Next time you are in Manhattan, take a look around, and you will see the fingerprints of Charles Cohen pretty much everywhere.
As the president and chief executive of Cohen Brothers Realty, the corporation started by his father and uncles, the 65-year-old billionaire has been involved in the construction and management of countless Manhattan addresses, from Grand Central Plaza at 622 Third Avenue to International Plaza at 750 Lexington.
But Cohen’s not-so-secret passion is the film business: Producing movies, collecting them and even screening them at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema. For the latest in Reuters’ “Life Lessons” series, he spoke about how to thrive in even the toughest business environments.
Q: Since your father was the one who started your real estate business, was he your greatest influence?
A: For my whole life. He was a self-made man: He began his career in men’s clothing, and then became an Oldsmobile dealer after WW2, and then started in real estate. Whatever I learned from him was by observation and osmosis. He was very no-nonsense, and I notice that in my own personality quite a bit, too. He didn’t sugar-coat anything.
Q: Did you work for him when you were growing up?
A: When I was 14 I used to work summers in his real estate office. I would type up lease renewals, and on weekends show apartments as well. It was a good way to discover my own voice in dealing with people. I was mature for my age, and I guess I was pretty good at it.
Q: New York City real estate is a tough business. Do you have to be equally tough to survive?
A: Construction is a tough business, for sure. There are tough characters, and people looking to take advantage of you every step of the way. You get experienced by surviving those situations and making the best of them. Does it make you a little hard? Well, if you are not tough, you’ll be run over in the street with tire marks across your back.
Q: What drew you to invest in film?
A: Being a producer is very much like being a developer. In the real estate world you receive rent, just like you receive fees and royalties for intellectual property. Entertainment is a tough business, too, but very rewarding when you accomplish something meaningful. I have stayed independent, and I only do projects that resonate with me.
Q: What principles have guided your philanthropic spending?
A: It is based on personal feelings, and wanting to make a difference. So I’m involved with everything from the Museum of Arts and Design, to the Alliance Francaise, to the Temple of Emanu-El in Manhattan, which is the largest Jewish congregation in the world. It’s not just about writing a check, though. I want to make a meaningful contribution.
Q: Are you planning for your kids to get involved in the business at some point?
A: I always encourage my kids to do what it is that they want to do. So right now, nobody works with me. It’s important that they find what they really love, and then get very good at it. That process will take about 20 years, that is what I have found.
Q: Did you set up trusts for them?
A: Interestingly I had no trust growing up, and my father never gave me any money, either early on or later. But yes, I do have trusts for my children, which I control and invest for them. It is important that they be provided for.
Q: What do you tell them about success?
A: The only way to learn any business is to do absolutely everything, from the ground up. So I started out doing leases, and then got into different areas like management, finance, zoning, cleaning, acquisitions. Hopefully, you will get to the top over time. But you have to understand the business first.