Empowering Science of Distinction

October 3, 2012 | Salute to Scholars, The University

Martin and Michele Cohen at CCNY’s new science building

Martin Cohen graduated from City College in 1970 and didn’t think much about his alma mater for a while — three and a half decades, in fact. “I was totally disconnected,” he says.

Then one day about eight years ago, Cohen was at work in his midtown office when his assistant told him that the president of City College was calling. “I said, ‘This can’t be good news — I wonder what the statute of limitations is for bad behavior,’ ” he jokes — though it would be easier to believe that a man so genial and unassuming as Marty Cohen might have been the only college student in the late ’60s who didn’t behave badly.

So why was the president of CCNY calling a long-disconnected alumnus out of the blue? Like other CUNY campuses, City College was in the midst of an academic resurgence, and its president, Gregory Williams, had proven an adroit fundraiser.  Cohen had graduated with a degree in biochemistry but had gone on to a career in finance — an extraordinarily successful career. He had co-founded an investment firm that he’d just taken public. Williams asked Cohen to come up to the campus, have lunch and a look around.

“I was reminded of my days as a student,” Cohen recalls of the visit. “The faces  change but the stories are the same.” By that he meant the financial circumstances of the students, then and now — himself included.  “I grew up in East Flatbush. My father was a laborer in the garment industry and my mother was a hairdresser. City College cost $28 a semester. I knew what it was like not to have.”

Cohen couldn’t help but be struck by the unlikeliness of his return to campus as a man who could send his own four children to the most expensive private colleges. A man, in fact, who was  in a position to support his alma mater on a scale that would have seemed unfathomable when he was working his way through school and spending two hours a day commuting to class by subway.

Though the stories of the students may be the same, what has changed utterly, of course, is how much it costs to attend even the most reasonably priced public universities — and how much those schools have come to need support from alumni. Over the past two decades, public colleges like CCNY have established foundations, once the province of elite private institutions, to build endowments with donations from alumni.

“Back when I was in school, no one ever donated money to City College — it was unheard of,” Cohen said. But as he learned from Williams, “[Chancellor] Matthew Goldstein had made it an objective to raise money from alums because the state and city just couldn’t support the programs.”

So, nearly 40 years after graduating, Cohen decided to reconnect with his alma mater in a big way. He joined the board of the City College 21st Century Foundation, CCNY’s primary fundraising organization, and is now its chairman. He’s played a leading role in growing the college’s endowment to about $160 million. And in April, Cohen and his wife, Michele, made news with a $10 million gift to help elevate his first love — science.

The gift, the largest ever to CCNY’s Division of Science, will be used to establish the Martin and Michele Cohen Dean of Science, the first endowed deanship in the history of CUNY, and at least two endowed professorships. The newly established Cohen Fund for Science will also help fund lab renovations and equipment, graduate student research fellowships, student stipends and internships, and other initiatives associated with CCNY’s new science building, which is now under construction and set to open in 2014.

The Cohens’ gift is a landmark in City College’s drive to return to prominence in science and engineering. In the decades before and after World War II, the college’s science faculty were among the most renowned in the world, and eight of its graduates between 1933 and 1954 went on to win Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics and physiology or medicine. “When I started in 1965, City College was preeminent — maybe second to MIT,” says Cohen. “It really was that highly regarded. We were attracting kids from Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech. Our hope is that this gift helps elevate City College to what it was.”

Cohen graduated early from Tilden High School in Brooklyn and started college as an engineering student. “But there was too much physics, too much math,” he said. “The natural sciences were more to my liking so I switched to biochemistry.” While still in school he got a job with the New York Blood Center, working in a research lab run by a biochemist who had invented a way to preserve red blood cells by freezing them. He stayed on for a few years after graduating, but decided that a significant career in science would require a Ph.D. He and Michele were married and wanted to start a family. He opted for business school at NYU.

The Cohens had met the old-fashioned way — through matchmaking relatives. They were both born in the upstate town of Ellenville, but didn’t meet until they were in their 20s. Michele had grown up in Ellenville, where her father and his brothers had started a company producing their invention — the Channel Master antenna, which became the biggest name in 1950s TV reception. Marty’s parents, meanwhile, had moved from Brooklyn to Ellenville after the war when his father got a job managing a Hires Root Beer bottling plant. “My mother was miserable up there, so we moved back to Brooklyn after I was born,” Cohen said.

His parents had remained friends with a couple in Ellenville who had a niece they thought Marty ought to meet. The only problem was that Michele was in college in Vermont and Marty had gone straight from CCNY graduation to basic training with the Army Reserves: His birthday had come up  No. 3 in the first draft lottery, and the Reserves seemed the better option.  “His parents  gave him my address and he wrote to me,”  Michele said. “And we started writing back and forth. He wrote beautiful letters.”

“It was the original snail-mail dating,” Marty said. They didn’t meet for a year, until Marty was home and Michele invited him to her family’s Thanksgiving dinner. He drove up to Ellenville in his green VW Beetle.

Cohen’s first job after graduating from business school in 1976 was as a securities analyst for Citibank. “One day, the chief investment officer called me into his office and said, ‘I have a project for you. I want you to write a marketing brochure. The  title  will be Why Real Estate?’ I said, ‘I don’t know anything about real estate.’ We were just starting to invest in real estate for our clients as a hedge against inflation. I found that there were a hundred publicly traded real estate companies, and I went all over the country visiting them — developers, owners of shopping centers and apartments, real estate investment trusts. And  it turned out they were selling very cheap, way less than their asset values. I wrote a report and he loved the idea of starting a fund that invested in these companies.”

The idea took off, and Cohen never stopped doing what he started. “Michele complained every time we went on vacation we would go to apartment buildings and shopping malls,” he said. “And I wouldn’t let her shop.”  But the payoff was big: The portfolio’s initial $100 million value nearly tripled in a couple of years and became the best performing bank fund in the country for several years.

In 1986, Cohen and a partner, Robert H. Steers, started their own company,  specializing in the investment strategy Cohen had virtually invented  at Citibank and expanding it to international markets. Cohen and Steers took their company public in 2004 and today it’s the nation’s largest manager of real estate securities portfolios, with 230 employees in six offices around the world. “In the beginning I was managing money,” Cohen says. “Now I’m managing people, which I have to tell you is a lot harder than managing money. ”

Michele Cohen kept the firm’s books for 18 years, which allowed her to work part time and still concentrate on raising the couple’s four children. She left when the company went public and now spends her time serving on the boards of a variety of nonprofits, including the Museum of Arts and Design, Alfred University and Project Kesher, a Jewish women’s leadership organization. She’s also on the board of the fundraising foundation of her own alma mater, the University of Vermont.

“We built the company quietly over the years, so when we went public some people thought I was an overnight success,” Cohen said. “But it doesn’t really happen that way. Success in life rarely comes that quickly; you have to have a sound long-term strategy and a great deal of patience.”

That could also be said of Cohen’s recent passion outside the office: serious bicycling. He bought a custom-made bike two years ago, and has ridden it practically every day ever since — in Central Park, the Hamptons, and earlier this year, at age 63, on an extreme-biking trip on the Mediterranean island of Majorca. Over the course of a week, he and his riding group rode 400 miles and climbed 40,000 feet on hairpin-turning mountain roads. “It was grueling going up, terrifying going down,” Cohen said. “The bike is made of carbon fiber that makes it incredibly light and aerodynamic. It goes so fast it’s more like skiing. It’s exhilarating, almost an addiction.”

Says the man with the sound long-term strategy and a great deal of patience: “If I woke up tomorrow and my company didn’t exist, I’d just ride my bicycle.”