Arik Kislin: An Immigrant’s Story from Modest Means to Quiet Philanthropy

Olya Kislin and Arik Kislin with Tennis Star John Lloyd.
Olya Kislin and Arik Kislin with tennis star John Lloyd.

Odessa to Israel, then to Italy to Boston, and on to New Jersey and eventually to the New York Metropolitan area hardly sounds like a hop, skip and a jump. It’s indicative of the more complex life story of Arik Kislin, a self-made entrepreneur who came to the United States with little more than a dream and a work ethic, and built what some would call an empire, while never forgetting the places from where he came.

Kislin came to New Jersey from Boston to help his father in a jewelry/pawn shop in Atlantic City.  The very nature of that business forced him to work “fireman” hours there, as the customers would come in at the oddest times.  Today, he is a very successful real-estate investor, and part owner of the Gansevoort hotel and Alerion Aviation, and several other businesses.  He is also a philanthropist.

Arik Kislin’s rise to being a philanthropist and role model for business investors has many twists and turns that make his story both intriguing and inspirational.

Kislin was born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1968. When he was four years old, he moved with his family to Israel. He never lost his ability to speak Russian, which would promise to be useful later in life. After a year in Israel, his family moved to Ladispoli, Italy, eventually settling in Boston in 1973 where his father, who was a butcher, became a taxi-driver.  The lessons of hard work were being taught firsthand.

From Brookline, MA, to Old Bridge, NJ, the family moved and Arik was off helping his father in their Atlantic City shop.  His tenacity paid off when among the people he met there was someone who was looking for a watch, and after talking to him, offered him a new opportunity.  After a few years at the shop, Arik was off to Moscow to utilize his language skills and Russian culture, and there he met people who would become industry leaders in Russia.  Although his job was more of an assistant’s role, he took it in stride and watched and absorbed the information.  He learned some valuable skills in any language – how to spot a good investment and how to connect people to make deals.  Keeping his head low, he filled his mind with the knowledge that would help him in his career.

Back in New York, he met other business leaders like Marc Lasry of Avenue Capital Group who showed him trade secrets in buying debt.  He was inspired.  Feeling he had what it took, Kislin approached his employer and suggested that he has an idea to build a different kind of real-estate business in the United States.  So, at first, he reviewed contracts and leases, and was soon ready to do deals himself.

He hired the law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges who helped him structure the vehicle that would help him broker deals. Then he convinced his investors to trust him to manage $38 million. That was a good enough start.

He discovered that buying debt could be lucrative.  Through financial firms like Bank of NY, Equitable, and Chase he found a debt deal and offered them $35 million to buy it.  He figured that would leave $3M for legal fees and sundries.  The debt he bought were on properties owned by the likes of tycoons and former friends, Jay Pritzker and Alvin Dworman.  Kislin would foreclose on them and then made history for turning the Meatpacking District around.

He took their property, which at the time was seemingly a worthless space in Manhattan’s Meatpacking district, and brought on Irwin Cohen.  They formed Around The Clock (ATC) Management and turned the 3.6 million square foot property into a newly rehabilitated trendy place that includes the 1.5 million square foot space that is now Chelsea Market complex.

Prior to that, in 1998, a longtime friend introduced Kislin to a businessman who also has experience in the field of debt, and after developing a plan, the two founded another company that bought credit card debt in the United States.  The firm was wildly successful and Kislin made enough to help him invest in some other ventures, such as his aviation company.  The credit card debt company was strong until about 2008, when the markets changed.  Although it wound down, that enterprise still yields residual payments for Kislin.

In 2001 Kislin partnered with the Achenbaum family as the principal developer of the Gansevoort Hotel, also in the Meatpacking District.  Then, with the combined projects of the Chelsea Market and the Gansevoort, they became the forces that changed the area into an international fashion, dining, and nightlife destination.

Coming off the success of the debt service business and hospitality industry, Kislin’s entrepreneurial spirit was ignited by the aviation business after he purchased an airplane — a Challenger for corporate business travel.

Thus, Kislin went into the aviation business and bought a jet management company in 2005 – JFI Aviation (which is now Alerion). Originally having one location and three jets, after 10 years of Kislin’s transformation has resulted in a fleet of 20 jets and multiple locations across the United States.  Still, the highlight of his fleet was the jet he owned that once belonged to Frank Sinatra.  He has since donated the crooner’s 1968 Gulfstream II to the Western Suffolk BOCES aviation maintenance program for students to learn how to build and service planes as a vocational skill.

Before taking flight, and while he was beginning businesses and looking for opportunities, he became interested in something else — a life.  In March 1995, he went on a chance blind date with a woman named Olya.  It was a long-distance romance, as she was a dental student on the West Coast and he was a bachelor living in midtown Manhattan.  So, after seven weeks together, the practical Kislin felt that traveling was growing wearisome and he gave Olya a ring at the eight-week mark.  They were married in Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic in October 1995, and 21 years and two children later, he knows it was the best deal he ever made.

Now a Kings Point, Long Island resident, Kislin had become close to several charities.  More than donating the plane to the BOCES, he has been a regular donor and tennis player for over five years at Michael Milken’s Prostate Cancer Foundation fundraiser.  The most recent cocktail party and awards ceremony for PCF was held a few weeks ago, in the Palm Beach, FL, hangar of Kislin’s Alerion Aviation company.

Never forgetting his roots, Kislin is also closely tied to the Be’er Hagolah Institute, a Brooklyn-based school that aims to help less fortunate Jewish youth and the children of immigrants.  When he walks into the building, he is usually received as a celebrity by the 900+ children in the school.

In addition, Kislin is facilitating the building of an extension of the Great Neck Chabad house, which will be the future location of a Jewish Community Center (JCC). He will donate over a quarter of a million dollars from the proceeds of the property to charity, and he is currently working out a similar donation in Colorado which will be for public park use.

Arik is now developing a new complex in Turks and Caicos on what he calls a prized piece of land, to add to his hotel and resort portfolios.  Always innovating, it is expected to be one of the hottest new spots once it is finished. Yet, with his hotels and airplanes, he is well grounded and he does not let it keep him from changing the world around him.  In fact, it allows him to devote time, money, and resources to helping many different people and his community prosper.

About the Author
Michael Kosowski was born in New York City. He recently graduated Binghamton University with a degree in Art History and Russian Studies.
Related Topics
Related Posts