Our Power Dozen
Meet Westchester’s 12 most influential business leaders.
(page 1 of 3)
Photography by Darryl Estrine
Makeup: Valerie Guglielmo. Hair: Vittoria Monterosso. Both from Salon V in Mamaroneck.
Look around. Our county is brimming with successful people engaging in successful professional endeavors—the super lawyer in White Plains, the hot-shot surgeon in Yonkers, the esteemed professor in Purchase, the revered CEO in Rye, the lauded banker in New Rochelle. As difficult and challenging as it may be to reach the proverbial pinnacle of success, imagine the rarified air breathed by the precious few who ascend to an even higher altitude—to become the ones who set the agenda, raise the bar, inspire their peers, intimidate their competitors, and, ultimately, inform, shape, and influence their respective fields (if not also the greater community). That’s the mark of power. While Westchester is indeed host to some of the biggest power players of the business world, not all of them are concerned with Westchester in particular. Thus, in our search for the “Power Dozen,” we excluded those of regional, national, and global influence—and instead focused on those individuals whose primary, if not exclusive, interest is our own collective backyard.
President and CEO, RPW Group
Odds are good you’ve worked in or attended an event at one of developer Robert Weisz’s buildings. Weisz, president and CEO of the 110-employee RPW Group in Rye Brook, is the largest independent commercial real estate developer in the county, with 3 million-plus square feet of office space. And office space in one of Weisz’s buildings is so sought after that all but one (1133 Westchester Avenue in White Plains) have a vacancy rate lower—way lower—than the U.S. central business district average of 12.5 percent: 760 Westchester Ave, White Plains (0 percent); 800 Westchester Ave, Rye Brook (1 percent); 440 Mamaroneck Ave, Harrison (2 percent); 399 Knollwood Rd, White Plains (8 percent); and 2975 Westchester Ave, Purchase (8 percent).
“I consider him a visionary,” says Glenn Walsh, senior director of brokerage firm Cushman & Wakefield in White Plains. “Robert sees things others don’t. What he did with 800 Westchester Avenue is the perfect example.”
The immense, gleaming 570,000-square-foot former General Foods headquarters, which Weisz purchased in 2004 for $40 million (the largest county real estate transaction that year), is a post-modern office building on a man-made lake. “Most thought a space that large didn’t divide and you’d have to find three or four very, very large tenants—a difficult task,” Walsh recalls.
But not Weisz. “He put common corridors along some of the window lines,” Walsh says. “The typical thing would’ve been to reserve those spaces for individual offices.” The renovations cost Weisz an additional $70 million. The building, however, now has 40 tenants and is 99-percent leased.
“Weisz is a property-ownership expert who understands market conditions and knows when to make a deal and what type of deal,” says Michael Rao, president of New York Commercial Realty Group, LLC, in White Plains. “His rates are not out of line. Weisz works within today’s markets.”
Another factor that helps is RPW’s atypical set-up—the company handles construction, leasing, and management of commercial space. “We’re a one-stop shop,” Weisz says. “Our tenants can communicate any need and receive a prompt response. They are not dependent on a management company having to reach out to ownership before they can get an answer.” The set-up, Weisz says, translates into an alignment of the tenant’s interests with that of his company. “It becomes our collective goal to get the tenant into the space on time, to control construction costs, and to deliver and maintain a high-quality space to minimize as many future issues as possible.”
“I’ve brought tenants to RPW for the past eight years,” says Rao. “His buildings are always run well and are very clean.” Mauro Romita, president and COO of Castle Oil Corporation in Harrison, who moved his company into a Weisz building—two doors down from the company’s previous space—agrees. “We moved largely because of RPW’s stellar reputation for excellence and integrity.”
—JOHN BRUNO TURIANO
Partner and Senior Vice President
Thompson & Bender
Way before the first shovel hit the dirt and when The Westchester was still mired in the government approval process, its developers hired Thompson & Bender to help introduce the project to the community and win public approval. When Historic Hudson Valley wanted to spread the word about its new Kykuit mansion tour, they, too, turned to this Briarcliff Manor advertising and public relations agency. Ditto other county icons such as the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville and the Ritz-Carlton, Westchester, in White Plains.
Why? Because no one knows and sells Westchester—throughout the county and beyond—like Thompson & Bender. Celebrating its 25th anniversary next year, the firm is arguably the advertising and public relations agency of the county, and Elizabeth Bracken-Thompson, senior vice president and partner, along with Dean Bender and her husband, Geoff Thompson, is the face of Thompson & Bender.
Her current and past client list includes higher education (Iona College, New York Medical College, Westchester Community College); retail (the aforementioned Westchester mall plus New Roc City); real estate (Cappelli Enterprises, Simone Development); media (the Journal News); health care (White Plains Hospital Center); and hospitality (the Westchester County Office of Tourism, in addition to The Ritz-Carlton).
“She has great connections,” says Jon Schandler, president and CEO of White Plains Hospital Center. “She knows everybody.” Adds Kathy O’Connor, acting commissioner of Westchester County Parks, Recreation, and Conservation, “Nobody says no to Liz. She is a wonderful person that people like and respect, so that certainly doesn’t hurt.”
Founded in 1986 with just three accounts, today Thompson & Bender has total annual billings of $4.2 million. Over the past quarter-century, it has worked for close to 200 local clients. “We are the Westchester go-to firm,” Bracken-Thompson says. “In the twenty years I have worked here, we have never had to go out and solicit business, ever. We have always had people come to us.”
Westchester Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
Ten people sit on County Executive Rob Astorino’s Westchester Economic Development Council. Its youngest member is a 37-year-old dynamo, a fervent, feisty, and indefatigable woman who heads the business community of the largest and fastest-growing minority segment of the county. In her four years as president of the Westchester Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Fannie Lansch has transformed the Chamber into a tightly focused, powerful voice for the Hispanic business community.
“Instead of us being all things to all people, we now work on fewer things that have greater impact,” Lansch says. She has brought together government and business leaders for her Hispanic Business Roundtable, “a quarterly open-forum discussion to promote cross-collaborations, identify issues and potential solutions, and explore opportunities for partnership among different groups.” She helped originate the Chamber’s Access to Capital Program designed to help give businesses access to capital providers. “This lack of access is one major issue businesses are facing today,” she notes. As president of the Chamber, she is also an ex officio member of Congresswoman Nita Lowey’s Hispanic Advisory Board, which advises Lowey on a wide range of issues, from education and immigration to business. “I value her advice and input,” Lowey says. And in her latest and perhaps most ambitious initiative, Lansch is spearheading an unprecedented analysis of the county’s business community “to identify the most pressing issues and concerns facing it.”
According to the most recent statistics available from the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Hispanic-owned businesses in Westchester increased 45 percent from 8,400 in 2002 to more than 12,000 three years ago—and total annual receipts more than doubled, to $1.6 billion.
Lansch, who emigrated from Santo Domingo and earned her MBA at Pace, is also the vice president of business relationship management in Westchester for HSBC Bank (the world’s largest banking and financial services group), and she is the founder and owner of her own business (QueTuBuscas.com, a global online directory, founded in 2009, which connects Hispanic-owned and -operated businesses with prospective clients).
“She’s dynamic, she’s smart, she’s committed—and, most important, she’s persuasive,” says the Chamber’s chairman and former president, Alé Frederico. Carlos Bernard, chairman of the board of the Westchester Hispanic Coalition and another past president of the Chamber, agrees. “What sets her apart is that she really tries to make the Chamber a vibrant entity in the county business community. She’s a great leader.”
The Medical Maverick
Dr. Simeon Schwartz
President and Co-founder
WESTMED Medical Group
The Future of Healthcare Today,” the tagline for WESTMED Medical Group, a Purchase-based multi-specialty group practice, is uncannily appropriate. It was nearly a decade ago that the group switched from paper to electronic medical records. Not a big deal, you may think, until you consider your physician’s undecipherable scribbled prescriptions.
Simeon Schwartz, MD, a board-certified hematologist and oncologist, is president and cofounder of the group and an acknowledged leader in the field of health information technology. “Dr. Schwartz is a change agent,” says Lindsay Farrell, president and CEO of Open Door Family Medical Centers. “Only twelve percent of practices nationwide are using electronic medical records, while the rest document on paper charts, which are hard to read, dangerous, and ultimately more expensive. He saw this need before anyone else did.”
All 180 physicians from WESTMED’s 14 office locations and White Plains and Greenwich Hospitals are connected electronically. “If one of our patients is admitted, the hospitals have instant access to their records,” Dr. Schwartz, 58, says. “We’re the only practice in the area that has this kind of connectivity.” Patients can even access their medical information through the facility’s patient portal on its website.
“The Feds are desperate for more medical practices to go paperless,” Farrell says, noting that the government’s stimulus bill is giving up to $44,000 per physician to put in electronic medical records. Since WESTMED went paperless in 2002, it is able to take those funds and use it to help pay for its new 83,450-square-foot facility to be built in Ridge Hill in Yonkers.
Mitchell Benerofe of Benerofe Properties in White Plains has known Dr. Schwartz since their days serving on the board of the now shuttered United Hospital in Port Chester. “If not brilliant, then Dr. Schwartz is something very close to it,” he says. “He was one of the few at the hospital who saw the handwriting on the wall, that the medical profession had to move into the 21st century and integrate information technology to handle paperwork and improve office efficiency. His use of information technology allows him to keep the business side of running a medical facility under control without sacrificing medical quality.”
“WESTMED is able to demonstrate value for both the patients and the community,” Farrell says. “Dr. Schwartz has developed it into a multi-specialty group practice with a robust infrastructure that individual medical practices couldn’t match.”
“The goal here is clear: in any business, you can be a follower or a leader,” Dr. Schwartz says. “If you’re in healthcare and are not a leader, you lose the opportunity to be innovative.”
—Nancy L. Claus and Carol Caffin