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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Edward Minskoff

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-05-25

To say that Edward Minskoff is a developer would be like saying Picasso was a painter.

There is, in fact, a nexus between the two men.

Mr. Minskoff creates tall buildings that are widely acclaimed as an art form. Picasso created works that took art to rarified heights. Mr. Minskoff began working in the real-estate business while still in his teens. Picasso was a precocious draftsman whose talent was already established when he was a teenager.

Mr. Minskoff's father, Leo, was in the real-estate business and almost certainly influenced his son's sensibilities. Picasso's father, Jose Ruiz y Blasco, was an art teacher who certainly had a great impact on his son.

No surprise, then, that Mr. Minskoff is drawn to Picasso's works. He owns several of them.

He also owns works by dozens of other famous artists, including Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Willem de Kooning, Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock, and Frank Stella. And, of course, he owns sculptures by Isabelle Minskoff.

She was his mother.

"She died last year at the age of 93 - I was exposed to art from an early age because of her," the founder and chairman of Edward J. Minskoff Equities Incorporated said. "Besides being a sculptor working with stone and clay, she was a collector. Perhaps that's why I'm a builder with an artistic sensibility."

That sensibility is on display at numerous buildings that Mr. Minskoff has raised. He emphasizes the use of granite, limestone and marble - he calls them "earth elements that will be around forever." Sculptures and paintings from his collection are lavishly on view. His own office is lodged in an 800,000 square foot tower at 1325 Avenue of the Americas; it is - and there's no other way to put it - a dazzling museum of contemporary art.

"There's a strong connection between art and buildings," Mr. Minskoff said. "One has a functional purpose, the other is visual. But both have aesthetic qualities."

He is insistent that all his buildings be perceived as works of art.

"Buildings are an art form. That's why I get very involved in the design of everything I build," Mr. Minskoff said. "I'm a very visual person - but the types of buildings that I develop are meant to have permanency and lasting elegance, and not offer just immediate gratification. I know that what I've built will be around during the lifetime of my great grandchildren."

While Mr. Minskoff takes obvious pride in his creations, he doesn't come across as boastful. He is self-admittedly an extremely private person, and rarely grants interviews. He's animated when he speaks about art and architecture. But a reporter had to coax him into offering reflections about his success.

"I keep as low a profile as I can. I was never driven to be more successful than my peers," Mr. Minskoff said. "My industry is semi-dysfunctional, and there are people out there who claim more for themselves than warranted. I don't love notoriety - as some people do. I never compare myself to others. I only hope that I have the respect of my peers."

Mr. Minskoff certainly enjoys respect not only in the real-estate business but also in the national business community. An entire shelf in the conference room of his office is freighted with awards and encomiums he's received. There are plaques mounted on his walls, including one from New York University Medical Center, where Mr. Minskoff and his wife Julie have endowed a chair in pediatric oncology.

Medicine, in fact, is a special concern for Mr. Minskoff. He's a generous donor to NYU medical Center, where he's a trustee. He also sits on the board of directors of the institution's cancer institute. And he's vice chairman of the board of trustees of the NYU School of Medicine Foundation.

"It's one of the great hospitals, and I enjoy the emotional rewards of being associated with it," Mr. Minskoff said. "I see myself as getting even more actively involved at NYU."

He's also involved with assisting numerous other New York institutions, including Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He's a governor of the Real Estate Board of New York. He's on the executive committee of the Association for a Better New York.

So it was only natural for the reporter to ask Mr. Minskoff how he fitted all this philanthropic activity into an already overstuffed work schedule.

He seemed startled by the question.

"A lot of energy, I guess," Mr. Minskoff said, presently.

Indeed, he exudes energy, and little wonder - Mr. Minskoff plays a fierce game of squash four or five times a week. He plays golf. He works out. And until not so long ago, he would ski regularly with his children, Mitchell, Mollie and Justin.

Their pictures are conspicuously on view in Mr. Minskoff's office. When he offered a reporter a tour, his gaze lingered lovingly on his children's images, and those of his wife.

Julie Minskoff, who hails from Korea, shares his passion for art. They met at an art gallery in New York. She's now the de facto curator of his enormous personal collection.

A collection of a different kind in his office involves pictures of the buildings that Mr. Minskoff has built or bought. Before he started his current company in 1987, Mr. Minskoff was chief executive officer of Olympia & York, a Canadian company. From zero holdings, he developed and acquired 43 million square feet in America for Olympia. The 7.5 million square foot World Financial Center was among his prominent projects.

Mr. Minskoff, who majored in economics from Michigan State University and obtained an MBA from the University of California in Los Angeles, worked for several companies before he became Olympia's CEO. Among them were Cushman and Wakefield, where he learned about leasing, and Lehman Brothers.

But Minskoff Equities is his special pride. Mr. Minskoff has developed or acquired nearly 5 million square feet of office space. That will be complemented by 1 million square feet in a mixed-use residential and retail building at 270 Greenwich Street, which is expected to open next year. He's also developing 650,000 square feet of commercial property in Long Island City.

So, the reporter asked, what explains his success?

"I've been lucky," Mr. Minskoff said.

"Surely it had to be more than only luck," the reporter said.

"Well, you have to have vision - I took my vision and ran with it," Mr. Minskoff said. "Life is also about timing. There are lots of bright people out there who aren't so fortunate."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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