Classing up the place

The vision of developer Robert P. Weisz
Photographs by Sinéad Deane

From his office overlooking the sweeping entry to a Rye Brook complex dubbed the “Taj Mahal of Westchester,” Robert P. Weisz manages perhaps the closest thing there is to a real estate empire in New York City’s northern suburbs.

But while he appreciates the view, Weisz says he never lingers on it. And that very real humility – a sense of where he’s been and where he’s going – makes Weisz as classy as any of his properties.

“In spite of the image you get when you drive up to this building, to me it’s driving up to the office to start another day of work,” he says. “We have been very fortunate. I believe that makes a difference, but I don’t have that sense of, ‘Look at the great things I have accomplished here.’ I’m as hungry as I was the first day and I’m anxious to move ahead.”

It should come as no surprise that Weisz refuses to become complacent.  After all, one does not come to build a company with properties valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars by sitting back and admiring the scenery.

Weisz founded what would become RPW Group Inc. in 1979, shortly after arriving in the United States from his native Uruguay. The company began as a wholesale furniture distributor operating out of a rented garage in Jersey City, but Weisz soon discovered his true calling was in real estate.

Fast-forward three decades, and RPW Group has managed projects totaling more than three million square feet of office, retail and warehouse space.

From 2002 to 2003 alone, the company expanded its portfolio along the Interstate 287 corridor with more than $500 million in acquisitions.

Weisz admits that in 1979, when he acquired his first property – a 30,000-square-foot, run-down warehouse in Weehawken that would allow him to expand his furniture business – he had little real estate know-how.

But, he says, “If you’re in the right place and you’re doing the right things, usually good things happen.”

Crafting properties

To chalk it all up to simply being in the right place at the right time doesn’t do Weisz’s story justice, though. (With the one possible exception being when Weisz met Cristina, his wife of 27 years, on a blind date in New York City. “Some of those work, believe it or not,” he says with a chuckle.)

Since founding RPW Group, Weisz has shepherded the company through the purchases of more than 50 properties in the tri-state area, often taking on projects that others wouldn’t dare touch.

In 2005, RPW Group purchased the former Kraft Foods International headquarters at 800 Westchester Ave. in Rye Brook.

Real estate insiders had predicted prior to the acquisition that the 523,000-square-foot property – designed for a single corporate tenant – would languish on the market.

Lo and behold, just six months after Weisz’s company bought the 54-acre property – the Taj Mahal, if you will – and after a $70 million renovation enabling the building to house tenants seeking anywhere from 1,500 to 120,000 square feet, more than half of 800 Westchester had been leased or was on the verge of being leased.

In all of Weisz’s years at RPW Group, he said it has been “extremely unusual” for the company to purchase a building and leave it unchanged.

“I have a furniture background and so I’m very much inclined to wood, and people will say, ‘I recognize your buildings, because they have more wood than others,’” Weisz says. “And I like that. I think we try to have a better-quality building than our competitors.”

RPW Group’s buildings, he says, “are a reflection of who we are and what our company portrays in the market, and that’s what we work very hard on.”

Giving back

After living in Greenwich for years, Weisz and his wife now reside in Manhattan, spending their summers in the Hamptons with their two children, Andrew, a real estate broker working in New York City for Cushman & Wakefield, and Alexandra, who attends law school.

No one would fault him if he chose to limit his involvement in Westchester and Fairfield – areas he refers to as his “corporate homes” – to the workings of RPW Group.

But for as long as he has been a dominant name in the local real estate industry, Weisz has been a highly active and outspoken figure on the region’s business and political scenes.

In addition to being president and CEO of RPW Group, Weisz serves on the board of directors of CMS Bancorp, the Westchester County Association, the New Rochelle Police Foundation Inc., ArtsWestchester, and the Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce. He’s also chairman of the board of Reaching U, a U.S. nonprofit that supports low-income families in Uruguay.

“Frankly, I think we have a responsibility. We cannot just complain that things are not well if we don’t do something to make a difference and to correct them,” he says.

Just last month, Weisz and RPW Group played host to members of the Westchester County Association who were gathered to hear Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand speak.

As he stood to introduce the event’s host, County Association Chairman William Harrington said, “You know that ad, the most interesting man in the world? Well, this is our version – Robert Weisz.”

To which Weisz shot back – with a grin – “There’s nothing like setting low expectations.”

Taking the microphone, Weisz turned to Gillibrand, applauding her efforts to bring together Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.

He noted how the atrium at 800 Westchester Ave. has seen several candidates and elected officials over the years, including Hillary Clinton, Andrew Cuomo, former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and former White Plains Mayor Adam Bradley – the latter two having resigned from their respective posts amidst scandal.

“Senator, you’re in a good spot,” Weisz said, “but there are no guarantees.”

Survive and thrive

It is that lack of guarantees – in politics, business and life – that Weisz has sought to impress on those in power and on those who are in positions of influence.

“I think every generation says that things are not as good as they used to be, and you hear that from time to time,” Weisz says. “I don’t think that that’s the case. I think that things are not the same as they used to be. Things change. And we always think that change is not as good as the way things used to be, because we only remember the good parts.”

The next few years could be “extremely difficult years for the United States” if society does not come to grips with the lack of discipline that led to the recession and many of the recurring economic and political problems, Weisz says.

That is not to say society isn’t equipped to face up to those problems, he adds.

“People are more educated now than they’ve ever been. Technology is obviously moving faster than anyone expected. So a lot of things are happening,” Weisz says. “I think those of us who have accomplished some real success must get involved.”

When Weisz first arrived in the U.S., he barely spoke English, had little money, and knew no one. But armed with the immigrant’s instinct for survival, survive is what he did.

“I think life is interesting, because, you know, we are not born with a book that tells us ‘this is what you are supposed to do’ and ‘this is what’s going to make you happy’ and ‘this is what’s going to make you successful,’” Weisz says. “You have to find it out for yourself.”

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