Ron Rubin Was Here

He’s left a bigger mark on Philly than anyone this side of Willard Rouse, and now, at 77, he wants to put a casino in Strawbridge’s. The key to being Ron Rubin? Patience, and knowing how deals here really get done

But then, slowly, another side emerges. I get a glimpse of that when he shares the big reason, as Rubin himself understands it, why he’s flourished for so long in such a demanding game.

Rubin flunked out of Penn State his first year; when he came home to West Philadelphia, his father, who had a company that leased land to gas stations, said to him, “Son, you are the biggest disappointment in my whole life.”

Everything changed in that moment for Rubin — it’s almost 60 years later, and those words are still fresh for him. Not as raw pain, but in his own view of the arc of his career. It would rise, and keep rising. It had to. “It was the seminal moment in my whole life,” Rubin says. “That comment by my father.”

Ron idolized his father. He couldn’t stand the idea that he had disappointed him. Changing his father’s opinion would take time, so Ron went to work in the shipping department of a sportswear company. That was the beginning of the climb back. A couple years later, Ron started working for his father, who’d made his own long climb. It took still more time, and meant everything to Ron, whether or not his father would grow to respect him: “I think eventually he did,” he says.

The self-effacing directness is not just his nature but part of Rubin’s strength: People like doing deals with him. He always leaves a few nickels on the table. With me, he’s shifted the mood entirely: As a builder in a big city, Rubin says, “Every time you make a decision, people can criticize you. I’m not impervious. It’s life. I’m a big boy.” We wind up as two fellows having a conversation.

Yet I’ve learned something important about how he works. It tends to be a mystery, to the rest of us, just why a man pushing 80, who’s fabulously rich and successful, would bother becoming even richer and more successful. But he won’t relent; his arc must keeping rising. Which explains why he’s in the casino game, and why it’s a man like Ron Rubin who has everything to do with what kind of city we build.

THERE WAS ANOTHER crucial influence on Rubin’s career, someone he got to know back in the early ’70s: Warren Bevan, who ran Equitable Real Estate Company. Without him, Rubin’s career might have been much smaller and stayed within his father’s run-of-the-mill leasing business. Warren Bevan had money to invest, and he needed a developer.

Bevan catapulted Rubin to the next level, and beyond, fast. “He had a way of looking at a piece of real estate,” Bevan says. “You could give Ronald a project and watch him think.” Rubin would buy and refurbish One Penn Center. He bought One Meridian Plaza (then lost it in a fire that killed three firefighters) and the Channel 10 building on City Avenue; he built the Mellon Bank Center. By the mid-’80s, Rubin controlled millions of feet of office space in the city, more than anyone else. He built malls: Christiana, Willow Grove, Moorestown. He expanded out of the region, with more malls up and down the East Coast. Warren Bevan, who invested in most of these deals, made Ron Rubin’s rise possible.