Consider Donald Trump for a moment as a purveyor of men’s cologne. I quote from the merchandise section of trump.com, the website for his portfolio of “great” companies.
“Empire by Trump is the perfect accessory for the confident man determined to make his mark with passion, perseverance and drive. . . . Bold notes of peppermint, spicy chai and a hint of apple demand attention.” Or there’s Success by Trump, which “captures the spirit of the driven man” and is “an inspiring blend of fresh juniper and iced red currant, brushed with hints of coriander.”
With Trump, the essence of the brand is always the same, whether it’s running for president (“Make America Great Again”), promoting hotels (“Live life without boundaries, limits or compromise”) or selling books (“Learn how to think like a billionaire — it’s as simple as turning the page”).
The Trump brand is big and bold. It seeks to convey wealth and status; it’s boastful about itself and disdainful of rival products. It’s eclectic and scattershot (bottled water, furniture, ties, cuff links, golf courses). When it fails (three bankrupt casinos, a botched airline deal, an unsuccessful professional football team), it ignores or denies the negative facts and keeps on rolling.
Nothing should be surprising about Trump at this point. For nine months, he has been saying the unsayable — and not just getting away with it, but becoming more popular. He’s a man with a talent for falling uphill, it seems.
Trump says that he’s qualified to be president because he has been a great businessman. Is that true? What does his business career tell us about his strengths and weaknesses?
For Trump, the luster of the brand is everything. That’s why he reacts so indignantly to suggestions that he may not be as rich as he claims. It’s not just personal vanity; it hurts the business. He sued a journalist in 2006 for alleging that he was worth less than $1 billion, claiming that this perception of financial weakness had harmed his ability to close deals. This might have seemed a frivolous lawsuit, but Trump persisted for five years.
Trump truly is a dealmaker, but he has developed a reputation in the real estate world as a particularly confrontational one. It’s hard to see how his style would fit in political or diplomatic negotiations, where compromise is necessary and bluffing is dangerous.
“Deals are my art form,” he wrote in a 1987 book. But it feels closer to a cage fight than an artist’s studio. He’s known for being litigious. (A publication called lawnewz.com counted 169 federal lawsuits in which he was named.) He often bargains with a kind of brinkmanship, threatening to walk away if he doesn’t get the concessions he’s demanding. That kind of bare-knuckles behavior is common in real estate, where litigation is often seen as a negotiating tactic and risking bankruptcy is almost a badge of honor. But it fits uncomfortably with a democracy and its checks and balances.
Trump portrays himself as the sort of big-guy personality who gets along with other big guys. But he appears to have surprisingly few relationships with other New York real estate or investment leaders. Several prominent figures told me that they had never met or barely knew Trump. A half-dozen investors told me that Trump is rarely invited to participate in syndicated deals and isn’t generally seen as a good partner.
Trump is in some ways a throwback to the family-owned companies that once dominated the real estate business. Three of Trump’s children — Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric — are executive vice presidents of the Trump Organization and are described collectively as “the next generation.” Where many family businesses were shattered by the property-market collapse of the early 1990s, and forced to go public, Trump went the other way. He became more private, more family focused, less risk-prone.
For all Trump’s braggadocio, the surprising fact is that these days he’s actually somewhat conservative in his business style. After a financial near-death experience making heavily leveraged bets on casinos — three of them went bankrupt in the early 1990s — Trump became more cautious. He now puts relatively little of his own money into deals and, as Joe Nocera of the New York Times noted recently, operates something closer to a licensing company to market his famous name than a firm that makes and sells things.
There is a business executive today who has a special ability to identify and build great companies, and who has an unmatched confidence in the United States’ future. His name is Warren Buffett. Donald Trump? Not so much.