When Kushner fell, an old friend took on a 3rd job to help: Running an empire
Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Star-Ledger Staff

Alan Hammer was relaxing at his home in Livingston on a Sunday afternoon in July 2004 when he got an urgent call from his old friend and longtime client Charles Kushner.

Kushner asked Hammer, a partner at the prominent law firm WolfBlock Brach Eichler, to come right away to the Florham Park offices of Kushner Cos., one of the state's real estate giants. When Hammer arrived, he found Kushner with his wife and children, all of them in tears.

Kushner didn't waste time with pleasantries. The next day, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, Christopher Christie, was going to charge him with hiring two conspirators and a prostitute to seduce one of his employees, tape the tryst, then send the tape to the man's wife. The complaint would also detail how Kushner tried the same stunt on his brother-in-law, and planned to send the tape to his sister, but the brother-in-law rebuffed the prostitute's advances.

Kushner was leaving his company immediately, and he needed Hammer to take over his $3 billion real estate empire.

"What else could I do?" Hammer asks matter-of-factly.

Successful businessmen like Hammer usually don't look to add to their responsibilities as they approach their 60th birthday. In addition to being a top partner at his firm, Hammer, 59, owns more than 50 buildings in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Kushner has its 600 employees, 17,655 apartment units and numerous commercial properties, including the Westminster Hotel in Short Hills.

The story of how Alan Hammer ended up with a third job when a lot of lawyers would be whittling their schedules down to less than one is about a unique trust between a lawyer and his client. It blossomed mainly around negotiating tables, rather than at backyard barbecues, because when it comes to business, Alan Hammer doesn't do emotion.

"Alan has an ability to deal with people and get along with people without standing on ceremony," said Burt Eichler, a longtime law partner. "He always looks for solutions."



He has a bushy, gray mustache and a birdlike face. He moves quickly, like he is forever rushing up a street in Midtown Manhattan. He always seems to be in motion, even when he is sitting still. You rarely hear him say "uh" or "um." Ask Alan Hammer a question, and you will receive an answer -- quickly -- though you may not like what you hear.


"A lot of lawyers are naysayers and they can crush a deal by over- lawyering," said Clive Cummis, a senior partner at Sills Cummis who has known Hammer for 30 years. "I've never heard of Alan or seen Alan doing that. There is no bull with him."

Shortly before the phone call from Kushner, Hammer had a discussion with his wife about slowing down, spending more time with his three children and five grandchildren. Deep down, though, Hammer is a lifer when it comes to business, like an old baseball coach who never gets the game out of his system.

"I work -- that's what I do," he said during an interview in the Roseland offices of WolfBlock, a major regional law firm based in Philadelphia.

Behind him were pictures of trophy catches from his annual weeklong fishing escape to Canada, his one major vacation indulgence. "I've spent 35 years building a reputation with my clients as someone they can trust and count on, and I don't particularly feel like blowing it at this stage," he said.

Both Kushner and Hammer grew up the sons of successful New Jersey real estate executives. Kushner's father had started building garden apartments in the 1950s. Hammer's father was a longtime real estate broker and investor who founded Gebroe-Hammer, based in Livingston.

They understood each other and grew close soon after they met two decades ago, when Kushner, then a lawyer at Price Waterhouse, dropped by Hammer's law offices to see a friend who worked at the firm. There, he met Hammer. By the end of the day, Hammer had offered Kushner a job at the firm.

Hammer also helped Kushner buy an open lot on his block in Livingston, where Kushner would build a home. Once Kushner left the firm, then known as Brach Eichler, to build his family's real estate empire, Hammer handled the bulk of the company's legal work, and he became a fixture at the many functions on the Kushner family calendar -- bar mitzvahs, weddings, bris ceremonies.

Then he got the phone call, and everything changed.



Now, Hammer's responsibilities include the occasional visit to Maxwell Air Force Base near Montgomery, Ala., a prison camp where Kushner asked to serve a two-year sentence because of its programs for Orthodox Jews.


Kushner had been one of former Gov. James E. McGreevey's top fund-raisers, and the federal probe began with an investigation of his fund-raising activities.

Hammer's small, dark eyes tighten and nearly disappear when the subject turns to those visits, but the steady tenor of his voice doesn't change.

Hammer says he goes to Alabama when there is an extra seat on the private plane Kushner's wife and any one of his four children fly to Alabama each week. They bring a picnic lunch and eat together at a table in a fenced-in yard. The indoor visiting area, which resembles a large airport waiting room, is noisy with the sound of under-supervised children. Outside is more pleasant. The visits last from 10 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.

As Hammer talks about the prison camp, one of Kushner's public relations representatives tells him she doesn't like the direction of the conversation, but Hammer will have none of it.

"This is life," Hammer tells her. "He did something wrong and now he's being punished for it."

Then Hammer continues.

He says each time he has visited, he has been struck by how thin his friend has become. Kushner, a serious runner who has completed several marathons, was a wiry 5-foot-10 to start with. He never ate much and always watched his diet. But now he is even thinner.

"You learn quickly that everyone is hungry in prison," Hammer says. "The food isn't all that good and there isn't very much of it."

Several days a week, the prisoners are given time to exercise. Kushner, inmate No. 26526-050, usually spends the time running around a small dirt track. He spends most of the day inside, however.

The main task of the prisoners is to maintain the base's 36-hole golf course. The prisoners who don't land the coveted outdoor jobs tending the course work in the kitchen. Kushner earns 11 cents an hour preparing meals for the other prisoners.

When he is hungry, Kushner uses his money to buy canned mackerel, which is the heartiest snack he can afford in a prison where he can't bring any of his own money.

"No one has money in federal prison," Hammer says. "Not even Charlie Kushner."

Now, Kushner spends much of his free time studying Jewish texts, such as the Talmud and the Torah. At night, the man with several residences and a chauffeured Mercedes sleeps in a dorm room with 60 other inmates.

"Charlie Kushner lived a pretty comfortable life here," Hammer says. "I can tell you this much, he is not comfortable now."



When he arrived at Kushner, Hammer said he found a highly leveraged company more concerned with buying other people's properties than taking care of its own. Hammer is the sort of real estate owner who chooses the sinks and lobby light fixtures in his own buildings. Details are his thing, down to the color of the walls in his empty apartments.


As an investor, Hammer considers plenty of deals but makes few. He buys a small handful of properties each year and rarely sells anything. Kushner long ago established his reputation as a deal junkie who was already moving on to the next investment before completing the one he was working on.

Shortly after taking over at Kushner, Hammer visited the Puck Building in New York City, the 100-year-old SoHo landmark that is one of Kushner's trophy properties. He found the marble fountain in the lobby dull and dirty and ordered it polished.

He saw scuffs on the walls of the bottom and top floors, which are often used for catering, and asked who was responsible for painting them. Told it was the janitorial staff, Hammer ordered the building manager to hire a painting contractor.

Hammer has also tried to make the company smaller and more focused. He sold for more than $100 million two high-end developments on the Hudson River waterfront -- the Curling Club in Hoboken and the River Club in Edgewater.

He also oversaw the sale of Kushner's NorCrown Bank, a move forced upon the company because Kushner's felony conviction prohibited him from operating a bank.

"Charlie started small and grew large, but he grew without direction," Hammer explains. "I come from a different perspective. I'm organized. I do deals one at a time, instead of 50 at once. I think I'm good at managing growth. They didn't have that."

Kevin Swill, president of Kushner's hospitality, commercial property and financing groups, said Hammer stabilized a shaky boat in the middle of major storm.

"It was a traumatic time for all of us when Charlie left," Swill said. "But the message Alan helped us deliver was that we were still in business, still working hard. While Charlie is busy with his incarceration, everything is still status quo."



Alan Hammer never feels more alive than when he is on a boat in northern Saskatchewan, battling a 30-pound northern pike or a massive lake trout, trying every trick he has learned through half a century of angling to land the fish.


His favorite fishing spot is about 500 miles north of Calgary. It takes two days and three planes to reach. There are no roads, and the fishing season ends in August because winter comes early.

This year, for the first time, he brought a satellite phone along. It's not the kind of thing a serious, lifelong fisherman is proud of. But Hammer has responsibilities beyond his own business now and felt he had to make a concession. Eventually, he will take a vacation without it again, though he is not sure when.

For now, he will continue to rise just before 6 a.m. for a 70-minute workout or a tennis match at Center Court in Chatham. He eats breakfast with his wife, then begins another day of serving three masters -- Kushner Cos. in the morning, his law firm in the afternoon, and his own real estate investments when he can squeeze them in.

While he may always be on the move, Hammer seems to know one thing -- he isn't going anywhere.

Matthew Futterman can be reached at mfutterman@starledger.com or (973) 392-1732.


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