National real estate developer. Film producer, distributor, and exhibitor. Fashion entrepreneur. Vineyard owner. Charles S. Cohen has excelled brilliantly in each of these endeavors and more.
So it isn’t a stretch when he draws the comparison to Woody Allen’s character from the 1983 film Zelig, about a man with the uncanny ability to fit into significant situations wherever he went. While Allen played to the comedic aspect of such a condition, Cohen has similarly managed to turn each of his varied pursuits into profitable ventures.
In fact, two films that Cohen co-produced and distributed in the U.S. were recent Oscar contenders at the 90th Academy Awards in March 2018. Neither film earned a statuette, but the nominations represented just one more feather in the cap of a man who has worn many hats—stylishly and without bluster. Last year, his foreign language entry, The Salesman, did win the Oscar. To date, his Cohen Media Group has garnered eight Academy Award nominations in the past 10 years.
Welcoming CSQ into his penthouse office at the Pacific Design Center’s Red Building on San Vicente Boulevard in West Hollywood, the affable 66-year-old developer, owner, president, and CEO of Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation is thoughtful as he discusses his colorful career against the city’s stunning panoramic backdrop.
Aided by the benefit of hindsight, he observes, “It is interesting how so much builds upon itself.”
As a child raised by the generation that came of age during the Great Depression, Cohen’s outlook on life remains practical and realistic. “If you work hard, and stay focused, and you live the kind of life you think you should be living—which means in balance, family, work, all of that—you’re able to really do all of the things you thought about doing,” says Cohen.
I was fortunate enough to have an entrée to real estate at a certain place, and I applied myself. I didn’t want to be judged as someone who had something handed to them, because it wasn’t like that at all.
The latest configuration of his interests? The Curated Lifestyle Collection, a luxury umbrella that covers the totality of his endeavors—design centers, a hotel, a winery, men’s clothing companies, and film-related projects. All pertain to design and a certain quality of life that flows through all of these undertakings, which really are all connected.
With a net worth of $3.3B (Forbes 2018), the Manhattan-based Cohen has built the lionshare of his wealth in property development. His forays into film producing and distributing and saving NYC’s legendary Quad Cinema when it was in danger of closing may have not been nearly as lucrative, but that’s beside the point; they have paid handsome dividends in furthering his ideals and values.
Humble yet Industrious Roots
Born in NYC, Cohen lived on the West side until age 3 when his family moved to a small suburban Westchester town. He recalls a great childhood that included swimming, tennis, soccer, and going to summer camp. He particularly enjoyed digging deep into cinema history at the local library and watching independent and foreign films at the small town theater, which opened his eyes to the rest of the world.
A third-generation American on his mother’s side and second-generation on his father’s, Cohen was nearly as close to his grandparents as his parents. “My grandfather was full of life,” he fondly recalls. “He took me everywhere to teach me the history of New York City.”
Young Charles always had a summer job. From showing apartments for his family’s real estate business at age 14 to selling men’s clothing at Alexander’s Department Store to working for Citibank, he quickly learned the importance of a strong work ethic, compassion, socializing, and picking up new skills.
Cohen’s father, Sherman, was a self-made hard worker who moved from Virginia to New York, finding success as the area’s youngest Oldsmobile dealership owner. He eventually went into real estate with his two brothers, forming Cohen Brothers Realty & Construction Corporation.
Cohen looks back with fondness on his father’s ability to let him choose his own path. “He was a great role model and a great delegator,” recalls Cohen. “It was so natural; he didn’t tell me what to do.”
Paving a New Path
The first person in his family to attend and graduate college and law school, Cohen was nevertheless unsure of his career direction. When he was waitlisted for the Wharton Business School, he decided to go to NYU for a year and a half and then transferred to Boston’s Tufts University as an English major. Cohen enjoyed his studies and extracurricular activities and the opportunity to nurture his love of literature and drama; he even made a short film.
Cohen returned to New York after college to attend Brooklyn Law School, undertaking challenging real estate and entertainment law courses. He decided he wanted to become an entertainment attorney, and then a producer. Yet despite applying to and interviewing for positions throughout New York, he didn’t get hired.
Uncertain of his next step, Cohen consulted his father about an opportunity to work for Chemical Bank. Although he’d never taken a business course, he went through intensive credit training for six months, which enabled him to be very successful at helping the bank straighten out some problematic real estate loans.
He also learned an important lesson during his three years with the bank: “If you learn how a problem becomes a problem and you learn how to fix a problem, then you can learn how to avoid a problem.”
Taking the Family Name to New Heights
When Cohen’s father approached him in 1979, inviting him to learn the real estate business by helping with an office building, his response was characteristic: “Being an opportunist, I thought, ‘Why not?’” So Cohen started helping … with everything. He learned about the management side of the business, office leasing, marketing, legal work, zoning, finance, working with space brokers—even how to run a cleaning company.
I’ve always been a lover of design. I always think of design as that which allows you to express your own individuality.
Never an entitled child, a virtue he is instilling in his own children, Cohen worked hard and proved his value to the business. “I was fortunate enough to have an entrée to real estate at a certain place, and I applied myself,” he says. “I didn’t want to be judged as someone who had something handed to them, because it wasn’t like that at all.”
By the early ’80s, Cohen noticed successful real estate operators buying existing buildings, then repositioning, redeveloping, and refinancing them. Seeing this area as an opportunity for him to roll up his sleeves and distinguish himself, he purchased his first building, which he still owns today.
Over the next two decades, Cohen rose to a leadership position and eventually bought out his father and uncle. “I grew that business from three million square feet to twelve million square feet,” he recalls. “It brought me here, took me everywhere, and continues to fascinate me. I achieved what I set out to do.”
Although Cohen himself has no brothers (he does have a younger sister), he kept the company name to honor his father and family. In addition, the banks know that the company has never lost a building, something unique in the industry. “I’ve always reinvested in the real estate and in people,” Cohen says.
Connected by Design
The element in life that has most influenced Cohen is design. “I’ve always been a lover of design,” he says. “I always think of design as that which allows you to express your own individuality.”
With design centers from coast to coast in major markets of New York City, Southeast Florida, Texas, and Southern California, Cohen sees the design centers as the Neiman Marcus of design resources. “I would rather have vacant space than bring in a showroom of lesser quality,” he says.
Cohen’s 1999 purchase of the Pacific Design Center (PDC) allowed him to merge his passions for design and real estate. As the largest property owner in West Hollywood, he became very involved in running the PDC, which serves as a merchandise mart for the design trade as well as a place for designers to perfect their craft.
His vast experience in the real estate business has taught Cohen the importance of connecting with the entertainment, design, and philanthropic communities. “You want to become a nexus for all these different communities in a way that translates into business for the people you have come in to run their business here,” he explains.
One way that Cohen effectively connected the design community to the PDC—indirectly marketing it at the same time—was by designating venues for spaces for food service. In partnership with Manhattan-based chef Charlie Palmer of Aureole, the PDC offered high-quality food during the day and hosted events in the evenings. Wolfgang Puck now handles the major PDC food venues. Cohen also made the parking more accessible, added a fitness center, and renovated a lecture hall into the Silver Screen Theatre, a major studio go-to place to screen the latest film projects.
When the Red Building was added to the PDC campus, Cohen’s philosophy of community connectedness served him well; the project garnered unanimous support. “We took the community by storm in a good way,” he recalls.
While growing Cohen Brothers Realty, the budding Renaissance man began pursuing complementary passions for film, viticulture, and yachting. He credits good fortune and lessons learned with allowing him the freedom to follow his passions. “I was able, having put away enough resources, to experiment and try other things.”
A movie trivia buff, Cohen even penned a book, Trivia Mania (The Movie), in 1985. It was when Cohen learned he had sold more books (186,000) than Mark Twain did in his lifetime, he wryly quips, that he decided he could retire as a writer.
His affinity for film finally became another tentacle of his business interests when a friend’s wife asked Cohen to help finance a feature film she wanted to develop. Forming Cohen Media Group, he invested $300K toward the feature film, Frozen River, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for two Oscars in major categories in 2008.
Despite the film’s success, Cohen did not recoup his original investment. Deciding he must be on the wrong side of the business, he met an experienced HBO film executive and the pair went to Paris with another colleague for a meeting with film production and distribution firm StudioCanal. The firm asked if Cohen wanted to distribute a film they hadn’t yet sold; he did so in November 2010. The film subsequently earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film. Cohen Media Group has had five Best Foreign Language Film nominations, with four in a row over the last four years.
Reflecting on the film business, Cohen says, “Just like in any business, to be successful you need to find a niche, and you need to figure out how to be very good in that niche.”
Cohen also owns outright or has the exclusive rights to over 1,000 classic films. His Cohen Media Channel on Amazon Prime debuted in February 2018 and initially offers 75 classic films, with more being added every month. The Cohen Film Collection includes 700 classic films from 1917 to 1972, which Cohen has been restoring and re-releasing. Included in the collection are the films of Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks, Alfred Hitchcock, and Luis Bunuel.
As a testament to his earnest interest, after Cohen bought Merchant Ivory, the film production company responsible for classic English period pieces such as A Room With a View and Howards End, he worked with company co-founder and director James Ivory to carefully remaster the library of 30 films. When Cohen attended the premiere of the re-release of Howards End with Vanessa Redgrave in 2016, it prompted him to muse, “I’m a little kid from New York … and I’m rubbing shoulders with celebrities … walking down the red carpet feeling like Zelig.”
It’s great to take things you’re passionate about, find a way to create a business purpose and a business plan, and to get the satisfaction of having all these pieces work together in combination.
Yet another area where Cohen harbored entrepreneurial aspirations was menswear. At the behest of wife Clo 12 years ago, he paid a visit to Savile Row clothier Richard James, becoming a loyal customer, then owner, when he purchased nearly 90% of the company in 2017. He also owns British shoemaker Harrys of London in its entirety, another brand he has long patronized.
As luck would have it, Cohen’s New York real estate holdings include a landmark building on 57th and Park, which just completed renovations to include ground-floor retail. “It’s just so serendipitous, that it’s the right thing in the right place at the right time with the right people,” Cohen says of the fact that both Richard James and Harrys of London will be opening stores in the building this spring.
In addition, Cohen recently purchased a winery just outside St. Tropez, Château de Chausse, where he will expand the award-winning 30-year-old vineyard.
Summing up his myriad pursuits, Cohen says, “It’s great to take things you’re passionate about, find a way to create a business purpose and a business plan, and to get the satisfaction of having all these pieces work together in combination.”
One of the questions he’s often asked, Cohen says, is, “How do you do it all?” His answer is simple. “Manage and navigate. I think it’s all about finding ways to do all the things you enjoy doing.”
Cohen knows when to be tough and when not to be, a quality embodied by a phrase he learned early on, “the iron fist in the velvet glove.” He views compassion as a vital ingredient for the successful management of life, and the key to his success in managing relationships can be found in his philosophy about mentorship.
“Anyone I ever worked with became a mentor,” he says. “I think that I am a very good student and I think it’s important to learn how to get along with all different types of people.”
At his mother’s recommendation, he joined YPO in the 1990s, serving as education and chapter chair, an experience he recalls as life-changing. “It’s something I would recommend to anybody who has get-up and go.”
Acknowledging the difficulties that business brings, Cohen believes one must create cohesion through communication and trust, and perseverance. “If you can manage the downside, the upside will take care of itself,” he adds.
Cohen is carrying on the tradition of excellence and hard work initiated by those who came before him, especially his father, who he lost several years ago. “You want to be proud of what you do, you want to contribute, you want the respect of your family, and you want to leave a legacy,” he concludes. His legacy? “Everything I do, and my children and family.”