Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the February/March 2004 issue of the magazine.
By City & Shore Magazine
Donald Trump lives in a world of extremes. Everything is the “highest,” the “biggest,” the “tallest the “most.” Unless, of course, it’s a “disaster.”
There’s no in between.
“Did you know I’m the most successful real estate guy in New York? I’m doing a job on Park Avenue and 59th Street and it’s the hottest building in the city. Did you know the Guinness book lists me as the greatest financial comeback of all time?”
Vintage Trump. Yet what can sometimes be off-putting when played out in TV soundbites has an entirely different vibe in person. Trump’s real gift – behind self-promotion – is that he’s always been such a gregarious guy, you can’t help but share his enthusiasm when in his presence.
On a breezy fall evening at Mar-a-Lago, his immense Palm Beach mansion-turned-country club, Trump tells us that this is where he and his girlfriend of five years, Melania Knauss, spend just about every weekend through Easter. He has agreed to be interviewed – not to espouse the merits of wintering in Palm Beach – but because at 57, he is about to become a prime-time TV star. For a guy who’s spent the past 25 years affixing his name on everything from casinos to bottled water, modeling agencies to airlines, what took so long?
But Trump says his role at the center of the new NBC reality show The Apprentice is not something he ever aspired to. And if it doesn’t work, he doesn’t much care. “I’m still building big buildings in Manhattan.”
The brainstorm of Survivor producer Mark Burnett, The Apprentice pits 16 would-be business tycoons – including 24-year-old Realtor Katrina Campins of Coral Gables in fierce battle for a $250,00-a-year gig heading one of Trump’s real-life companies. NBC is so high on the program, it dedicated a piece of its most prime real estate – Thursday night – to the show’s expanded 90-minute January kick-off. As of now, 15 weekly, Wednesday night installments are planned through spring, plus a live finale.
Just like the ultra-secret Survivor, The Apprentice wrapped up shooting months before its first airdate, with only the bare basics made public. “Trump has little to say about it, though he does it call it “tremendous!”
Since production ate up far more of his workdays than he had anticipated, recent weeks have been spent getting back on top of his real estate projects in New York and Chicago, his New Jersey hotels, his high-rise developments in Florida and an expanding golf/resort/gambling empire that now stretches from a riverboat casino in Indiana to developments on the California coast and in Asia.
Among his top priorities are his three Atlantic City casinos, the only aspect of his business that is publicly held. While the properties do lots of business, they’ve reportedly been saddled with debt for years and are now facing some stiff new competition.
But if he’s worried, it doesn’t show. Relaxed on a plump sofa in one of Mar-a-Lago’s grand gathering rooms, Trump greets the club’s arriving dinner guests, takes phone calls, poses for photos and tells City & Shore why investing in real estate will never go out of style.
City & Shore: Let’s start with The Apprentice. What can you tell us?
Donald Trump: Well, it’s very vicious. Very vicious. Things are gonna happen that are really hard core. There’s viciousness in business that people will really understand.
C&S: Did you deliberately set the table that way – to show these kids what it’s all about?
DT: No, but I can tell you it’s been very difficult for some of them.
C&S: How did this all come about? How does Donald Trump end up with his own reality show?
DT: Mark Burnett and the people from Survivor came to me and said they had this idea for a show. That was it. Every network wanted to put it on. It’s gonna do great! Some people think it’s gonna be the biggest show of the year.
C&S: Really? What’s your appeal?
DT: Why don’t you tell me!
C&S: How were the contestants selected? On the basis of what, interviews?
DT: On the basis of genius. The one quality they had to have is genius. There are the smartest contestants in the history of television. 215,000 people auditioned. The most in the history of TV. They chose 16.
C&S: When you were working with them did they raise your game in any way?
DT: No. But they’re brilliant people. The winner will run one of my companies for a period of one year at a very high salary.
C&S: Does that person get to continue if it’s a job well done?
DT: They can continue if I like them and if I don’t like them they’re gonna go on and make billions of dollars anyway. And maybe compete against me. The real winner probably won’t want to stay.
C&S: What kind of advice would you give young people starting out?
DT: There are often a lot of obstacles that get in the way of vision. Sept. 11 is an example of that. Who would have ever – ever – have though that something like that could happen. The worst tradedy in American history. But it happened.
It was a beautiful sunny morning and one day I look out my window and I see The World Trade Center burning. This was the most beautiful day of the year, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. And I look out and I see this huge explosion and that was the beginning of a very bad situation for the world – not just for New York and the United States but for the world.
C&S: How has that event and other difficult situations shaped you? Do you learn from your failures?
DT: I don’t like talking about failure. I don’t even like THINKING about failure. You know when people tell me there’s this new food that causes cancer, I say, do me a favor – don’t even mention that word. I don’t wanna hear about any of that stuff.
C&S: So the road to the good life is all about positive thinking?
DT: I don’t know if it it’s positive thinking, but personally, I do believe in out of sight, out of mind.
C&S: It would seem then that you’re not one to toss and turn all night, rethinking the day’s decisions?
DT: Never. You never look back. You make your decisions and you learn from them, you learn from your mistakes, but you don’t look back. Ideally you can learn from other people’s mistakes. I am daunted by failure because I hate failure. Failure is not what I aspire to.
C&S: But you’ve certainly had your share of rough times over the years both financially and personally. How do you handle it?
DT: I went through it and I came out of it. There are other people who go bankrupt and you never hear from them again.
C&S: Is diversity the key? You’ve certainly had your hand in many different kinds of businesses. Any other television deals we should know about?
DT: I do own entertainment properties that are valuable. I’m in partnership with NBC on The Apprentice and with Miss Universe, which also includes Miss USA and Miss Teen USA. I bought Miss Universe five years ago. It’s been a great investment. It was a sick puppy and I made it well.
C&S: Really? Aren’t beauty pageants kind of over? Men can see naked women anywhere now.
DT: No. It’s hot. We finished number six for the week in the ratings. We changed the whole value of the pageants around. We changed the production around. I bought it for $10 million, and I just sold half of it to NBC for $75 million.
C&S: Sort of like when brought the Wollman (ice) rink in New York back from the brink of death. Wasn’t that place about to go under before you stepped in?
DT: Yes – I have a lease for 20 years. What happened was that the Wollman rink was undergoing renovation by the city of New York for seven years.
This is an ice skating rink – we’re not talking about going 200 stories – and the city didn’t know what the hell they were doing. I got very angry with the city and I demanded to take over construction.
C&S: Donald Trump to the rescue.
DT: IT’s honestly one of the most beautiful places on earth. It makes a lot of money. There’s no ice skating rink in the world that does the kind of business the Wollman rink does. And we run it during the summer as an amusement park.
C&S: An alternative revenue stream, just like what you’ve done at Mar-a-Lago. Is it strange – being surrounded by other people in your own home?
DT: Well, otherwise, I’d be sitting here by myself saying, isn’t that a nice wall?
C&S: Seriously? You’d be lonely?
DT: I have friends who are very rich also and they say to me I can’t believe that you allow this estate to be a club—why wouldn’t you just live in it as a house?
Well, I’ve had it as a house and I’ve had it as a club and I like it better as a club than I did as a house. As a club I have the best chefs, the best spas – things you really wouldn’t have to the same extent if you had it as a house. And it really works much better as a club because it’s too big. It’s got 128 rooms. This is probably the greatest estate in America.
C&S: I know you bring friends down from New York all the time. Are you still pals with Regis?
DT: I love Regis [Philbin]. Regis is a beautiful person, a truly great guy – as fine a man as you’ll meet in any business, let alone show business. I’ve known many great stars over the years – some of them won’t even shake hands with the public, won’t even talk to the public. Regis is the exact opposite.
I always say to Regis – I tell him directly to his face – he doesn’t realize how big he is. Two years ago he had the number one show in the morning and the number one show in the evening. That’s never happened before.
C&S: You’re a fan of Howard Stern, too. I hear you on there all the time when you call in.
DT: He calls me! And I talk to him because he’s a friend of mine, he’s a really good guy in real life and he’s always treated me great on the show.
C&S: He’s a good guy on the radio, too. You really seem to understand him.
DT: I do. He’s brilliant on a lot of different levels and that’s why he’s got the number one show on the radio.
C&S: You’ve always been very good at keeping yourself out there in places that are sort of unconventional for a mogul. You’ve also been on Regis’ show quite a bit over the years.
DT: … and he comes down to Mar-a-Lago with Joy, his wife, who is equally terrific. He loves Mar-a-Lago more than any other place.
C&S: And then he talks about those fabulous weekends on the air.
DT: That’s right!
C&S: That has to be good for business. How many people belong here?
DT: 500 members. It’s capped. I capped it. I don’t want any more members. I have 250 members for the golf course.
C&S: Do you want more members there?
DT: I would say I’m just about there, I don’t want to have too members. I only take people I wanna take.
C&S. You’ve also got a big condo development you’re selling on the beach in Sunny Isles. How’s that going?
DT: It’s been a tremendous success.
C&S: I know real estate is your favorite investment, but quite honestly, here in Florida, even though things have been booming lately, over the years many people haven’t done well – particularly in the condo market, and in some of these badly built suburban developments that don’t age well. What’s the secret? Other than location, how do you insure that something will hold its value?
DT: Well, you have to make sure the plans are gonna be great. The layouts are gonna be the best. The ceilings are gonna be high. The windows high. Everything the best.
But you’re right. Nothing is more up and down than Florida real estate. I’ve known a lot of people who have just been destroyed in Florida real estate – maybe more than any other place I know of. There are tremendous highs and tremendous lows. Florida can be disaster. But can also be a great success. Right now interest rates are still low so people are buying.
C&S: But in general you always like real estate better than the stock market?
DT: Yes, I like it better. It’s unique. The greatest investment that people have made over that last 50 years is something called their home. And if you own a great piece of land in the middle of New York City, guess what? No one can copy it.