Robert Weisz Is A Real Estate Visionary
RPW Group's owner seizes opportunity and transforms the county office sector.
Photographs By Stefan Radtke
Robert Weisz is a gentleman and a gentle man—nothing like the tough-as-nails, corner-cutting, money-hungry stereotype of most commercial landlords. That makes his Westchester success all the more remarkable.
“His personal story is truly inspirational,” says former Westchester County Association (WCA) President Marissa Brett. (At press time, Brett had just resigned from her position at the WCA.) “He has earned everything he’s got and worked hard for it.” What Weisz has today is some 3 million square feet of commercial real estate, stretching from Fairfield County to Manhattan. His company, RPW Group, is fully integrated to acquire, renovate, and manage his properties. “He is a true visionary,” Brett adds. “He sees opportunity where nobody else does.”
While you don’t become arguably the county’s most important commercial real estate developer without intestinal grit and an eye for the bottom line, the first word that comes to mind when you meet Robert Weisz is something entirely different: courtly. He’s tall, immaculately groomed, and moves with deliberate grace. As local broker Chris O’Callaghan points out in telling detail, “He’s always dressed impeccably. It’s out of respect for the people he meets.”
Weisz’s understated, tasteful office overlooks the drive over the man-made lake in front of his greatest triumph to date, 800 Westchester Avenue in Rye Brook, one of the most recognizable office buildings in the county. Even though no one else wanted it at the time, Weisz bought the 560,000-square-foot building in 2004 for $40 million before pouring another $70 million into its renovation. When asked how the transaction came about, Weisz characteristically tells a story not about himself but about his family.
“When my kids were young, I used to drive around this building, and they would call it the Starship Enterprise,” he says. He estimates that he had invested in about 15 buildings in Westchester at that point in his career, but none even close to that magnitude. “My wife is not in the business, but she has a great instinct. So she always comes in and looks at a project. When I showed her the building, she said she liked it but had one question: If it doesn’t work out, can we still live in our home?” Weisz pauses for the teasing punchline. “So I lied and said ‘yes.’”
The story is exaggerated, of course. If Robert Weisz is nothing else, he’s a devoted family man. Asked what’s the most important thing we should know about him, he answers, “Family defines me. I have two grown kids and a wife of 30 years, and that is the essence of me.”
He and his wife, Cristina, moved from their Greenwich, Connecticut, home to Manhattan a few years ago so they could be closer to their children when they started their careers in the city. Their son, Andrew, is in the real estate business as a broker with Newmark; their daughter, Alexandra, is an attorney. When the kids went to college, Weisz says, he had only one requirement; that they call him every day even if just for a minute to say ‘hi.’
"Family defines me. I have two grown kids and a wife of 30 years, and that is the essence of me.” - Robert Weisz, CEO, RPW group
When Weisz bought 800 Westchester Avenue, he didn’t lose his home, nor was he wrong thinking that he could turn a single-tenant building into one for multiple tenants occupying 1,500 to 120,000 square feet each. The project was viewed with great skepticism at the time; many realtors believe there was no way he could turn 800 Westchester Avenue into a multi-tenant building.
Weisz proved them wrong by pursuing his vision in a big way. “We created an environment where even very small companies, with maybe 5 or 10 employees, could have the same infrastructure as a Fortune 500 company,” he explains. “They have access to a conference center, an auditorium, a bank branch, a beauty parlor, a fitness center, and so on. At the time, this was different in the market.”
The project wasn’t particularly different for Weisz, however. He had honed the art of buying under-utilized single-tenant properties and turning them into multi-tenant successes with a series of transactions beginning with his very first real estate purchase in 1978, a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in Weehawken, New Jersey. Since then, he estimates that he’s invested hundreds of millions of dollars in 63 buildings across the tri-state area.
“He truly has had the ability to turn lemons into lemonade,” O’Callaghan says. “He turned corporate behemoth buildings into successful multi-tenant buildings when everyone else was afraid. He has great nerve.” (O’Callaghan is managing director of Jones Lang LaSalle and considers Weisz both a business and personal friend.)
What makes the Weisz record even more impressive is that he started with very little. “I grew up in Uruguay,” he explains. “When I was in college in the ’70s, there was some political unrest in the country. And the government closed the only university, so I moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I spent four years. When I graduated, I came to the United States to find the American dream.”
The Weisz family had a furniture factory in Uruguay, so Robert started a small wholesale furniture business operating out of the front seat of his station wagon and a rented garage in New Jersey. “That’s why I bought my first building,” he says. “I fixed it up and rented out the space I didn’t need. That really changed my career.” After proving he could succeed with small building developments in New Jersey, Weisz widened his horizons.
“The first building I bought in Westchester was in 1989, the [former] Edison High School [building] in Mount Vernon,” he recalls. “It had closed in the ’60s and had been sold several times, but the city ended up getting it back. When I came into the picture, they were getting ready to tear it down to build a parking lot.” Although he doesn’t own it any longer, he’s proud to say, “Today it is still a very viable building.”
Weisz passionately believes there is a bigger purpose to his work. “My business has a terrific impact on the community,” he explains. “A building that is vacant and rundown affects the entire neighborhood. By reversing the process, not only do we improve the building, but we improve the neighborhood. It’s a contagious thing.”
Today, the Weisz effect can be seen on the I-287 corridor Platinum Mile, where he not only owns 800 and adjacent 760 Westchester Avenue, but the 120,000-square-foot 2975 Westchester Avenue as well. His building at 1133 Westchester Avenue was completely renovated in 2008, and today it houses prominent tenants like IBM and ITT and boasts a 25,000-square-foot atrium, the largest in any New York State office building. Last year, he closed an $80 million deal for his first Manhattan property.
Asked about his success, Weisz gives a deprecating shrug and says he’s been very fortunate. As O’Callaghan says, “He’s been very fortunate, but you make your own good fortune.” In addition to working hard, O’Callaghan adds, “He’s a very warm person. The relationship between himself and his clients means a lot to him.”
Longtime Westchester real estate broker John R. McCarthy agrees, adding, “[From] the dealings I’ve had with him, he’s a tough negotiator, but he’s fair. Once you get a handshake, he’s a very good landlord. He takes care of his properties and takes care of his tenants.”
Weisz also takes care of his community. “He has been very charitable,” O’Callaghan says. “He cares very much about education and trying to make the world a better place.” Weisz is a major supporter of ArtsWestchester and other local organizations as well as one of the founders of Reaching U, a charity that provides support for impoverished children in Uruguay. He’s also on the board of the Inner City Scholarship Fund of the Archdiocese of New York.
One area where Weisz has had a profound effect is in economic development in Westchester. While no one denies that backing the campaign to bring more companies to the county is also good for his business, Weisz’s contribution stands out. According to Brett, Weisz was one of the first to “put his money where his mouth was” when it came to the WCA’s recent economic development initiative. “He doesn’t just talk a good game; he invests in it,” she says.
Weisz also serves on the board of the WCA, where he has been what Brett calls a true leader. “Robert will sit and listen and wait for the right moment before he articulates his thoughts,” she says. “He commands a position of leadership because he has the respect of everyone in the room.”
Weisz is nothing but optimistic about Westchester. “In two years, we’re going to be having a completely different conversation about Westchester. I think we are at the edge of a massive expansion,” he says. “Rental rates in New York City are five or six times those here. The inventory of space in the county has shrunk. Some buildings have gone residential; some have been repurposed entirely. There has also been a surge in new industries. Medical is booming because people are active much longer. Biotechnology is an entirely new industry for Westchester because we’re the perfect location for it. We also have an expansion in financial services.”
Robert Weisz expects to play a role in the county’s growth for years to come. While he enjoys time with his family in Manhattan and at their home in the Hamptons, he says he can’t envision a time when he won’t be working. Hard work, after all, is the cornerstone of his success.