Forbes Article

Days before a critical Indiana primary that could sew up the presidential nomination for the “presumptive” Republican party nominee, the candidate’s eldest son, who is also his current campaign surrogate and Executive Vice President of the Trump Organization, isn’t interested in talking politics at all.

Politics is Don Jr.’s third job (his first is being a father to five children). His day job is construction. While “The Donald” has continued his unlikely march towards the 2016 Republican nomination in full media view, Don Jr. and his siblings, sister Ivanka and younger brother Eric, have quietly continued to run the day-to-day operations of the potential future President’s real estate empire behind the scenes.

Words like “down to earth” don’t typically describe a billionaire’s son. But when I get Don Jr. on the phone on his way back from an Indiana campaign event to talk about Trump Hotels’ newest project in downtown Vancouver with 96 hours to go before the primary that’s exactly what he is.

When we start talking about post-tensioned concrete, Don Jr.’s love for the gritty business of construction is on full display, because he’s spent his entire life learning it from the ground up. When you say the word “Trump” most Americans only think of the final product: the towering luxury hotels, the world class golf courses, the private jets, the fashion-model family on the campaign runway. What they don’t understand or appreciate is what it took to get there—and to stay there.

“A lot of people probably think that we’re spoiled kids”, Don Jr. admits of himself and his siblings. “They think we show up to a (hotel) opening, cut a ribbon, and leave, and that we don’t actually do anything. But that’s not what we’re about. My father’s logic from the beginning was if you’re going to have someone dig a ditch for you, you’d better know how to do it yourself. So here’s your shovel. Start digging.”

The other certain characteristic of Donald Trump’s children is that you probably know very little about them. They’re the anti-Hiltons, the highly visible heirs to America’s other most famous real estate and hotel family. This is not necessarily purposeful, but the simple byproduct of the fact that while the rest of America’s billionaire children are beating off the TMZ cameras, Trump’s children are working 80 hours a week, which they’ve been doing for as long as Don Jr. can remember.

Don Jr. started off his career for the Trump Organization literally on the docks, tossing lines and mooring up yachts at the Trump Marina in Atlantic City when he was 14. Soon thereafter he was thrown into the trenches of his father’s real estate and construction business hardhat and all.

“My father exposed us to his business at a very young age,” Don Jr. recalls. “The time that we spent with him wasn’t ‘Hey let’s go play catch in the backyard’. It was ‘Let’s go work on this jobsite’. And when you’re a little kid around all of this heavy machinery, equipment, and huge buildings, it was pretty cool. The exposure that (all three of us) had to the family business just made it a natural fit for all of us. If we weren’t into it he wouldn’t have us doing it. We learned from him early on that anything you’re not passionate about you’re not going to do well.”

If all of these Trump business traits—passion, hard work, getting your hands dirty—sound distinctly similar to many of the themes Donald Sr. is hammering home on the Republican campaign trail it’s because they’ve run in the family for decades—and Don Jr. isn’t shy about telling voters as much. Presidential campaigns have a habit of throwing a candidate’s family into the media spotlight, and many American voters are only recently getting to know Don Jr., often stumping for his dad in cufflinks and a well-tailored suit. What they don’t know is that he frequently changes into a pair of Carhartt jeans and Redwing boots as soon as the cameras disappear.

Jokes Don Jr., “I’m pretty certain that I’m the only son of a billionaire who can drive a D10 Caterpillar better than I can drive a golf cart”.

Unlike Google or Uber, Don Jr.’s father didn’t waltz into an uninhabited market and freely build an empire where a vacuum existed before. Prior to the launch of Trump International Hotels in 2007, the St. Regis, Four Seasons, and Ritz-Carlton were already established luxury hotel icons. Which makes the rapid rise of the Trump Hotels’ brand all the more improbable.

“What makes us unique,” Don Jr. explains, “Is that we actually build things. Unlike most hotel companies who just manage, and have no experience building, designing, and developing a hotel, we started off on the opposite track. We started off building. We’re construction guys first and foremost.”

In tech terms, managing hotels without building them in the first place is the equivalent of Google trying to dominate search with founders who can’t write code. Don Jr. and his siblings are involved in every aspect of every development that the Trump Organization builds down to every last detail. They personally interview their architects, walk every job on a weekly basis, and relentlessly hover over their engineers to make sure that the structural columns don’t block the views of the water. Ivanka designs the interior of every residence, hotel room, and spa, and hand selects every finish material. Lesson number one of being a Trump: Be decisive, make the call, and own it.

Don Jr., Ivanka, and Eric have also brought a new generational lexicon to the Trump Hotels’ brand that includes words like “hip”, “cool”, “trend-setting”, and “individualism”, which is a far cry from the traditional, West Side Manhattan Trump hotel identity that their father first established with the original Trump International back in 1997.

“When my brother, sister, and myself started to take the Trump brand and the company outside of New York and outside of the United States into other parts of the world we realized that context is key,” Don Jr. explains. “We didn’t want to get pigeon-holed as a (hotel) brand where you woke up in each place and you never knew where you were. So we’re trying to infuse a sense of individual context into each of our hotels but with the same level of service, luxury, and opulence that the Trump name is known for.”

“Context” may not seem like a pioneering concept when it comes to luxury hotels but many leading hotel brands think predictability, not individualism, is their key value proposition. Don Jr., Ivanka, and Eric couldn’t disagree more. The fact that most of their properties are consistently ranked among the top hotels in the world by venerable travel outlets like Conde Nast and Travel & Leisure pretty much says it all.

If there’s a single defining characteristic to every hotel that Don Jr., Ivanka, and Eric develop it’s “Trump OCD”.

“Welcome to my hell,” Don Jr. admits, “I’ve spent my whole life in real estate whether it’s in our hotels or looking at the competition, and it’s my curse to walk into every room and not be drawn to the flaws and have the little imperfections drive me crazy—because they didn’t need to happen.

Trump OCD reaches entirely new heights at the new Trump International Hotel & Tower in downtown Vancouver and is a case study in how Don Jr. and his siblings—and the developers they partner with—don’t miss a thing.

Originally designed by the late Arthur Erickson as one of his last crowning achievements and developed in conjunction with Joo Kim Tiah of the Holborn Group, Trump Vancouver has already broken every real estate record in Canada. It was recently ranked among the Top 100 developments in the world—and it’s not even open yet. The building’s 214 residential units occupying the 46 uppermost floors are already completely sold out, fetching a higher price per square foot ($1610 on average) than any other property in Canada. The three top floor penthouses will go on the market in early 2017, and are likely to set new records for the most expensive residences ever sold in any Canadian city.

As is the Trump habit of constantly upping their game, the hotel portion of Trump Vancouver is also resetting the luxury experiential bar and is yet another text book example of Trumpism when it comes to context.

“Erikson’s iconic twist design (to the building) is totally cutting edge,” Don Jr. explains, “So no two views are the same of the skyline and the mountains. There’s nothing else like them in Vancouver. So is what we’re doing internally by bringing over brands like (Michelin-starred) Mott 32 for food and Drais from an entertainment and pool bar nightclub perspective. Vancouver is an international city with a worldly feel, and (Trump Vancouver) is going to be a very young, cool, hip type of experience. It’s the perfect mix of ultra-luxury without being pretentious.”

Cherry picking the right location time after time is also a Trump Hotels’ hallmark, and with Trump Vancouver, Don Jr. and Holborn’s Joo Kim nailed it.

“Location is number one for us at all times,” says Don Jr. “You’re right in the heart of (Vancouver’s) Golden Mile, the cultural district, shopping, fine dining, entertainment, the city’s financial center, you have views on both sides of the water and the mountains. It’s right there exactly where you want to be and (is) the perfect mix for residents as well as the guests of the hotel. You can also be mountain biking or skiing in some of the best mountains in the world within an hour, or windsurfing two minutes away. It’s just an incredible mix between the urban and outdoor lifestyle.” 

Ivanka’s fingerprints for one-of-a-kind interior design and achieving the frequently unachievable balance between “youthfulness” and “luxury” are all over Trump Vancouver as well including the spa, the fitness center, and the finishes and furnishings in every hotel room. “Now that I’m a politician I’m probably not supposed to say this,” jokes Don Jr., “But it’s sexy. Ultimately I’m a real estate guy at heart but that’s what it is. It’s sexy.”

Given Trump Sr.’s Presidential campaign trail messaging about job creation (notwithstanding the project’s location in Vancouver), it’s also not a minor footnote that Trump Vancouver is expected to generate 300 full-time jobs to the local economy and has received more than 10,000 applications so far.

When Prince died recently and the media went into a tailspin, ‘Purple Rain’ went viral again. So before we let Don Jr. go—he’s off to the White House Correspondents Dinner—I can’t help but ask him how his father’s Presidential campaign is helping to elevate exposure for the Trump Hotels’ brand in general.

“It’s not like there wasn’t visibility for the Trump name before,” Don Jr. admits, “But there’s nothing quite like what’s happening now with my father (on the campaign trail). My father has been full time on the road doing this thing because he feels it’s time to do this for the country and a lot of people are obviously agreeing with him. So frankly it’s been exciting to be a part of both right now—continuing to work on all of these jobs, and jumping in to be political surrogates when we need to. Ultimately real estate will continue to be our full time job. But obviously people are seeing (my father) around the world and as we look to expand the brand elsewhere I think (the campaign) will certainly help.”

That might be the understatement of the year.

There are many things that Don Jr. and his siblings didn’t inherit from their father: the flamboyance, the love for being the center of attention, the satisfaction at provoking media controversy. Among the many things that run deep in the Trump blood, however, is the perpetual instinct to keep building, literally and metaphorically, the Trump name.

“What’s great about my father is that because we’ve been involved in the business from such a young age he’s given us—and we’ve earned—autonomy and he’s given us the rope to go out and grow the brand,” says Don Jr. “If you look at where we are today compared with where we were before myself, Eric, and Ivanka it’s a very different company. We have international projects all over the world and that was a push that was started by us. Before we got into the business we had one hotel that we managed and that was it. The expansion into the hotel side has been my brother, my sister, and myself as the driving force and getting it done. It’s been awesome to learn from him and use him as the sounding board but he’s given us that autonomy to transform the company.”

So what’s the next campaign stop for Trump Hotels after Vancouver?

“There’s a lot of work to do,” quips Don Jr. with a distinctly Trump political confidence that I can feel through the phone, “But we want to go 30 by 20. We want thirty hotels by 2020.”