Everyone has a story to share about Ron Ratner. One business associate recalls how Ratner stayed up nearly all night reviewing every single floor plan of a new property and reworking the plans until each one was absolutely perfect. Another colleague remembers how Ratner completely changed a building's design halfway through the construction process.
But perhaps the most memorable Ratner anecdote involves a restaurant and a handful of architects. The Forest City Residential executive decided he needed to sketch a floor plan for his meal companions, and without a sheet of paper handy, he grabbed the next best thing within arm's reach: a linen tablecloth. Ratner didn't think anything of his substitute notepaper, but the restaurant sure did. Six weeks later, the hosting architect got the bill for the meal–and the tablecloth.
These legendary tales capture the Forest City executive's colorful, and sometimes eccentric, personality. The highly energetic and meticulous Ratner won't stop until he's completely satisfied with a project–a work ethic that is helping him change America's urban landscape one community at a time. "Ron has such a big vision of the world," says Gary Gross, a partner at North Royalton, Ohio-based Gross Builders, which has partnered with Forest City on projects since the '60s. "Look at the projects he does. He wants to create communities and transform the world by doing it."
And Ratner is doing just that as president and CEO of Forest City Residential, a division of the mega-giant Forest City Enterprises, based in Cleveland. (He also serves as executive vice president of the overall company.) The nearly $8 billion public real estate company–headed by three generations of the Ratner, Miller, and Shafran families–owns, develops, manages, and acquires both urban and suburban residential and commercial real estate and land throughout the country.
The company focuses its efforts on reclaiming America's cities and is one of the country's most ambitious urban developers in markets such as Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. As such, it has tackled projects both large and small, from the massive redevelopment of Denver's Stapleton International Airport, which ultimately will be home to 30,000 people, to niche projects such as River Lofts at Ashton Mill near Providence, R.I., which transformed a Civil War-era cotton mill into 193 loft apartments.
Regardless of the size of the project, though, there's always one powerful force behind it: Ron Ratner, Multifamily Executive's 2006 Executive of the Year. "He is a tremendous innovator, and he understands the development business better than anybody else I know," says Greg Vilkin, who heads up the company's West Coast operations as president of Forest City Residential West.
"Our family still goes on canoe trips, and Ronnie is always the guy on those canoe trips who's the hardest worker, puts in the most effort, carries the most on his back, and designs the camp site." –Chuck Ratner, president and CEO of Forest City Enterprises and Ron's brother
Ron Ratner vividly recalls his first taste of the business world–which occurred at age eight. Too young to join his three older brothers at camp, he spent the summer working in the family's lumber business. (They sold the business in 2004; for more company history, see "Family Matters" below.) But the only task the 8-year-old Ronnie could physically handle was moving small garage windows from one stack to another, which he did diligently. (Ratner only realized later that the department head would move the pile back to its original location each evening so the young future executive would have something to do the next day.)
As he grew up, Ratner naturally learned more about the family business. "I think we all grew up interested in real estate," says Chuck Ratner, president and CEO of Forest City Enterprises and Ron's brother. "It was the talk of the shabbos [Jewish holiday] table." Ratner worked at the company on and off over the summers, and his first three jobs in the real estate business were actually working for Forest City's partners. "Albert [Ratner, a cousin and Forest City Enterprises' co-chairman of the board] was my mentor, and he said, 'You shouldn't get your first experience working in the company; you've got to learn what it's like to work for somebody else,'" says Ron Ratner.
But when Ratner graduated from Brandeis University in 1969, he didn't immediately gravitate to the family business–and that was OK. "I think Chuck might have said there was pressure [as the oldest], but being the youngest son, by the time I came along, as long as I didn't burn the house down I was considered to be a great success," Ratner says. "I had tremendous support from my brothers and from my family."
After college, Ratner spent three months in the Peace Corps and two years as a special education teacher before going to graduate school. He was accepted to both business and law school, but instead chose to pursue a master's in architecture from the University of California, Los Angeles, thinking it would be good background if he did go into real estate. "When I started the program, I actually got very interested and said, 'Geez, maybe I really want to do this,'" Ratner recalls. "But then I realized that that there were a couple of my colleagues who were really talented, and I said, 'Whoops.'"
He officially joined Forest City in 1974, bringing his newfound knowledge to the family tradition. "The intellectual discipline of architecture is wonderful and a tremendous part of what I brought to the business," says Ratner.
Others agree. "It's not unusual for a developer to be into architecture, but it's unusual to be as into architecture and to be as smart as he is," says Daniel Gehman, a principal at Thomas P. Cox: Architects, an Irvine, Calif.-based firm that has designed several Forest City properties. "When he says something, it carries a lot of weight."
And it's not just because of his last name, which he says offers little protection from the pressure that any real estate leader encounters. "As a family executive, this is really pass or fail; you either get an A or you flunk," Ratner says. "You are under constant pressure to perform, and you have to be willing to accept that." Other family members have come and gone because they couldn't make it in the business.