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Ted Lerner on philosophy, family, philanthropy and Donald Trump

BizJournals.com, Michael Neibauer, November 6, 2015

Ted Lerner is a development icon and the owner of the Washington Nationals, a child of immigrants who built his way up from nothing to become the patriarch of a local real estate empire and a family he puts above all else.
Despite that prominence, Lerner rarely speaks publicly. His philosophy: “You can’t get in trouble if you never say anything.” But he put that aside Thursday to address the 750 people who assembled at the National Building Museum for the Urban Land Institute Washington’s lifetime achievement award gala.

Ted Lerner recieves a lifetime achievement award Thursday from the Urban Land Institute Washington / Kea Taylor

“I never could have dreamed of owning a baseball team,” said Lerner, now 90 years old. “And I never could have imagined over my life that I would build over 20 million square feet of commercial and residential space, and very few people would know my name. I guess I have a different approach to real estate development than Donald Trump. And I’m fine with that.”

Prior to Lerner’s address, the audience was shown a nine-minute video celebrating Lerner, featuring friends George Will, Ted Leonsis, former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, current Commissioner Rob Manfred, Wolf Blitzer, Albert Small of Southern Engineering, his rabbi, and many others.

Will said in the video: “He deserves a lifetime achievement award because of his lifetime of achievements.”

“Ted is a real mensch,” Blitzer, the CNN anchor and diehard Nationals fan, said as he feted his longtime friend from the podium. “He has very strong principles. He believes in honor. He believes in hard work and he believes in his word, and that comes through every day.”

Lerner kicked it off with a joke about the Washington Nationals and the difficult week that was: “Dusty [Baker, the new Nationals manager] was going to be here tonight, but we couldn’t come to an agreement on the seating chart.”

Previous ULI Washington lifetime achievement recipients include Milt Peterson of the Peterson Cos., Bill Alsup of Hines LP, Ray Ritchey of Boston Properties, Chip Akridge, Thomas Bozzuto, Gerald Halpin, B. Francis Saul II, Small, and Benjamin Jacobs of the JBG Cos.

The Lerner Enterprises portfolio spans the region, from Washington Square and 20 M St. SE, to 400 Army Navy Drive in Arlington, to the Corporate Office Centre at Tysons II, to Dulles Town Center, the Greenbelt Marriott, the White Flint Mall and 2000 Tower Oaks Boulevard.

A father of three and grandfather of nine, Lerner started his life with nothing — not enough to pay the 25-cent admission to a Washington Senators game.

Lerner recalled ushering those games at Griffith Stadium 70 years ago, using his law degree from George Washington University only once (his client ripped him off), starting his development business in the early 1950s with a $250 loan from his wife Annette, and then hearing from Annette in 1962 that he was going to lose everything if he invested in a cow pasture called Tysons Corner.

How did Lerner grow his business, from selling houses for $12,990 a piece to building out the D.C. suburbs? With a handshake.

“In those days, to get loans, I’d go see a man named Barnum Colton, president of the National Bank of Washington,” Lerner said. “His office was the size of a large coat closet, and had one light bulb. I wasn’t a big businessman, but he was always fair to me. He asked me what real estate projects I had in mind, I’d tell him, and we’d shake hands. I must have met with him 25 times, and he never turned me down, even though there were times when I didn’t know how many projects I could handle at one time.”

“Today it’s much more difficult to build a family business like ours. It was my dream for my family to work alongside of me,” he added.

And they do. Mark Lerner, a principal with Lerner Enterprises, has been a part of the family business since he graduated college, and serves as principal owner of the Nationals. His sons-in-law, Edward Cohen and Bob Tanenbaum, have the same titles. His daughter Debra is deeply involved in marketing events, and his daughter Marla leads the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation.

“Now three of my grandchildren are part of the business, and a fourth is joining soon,” Lerner said. “Maybe one of these days they’ll let me retire.”

Lerner's advice: "Keep building in every definition of the word. Build a better city. Build a stronger communities and build stronger families. Build for future generations. But I’ll keep working to build a better baseball team, too.”
Michael Neibauer covers economic development, chambers of commerce, transportation and politics.

Michael Neibauer covers economic development, chambers of commerce, transportation and politics.

BizJournals.com, November 6, 2015