Risk Game Reviewed

Entrepreneurial philosophy is simple: do one thing and do it well. This mantra for success can be traced back to Ancient Greek poet Archilochus who wrote, “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” In Francis Greenburger’s new book, Risk Game: Self Portrait of an Entrepreneur (co-written with Rebecca Paley), the author, entrepreneur and philanthropist details life as a hedgehog in fox's clothing. That is to say that he knows how to succeed and can translate that success into many different fields. He has done many things well, his book makes that clear. Whether or not his life has been a Risk Game is not so clear. The book is more a tale of perseverance. Where it triumphs is outside of the business world in the revelatory truths about Greenburger’s both colorful and tragic personal life, making the portrait a humanizing and worthwhile read. The sprinkling of entrepreneurial advice is an added bonus.

In the first chapter of Risk Game, Greenburger praises himself as a “prodigy.” The statement comes directly after detailing his first successful negotiation with a famed German publishing house. He was twelve years old. That same twelve-year-old prodigy struggled in school, often refusing to go. Greenburger’s real schooling took place working in his father’s literary agency. Due to the agency’s close ties to Europe, it was a revolving door for eccentric artists and expats from around the world. Many of these visitors, who add enjoyable color to the text, became the earliest mentors to Greenburger. Greenburger credits much of his success to the many mentors in his life but he did not always see these relationships so formally, admitting “they were all just people who, at the time that I met them, I liked.” Lesson one in the Greenburger School of Entrepreneurial Success is less about risk and more about nurturing relationships with smart, successful role models… just make sure you like them.   

By his early teens Greenburger had multiple businesses and his own pied-de-terre in Manhattan. He was also a high school dropout. When his father unexpectedly passed away Greenburger was forced to take over the family literary agency, which had mountains of unpaid debts. Greenburger took the opportunity to implement the ideas his father had always rejected when he was alive. That included capitalizing on new cottage industries, like the then popular pop-psych phenomenon, churning out books like Beverly Whipple’s The G Spot and Other Discoveries about Human Sexuality. Greenburger was relentless when he had a hunch about a manuscript. After pulling a debut novel out of the slush pile he worked with its author through multiple revisions and 37 rejections. That author was James Patterson. It was not risk that got Patterson’s first book out, but a good agent with stubborn perseverance. Lesson Two in the Greenburger School of Entrepreneurial Success: stick to your guns. Ultimately Greenburger was able to turn his father’s near bankrupt agency around, freeing him to focus on his other burgeoning business: real estate.

Greenburger got his start in real estate by chance. When a literary colleague needed a small office space to rent (at a time when there were very few on the market) Greenburger agreed to sublet half of his small office, charging his colleague the full rent for the space. Lesson three in the Greenburger School of Entrepreneurial Success: “When, as a consumer, you find what you need is hard to source, that is a clue it could be a good business to start.” And that is exactly what Greenburger did. He starting dividing large commercial spaces into smaller ones, an idea the international company WeWork, founded in 2010 and valued at roughly 16 billion dollars, now corners the market in. Part of Greenburger’s instant success was his willingness to accept any tenant as long as they paid. One of his early tenants was a psychiatrist experimenting with a new drug called methadone. Using his commercial real estate profits, Greenburger began buying entire buildings, many in dilapidated areas, teeming with vagrants. With creative foresight, he was able to clean them up. He gave men from the teetotaling, peaceful Nation of Islam free apartments to maintain order and had his superintendents mop the hallways hourly to keep drug dealers from hanging out in them. Once cleaned up and habitable he would “co-op” the buildings, meaning sell tenants shares to the building, essentially giving them the option to buy their apartments. He became so successful at the process he earned the title “Co-op King,” birthing an empire. While he made a killing at converting buildings, what he might not have known was he was turning tens of thousands of people into investors themselves. To this day, Greenburger writes, “there is no greater feeling than when I meet someone who has bought an apartment from me and says, ‘it was the best investment of my life.’”

Once his businesses were flourishing Greenburger had time to devote to philanthropic endeavors. While serving on the board at the National Arts Club, (“as the owner of a literary agency naturally everybody assumed I knew a lot about literature, which of course, I didn’t,”) Greenburger met a number of influential members of the art community. He was later involved in the Triangle Artist Workshop, an upstate New York art collective. The program had “grown stale” and the temperamental director enlisted Greenburger as its board chairman to freshen up the program. After a few years of attempting to change Triangle, Greenburger felt his suggestions had fallen onto deaf ears. One such suggestion was that they buy a permanent property for the program rather than continue to rent from an erratic owner. Greenburger had found a suitable replacement for sale in Ghent, New York but Triangle’s director refused to go through with it as it was too far from his own home. Eventually Greenburger resigned but the owner of the Ghent property continued to hound him and slashed the asking price of the land while doing so. Greenburger did what any art-loving real estate investor would do; he bought the land and started his own workshop. That became Omi, now an international artist organization that has grown bigger and bigger each year (both in the programs it offers as well as in the land it sits on).  

While Greenburgers business and philanthropic lives thrived, his personal life suffered. No amount of intellect or money can save the mother of your children from dying of cancer; bring your drowned infant back to life; or cure an adopted son with pervasive developmental disorder. In the latter case, Greenburger tried everything to save his eldest son Morgan from going down the wrong path. Despite countless schools, programs and treatments, Morgan received a multiple-year sentence for arson after starting a fire in his own building. He had delusions of being followed and believed that summoning the fire department would save him from his paranoia. Through tragedy came philanthropy. After finding no solution for his incarcerated son, Greenburger set out to create one, establishing the Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice Reform, a program dedicated to protect and rehabilitate the impoverished, mentally ill and individuals suffering from underlying substance abuse.

This is the man Francis Greenburger is: a man of character. In his own words, on character, Greenburger says: “I always say that character is defined not in good times but in difficult ones. That’s when it is critical to be honest and ethical, because that’s when it’s hardest.” Let that be the final lesson in the Greenburger School of Entrepreneurial Success: do the right thing. His book is a refreshing read in an era of the New York slumlord (see Steve Croman who is facing 20 felony charges and 25 years in prison for harassing rent stabilized tenants in his buildings).  How much risk was involved in his great successes? Some. There was also strong guidance, some luck, good timing and his own cunning. Greenburger should give himself a little more credit. He is a prodigy, after all.