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Donald Trump: The Face of Real Estate

The Triumphs and Tribulations of the World's Most Famous Real Estate Developer

By Demir Barlas

The comb-over... the marriages... "You're fired!" Donald Trump has been one of America's most prominent celebrities for twenty years, but despite the tabloid reports and multiple seasons of The Apprentice, his fame is firmly rooted in a long record of success in an often-fickle real estate market. While Trump's brash style may attract detractors, and his business savvy has come under fire in recent years, there is no doubt that "The Donald" is an extremely influential real estate developer.

Trump's Beginnings

In a way, Donald Trump entered real estate upon his birth in 1946. Both his father and grandfather were successful builders. But Donald did not immediately take to the family business. By his early teens, he had become a hell-raising youth who was sent to the New York Military Academy to learn discipline. Trump emerged from that experience with a renewed maturity and a work ethic that he applied to his academic career at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

After receiving his BA from Wharton in 1968, Trump returned to his native New York City to work with his father, Fred, at his office in Brooklyn. There, Trump acquired the practical real estate knowledge that would serve him so well in the future. He absorbed his father's obsession with the art of the deal, as Trump would later title one of his books, but ultimately took a different approach to the real estate market. While Fred Trump made his fortune by catering to middle-class tastes in the city's outer boroughs, his son decided to go after the rich in Manhattan.

Trump Takes Manhattan

Soon after he made his initial foray into Manhattan in 1974, Trump began picking up building contracts and tax abatements from the city. Some of his opponents accused him of leveraging his father's political connections to get these deals, whereas Trump always maintained that he won them on the strength of his proposals, tenacity and salesmanship.

By 1983, Trump had purchased and renovated several Manhattan hotels, built the flagship 58-story Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue and accumulated properties in California and Switzerland. Trump benefited not only from tax abatements, but from an economic boom toward the end of the 1970s, during which the value of his New York holdings increased practically overnight. His penchant for building luxury accommodations began to pay off as Manhattan turned into a playground for the super-rich.

In the 1980s, as his properties soared in value, Trump became one of the most visible faces of an era marked by conspicuous consumption. He lived large, bought large, sold large and basked in the spotlight, unlike many of the more established New York real estate families. The publication of his 1988 book, The Art of the Deal, launched Trump's love affair with the media, which would see him etched on America's psyche through his numerous publications, television appearances and cavorting with celebrities. His three marriages -- to Ivana Zelnickova (1977-1992), Marla Maples (1993-1999) and Melania Knauss (2005-present) -- have also received their fair share of attention.

Trump's Nemesis: Casinos

By the end of the 1980s, Trump had become a genuine superstar, but in 1991, the mingled effects of a recession, the high-interest junk bond-financing of his Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City and an inability to apply his Midas touch to the gaming business resulted in a bankruptcy filing. Trump fought hard to protect his assets, and he spent much of the 1990s trying to hold on to his other profitable properties. He combined his casino holdings into a public company, Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts. However, unable to turn a profit, the company filed for bankruptcy in 2004, the outgrowth of which was a restructuring of the company into Trump Entertainment Resort, which still owns the Taj Mahal, as well as two other Atlantic City casinos.

The Trump Brand

While gambling establishments have not been Trump's strength, he and his Trump Organization continue their astounding cycle of buying, developing and selling properties across the country and around the world. In the process, he has turned himself into a successful brand that extends far beyond the world of real estate. The Trump name is ubiquitous across an entire spectrum of products and locations, including:

  • TRUMP Magazine
  • The Donald J. Trump Signature Collection of luggage and menswear
  • Trump University, offering online classes on real estate, investing and entrepreneurial skills
  • Trump Ice bottled water
  • The Learning Annex (TrumpExpo.com)
  • The Trump skating rinks in Central Park
  • The Miss Universe pageant, which he co-owns with NBC
  • A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Photo: ©Getty Images/ Scott Wintrow

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Demir Barlas has nearly a decade of experience in business writing and editing, marketing communications, and online community building. He holds a BA from Cornell University and an MFA from UCLA Film School.

At the time of writing, Elizabeth Weintraub, DRE # 00697006, is a Broker-Associate at Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, California.

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