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Ken Fisher on Family, Philanthropy, and Steering a New York Real Estate Dynasty Through the Pandemic

Toward the end of last year, I watched Ken Fisher speak at a conference. The sixty-three-year-old co-managing partner of Fisher Brothers, one of the most successful family-owned real estate development and management companies in the U.S., was keynote speaker for a discussion titled NYC and its Recovery. Despite the glum topic, Fisher’s jaunty optimism carried all thirty minutes of the conversation. It seemed that contrary to predictions that pandemic lockdowns would incite a mass exodus from New York City, residential rates and occupancy rates had surpassed those of the pre-pandemic era, indicating that, in his is words, “New York is alive and vibrant again.” The second he opened his mouth, Ken’s adoration for his city was apparent and infectious, transforming the “session” into a heartfelt ode.

Ken is a third-generation Fisher and the grandson of Larry Fisher, one of the firm’s founding partners. He currently runs the marketing and leasing for the firm’s portfolio and is the Chairman of the Fisher House Foundation. He also loves New York City because of the people that it tends to attract. “You don’t come to New York if you’re faint of heart,” he began. “You come here because you’re a certain kind of person. You want to be successful, you’re willing to work hard, and you’ve got the drive. That’s a real New Yorker to me.” 

As a notable New York real estate dynasty member, I expected nothing less. However, I was not expecting how easy it would be to have a conversation with the real estate titan, even if it was over a webcam. Fisher had made no secret that he was less-than-thrilled about video conferencing during his panel. It was the only time his smile had dropped. “It just validates how important it is to be in a room, you can’t read the full scope of a person online,” he had said. According to Fisher, eye contact and body language were crucial to making a deal, but when the pandemic lockdowns made those things impossible, Fisher found himself making a few “not-so-good hires” over Zoom. 

Suffice to say that the irony of talking to one of the in-person meeting’s biggest proponents over video chat was not lost on me. That irony turned out to be prophetic, Fisher’s camera wasn’t working so I spoke to an empty void on my screen. 

Even so, I could still hear the same buoyancy he used onstage, albeit a little weighed down from the busy week. Two days after I interviewed Ken, Fisher Brothers announced that it had reached 100 percent occupancy at Park Avenue Plaza at 55 East 52nd Street. The 1.2 million-square-foot office building had recently made headlines as the office where Morgan Stanley signed a historic 15-year lease. It was also quite the achievement since some of the Plaza’s other tenants, like General Atlantic, Evercore, and Duff & Phelps renewed and expanded their footprints despite the pandemic. Even in that moment of triumph, Fisher still made a point to salute his beloved city, calling the leasing milestone a “vote of confidence in the future of work and business growth in New York City.”

Part of their leasing success through the pandemic came from accelerating their building renovations while their buildings were empty during the lockdowns. In 2020, Fisher Brothers completed a $20 million upgrade on 299 Park Avenue, which allowed them to better compete against newer constructions in that area. That strategy seems to be paying off, as Fisher Brothers announced four new leases totaling more than 100,000 square feet at 299 Park Avenue last December.

In 2020, Fisher Brothers completed a $20 million upgrade at 299 Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. Image: Fisher Brothers

Yet, Fisher isn’t one to prop his feet up after his victories. He works hard and made a point to tell me so three times over the course of the interview. Usually, when someone insists that they keep their nose to the grindstone, there’s a manic undertone to it. Yet when Fisher said it, he spoke with a laden calm, as if he understood the weight of a legacy he had to live up to. Not surprising considering he dedicated his life to his family’s businesses. Even though I couldn’t see his face, I could sense a dedicated focus that someone had instilled in him. That person turned out to be his late cousin, whom he had considered his brother, Anthony Fisher. 

Tony taught me that just because you’re a-hundred-percent leased doesn’t mean that there’s not another deal that you can do.

“Tony taught me that just because you’re a-hundred-percent leased doesn’t mean that there’s not another deal that you can do,” Fisher began. “Tony was the person who instilled the drive in me. I didn’t realize when I came into the business what I had walked into, and it was Tony who kind of showed me the light. Tony was dynamic and larger-than-life. We worked so closely together, both in philanthropy and in leasing and management because those were our passions.”

Before his death in 2003, Tony was not only a senior partner with Fisher Brothers, he also sat on the Fisher House Foundation’s board of directors, a non-profit organization that offers to house families of injured military personnel while their loved ones heal. Anthony was also the chairman and CEO of the Intrepid Museum Foundation, which runs the USS Intrepid, a moored aircraft carrier constructed during WWII for the United States Navy. “Tony taught me that the worst possible thing to do with one’s life is to sit and do nothing. You have to keep your finger on the pulse and act when there’s an opportunity to act. But those were the lessons I took away from him, and that’s why, today, we’re almost a hundred percent leased, even through a pandemic,” recalled Fisher.

Fisher explained wistfully that 2003 “was a horrible, horrible year.” Tony Fisher, and his wife, Anne Williamee Fisher, died tragically when their chartered plane crashed in Leominster. Months later, Sam Kleiner, Fisher Brothers’ in-house counsel and another mentor in Ken Fisher’s eyes, passed away. “When I lost Tony and Sam, I didn’t have the luxury to grieve because the business had to run,” said Fisher. “And my wife, Tammy, was experiencing the onset of lupus and was paralyzed for six months. So I was running from meetings to parent/teacher conferences and back to meetings because losing Tammy, in the sense that she couldn’t do the things that she wanted to do, was enormously difficult.” The situation would be difficult for anyone to deal with but “it was also compounded by the fact that so much of what Tony had done was now my responsibility.”

Since Fisher stepped into his idol’s shoes, Fisher Brothers now boast a market valuation of more than $8.5 billion. The company’s portfolio spans more than 9 million square feet of commercial, residential, and retail space in New York, Washington D.C., and Las Vegas, according to their company website. Recently, Fisher Brothers also branched out into experiential retail with Area15, a futuristic shopping center that Fisher’s cousin Winston calls “a radical re-imagining of retail.” Located in Las Vegas, is essentially an immersive playground. The venue is the VR carnival that SNL’s Stefon would’ve fawned over (“This place has everything“). Among the many attractions are an arcade, a flight simulator, virtual golf, axe throwing, an array of bars and restaurants, a concert stage, and a working distillery that resembles a surrealist amusement park. Last December, Area15 Orlando LLC purchased 17 acres of land near the Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets, though official plans for development haven’t been announced. “Area15 in Orlando does not exist,” said Winston Fisher, before adding “…yet.”

Recently, Fisher Brothers opened Area15 in Las Vegas, an experiential retail and entertainment complex. Image: AREA15

I asked Fisher if he thought that his ability to run the business while navigating that level of the tragedy was a testament to Tony and Sam’s mentorship. Absolutely,” Fisher said without hesitation. “I don’t think I could’ve survived that year without the mentorship that I got from those two. It was incredibly tragic, and in a lot of ways, I still grieve today, but I had to channel my grief into a drive to keep going.” I could hear Fisher deflate like a pierced tire as he described his past tragedies. At that moment, I felt guilty that the conversation was having this much impact on him, even though these events took place almost twenty years ago. Then, I felt Fisher get his second wind. “But, I’m also a New Yorker, and having that kind of resiliency that New Yorkers are known for helped me bounce back from that.” I had never in my life wanted to see someone’s facial expression more. 

The mere mention of New York City took Ken Fisher from sincerely somber to zealously determined, almost in the blink of an eye. “You know, New Yorkers have been through a lot. No question about it,” Fisher said, “but we get up, brush ourselves off, and start fighting again. That’s why New York is the financial and cultural heartbeat of this country, and that’s how I handle the business and the philanthropy that I do.” 

You know, New Yorkers have been through a lot. No question about it,” Fisher said, “but we get up, brush ourselves off, and start fighting again. That’s why New York is the financial and cultural heartbeat of this country, and that’s how I handle the business and the philanthropy that I do.

Fisher has relentlessly advocated for those who have made enormous sacrifices for this country. “I want to be able to better people’s lives, especially people who are willing to risk their lives to fight for their country and protect my family and our freedom, I’ll work harder for them than anyone,” he said. During the government shutdown in 2013, Fisher said he was “outraged” when he learned that military death benefits would be suspended for as long as the shutdown persisted. The lapse in benefits became more pressing when five U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan in one weekend during the shutdown. Fisher vowed to help the families of the fallen and announced that the Fisher House Foundation would pay military death benefits until the government reopened. The Pentagon would repay the organization afterward but the cash undoubtedly was a lifeline to those families in need. Fisher House also fronted grants to families of deceased military members when the government shut down again in 2018.

As CEO of the Fisher House Foundation, Fisher supervises 94 Fisher Houses across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany. “When I started in 2002, there were about 28 houses,” explained Fisher. “It’ll be a very, very special day for me when we hit 100.” 

The Fisher House Foundation began in 1990 with Zachary Fisher, Ken Fisher’s late uncle. Zachary had wanted to join the Marines Corps in WWII but was denied due to a knee injury he had suffered during a construction accident. The story of Fisher House goes that Pauline Trost, the wife of Chief of Naval Operations Carlisle Trost, was friends with Zachary and his wife, Elizabeth. Pauline told a story about how she had happened upon a car on her way to Bethesda Hospital. It was obvious that someone was sleeping in it, so Pauline took it upon herself to knock on the car and ask the sleeping passenger why he wasn’t sleeping in a hotel. The passenger explained to Pauline that he was in the military and couldn’t afford a hotel room while his wife needed to be hospitalized. Horrified, Pauline reached out to Zachary, knowing he was a builder with a deep sentiment for America’s military. 

To this day, the foundation consistently receives top accolades. Under Ken Fisher’s leadership, in 2021, Fisher House received 4 out of 4 stars from Charity Navigator (the 18th year in a row), an A+ rating from CharityWatch, the 2021 GuideStar Platinum Seal for Transparency, and was selected as the best charity to donate to for veterans in its 2022 Best Charities report. But none of this seemed to be the reason that he worked so hard for the charity, “You can keep awards and medals and all that other stuff,” he said. “When you have a legacy like this charity, you don’t want to screw up, plus it has grown to be a real joy in my life.”

According to Fisher, the coveted 100th Fisher House will open sometime in 2023, making a point to add “before the election cycle.” This intrigued me, so I asked if he strategized major business developments around election cycles, but I was met with a resounding “No.” 

“We didn’t plan this milestone to coincide with such an opportunistic media cycle,” Fisher explained, “but before election coverage picks up, we’ll be able to earn media attention to mark this momentous achievement.” It turns out that Fisher doesn’t pay for Fisher House advertising because for every dollar Fisher House raises, 94 cents goes directly back to Fisher House’s funding.

You have to stay on top of trends, and if you don’t, then you’re making decisions in a vacuum…Where are you in the cycle?…Did gross rents fall, or did net effective rents fall?…I get all the information I can, or I ask myself, “What would Tony do?”

But the fact that Fisher took election cycles into account spoke volumes about his business strategy. “I’m very, very aware of trends,” Fisher clarified. “You have to stay on top of trends, and if you don’t, then you’re making decisions in a vacuum. You have to see the history of something before you can make a decision: Where are you in the cycle? What’s happening? What’s going on with tenant improvement allowances? Did gross rents fall, or did net effective rents fall? What kind of tenants are in the market? I get all the information I can, or I ask myself, “What would Tony do?”

And what would Tony Fisher do? According to Ken Fisher, he’d keep the company as agile and lean as possible and pivot when you need to. That strategy seems to have kept Fisher Brothers thriving, even as the markets screeched to a halt when COVID-19 spread across the globe.

But as far as what Ken Fisher does, he has his own leadership strategy.People don’t work for me. They work with me. You can’t lead without the respect of the people you’re leading. I’m committed to teaching the next generation the best I can while giving them the freedom to develop their own leadership styles.”

I realized something while talking to Fisher. Even though I first saw him on a stage, introduced as a “real estate magnate” in an expensive suit, he was so refreshingly humble. Ken Fisher isn’t a glorified member of real estate’s highest echelon. He’s just a guy who loves his family. He’s a guy who wants to honor what his brick-laying ancestors started. He’s a guy that wanted to take care of veterans when the American government failed them. He’s a die-hard New Yorker to his very core.

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