Charlie Bendit: Crazy, Gutsy, Visionary

By Francis X. Donnelly
Photography: Ben Solomon
Published: Spring 2011

Before the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City sprouted chi-chi shops, restaurants and art galleries, it had hulking dinosaurs like the old Port Authority freight-handling warehouse.

While others saw a relic from the past in 1998, GWSB alumnus Charlie Bendit, BBA, ’75, spied a portal to the future. The 8th Avenue structure between 15th and 16th streets was close to public transportation. It had large floor plans, which are rare in the city. It nearly sat atop a major optical-fiber switching network, which could be used by telecommunication firms.

In January, Bendit’s prescience paid off. He and his business partner, along with two other entities, sold the building for $1.6 billion.

The buyer? Some upstart named Google, which will use it as its New York headquarters.
The blockbuster deal, which involved one of New York’s largest office buildings, was one of the biggest real estate transactions in the city over the last few years.

“If you work hard, good things will happen,” said Bendit. “That’s all I knew. That’s what I had always been told. That lesson has paid off many times over.”

For Bendit, it was just the latest in a string of real estate victories that have spanned 35 years.

They range from Washington to Chicago to Atlanta. Most occurred in New York City, one of the toughest real estate markets in the world. He and partner Paul Pariser, who formed Taconic Investment Partners in 1997, have developed 12 million square feet of office buildings and 3,000 residential units ranging from luxury to middle-class living spaces.

Even the steely-eyed New York media have praised the company.

“I’ve never seen a real estate developer do so much to improve a housing complex,” a New York Daily News reporter wrote about a Bronx apartment building renovated by Taconic in 2008. “Eastchester Heights sets the bar for future investors purchasing distressed urban properties.”

When not developing properties, Bendit helps develop minds.

In New York City, he was a special adviser to the Superintendent of Schools and still serves on the boards of several programs that help public school students.

At GWSB, he is a founding member of the advisory board of GWSB’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis. In November, he made a major financial gift in support of the center.

And he is a regent of the New York State Board of Education, which oversees every public school in the state. “I talked to my family and partner about it,” he said about becoming a regent in 2007. “I knew it would be time consuming. But if I really wanted to make a difference in public education, I had to go right to the top.”

From Premed to Business

At GW, Bendit began as a premed student but discovered what he really liked was business. After switching majors in his sophomore year, his interest in business was nurtured by several teachers, including Fred Amling, a professor emeritus of finance. Amling remembers Bendit as a quick study.

“He had the desire, dedication and discipline to succeed,” said Amling. “Charlie is an outstanding example of undergraduate students who rise to the top of their profession.” Bendit was more driven than other students, said classmates. While his friends repaired to the pub, he was studying at the library.

The son of an attorney, Bendit worked his way through school. One year, to offset his rent, he painted the Arlington home where he and several students were living, said classmate Lane Potkin.

Potkin, a Washington real estate attorney who has remained friends with Bendit, marvels at his buddy’s tenacity. Bendit began playing golf several years ago and already has a firm grip of the maddeningly frustrating game, said Potkin. “He was a little more studious and hardworking than some of us,” said Potkin. “He was focused but also friendly. He wasn’t the type that was so intense he was about to go off the handle.”

As soon as he graduated from GWSB, Bendit wanted to become a developer. That was where the action was, he said. But he got a rude introduction to his chosen profession when his father introduced him to one of his clients, the owner of a 300-unit apartment building for sale in Newark, N.J.

During an inspection of the complex, the owner brought along his two German shepherds.

“Why do you have the dogs?” asked Bendit. “You’ll see,” said the owner.

They proceeded to go from apartment to apartment, collecting rent. As they did, Bendit witnessed various scenes of domestic discord, which weren’t ameliorated by a landlord seeking money. Bendit, who grew up in the well-heeled suburbs of Livingston, N.J., wondered what he was getting himself into.

Another challenge facing Bendit was the economy. He had graduated into a recession, which included an oil embargo. “I didn’t understand the implications,” he said about the downturn occurring just as he was entering the job market. “I thought it was just tough to get a job. I didn’t realize the reason.”

To overcome his lack of experience and the tough financial times, Bendit rolled up his shirtsleeves. Signing on with a New Jersey developer, he worked seven days a week for two years. If you persevere, you will eventually succeed, he said. He learned that from his role model, his father.

In 1980, Bendit joined Jones Lang Wootton, one of the biggest real estate firms in the world. The next year, the company was interested in expanding to Washington. Bendit had gone to school there so the firm volunteered him for the job. Bendit quickly immersed himself in Washington’s emerging office market by snapping up 10 buildings.

Later, he did the same thing in Toronto, setting up regional offices in that city and Washington. He logged 700,000 frequent flyer miles for the company.

He liked the challenge of blazing the firm’s trail in new cities.

Pariser, who worked with Bendit at Jones Lang Wootton, said his future partner had the ability to focus on details like a laser beam. “That’s one of his core skills,” said Pariser. “He has a remarkable stick-to-it-ness.” Bendit eventually became managing director of the company, responsible for property acquisitions, sales and financing for international clients.

In 1993, Bendit realized the dream of being his own boss. He founded CBC Properties, which worked with investors to buy office and apartment buildings in New Jersey and Washington. But, just as the economy had tumbled upon his graduation, the financial landscape was bleak again in the early 1990s. The real estate market was depressed. Savings and loans associations had collapsed. No capital was available for investment.

Why would Bendit pick such a perilous time to step out on his own?

First, he believed that a market that had dropped so precipitously would eventually bounce back just as dramatically. He wanted to be there when it happened. Second, he believed in himself.

“I knew I didn’t have much money,” he said. “But money is always looking for smart operators.”

Also, Bendit was 39. If he was ever going to set up his own shop, this seemed like the time to do it, he said. He would rather try and fail than never try at all. He didn’t want to look back and regret the move he never made. He knew success wouldn’t come overnight so he gave himself a few years to make a go of it.

His firm eventually developed 1 million square feet of office space in New York and Washington and several hundred apartments in the New York metro area.

Besides the financial success, Bendit loved working for himself. “I was always the kind of person to take on big challenges,” he said. “I also didn’t like being told what to do. I didn’t play well with authority.”

Craziness, Guts and Vision

Bendit’s biggest successes were yet to come.

He and Pariser, who also left Jones Lang Wootton, formed Taconic Investment in 1997. Even before January’s blockbuster deal with Google, they had a reputation for spotting buildings and neighborhoods that were ripe for improvement and then making things happen.

Their fledgling partnership didn’t have the deep pockets of other companies so they had to be more creative. As a result, where other developers saw apartments and office buildings in neglected neighborhoods, Bendit and Pariser searched for amenities that could transform an area. Those amenities ranged from proximity to public transportation to budding interest in a neighborhood by residents or businesses.

“You have to be crazy and have a lot of guts,” said Bendit. “You have to have a little vision and hope and take a leap of faith.”

To make the deals work, Bendit relied on a career full of contacts with financial and institutional people. He also did his homework. Among developers, he’s known for his tenacity and ability to close a deal. To invest his money in places where other developers wouldn’t, Bendit had to believe in himself and his vision.

“When things look bleak, that’s when you have to work even tougher,” he said. “You’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel [but] making sure the light wasn’t a train coming.” Taconic’s leap of faith has paid off repeatedly.

The company renovated two large residential complexes in Brooklyn and the Bronx, 3 million square feet of offices in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District and the luxury high-rise Caledonia condo and rental development along the High Line Park in Manhattan.
After buying a building at 450 Park Avenue in Manhattan for $200 million, Taconic later sold it for $500 million.

In the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, the company wants to build luxury housing on eight acres. With access to the subway, residents would be able to live on the beach and still commute to work in Manhattan.

It’s a chance for Bendit and Taconic to take a once-forsaken spot and turn it into something special, a community. GW