When a seven-alarm fire broke out at his Williamsburg storage facility early in the morning of January 31, Norman Brodsky didn’t just lose his office – he also lost his home. Since then, he has spent his days finding a new place to live, replacing clothes and other essentials that were lost to the fire, and assessing the damage.
Brodsky explained all this amidst a joke or two, and a few chuckles. Despite the joviality he retained when he spoke of the fire, there was a sense of sadness to Brodsky. His smile was bright and warm, but his eyes gave him away – they were watery and weakened, unlike in the photos accompanying this story. He has a resilient optimism, which could grate on you under different circumstances. “In six months from now I’ll have a place to live, I’ll have new clothes,” he said. “I’m very sad, I’ve been sad for ten days. I’m never sad, but I’m sure this will pass.”
The mementos that formed part of the very fabric of Brodsky’s heritage will be missed most. A collection of plaques given to him and his wife Elaine (who also happens to be his business partner), as tokens of appreciation, once lined a hallway in their office. A beanie Brodsky received in his freshman year from Rider University is now in ashes. His eyes welled up as he remembered the keepsake he guarded for 55 years, and undoubtedly ran through a mental list of many others lost to the fire.
It does help that Brodsky is able to replace a lot of what went up in flames. Tales of his business talent and success are well known. CitiStorage, the company situated on the waterfront where the blaze occurred, was arguably his most profitable business. In 2007, he sold a majority stake in CitiStorage and two other businesses for $110 million. The entirety of CitiStorage has since been sold.
Brodsky and his wife still own the real estate, however, a fact that became public knowledge when the city failed in efforts to from the couple. Rezoning of the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfront in 2005 saw the construction of many high-rise apartment buildings, and came along with a promise of converting part of the waterfront into parkland. But the city didn’t cough up the money to buy Brodsky’s land, and the owners of the proposed Greenpoint Monitor Museum flat-out refused to sell. Local residents were disappointed by former Mayor Bloomberg’s unfulfilled promise, and now the fire has resurrected a discussion over the city’s failure to buy the land.
The Brodskys were engaged in a dialogue with the city, but a decision on the price of the land at 5 North 11th Street was never reached. “We haven’t spoken to the city since Bloomberg left office,” Brodsky said. The parks department declined to comment on any future plans to buy the land. Asked if the fire has prompted any plans to restart a dialogue about selling the land, Brodsky responded, “I haven’t even thought about that. I’m concentrating on getting my personal life together.”
Brodsky has an innate business knack. For 19 years, he’s written a business advice column, Street Smarts, for Inc. Magazine. The column draws on Brodsky’s experiences as an entrepreneur and dishes out business advice. Brodsky is open and honest in his story telling. In a four-part column he explains his decision to sell his three companies (including CitiStorage) in 2007. Whether or not you’re an entrepreneur, he is incredibly easy to relate to. He not only showcases his success stories but is comfortable admitting his failures, which he repeatedly insists must be taken as learning curves.
Brodsky didn’t always show talent. “I was a really bad student,” he said when we first met. “I graduated in the bottom 10 per cent of my high school class.” He later attended Rider University, a small college at the time and one of only two places to accept him.
Since then he has practiced law, headed his own law firm, and grown several other businesses from the ground up. In 1979, he started Perfect Courier, a Manhattan-based messenger service. He has since created another delivery service, inspired by Perfect Courier, as well as an adjunct to CitiStorage, U.S. Document Security, that ensures secure document destruction. His successes are plentiful, including recently receiving one of Rider University’s sesquicentennial medals, designed to recognize a select number of alumni who have made a real difference in the life of the university.
He’s also had some sizeable failures. Brodsky spent seven years growing his company Perfect Courier from nothing to $120 million in sales. Later, in the space of eight months, that money was almost entirely gone. Brodsky took shortcuts in order to achieve his dream of building a company worth over $100 million in sales, and so he merged his business with Sky Courier. This company had problems that led Brodsky to use Perfect Courier to keep it afloat. Brodsky ultimately had to lay off several thousand employees.
“He made some really serious mistakes, bad judgments,” according to Bo Burlingham, an editor-at-large for Inc. Burlingham has known and worked with Brodsky for 25 years and they have co-authored a book, The Knack: How Street-Smart Entrepreneurs Learn to Handle Whatever Comes Up. After filing Perfect Courier for bankruptcy, Brodsky “resolved to never make a decision in business that was ever going to cost anyone a job,” Burlingham remembers.
Having spoken to Brodsky and many who know him, it is hard to ignore the biggest constant in his life, his partner in both marriage and business, Elaine. “One of the most endearing things about Brodsky is that he attributes most of his business success to his wife,” said Jonathan Meer, Vice President for University Advancement at Rider University. Brodsky couldn’t help but mention her at every available opportunity during our interview, and his peers instinctively paired the couple during their accounts. As Meer explained the close ties between Brodsky and the college, he recalled a visit to Rider when Brodsky immediately invited Elaine to join him on stage. “Many entrepreneurs I’ve met, they have such massive egos, they would never share the spotlight, they would never do something to deflect attention or credit from themselves,” said Meer. “Everyone wanted to hear the world according to Norm, and he shared the spotlight with her.”
They have been husband and wife for 45 years, and business partners for the past 25. Yet their time collaborating at CitiStorage was not their first attempt at working together. This came years earlier when Brodsky was still practicing law, and Elaine filled in for the woman who usually ran the office. Five minutes into her first day, Elaine forwarded a call to her husband. Refusing to take part in the white lie of all offices that is ignoring phone calls, she received an ultimatum from Brodsky: “Either tell them I’m out, or go home.” She went home, but not before one final “I’m never working for you again!” Years later she had doubts about rejoining forces with her husband. Revealing how he reassured her, he could not contain his laughter. “Come work with me,” he said. “I think you’ve changed!” Brodsky loves to crack a joke, but he doesn’t need to assure anyone of the adoration he holds for Elaine. In their expansive office that boasted the most incredible view of the Manhattan skyline, their desks faced each other.
The Brodskys have been very active in the community surrounding the warehouse since their arrival. “We were here before anybody,” said Brodsky. He and Elaine bought the land in several complicated stages in the early 1990s, and set up home in an adjacent building, attached to the warehouse in 2000. They help fund PS 132 The Conselyea School’s annual kite festival, and each year invite around 1,500 community members to share their spectacular waterfront view to watch the July 4 fireworks. Tickets are sold for access to fun-fair rides and nibbles, and the Brodskys match the proceeds to donate to charity. Elaine also acts as Chairman of the Board for the Greenpoint Chamber of Commerce.
Up until the fire, Brodsky says he must have had about 20 meetings each month with people seeking advice for their businesses. “He’s got an amazing ability to look at a business situation and to figure out what’s going on,” said Burlingham. “Often the person involved doesn’t even realize the issue until they talk to Norm, and he will give them a whole new perspective.”
Four of these meetings have been with Kate Schmitz, owner of Flying Squirrel, which sells children’s paraphernalia not far from the CitiStorage lot. “The interesting thing about me and Norm and Elaine is that I really don’t know them well,” said Schmitz. She was at a loss for words, unable to express her gratitude, as she described how Brodsky’s advice helped her. “He wasn’t interested in my business, it was way beneath his interests,” Schmitz said. “He was just doing it, just simply for no reason at all.”
Burlingham testified to the Brodskys’ good nature. In 1995, he wrote a cover story for Inc. about the help Brodsky offered to a young married couple going into business together. Burlingham offered countless stories about Brodsky, his incredible business acumen and unparalleled generosity, but admitted, “In any situation, he’s the person in the room whom everyone looks to, he has a kind of presence about him. I think there are some people who don’t like that.”
Brodsky has likely encountered many of these people throughout his life and career, but some of the first to get this insight might have been his Rider classmates. At the start of his time there, the president of the college issued a warning that Brodsky still recalls: “Look to the left of you, look to the right of you – one of you won’t make it.” After giving it some thought, said Brodsky, “I got up and sat next to the dumbest looking guy I could find and I said to him, ‘It’s you.’” In fact, every time there was a test, Brodsky would psyche his classmates out by sitting next to them and telling him he was smarter than them. “My whole life was based on that,” said Brodsky. “I don’t have to be the smartest guy in the world, I just have to be smarter than a couple of people.”
He really figured out this mantra during his days as a lawyer, a job he didn’t care for much. At a real estate closing one day, a man in a snakeskin suit pulled up in a Cadillac. “In those days, that was the car,” said Brodsky, who couldn’t help but notice an expensive cigar emerging from the suit pocket and long to be in the man’s shoes (perhaps literally). As luck would have it, this man was the lawyer for the other side of the real estate closing. Halfway through the transaction it was clear to Brodsky that this guy had no clue, and it turns out he was doing a favor for his nephew. Brodsky offered to complete both sides of the closing. In return, he received the promise of a favor, which he took immediately asking the lawyer how much he had earned last year. With initial reluctance, he replied, “$50,000,” to which Brodsky thanked him, “You just changed my life.” He left the very confused lawyer with a newly established sense of limitless possibilities, and quit his job. “If this guy can make $50,000,” explained Brodsky, “I certainly can make more going into business myself.”
Years later, Brodsky has succeeded in fulfilling his desire to emulate the puzzled lawyer, or at least his attire, as well as topping his salary. Invited each year to the Inc. 500 (now 5000) conference, an award ceremony for the fastest growing companies in America at which Perfect Courier is a three-time honoree, Brodsky dominates, usually dressed in his top hat.