Robert Epstein is chief executive of The Abbey Group, a real estate investment firm that has developed some of Boston’s most significant buildings. The company’s projects include the 45 Province condominium tower downtown and The Viridian, a 322-unit apartment complex under construction near Fenway Park. In his spare time, he’s a managing partner of the Boston Celtics. Globe reporter Casey Ross recently talked with Epstein about his background and business philosophy. Here’s what he learned:
1The Abbey Group is a well known name in Boston real estate, but its origins are in film. Epstein, a film noir enthusiast, started his career in Boston when he opened a theater in Kenmore Square. He decided on the name Abbey because it put him first in The Boston Globe cinema listings.
“I did remember from a psychology class in college that people’s retention levels on lists was highest at the beginning and end of the list. So I thought, ‘OK, how do I get ahead of Astor Theater?’ We took a dictionary and came across the word abbey. There is an Abbey Theater in Dublin that’s very famous, and Boston is a very Irish city, so we made it Abbey Cinema.”
2Epstein was among the first developers to recognize the potential of the Fenway neighborhood. In the 1990s, The Abbey Group developed the Landmark Center retail and office complex. The firm sold it recently for about $530 million.
“The fact that the Fenway has grown into such an important residential neighborhood isn’t by accident or because of any manipulation. It’s because it always should have been that kind of neighborhood.”
3The Abbey Group typically picks its development opportunities by trying to be first in somewhat troubled areas that have a big upside. In addition to the Fenway neighborhood, the firm found success in the 1970s by investing in the Back Bay just as the city was beginning to recover from urban flight.
“We’ve always done fairly well by being early. Because of the opportunities in Boston real estate, most any neighborhood of this city, with the right people working on it, is likely to thrive. We learned that in the Back Bay because when we started in the Back Bay, it was not the premier affluent neighborhood it is now.”
4Epstein doesn’t scare easily. Plenty of developers would have sold the condominium tower at 45 Province St. after it opened to a crashing housing market. Epstein said he had plenty of offers, but decided to stick with it. The building is now nearly sold out as the condominium market surges.
“One thing about Boston is that it always recovers. So you’re not asking, ‘Will it recover?’ You're asking, ‘How long is it going to take?’”
5Epstein has always been an early adopter of technology. In the late 1970s, for example, he had one of the earliest car phones. It had a rotary dial.
“You had to go to this depot in South Boston and they would install a dial phone in your car. Imagine that.
“Now it would be completely illegal. You cannot look down and dial a phone while you’re driving. What’s interesting is I never got a bill for that phone.”
6Many developers use several different architects and general contractors as they build different projects during their careers. Epstein, however, has consistently relied on Suffolk Construction and the architecture firm Bruner/Cott & Associates Inc.
“All projects have their annoyances and their difficulties. But we love Bruner/Cott and we love Suffolk. The quality is very high and the economics are good, so if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”
7Epstein wasn’t a great student at Bard College. He said he got his only A in physical education due to his love of basketball. But that passion eventually led him to join the partnership that owns the Boston Celtics.
“I had tried to make a bid earlier when it was sold to the Gaston group. But when the opportunity came up with Wyc [Grousbeck] and Steve Pagliuca, I could see how the economics just made a lot of sense. It really has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.”