Stephen Ross arrived in Miami Beach from Detroit in the mid-1950s at age 14. His father, David, was an inventor who patented several ideas, including an early version of a coffee vending machine that never got off the ground. Struggling to make ends meet, David Ross moved the family to South Florida to help manage a family-owned hotel.
Ross’ only dream at that time was to get into the University of Michigan, and he failed on his first try. His grades weren’t good enough.
He graduated from Miami Beach High in 1958, spent two years at the University of Florida, transferred to Michigan his junior year and earned an accounting degree in 1962.
Sixty years later, Ross, 81, is a self-made real estate mogul worth an estimated $8.3 billion. He is ranked No. 102 on the Forbes 400 list of Wealthiest Americans. His Related Companies is one of the nation’s largest privately owned real estate development firms with a $60 billion portfolio including affordable housing and mixed-use residential, retail and office properties.
The one-time University of Michigan reject became the school’s biggest donor. He has given $478 million to the institution, including $100 million to the business school which bears his name.
He also has been the Miami Dolphins’ majority owner since 2009 and despite substantial investment in the organization, Hard Rock Stadium and many front office changes, the team has not won a playoff game since he took over.
Ross now finds himself in the national headlines as Brian Flores, who was recently fired as Dolphins head coach with a 24-25 record, accused Ross of offering him hundreds of thousands of dollars to lose games to secure a higher pick in the NFL Draft.
He vehemently denies the charge.
“With regards to the allegations being made by Brian Flores, I am a man of honor and integrity and cannot let them stand without responding,” Ross said in a statement. “I take great personal exception to these malicious attacks, and the truth must be known. His allegations are false, malicious, and defamatory. We understand there are media reports stating that the NFL intends to investigate his claims, and we will cooperate fully. I welcome that investigation and I am eager to defend my personal integrity, and the integrity and values of the entire Miami Dolphins organization, from these baseless, unfair and disparaging claims.”
Miami developer Jorge Pérez met Ross 42 years ago when both were young men launching their careers in affordable housing and competing for a project. They became fast friends, business partners and have developed tens of thousands of residential units together. Their families vacation together. Their wives and children became friends.
Pérez said he was “totally shocked” by the allegations.
“I would be absolutely shocked if I were to ever find out that Steve would do something illegal or immoral because we have talked about morality and ethics in business one trillion times and we both would step away from profits, step away from a business if something didn’t smell right,” Pérez said. “I have always found him above reproach, the straightest arrow I know. Even when we went to places like India, China and Latin America, where people have a little more dubious ways of doing things, we would totally stand clear of anything that would even smell of inappropriateness.
“As a matter of fact, I would put my name on a Bible and if someone asked, ‘Would this guy do something wrong?’ I’d say, ‘Absolutely not.’ ’’
Ross has said that running a professional sports team has proven more challenging than a multi-billion dollar real estate company.
“As much as I have a passion for sports, it’s a lot harder to be successful in sports than it is in business,” Ross, whose father was Canadian, told the Toronto Globe and Mail in a 2016 interview. “It’s more fun to run a real estate company.”
Pérez said Ross’ passion for sports is unmatched. When their families played Trivial Pursuit, Pérez did well with history and geography and Ross was the master of sports trivia. Ross played high school football, was an avid tennis player in his earlier years and now loves golf.
“Steve has been my best friend for over 40 years, and I would say I probably know him as well as anybody,’’ Pérez said. “He is used to winning and when he bought the team the hope was that in three months, they’d be Super Bowl champions. But it’s been an arduous process that has hurt Steve more than anybody else.
“He has found it is much more difficult to make the Dolphins successful than it is to make a real estate empire successful. I think that’s because he has much deeper knowledge of the decision making in the real estate business. In football there are so many moving parts; and they are in the sunshine, every decision you make is micro-reviewed by a million people, the media, the fans, the coaches, everyone’s a Monday Morning Quarterback.”
Ross became a rabid sports fan thanks to his maternal uncle, Max M. Fisher, the Detroit oil and real estate magnate known for his philanthropy. He became young Stephen’s role model. Fisher, who died in 2005 at age 96, was among America’s most influential Jewish leaders during the Cold War and advised several Republican presidents.
“When you can see someone like that growing up, it gives you the confidence that with hard work things can be accomplished,” Ross said of his uncle in a 2012 interview with Forbes.
Fisher’s company sponsored all the Detroit sporting events, so Ross got free tickets to see the Lions, Tigers and Red Wings. But his favorite team was the Michigan Wolverines football team. He would take a train from downtown Detroit to Ann Arbor on game days.
After graduating from Michigan, he went on to earn a law degree at Wayne State University in Detroit and then got a tax law degree from New York University. His uncle loaned him money for tuition.
He got a job as a tax attorney in Detroit, got bored, switched to real estate law, moved to New York City and got a job on Wall Street at Bear Stearns investment bank. He was fired in 1970.
Rather than apply for another job, he asked his mother for a $10,000 loan to invest in New York City real estate. He had learned enough in his tax law and finance jobs to figure out that affordable housing was a good investment for someone like himself without deep pockets.
He wrote up a business plan to develop government-financed housing that created tax shelters for wealthy, long-term investors. In 1972, he founded Related Housing and his niche business grew quickly.
Within a few years, he was making $500,000 and by 1980 the company had raised $40 million in equity and built 5,000 affordable housing units. He then expanded to office and retail development and became New York City’s largest developer.
Among Related’s signature projects is the 2.8 million-square-foot Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, where Ross lived in a penthouse overlooking Central Park with his second wife, jewelry designer Kara Ross, until they divorced last year.
His biggest project, Hudson Yards, opened in 2019 in Manhattan’s Far West Side. It is the most expansive privately owned commercial and residential development in U.S. history. Spanning 28 acres, the plans called for more than 20 million square feet of development, including five office towers, 4,000 housing units, a hotel, school, theater and more than 100 shops.
Ross now lives in one of the Hudson Yards towers and has an oceanfront mansion in Palm Beach.
A New York Magazine article about Ross and the project is titled: The Only Man Who Could Build Oz.
“In my mind, Steve and Related are the only company capable of pulling off the largest development in New York’s history,” Dan Doctoroff, former deputy mayor for economic development under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who helped negotiate the deal for the site, told the Miami Herald in 2016. “It was a huge risk. Steve made the commitment to go ahead. And he has stayed with it. There was nobody else with the creativity or the guts to do this.”
The project was scheduled to be completed by 2024 but has been impacted by the pandemic.
In all, Related has developed $60 billion worth of properties all over the world, from New York to Florida to California to Shanghai to Abu Dhabi. Related also owns Equinox Fitness and Soul Cycle.
“He knows how to take the right levels of risk,” Pérez said of Ross. “He has seen opportunities like Time Warner Center, Hudson Yards, projects people shied away from, and he was able to work them out very successfully. He plays huge attention to detail. He has vision and patience. And maybe his best characteristic is he has a great ability to pick very intelligent people and give them the leeway to make decisions and grow.”
While work and sports consume him, Ross is also deeply devoted to his daughters and philanthropy. He has two grown daughters from his first marriage to Nancy Ross, and became close with Kara’s two daughters, as well.
His philanthropic efforts are focused on education, the arts, racial equality, healthcare and sustainability. He is a trustee of the Lincoln Center, on the board of the Jackie Robinson Foundation and the World Resources Institute (WRI), where he established the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, an initiative to integrate environmental issues into urban planning.
He founded the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE) to use the unifying power of sport to advance race relations.
Among Flores’ claims in his lawsuit against the NFL and the Dolphins is that the league has racist hiring practices. The Dolphins were one of three teams in the league in 2020 with a Black coach and one of two with a Black general manager, Chris Grier. Jason Jenkins, the team’s senior vice president of communications and community affairs, is also Black.
Herb Coleman is a chef with SEED Miami, a catering company that feeds the homeless and other needy communities in South Florida. The Dolphins partnered with him at the start of the pandemic, and they have fed thousands of people. A few weeks ago, they fed 100 people in Perrine/Goulds.
“Stephen Ross and his organization fed people when no other billionaires stepped up and he’s been doing it for two years,” Coleman said. “I’m a 60-year-old African-American man raised in Overtown, and I don’t know what happened with Ross and Flores, but I have not seen racism in my dealings. I don’t have a dog in this fight but I have seen nothing but good work for the Black community from Stephen Ross and his team.”
Ross is accustomed to public scrutiny. He was criticized for throwing a $100,000-a-seat fundraiser for former President Donald Trump in the Hamptons in 2019. He has encountered naysayers in the business world. Dolphins fans have been critical for years. And now he is under the microscope as a target of Flores’ lawsuit.
Pérez has spoken to Ross since Flores’ allegations. He said Ross will handle it the way he handles everything.
“He’s very passionate and has very thick skin,” Pérez said. “I call him the Teflon man. Sometimes something goes wrong and he’s almost impervious to it. He will run through anything. As long as he knows he is doing things the right way, and he is the straightest arrow I know, he is at peace. He sees the light at the end of the tunnel.”
This story was originally published February 4, 2022 8:07 PM.