Making his MARK by Michaela Cordes | 31st August, 2018 | Personalities
Black and white with a touch of orange – since its reopening The Mark on the Upper East Side of Manhattan has become the chicest hotspot in town. Who would have known that this remarkable hotel, recently voted “the best city hotel in the world,” was the careful creation of its mulitalented owner: Izak Senbahar, born in Turkey, with a technical engineering degree and a secret passion for playing the bongos. GG met the mastermind behind The Mark whose next move will be Paris.
From the Alexico Group offices on the 33rd floor of a midtown Manhattan office building, my view through large windows is dominated by the impressive skyscrapers that form New York’s concrete jungle. On the office desk of Alexico’s president Izak Senbahar, huge piles of paper create a very similar scenario. “Each pile represents one of my projects,” says the dynamic businessman who could easily pass for actor Al Pacino’s younger brother. “I write down notes and thoughts wherever I am, collect them here and send them off to my team. This one,” he says, pointing to the pile closest to him, “are all my current notes on The Mark!”
Mr. Senbahar, last year the German business publication Bilanz-Magazine declared The Mark Hotel the “best city hotel in the world.” Since its opening seven years ago, your hotel has won all kinds of prestigious awards. It has clearly become one of the most successful luxury hotels in the world. But you seem to be quite humble and understated about that… (He smiles) It’s like synchronized swimming. It looks effortless but under the water we work very hard. I have a passion for The Mark and the brand. I kind of wanted to make it the best hotel in New York – and really in the world. I am obsessive about the details – visually, aesthetically, service-wise and experience-wise. I study hotels. I love hotels!
But this is your first hotel, right? No, I’ve built and managed many hotels before. But not really to this level.
Who designed The Mark? We selected Jacques Grange to reimagine the whole place and his black-and-white theme in the lobby became a fashion statement and set a trend for many others. We also commissioned very talented artists like Ron Arad, Eric Schmitt, Vladimir Kagan, Mattia Bonetti, Paul Mathieu and a few others to create one-of-a-kind furnishings and artworks exclusively for The Mark Collection.
Are you involved in the day-to-day operations? My day is broken down into two. Until 5:30 pm I am in real estate and construction. At 5:30 I get a cup of coffee and a piece of chocolate and sit down and concentrate on The Mark Hotel and the brand. Branding The Mark has become my passion. I go over all the marketing materials, social media, hotel operations, look at what is trending, new ideas, new amenities, improvements, and so on. Whatever I can think of to create the best experience for our guests.
What makes The Mark so different from other hotels? Our mission is to make The Mark experience memorable. We strive to make it a luxurious, hassle-free environment. Everything is a “YES” unless it is a crazy request. At check-out we ask you “How can we make your next stay better? Is there anything you want us to improve?” We value feedback (good or bad). All the feedback is shared in internal meetings and acted upon. I think people are moving a little away from material things and valuing experiences a lot more. For my birthdays or anniversaries I prefer a trip to a gift any day. When you travel with friends and loved ones you create priceless memories for a lifetime. There is no substitute for that. I think in The Mark our job is to make you have a memorable experience that will stay with you forever and condition you to come back and repeat. When you think New York, we want you to think The Mark! You remember Pavlov’s dog?
You were born in Turkey and left home to study in the U.S. when you were 17. You became a mechanical engineer and today you own the Alexico Group, which is known for building some of the most beautiful and design-inspired residential buildings in New York City. That’s quite an unusual career for the son of a bra maker from Istanbul. How did you get started back then? Don’t underestimate bra making, it has its own perks (he smiles again). My parents sent me to the French Lycée in Istanbul. It was a strong school. When I graduated in 1977, Turkey was going through a difficult time. There were fascists, communists, socialists, all kind of movements and the hostility between these groups exploded at the universities. It became so bad that universities had to close for months at a time. My father decided that I needed to go abroad to continue my education. He was a big believer in education. The Lycée helped us with placements abroad and the government lifted restrictions for travel and foreign exchange if you scored high in the national university entrance exam that you needed to take in order to go to university. I did score high and was slated to go to Lausanne, Switzerland. A friend of mine who went to scout the place said “Lausanne! So grown-up! Only one club! And everybody is in bed by midnight. We will die out there!” We were 17 years old, and Istanbul was a party town, we loved to party and go out. So my other friend said: “I’m going to talk to my father. He has a friend who is the dean of engineering at a university in Washington.” Next thing you knew, we were off to the States!
Were you open to that idea? Are you kidding? I was thrilled! The dean said: “Send the boys over, I’ll take care of them.” And you know what, the dean and his family became our family – they took care of us, helped us with everything. We didn’t speak a word of English. And when I graduated with a mechanical engineering degree he said to me “Izak, you have a good business mind, you should do an MBA in New York, it is where business is.” So I went to NYU and fell in love with the city. I took a liking to trading on Wall Street and took a foreign exchange trading class. The teacher was this big guy, Heinz Riehl – a German guy. He was the head trader at Citibank and at night he taught a foreign exchange trading class for fun. It was a large class and I always sat in the back. The day after the final exam, in the last class before graduation, he called my name and said “Mr. Senbahar, do you want a job?” I said “Yes – is this a joke?” (I didn’t have a green card and getting interviews was very hard). He answered: “I don’t know if I told you guys this, but whoever gets the best grade in the final gets a job offer from me.” After the class a lady who was in the same class stopped me and told me her husband was the vice president of a large French commodity trading firm called Sucre et Denrees and that I should meet him. So I did. I really liked him and the firm and I ended up passing on the job at Citibank and went to work for Sucre et Denrees. I did well and became the head trader in less than three years. That got attention in the industry and Goldman Sachs offered me a job. I accepted and quit my other job but then declined when the job’s location suddenly became London. I didn’t want to leave New York.
So how did you end up in construction? While I was figuring out what to do next, a friend contacted me and told me about a Turkish construction firm that wanted to build a skyscraper in Manhattan. I laughed because I didn’t know anything about construction. But then I met the owner who was in town for a week. We went for a drink, I told him I had zero knowledge of the business. He said, “Look, I don’t know anybody else in New York, I don’t speak English. You speak English and you are an engineer – you are my man.” I was nervous and asked him if we could maybe start with building a small townhouse. I still remember his answer. “You are young and you have time, I am in my sixties and I have no time to waste. Don’t worry about my money. We will build a big building. I will teach you.” So I figured okay, I had warned him enough. We built a great building at 353 Central Park West that still looks good today. Then we built another high-rise on the East Side. After that he said he wanted to get into infrastructural work. I, on the other hand, wanted to continue and build more luxury residential buildings. So I formed my own company and continued building.
Paying a lot of attention to detail – is that something you grew up with? I don’t think so. It came to me gradually. As I continued building I got more and more enamored with design and aesthetics. Good design gave me enjoyment and bad design bothered me. If a hotel room doesn’t make me feel good I change rooms. In hotels I go to regularly, I know exactly what rooms I like. But in a new hotel (he laughs as he says this), my wife will wait in the lobby until I find the right room. But I do it in a nice way. I just tell the receptionist: “I am not happy, I need a different room.”
Another thing that makes The Mark so different from other hotels is that it has become such a strong and quite chic brand… I really like branding. With Jacques Grange we created a timeless and unique product. The unique design coupled with the location and the service level from the seasoned staff caught the eye of trendsetters, fashion and art people. And Hollywood followed. It is private, chic, intimate, and in my humble opinion, beautiful.
So you really are the mastermind behind it all. Were you personally involved in every little detail when you created this hotel? I sat in almost every kind of chair and tried 11 different mattresses. I tried the shower, soaps, shampoos, croissants, forks, coffee. You name it, and I have tried it. I will do the same when we start building the next The Mark. We just signed in Paris. I want to do three more in the first phase. We are looking in London and also in Los Angeles. We need great locations and it is difficult to find the right locations. The Mark Paris will be on the river right across from the Eiffel Tower, with a rooftop and a spa. We are designing it with Jacques Grange and the same team. It’s so exciting to work with such a talent pool.
Do you think part of your success is due to the fact that you love to socialize? Does it help to know how to be a good host? If you want to be a hotelier and you want to be successful, you have to like people. You have to like the service business. If you are an introvert, try something else. The hotel business is a social business.
What are the essentials of a hotel room? The essentials of a hotel room are good aesthetics, a high-water-pressure shower, a firm bed, luxurious linens, a big TV and fast Wi-Fi. … the best feature in my room is the water pressure, by the way… (He laughs )…. Everybody loves good water pressure.
How about good lighting? Very important. I don’t let anybody touch lighting except for our lighting consultant Herve Descottes. He does all the settings in our computerized system and nobody is allowed to mess with it. I don’t like lobbies that are so bright that when you enter you feel like you are walking into a surgery room.
Do you train your staff yourself to take this special approach to service? There is one great thing about this business: a lot of young, smart, international students come out of Lausanne or Cornell and all the other great hotel schools around the globe. So there is a huge international talent pool who enters the hotel business year after year. Our staff is trained by our general manager Olivier Lordonnois. We meet every Tuesday morning and go over everything from service to aesthetics to other daily business. We discuss any comments we have received from guests. It is always about what we can do to improve, and our commitment to excellence.
One of the biggest and most glamorous events in NYC is the yearly Met Gala, for which stars like Rihanna, Gigi Hadid or Kendall Jenner get ready in your hotel. After the official gala event, The Mark very often hosts the spectacular after-party… Almost everyone gets dressed at The Mark and that creates a surreal atmosphere for the departures for the Met Gala. Most of the time we have the Met Gala after-party where everyone returns to The Mark after the dinner. We have had incredible performances from Justin Timberlake to Migos. This year’s Met Gala after-party was hosted by Donatella Versace and Anna Winter. It was pretty awesome.
How much of your success do you think is due to the fact that you bring a European eye and feel to the New York hotel market? I do think there is quite a bit of appreciation for European flair in New York. Europeans are more seasoned hoteliers because of their long history with old-world hotels. That does not mean, however, that the Americans are not doing it right. In fact, America has been very successfully emulating the old European-style service and often besting it. You have to create the right ambiance. To me, the question is always – how do we make somebody feel good and at home.
How many people work at The Mark? We have a big staff of around 300. We run a very heavy service business. We involve the entire staff and ask for feedback on a daily basis. Every staff member feels as if they are part of the family. We have a very good team under the watch of Olivier Lordonnois. Where is he from? He’s French. We imported him.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy forced many downtown New Yorkers to find refuge in uptown hotels when their apartment buildings flooded. The Mark was omnipresent in the local papers during that time since many prominent personalities made The Mark their new home. It felt like The Mark had made uptown hip again all of a sudden. Was that a turning point for your hotel? I wouldn’t call it a turning point since The Mark was already rocking. During Sandy, it looked like the lobby of a hotel in Gstaad in continuous apres-ski mode for 72 hours. Everybody was stuck indoors and hanging out in the lobby, the bar, the restaurant. We kept everything open around the clock. Jean-Georges Vongerichten himself kept delivering food from his other restaurants where the food needed to be rescued because of the lack of electricity. It was a never-ending party! What happened after that was an instant appreciation for uptown and Madison Avenue for its manicured and luxurious look and feel. Cool downtowners felt nostalgic and started frequenting uptown again. Now people from downtown come up to me and say “Izak, you really mixed the best of downtown and uptown and created an incredible ambiance in this place!
The location of The Mark hotel was just as legendary as that of the Carlyle Hotel just a few yards away, and was originally constructed in 1927. What was your vision when you signed the sales contract in 2006? I had big plans. I wanted to create a mecca for fashion, Hollywood, art and business. I wanted a homey but arresting design. I wanted European flair. I wanted a bar and a restaurant with a wide menu from caviar to pizza.
Are your sons Alexi and Oliver interested in becoming part of the business? Yes. One of them is already working with me and just finished work on the Herzog & de Meuron tower we just completed. He has now started to attend The Mark brainstorming meetings. Our creative team
and myself sit around a table for a few hours weekly and try to create things
like the hotdog cart, flower cart, Bergdorf’s 24-hour delivery, The Mark
pedicabs, The Mark Boat, etc. We are always trying to come up with original
ideas and trends that we feel add to our guests’ experience.
Your latest residential project, the spectacular 60-story building designed by Herzog & de Meuron on 56 Leonard, also recently made headlines when all the apartments sold in record time… We sold a billion dollars’ worth of residences in six months. I don’t think any other building in New York has had that kind of velocity. It was exciting because this was our second try. Our first try coincided with the 2008 recession. Actually, we originally opened our sales office the very same day Lehman Brothers went bust (of course we didn’t plan it that way!). The financial crisis put a hold on construction for four years. You need patience in this business.
One last question: I remember a fantastic New Year’s Eve party where the highlight was you playing the bongos with Paul McCartney. How come you’re such a good bongo player? (Smiling) I can play. It all started in school banging on wooden desks and then with pots and pans at home. I would bang on anything and everything you can think of. It would drive my mother crazy until one day she started dancing to my beat. I knew then, I had made it into the big leagues (he chuckles). Once I was able to afford to hire bands or DJs for parties I would join in and perform here and there. The New Year’s Eve party you just mentioned was a lot of fun. We brought down the house!