10 Dec George Ross: Right Hand Man
(George Ross was giving a simple college speech. I intended to fill a spot for a brief for Long Island Business News. Then he started talking. I wrote this on deadline for the following morning, digging up his direct phone number in a decade-old press release and speaking to him at 7 a.m. for follow-up information.)
By CARL CORRY
Friday, December 10, 2004
In 1996, before agreeing to become one of Donald Trump’s chief advisors, George H. Ross suggested some “working guidelines.”
No. 1: He would work only four days a week, and not Fridays.
No. 2: He wanted to take vacations whenever he wanted for as long as he wanted.
No. 3: “I said, ‘I want access to whatever you have. I can take a plane to Atlantic City or a helicopter, whatever.’ ”
No. 4: “I told him: ‘If you’re unhappy with me, I leave and we’re still friends. If I’m unhappy with you, I leave and we’re still friends.'”
No. 5: “I said, ‘I’ll work for cheaper than what I’m worth, but when it’s time for a bonus, I want it.'”
Trump’s response: “I can handle that.”
Ross admits that it was presumptuous to make such requests, especially with a man like Donald Trump, who’s better known for firing people than hiring them. But it’s that type of forthrightness that has made him a success, both in business and as a boardroom judge of the hit reality show “The Apprentice.”
Ross, 76, is executive vice president and senior counsel for the Trump Organization, advising The Donald mostly when it comes to real estate matters.
Speaking to a room of marketing and business students at Nassau Community College on Dec. 7, Ross said he first met Trump in the late 1970s, when he was a senior partner at Dreyer and Traub, a major New York law firm specializing in real estate transactions. Trump, then 28, was looking for legal counsel for an ambitious plan to demolish the run-down Commodore Hotel in Manhattan and turn it into what is now the Grand Hyatt. New York City was near bankruptcy, and Trump, who hired Ross, engineered a plan to shift ownership of the hotel from the bankrupt Pennsylvania Railroad to the city. Trump would then lease the property and give the city a stake in the profits.
“He was very enthusiastic, but I thought he was unrealistic,” Ross recalled. But Ross, who had worked with Trump’s father, took the job.
Two years and 23 drafts of the lease later, the deal was done, Ross said.
Over a career spanning more than 50 years, the longtime resident of Hewlett Harbor has assisted with the acquisition and development of hundreds of structures, including the GM building, the Olympic Tower and the St. Regis Hotel. He was also a member of the board of governors of the former Mid-Island Hospital in Bethpage.
Ross now attracts foreign investors for Trump and oversees the operations of 40 Wall Street, the 1.3 million-square-foot, 72-story building across the street from the New York Stock Exchange, as well as Trump Tower.
He’s played a starring role in Long Island business as well.
In 1966, partnering with brother-in-law and broadcast veteran Martin Beck, Ross decided to buy a Long Island radio station. So he flipped through the phone book asking stations if they were up for sale. One of them, WGLI in Babylon, wanted $500,000 – in cash. Ross’ partner thought the price was too high and told him to go back with an offer of $450,000. “I didn’t have that kind of money lying around,” Ross said, but he made the offer anyway. The station owner didn’t bite, at least not immediately.
About a month later, however, the owner called back and wanted to take the offer.
“I said, ‘Well, I made that offer when I thought I was the lower bid. Now that you waited a month, I find out that I’m the highest,” said Ross, who wound up paying $100,000 in cash and the rest in long-term notes.
After going on to amass 10 radio stations, including WBLI, Ross’ group cashed out in 1987. At that point, he said, the options were to build more stations or sell to a larger entity.
“We started out with the station earning $14,000 a month and left it earning $400,000 a month,” Ross said.
Looking back on his career, there’s one instance that Ross says he wish he could take back. It was back in the 1960s and he was the only attorney representing the new buyer of the Chrysler Building. He was in a room with about 50 other lawyers, representing the various banks with stakes in the $51 million mortgage, when someone asked, “Is your client coming?”
“I said, ‘My client never shows up for small deals.’ That didn’t sit well with everyone in the room. Fifty-one million dollars was a lot of money back then. If I could take back that comment today, I would.”
Times like that made Ross consider whether he should have pushed to become an engineer, which was his first ambition.
But after his father died when he was 16, on Father’s Day, “going to MIT was out of the question.” So he enlisted in the U.S. Army to take advantage of the GI Bill. When he got out, he went to Brooklyn College, where he decided to become a lawyer and went on to Brooklyn Law School. He was admitted to the bar in 1953.
And what about those boardroom showdowns in “The Apprentice?”
Rather than the two- or three-minute synopses offered on the show, Ross said they typically take about two hours, and as long as five hours.
If there’s anything that the candidates have in common with people in the real world, Ross said it’s that “there are so many people with good educations that are stupid.”
Ross, who teaches a course in negotiation at New York University’s School of Professional Studies and Continuing Education, said there’s only been one time when he’s asked Trump for a bonus – after the development of 40 Wall Street. “We sat down and I gave him a number. He said, ‘You got it.’