as they move ahead with the renovation there. It’s one of the most important religious buildings in the world, and certainly the signature cathedral in the United States, but it has not been renovated in decades. The cardinal is one of the most extraordinary men I’ve ever met. He has a degree of emotional intelligence that is off the charts, and his ability to connect with people, whatever their background, is without parallel. Just getting to spend time with him, sitting in the room with him, having breakfast with him, getting a chance to tell jokes with him—it’s a privilege. You couple that with the good work we’re doing, and it’s been an unforgettable experience.

What’s your relationship like with your predecessor, Mary Ann Tighe?

Ironically, it was Mary Ann Tighe who recruited me to work with the cathedral. She’s been a great friend and, frankly, a role model. She’s one of the first big players that I met in the industry when I joined the company. She was representing Christie’s [the art auction house] when it was moving from the old Delmonico Hotel. Mary Ann came up with the idea of transforming that six-story parking garage at Rockefeller Center into Christie’s. I watched her over months—she formulated the idea, persuaded her client, and then we negotiated the transaction with her. It was one of those lessons that you never forget. So from my earliest days in the business, I’ve been learning from her. I think it’s also important to note—she shattered the ceiling. She shattered the ceiling. In an industry that has long been male-dominated, that achievement is extraordinary.

You have a reputation of being reluctant to give interviews. Now that you are REBNY chair, do you see that changing? 

I hope not. [Laughs] I hope not too much … as little as possible. It’s just a personal preference. I’m kind of a private guy.

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