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Profile: The Wizard of Washington

May 9, 2009 | by

Abe Pollin, business mogul and philanthropist, has died at age 85.

UPDATE: Abe Pollin died on November 24, 2009 at the age of 85.

Abe Pollin is a man who made his fortune building award-winning offices and apartments in Washington D.C. -- and then used his wealth to fulfill two lifelong dreams: to own a sports team, and to help impoverished children all over the world.

At 77, Pollin is still chairman of the board, chief executive and the majority shareholder of his company, Washington Sports and Entertainment, which owns the NBA Washington Wizards (starring Michael Jordan), WNBA Washington Mystics, the US Airways Arena and other entertainment interests. He considers this state-of-the-art MCI Center, which he single-handedly financed at the cost of $200 million in a successful effort to revitalize downtown Washington, his greatest professional achievement.

Pollin has personally guaranteed college educations for 59 children in Maryland.

Pollin donates inordinate amounts of time and money to a wide array of charitable causes, amidst his personal tragedy of losing two children to heart disease. Pollin serves as chairman of the Advisory Council for UNICEF and has personally traveled to Uganda to oversee the disbursement of UNICEF relief funds. Pollin also serves on the international board of the Red Cross and is president of the Advisory Board of the American Foundation for Autistic Children. He works with business and government leaders in Washington to help the city's homeless population, and has personally guaranteed college educations for 59 children in Maryland.

Pollin lives in Bethesda, Maryland with his wife, Irene. He has two grown sons, Robert and Jim. interviewed Pollin in his offices at the MCI Center in Washington D.C.

* * *

What was your passion growing up?

My passion has always been sports. Where I got that, I don't know. My father was an immigrant who had no knowledge of sports and didn't care about sports. Yet I was a sports nut from the time I was a little kid. In Washington, we lived seven blocks from Griffith Stadium where the Senators baseball team played. I would run home from school and talk my mother into giving me a quarter. I'd run to Griffith Stadium, and for a quarter, I'd sit in the bleachers all afternoon. Then in 1937, professional football came to Washington and I was one of the first people ever to see a Redskins game in Washington in 1937.

What set you on the path toward real estate development?

I worked for my father, and once I was carrying bathtubs and hurt my back. I ruptured three discs and was not eligible to serve during World War Two. So my father decided that it was time for us to go into the building business. He came to me one day and said, "Son, I just bought 60 lots, and I'm leaving for Florida." I said, "You what?!" He said, "I'm leaving for Florida and you're going to build these 60 lots."

My older brother was in the service in England, so I had to build these 60 lots myself. I didn't know much about building houses, plus during the war, there were no building materials available. All the established builders in Washington said it's impossible to build, so they didn't build.

I was a dumb kid so I went ahead building anyway.

But I was a dumb kid so I went ahead building anyway. I would call the contractor and say, "Okay I'm ready for the concrete," and he would say, "Are you kidding, kid? There's no concrete here." So I had to go out and find my own cement. Then I'd tell the bricklayer to come, and he would say, "Are you kidding? There's no bricks. No mortar. No cinder block."

I finally built the houses -- three bedrooms, full basement, and full backyard -- for $10,000. They were the first houses built in Washington after the war and we sold those 60 houses in three hours. So that's how I became a builder in the Washington area.

How has your private life shaped your path?

I got married when I was young, 21 years old. We just celebrated our 56th anniversary, and we've had tragedies in our life, unfortunately. I lost two children to major heart disease: My daughter had one heart operation at age 4, and another at 16 and didn't make it. Then I had a son who was operated as a 9-month-old baby and died 4 months later. The worst tragedy a person can experience is the loss of a child, and that obviously lives with me everyday.

The worst tragedy a person can experience is the loss of a child, and that lives with me everyday.

How did you get through problems like that?

My wife and I were both devastated. I was depressed to the point where I gave up my business. But finally I realized that I still had a family to take care of, so I decided to build a memorial to my daughter. I built the Linda Pollin Memorial Housing project, a non-profit for poor people in southeast Washington. We had 3- and 4-bedroom apartments renting for $60 a month, with about 1,500 children living in the project. Building that project in her memory really got me back to life.

How is the idea of giving to others a driving force in your life?

Those of us who are fortunate enough to be on the giving end, rather than the receiving end, are very lucky. Because the more we give, the more we get back. And it's hard to believe, but in America, the richest country the world has ever seen, there are almost 5 million children who go to bed hungry every night. That's a disgrace. So I believe that for the people who are in a position to give, it's incumbent upon us to help.

How did your upbringing help instill these ideals?

Both my parents were immigrants from Russia. They came here as teenagers with absolutely nothing -- no money and no knowledge of the language. My father taught himself to read and write, and worked his way up as a plumbing and heating contractor, to the point where he became the largest contractor in Washington with 250 employees. He became a philanthropist and he was one of the leaders of the Jewish community. The first properties he ever owned, he gave away to his family, and he was not a wealthy man at the time. My mother acted the same. They were good role models.

Were your parents active in Jewish life?

My father was a very devout Jew from the standpoint of helping Israel. Besides his family, Israel was his life. He was the first chairman ever of Israel Bonds in Washington, and one day he said, "Son, I'm taking you to a meeting downtown.” I said, "Where are we going?" He said, "I can't tell you right now, but you'll see." So we went downtown to an office where a Middle Eastern-looking guy was guarding the door. I found out later that he and others were from the Hagana, the Jewish military organization that fought for Israel's creation.

The next morning they bought an old steamship and renamed it the Exodus.

Inside the meeting were about 20 leaders of the Washington Jewish Community. They locked the door and said, "Nobody leaves here until we raise the money." The next morning they bought an old steamship which was in the port of Baltimore, and renamed it the Exodus.

Israel was always a major part of my father's life. When he first went to Israel in 1949, he got off the plane and kissed the tarmac.

How do you see your role in the Jewish community?

I'm an officer of AIPAC. I visit Israel. I do what I can to help secure the country and to improve the relationship between the United States and Israel, and I will fight as hard as I can, with everything that I own and care about, to help Israel.

How have you been able to help others through your sports teams?

People consider professional sports pretty exciting, so I'm in a position to do a lot of things that nobody else can do. We employ someone, actually my nephew, whose entire job is to give away tickets to people who are less fortunate -- veterans, children and so forth. Throughout the community, we give hundreds of thousands of tickets away each year that nobody knows about.

Tell us how you came to build your arena, the MCI Center.

The nation's capital had hit rock bottom. Originally, the city was supposed to finance this building, and then when I got ready to build, they were broke and couldn't help. So I had a choice: Either build it in D.C., or build it in Baltimore where they offered to finance it for me. In D.C., I was going to have to finance it myself to the tune of $200 million. But then I realized I was in a unique position: I owned two teams, and I was the only one who could make this project a reality. So I said, “Somebody has to step forward, and that somebody is me.”

I said: Somebody has to step forward, and that somebody is me.

I built the MCI Center in downtown Washington, with the hope it would be the catalyst to turn the city around. I'm proud to say it has. If you look around, you see all new hotels, restaurants, apartment buildings, office buildings, a new convention center. The whole area has changed because of us.

How do you define the word success?

I think the word success means having a reputation in business for honesty and fair dealings. My father taught me something very important: When you negotiate a deal, always leave something on the table for the other guy so he feels like he's gotten a really fair deal. The only deals that are any good are deals that are good for both sides. So I try to live with that.

What do you think is the bottom line reason you've been so successful?

I believe very strongly in God and I'm very grateful to him. I had a heart operation 21 years ago and I'm still here. It's hard for me to accept the fact that my children didn't make it, but that's the Lord's will. Maybe He has a reason for me to be here, and maybe that's why I'm in a position to help those who are less fortunate. So that's what I try to do. I'm grateful for every day that I wake up. If I help one person have a better life, or have a job or a home or not be hungry, then I've succeeded.

What advice would you give for balancing the desire for success and maintaining principles?

Principles and ethics is number one: fair dealing, honesty, morality, taking care of your family, getting married and having children. That's what the good Lord put us on earth for. Number two is your career.

The best advice I can give for success is hard work, hard work, hard work. There will be bumps along the way. There will be disappointments. There will be disagreements and you'll feel discouraged. Don't give up. Just keep fighting. Eventually you'll succeed.


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