The Donald's daughter talks about the family business, the economy, McCain, and the "undisclosed lunch product."
Like her father, Donald, Ivanka Trump is a celebrity who stars in the NBC reality series The Apprentice and regularly graces magazine covers. A former fashion model, she's a lot easier on the eyes. Unlike her dad, she embraces diplomacy and shies away from bluster. More than that, she is a serious businesswoman.
At 26, the Wharton-trained Trump is a top executive in the family real estate empire, having earned her stripes working for rival real estate mogul Bruce Ratner. These days, in a souring economy, she continues to travel the world checking in with various projects and looking for distressed properties.
"There's no access to capital, and if you have the capital available, there are incredible deals to be made," she tells Portfolio.com in an exclusive interview. "We're buying golf courses left and right across the country. I think large commercial assets will soon start to become available. There are just great deals to be made, and these are the times people should be buying. If you have the ability to do so, which is a big 'if.'"
Lloyd Grove: You're the vice president of development and acquisitions of the Trump Organization. Describe to me what all that means and what it is you actually do.
Ivanka Trump: I actually joke with my father that ultimately at our organization, titles mean very little. It's my father and then everybody else. But as vice president of development and acquisitions, I'm involved in every aspect of our new construction projects. A lot of our projects are internationally based at this time, most of them are actually outside of the U.S.-from Dubai to Panama to Scotland. We're really building all over the world right now, so in my capacity as vice president, a lot of what I do is get involved in the acquisition process, from sourcing the potential opportunities and then the initial due-diligence process, but then, of course, I follow the deals through to predevelopment planning, design, interior design, architectural design, sales and marketing, and, ultimately, through operations. One of the things that I've done and been very active with since joining the company four years ago now is get involved with the ramp-up and the development of our hotel-management company, called the Trump Hotel Collection. We've had one flagship property here in New York that we managed on-site with the general manager of the property who reported directly back to us here at the Trump Organization.
L.G.: Is that the Columbus Circle property?
I.T.: That's right, but we had a lot of projects in the pipeline, from Chicago-a 92-story tower with the 350 key hotel-that would've been opening within two years from the time I joined, which opened January 31 of this year. We had Las Vegas, which is a 1,300-room hotel condominium, that was also in the pipeline. And the hotel-management company just generally allows us to enter markets that we may not enter as developers, really as an operator and in a branded capacity. So I worked with my brother Don, and we really developed a great company and really devoted a lot of time to the development of that particular part of our organization.
L.G.: Is that something that you and Don basically launched?
I.T.: Yeah. Again, we're a family company, so it wasn't in isolation, certainly, but it's something that we've spent a considerable amount of time focusing on, and it's something that we really wanted to build and make spectacular. We started with the flagship property here in New York. Now we have 13 new construction hotels, all fully financed, all under construction, opening within the next three years.
L.G.: How many of these projects are projects where you're taking a percentage because you're licensing the Trump name, versus projects that you're actually involved in from start to finish, from the financing to the construction, to everything?
I.T.: Well, Trump International Hotel Tower in Chicago, which I mentioned, is a 92-story building, the tallest residential building in the United States, just surpassing Trump World Tower here in New York, and that's 100 percent our job. We'd won an award with Condé Nast Traveler within two months of being operational for the hottest new hotel in North America. Forbes Traveler gave it the best business hotel. The hotel component of the building opened in January, and the residential component is opening as we speak. We're releasing floors every month. The retail component will be the last phase to open, which will be in the third quarter of next year. [The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the slowing economy has put the Chicago venture under pressure, with $1 billion in loans coming due and many condominiums yet to be sold.] In Las Vegas, we have a partner in Phil Ruffin, but we managed the construction and development of the project, so that is one of our jobs as well, which is a 1,300-room hotel in Las Vegas. And I'm very proud to say one of the things I really believe we do best at the Trump Organization is build in an environment that is arguably one of the most challenging construction environments, and there have been plenty of pros who have gone out to Vegas and failed in that aspect.
L.G.: Why is it one of the most challenging?
I.T.: To me, budgets from a contractor perspective, from a building perspective, it's just a very challenging market to build in. And you've seen that with projects, real mega-projects that are going hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, that are being delivered well behind schedule. We actually delivered our building four months ahead of schedule, on budget, and with less than one percent in change orders.
L.G.: Is Vegas construction still mobbed up?
I.T.: We've actually had a great experience with our contractors. Perini is doing our development.
L.G.: All I know about that is what I saw in Bugsy.
I.T.: I think that was a few years ago.
L.G.: That was when Warren Beatty was wearing less makeup.
I.T.: There you go, that's right. So to answer your question, internationally we tend to find partners who are world class from the development perspective, and who are able to execute and oversee the day-to-day construction aspects.
L.G.: Like in Dubai, its licensing a deal, right?
I.T: Yes, but then we'll manage the hotel asset. So one of the things that we have that's, I believe, unique from a hotel perspective, is there are no other operators who are also developers. So we lend value through the whole process. Not only do we have the capability to oversee design and development, whether or not we oversee the actual construction, but we get extremely involved programmatically in the building, whether it be residential or hotel. In terms of programming the building, whether it's floor plans, whether it's allocation of common space, whether it's backup house, this is something we love to do, and we do on all of our projects, irrespective of whether it's a license or whether it's our own job. One of the things that I found that makes our model so viable is ultimately we're doing deals with developers, and we speak their language. We don't just come from an operator perspective whereby we're requesting that they build things that we would never build on one of our own jobs. So it's given us superior negotiating stances as we look to enter markets, in that we add value through all of these processes, through the sales and marketing perspective. Obviously we have an incredible internal database of Trump buyers who are loyal to our brand and will travel with us from project to project, from a design and construction basis, from affiliations with some of the best restaurateurs and retail tenants. All of this we bring to the table as we go into these deals.
L.G.: I guess what I'd like to know is how many projects are in the pipeline, with all the financing in place, versus projects that you may want to do but can't because of the absence of credit and just hugely scary economic times?
I.T.: I think new construction is certainly a challenge in this environment.
L.G.: That's such a euphemism, Ivanka. It's a "challenge"?
I.T.: It's almost impossible.
L.G.: Okay, thank you, I want you to speak frankly to me.
I.T.: I understand, but that's not true in all markets, and when you have your construction, when you have your financing in place as we're very fortunate to have in most of the jobs that we currently have out there, it's an incredible advantage in certain perspectives. There was an enormous pipeline of potential projects that I think we all knew a year ago would never ultimately come to fruition but were still perceived as competition in certain marketplaces-competition for retail leases, competition for deposit interests, competition from prospective buyers. Those projects will never get built, and people recognize that. People aren't interested in putting down deposits so that they can wait six years for a developer to put together the financing and ultimately have that locked up in escrow. So for the projects that are under development-and we're fortunate to fall into that category for the majority of our jobs-we actually have much less competition today than we did. Across the board, obviously, velocity of sales has slowed, but you know that would be the plus for the projects that are actively going up. I don't think for a very long time in most of the markets domestically, which isn't the case internationally, but for most of the markets domestically, you'll be seeing a lot of new projects.
L.G.: And you talked about velocity of sales, so projects that are going up and will be completed, it'll take a longer time to fill the buildings.
I.T.: It depends on if you're in a presale market where you have certain thresholds to meet, but, yes, of course, these are very uncertain times, and I think a lot of the rendered plans that people once felt comfortable buying off of, they're just not going to do anymore. Why lock up your money for several years if you can buy into an existing asset or one that's under construction?
L.G.: The assets are actually declining in value even as we speak. It's a scary situation.
I.T.: Well, you know, the markets we choose to enter, I don't think you see that in the way that you do if you have a diversified portfolio in multiple states within the country. The markets we're in-central Chicago, New York City-are very strong markets.
L.G.: And Vegas, is that a strong market?
I.T.: I don't think that in those markets there's a fundamental decline in the intrinsic value of the real estate. I think there's ebbs and flows in terms of demand. We're very fortunate, and I think one of the things that we are greatly reliant on and we are uniquely able to access in this environment, is an incredible database of international buyers. I would argue that we're the only branded condominium developers that have international recognition. There are many other condominium developers who may or may not be known to a small group of people, but I wouldn't argue that they're brands in and of themselves. So we have the ability, and this has increased greatly due to The Apprentice, due to the fact that we have so many projects under construction or in the development process all over the world, is that we're accessing brokers that we never before, 10 or 20 years ago, would have ever had access to. We're accessing markets that we never would've been able to penetrate, so we have an incredible database of loyal buyers all over the world, and that really has been a hedge against the downturn.
L.G.: Are you concerned, now that oil is back at $70, that your Middle-Eastern customers will have less money to spend on your projects?
I.T.: If you had said oil was at $70 two years ago, you would've said that was very high, so that does not concern me. I think, in terms of oil, I would love it to be much lower than $70, as would most people. It has changed so radically that it's almost impossible, sitting here today in New York City, to even place a gambler's bet on what it would be tomorrow or even an hour from now. I mean, high oil prices have a negative effect across the board for multiple reasons-obviously from a travel perspective, from a hospitality perspective, they're cutting flights left and right all over the country. But then, naturally, for the cost of construction, they're fundamentally relate. So yes, the increase in oil prices is a disaster for the economy.
L.G.: How do you plan for a depression? People say that's where we're headed, and I don't know who of us would've thought that we'd see the government bailing out merchant banks that are over 100 years old.
I.T.: That's amazing.
L.G.: I guess most people were surprised about how bad things were getting, but did you have any notion that things were not quite right?
I.T.: Oh, absolutely. Primarily, my father was very ahead of the curve in his pessimism about the future of the market, so starting around two and a half years ago, he was saying that we're in for a severe and extreme economic downturn-and this was at a time when people were still arguing that bubbles no longer exist, and now that we have better controls over regulating the financial markets, we'll never experience another great recession or great depression. So I very much was cognizant of this. I think I was surprised at the magnitude of what we're seeing. I don't think there is anyone out there who could've foreseen just how catastrophic this would be on a global level.
L.G.: On a fear level, how scary is all that?
I.T.: I think it's extraordinarily frightening. I mean, you feel it. You walk the streets of New York today, and people are depressed in a way that they weren't two months ago. And if you're at all cognizant of the environment around you, it's impossible not to feel the anxiety that's in the air for people that are being directly being affected, people who are just more cognizant of that which they're spending, that which they're doing. I think we're in a very fortunate situation. For the past several years, my father has believed very firmly that prices were out of control, that good deals weren't being made in terms of asset purchases, and we really took a step back and we focused on growing our model. Internationally we focused on growing our management company, we focused on our license deals, which provide incredible returns to us.
L.G.: With very little risk, or zero risk on licensing?
I.T.: We'll only associate ourselves with great projects. The risk is hurting the brand, which is ultimately our greatest annuity, so there's nothing more valuable to this organization than our track record of execution.
L.G.: Because you know if a Trump project hits the shoals, it's not going to be ignored.
I.T.: One hundred percent, and we're very careful and we're very protective of that brand. And that is why we're as involved in every single deal as we are. Because, ultimately, this is my brothers' and my legacy, and this is something we look to continue to grow. And my father has done such an incredible job building it to where it is, and we want to continue in that same vein. So we're fortunate from the standpoint that my father very much learned lessons the last time he went through this downturn, and he was in a much different situation in the early '90s. A lot of people didn't learn lessons, and I think you're starting to see that a lot of bankers didn't learn lessons, a lot of developers didn't learn lessons, and people exposed themselves in a tremendous and very real way. So, from our perspective, obviously everyone suffers, everyone wants the economy to be blazing hot. But there are, for the first time, really great deals to be made, and we're in a situation and position to make them.
L.G.: Because you can pick off things on the cheap now?
I.T.: Absolutely. You're not bidding against 50 other people. You know, there's no access to capital, and if you have the capital available, there are incredible deals to be made. We're buying golf courses left and right across the country. I think large commercial assets will soon start to become available. There are just great deals to be made, and these are the times people should be buying. If you have the ability to do so, which is a big "if."
L.G.: Just out of curiosity, has your father told you just how horrible and scary it was when he went through his huge crisis back in the '90s? And what was the lesson from that?
I.T.: My father very much reinforces all of the lessons that he learned. He was really on the brink, and I respect him incredibly for the fight he put up to not suffer the same fate as many of his colleagues, which was ultimately bankruptcy. He made it through it without having to declare bankruptcy, despite being in a very precarious situation, and he remembered those times, and he never wants to go back there.
L.G.: Do you think you inherited the nerves of steel that are necessary in those situations?
I.T.: I certainly hope so. We'll see, right? Nobody knows. Everyone talks a big game until you're in that moment, but there are a lot of people who just don't-they don't physically have the stomach to continue to fight in these really challenging times, and that's unfortunate. It's purely his stamina and his fight that got him through, and I hope that I've inherited that. I'd like to think that I did, but we'll see.
L.G.: Walk me through briefly what the Trump Organization has in terms of buildings and projects.
I.T.: Well, we have 70 projects in our active pipeline, and we have more than that that are actually constructed. I don't know what the exact number is. We're a private company with the exception of the gaming company.
L.G.: And you're on the board of the gaming company.
I.T.: I am. I'm apparently the youngest director on a publicly traded company, somebody just told me that the other week. I thought that was sort of funny. I'm 26.
L.G.: Really-getting long in the tooth, aren't we?
I.T.: I know, look at that.
L.G.: So you have 70 things in the pipeline or coming to fruition.
I.T.: They adopt, they're really hybrid in nature. Some of them are pure hotels, some of them are resort hotels. We have an incredible project under construction in Cap Cana in the Dominican Republic, whereby we have an incredible horizontal resort hotel, golf course, and then residential villas. Then we have the classic condominium vertical tower, urban tower, we have hybrids, hotel condominium with commercial components, we have pure commercial buildings. We have a project in Turkey right now with our partners Dogan. They're Turkey's largest conglomerate, phenomenal partners, and it's a mixed-use building with one residential tower, one commercial tower, and 400,000 square feet of luxury retail space at the base.
L.G.: Tell me which projects that you brought in and how you hear about things.
I.T.: I've worked on all the new construction projects, but normally my brothers and I are involved in the initial vetting of the deals. Sometimes it's reactionary, whereby people bring us the opportunities or they're looking for an operator from a hotel perspective. Other times we identify markets that we're very bullish on, and we'll actively travel to those places and meet with the Donald Trumps, if you will, of those areas. So we're very active right now in China, we're very active in India, really educating ourselves on the lay of the land, identifying the markets that are most strategically important for us to enter.
L.G.: What are your criteria? What makes things attractive to you in those markets?
I.T.: Obviously you look for growth and you look for basic stability. You also have to look at the price point that you can sell for, even if you're selling for a premium of 50 percent to market, which is not unusual, especially when we enter emerging markets. In Panama, we sold at a 500 percent premium to anything the luxury market has ever experienced prior to our entry. Even in Hawaii, a year and a half ago, we sold $729 million worth of real estate in six hours-10 percent hard deposit for a 50 percent premium to luxury market. Very sizable premiums relative to the high-end luxury competition in those markets.
L.G.: That day is gone.
I.T.: Well, yeah, but we have projects that are actively selling. We've brought our residential tower in Turkey to market in the middle of the summer, which is never a great time to introduce products, but we were ready to go, and we already have 75 percent of the building under contract at very high price per square foot relative to the market. So our commercial tower in that building is 100 percent leased, and we haven't even officially gone out with our leasing materials for that commercial tower. It was just based on interest, and it was literally reactionary to the demand of people who wanted office space in Trump Towers Istanbul. So we have many projects that are actively selling. I sold 40 units in Panama last month. It's a 1,000-unit building, we've sold over 90 percent of it.
L.G.: Who are the people who were buying?
I.T.: A lot of people from America, particularly South Florida, who have been priced out of the market-because at the end of the day, prices for luxury real estate in South Florida are much higher than in Panama. That said, the quality of the product you can deliver in Panama probably exceeds that in Florida because of the cost of construction and relative products. So we've had a lot of baby boomers who are leaving South Florida and coming to Panama. They want to go with a name and a brand that they trust and that they know. There are incredible tax incentives for relocation, there's a brand new Johns Hopkins medical facility that has been built right in Panama, plus there's a westernized legal system which makes people very comfortable with it, and the Panama Canal extension, etcetera. All these things were reasons why we wanted to be pioneers in that market, and we have been rewarded for doing so. The world is suffering, people are more hesitant before putting down deposits, we're selling it at an extremely robust pace and are very comfortable.
L.G.: By the way, since we're in the presidential campaign season, does it matter who wins, in terms of your business?
I.T.: I think so. But you talk to developers and there's such a variety of thoughts on this. I think it depends on where your projects are located. I think if you're a homebuilder, you may have different thoughts than somebody who's focusing on more international type cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. But, you know, I don't know what the right answer is on that.
L.G.: Your father obviously endorsed McCain. Do you agree with him?
I.T.: I do. On many of the social issues, I'm more inclined to uphold more liberal thoughts. In terms of fiscal policy, I think I'm much more aligned with McCain.
L.G.: And then I assume tax policy, as well.
I.T.: One hundred percent. And I think McCain came out with a very strong tax policy. I'm just not sure if it's too late. You know, Obama is a very impressive man as well. I have great respect for him. I disagree with most of his financial policies, but I think he is a very smart man. I think he's very substantive, I think he's great in his own way. I'm also amazed by him. I mean, he really came out of nowhere and has done a phenomenal job in his campaign. He's just not who I'm going to be voting for.
L.G.: Tell me, what's the rhythm of your day?
I.T.: Rather chaotic. But that's part of the excitement of working here. I just opened my calendar. For example, this morning I met with a large group of Korean gentlemen who are putting together a rather enormous, by really any standards, master plan for the city of Inchon. They were interested in looking at ways to partner in South Korea. Then I had some meetings with a potential Chinese partner for my jewelry company at the store-it's called the Ivanka Trump Collection, a no-brainer. Then I had some internal meetings about Las Vegas, I had a construction meeting about a project that I'm working on in Egypt, we had our weekly hotel operations meeting, I had some meetings with my construction team about the floor plans of a project that we're doing in Puerto Rico, I had four bankers in, then we went to film The Apprentice just around four o'clock, then I came back.
L.G.: You had four bankers in?
I.T.: It's a little unusual, speaking to bankers. My schedule should be more free because bankers aren't making meetings because there's probably not all that much most of them can do at this point. So it's interesting, but I guess we're constantly looking at new jobs, whether it's maintaining our existing ones, working on corporate strategy to grow the various segments for all the operations, from golf to hotels to condominiums, domestically and internationally, to discussing specific projects and future projects. There's a lot of stuff going on, filming The Apprentice simultaneously. And obviously I'm working on my jewelry company.
L.G.: And also you have this brown-bag-lunch thing?
I.T.: Yes, well, that's a one-day event in which I'm working in conjunction with ConAgra to facilitate the promotion of a new product that's coming out.
L.G.: And one of the funnier phrases I've come across lately, there was a wire story that said you were involved with an "undisclosed lunch product." It sounds like something that maybe Dick Cheney should be eating.
I.T.: It sounds like something from my cafeteria. It is not mystery meat. It's actually a great product with a great company, so it's fun to be involved. It's not really representative of anything I do on a regular basis, it's just sort of for fun.
L.G.: You've been pretty selective, you've had opportunities. Which opportunities have you turned down?
I.T.: I turn down things that are time consuming and not in line with my interests here at the Trump Organization. I don't know what the specific criteria are, but obviously I'm working toward creating a brand with Ivanka Trump jewelry, and I try not to do things that undermine that. That said, once in a while you find great opportunities with great and strong companies, and it's worth exploring even if it's outside of a field that you're typically interested in. This ConAgra product is geared at active and busy people, particularly in an office environment that would like something other than a frozen lunch or, you know, sort of a bagged deli meal.
L.G.: And it's injected like Botox? Or you eat it?
I.T.: No, it's definitely edible. It's actually very good-it's a fresh pasta.
L.G.: By the way, is the available money these days for your core business-the construction and commercial real estate and branding-is that coming mostly from the Middle East and Asia?
I.T.: No actually, we have projects in South America booming, and we're looking at an enormous amount of flow coming out of Brazil. We're seeing, like you said, Asia, particularly China. Japan has been obviously hurt in the recent market downturn, but the banks have been very conservative in their lending practices, so while the stock market is suffering in a way that's similar to ours, the banks are flush with cash. So in areas of the world that are open to and interested in real estate projects, there's still a lot of interest. One of the nice things about having a global brand is the ability to access those different markets.
L.G.: Right. You got your degree from Wharton, summa cum laude. Did that prepare you in any way for what you're doing now?
I.T.: Well, I mean, it never hurts. I think that business school is great. I personally loved my experience at Wharton. I think it educates you certainly on how to think within a business context. I don't think it's a required degree. In some ways I wish I'd gotten a law degree, and I think a business degree is great. I do think that, given the right opportunity, you can definitely learn on the job. The question for a lot of people is if they can get the opportunity without the degree.
L.G.: What did you hear about other real estate or large development companies? I mean, are they in as good a shape?
I.T.: I think obviously not. You read a lot of stories about what's happening out there, a lot of very experienced developers are-
L.G.: They overpaid and are overleveraged, huh?
I.T.: Yeah, I mean, these things happen. That's the nature of real estate. You build in cycles-the larger the project, the larger the cycle.
L.G.: Are you worried about the Tishman building? [Trump's boyfriend, Jared Kushner, owner of the New York Observer, as well as a top executive at his family's real estate empire, Kushner Properties, last year purchased the skyscraper at 666 Fifth Avenue for $1.8 billion-a very high price-and news reports suggest it is highly leveraged.]
I.T.: They have a lot of buildings. They have more than one building.
L.G.: Obviously it's a backdoor question, isn't it?
I.T.: It's a little bit of a backdoor question. Look, there are pros and then there are dentists-turned-developers who certainly were behind every stone and around every corner for the better part of the last four years. I think the strong will survive. I think there'll be probably some surprising casualties along the way. But when you talk about the real pros in this business, many of them aren't 20 years old or 30 years old or 40 years old, you know? The people who have sustained have done so over a long period of time and over many, many, many cycles. Which is why sometimes it's surprising when you read about some of the more seasoned guys walking the plank. It works sometimes,and you hope you have the ability to get out from under it. I find myself to be in a fortunate situation, but, again, I'm 26 years old. I think I'll experience probably a few more of these in my lifetime.
L.G.: What does the future hold for you?
I.T.: I think I'll be exactly where I am today, in 10 years, in 20 years, with a lot more experience under my belt. One of the great things about what I'm doing is it's a really unique experience from an educational perspective, to A, be able to work so directly with somebody with the experience of my father, B, be able to have jobs that are ongoing and in various stages of construction across so many different cultures, in so many areas of the world, utilizing so many different architects and interior designers and working with them, learning from them, different contractors, different sales and marketing folks. Each job is so unique and so specific, and I'm so intimately involved with it, that I get to learn an enormous amount in a much shorter period of time. A lot of times, you're focused on one job, and that's your life for four or five years and that's great too. But in this case, I have multiple jobs that are my life and they are being built in very different contexts, so it's exciting stuff.
L.G.: Your father obviously took his father's successful business and grew it by multiples. Do you and your brothers want to do the same thing with your dad's business?
I.T.: Well, we wouldn't be very effective employees if we didn't. Obviously, we have growth aspirations. He's created an incredible foundation upon which I hope that we're able to expand the brand. I hope our kids are able to expand further, but he's got very big shoes to fill, and I'm just happy right now learning from him and working with him and doing what I can.
L.G.: Are you really so competitive that before playing a game of the Trump version of Monopoly, you did a lot of research into Monopoly theory so you would win?
I.T.: No, I don't know where that story came from. It kind of sounds like me actually, but I'm pretty sure that didn't happen. I don't really have that kind of time. But I like it. In theory, I think it sounds like a good idea. I am pretty darn competitive, though.