By: Matthew Singh
When I first shook the hand of Marty Burger, it was in a conference room overlooking the new World Trade Center. With close-cropped salt and pepper hair and a demeanor of contemplative reserve, a stranger might miss that Mr. Burger is responsible for the development of the World Trade Center—one of the most iconic real estate developments in the nation. Yet, it is this steady resolve, hard work, and commitment to people that propelled Mr. Burger to his role as CEO of Silverstein Properties and Chairman of ULI New York.
On Tuesday, September 13, 2016, Mr. Burger told the story of his career to a group of 40 young professionals at ULI’s Secrets of Success breakfast series, organized by the ULI Young Leaders Group. Held throughout the year, the Secrets of Success series offers candid, roundtable discussions with senior leaders in the real estate industry.
Mr. Burger began his story nearly 30 years ago, when he graduated from the undergraduate program at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. His first job out of college was at Laventhol & Horwath. The firm was best known for their work in hotels, but Mr. Burger was a consultant for all of the transactions other than hotels, including the Queens Center developed by Donald Trump, a dairy farm in Queens, and the Harlem International Trade Center.
In March of 1989, Related hired Mr. Burger as the first analyst in the development group. It was here that he discovered his passion. At 7pm on his first day, Mr. Burger’s boss pulled him aside and asked if he knew of any development sites. Mr. Burger suggested a parcel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and within the hour he and his manager were sketching out a possible building for the site, based on what zoning would allow. Beyond the spreadsheets and financial analysis, the bricks and mortar became tangible.
By 1993, Mr. Burger had joined Goldman Sachs in their Whitehall group. The company culture was a shock. “At Related, I was a big fish in a small pond,” remarked Mr. Burger. At Goldman, the stakes were substantially higher. His colleagues were likewise graduates from Ivy-league schools and their equivalents abroad; at least half of them were multilingual, with many of them speaking five languages or more; all-nighters were more common than not. Mr. Burger and his team visited the top 10 percent of properties under consideration for investment, which was a distinct departure from drawing massing diagrams on specific parcels. However, by the following year—seven years into his career— Goldman had one of its worst trading years ever and Mr. Burger was laid off.
In the following years, Mr. Burger went to Blackstone and, by 1997, had returned to Related. These were both companies where real estate was at the core of the business. With a call to Stephen Ross, and several meetings later, Mr. Burger was placed on the team for the Time Warner Center, which is a 2.8 million square foot, mixed-use development with retail, office, hotel, residential, and cultural uses in the heart of Columbus Circle at the southwest corner of Central Park.
Mr. Burger continued to pursue his passion for development, both at Related and eventually at his own firm founded in 2006 called Artisan RE Ventures, when in 2009 he received a call from a headhunter. The headhunter was looking for Larry Silverstein’s successor and wondered if Mr. Burger had any ideas for who could be a good fit. Mr. Burger talked through a few ideas with the headhunter and then paused. It was the nadir of the financial crisis, and his real estate business was running into difficulties. “Well, how about me?” he asked.
Mr. Burger was 43 at the time–on the lower end of the age spectrum of what Larry Silverstein was looking for. However, he checked all of the boxes. Most importantly, Mr. Silverstein was looking for someone who would keep the family business culture of Silverstein Properties, even with company growth. Mr. Burger’s calm demeanor and ego-free management approach sealed the deal. After a short time as Executive Vice President and then co-CEO with Larry Silverstein, Mr. Burger was promoted to sole CEO.
When asked what one key piece of advice he would give to aspiring young leaders, Mr. Burger concluded, “The most important thing is people. And, if you don’t get up excited about going to work, change what you do.”