Albert Ratner on Family, Community, Business and Longevity
Meet the man behind Cleveland’s development in the 21st century.
Written by: Abigail Preiszig
“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!”
- Edwin Markham
When he was a child, Albert Ratner’s mom taught him and his sister this poem.
“It’s always been about enlarging the circle,” said Ratner. “There must be a community circle in which all these people get together, and if they all agree initially you have the wrong people.”
The Ratner family has been a driving force behind the development of Cleveland since 1912 when Charlie Ratner immigrated from Russia and began a lumber business that grew into a realty development company.
Albert Ratner is a Cleveland businessman who has made it a priority to keep his “circle” of Cleveland great, saying, “if your town isn’t great it’s because you didn’t make it great.” He has accomplished much and held many titles in his lifetime, most notably former CEO of Forest City Realty Trust, Inc.
“I don’t think in terms of everything I have to do,” said Ratner. “I just think in terms of what else is there that I can do.”
He has three priorities in life: family, community, then business. His mother taught him that these are most important because “if you have a great family and a great community, you’ll have a great business.”
His family and Jewish heritage impacted the way he views the world and the way he conducts business. His focus on community is evident in his many philanthropic contributions (although Ratner does not consider himself a philanthropist).
“My mom taught me one of my most valuable lessons, which is, there is no limit to what you can do if you don’t care who gets credit,” he said. “All of these things to me have never been about me because I always felt that the only thing that could satisfy me is if things were better, and the only time you can make things better is if you can work in a community.”
Many regard Ratner’s transformation of Terminal Tower into Tower City as the catalyst for the rebirth of downtown Cleveland. “When we lit the tower, people started to lift their eyes,” he remarked. This change brought retail and people back to downtown Cleveland and became the blueprint for Forest City Realty’s community development across the country.
Despite revitalizing the city, it was not a great financial success for his business. “Part of it was timing,” said Ratner. “I thought the timing was right, but it was maybe 10 years too early.”
Another venture that turned out differently than intended is Global Cleveland, an organization that “attracts, welcomes and connects international newcomers to economic, social and educational opportunities in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County.” They offer language access, professional connection and community navigation programs for immigrants.
In 2011, he theorized that the only way Cleveland could grow is if it increased the population through immigration. As he traveled the country he noticed cities that were growing were the cities that welcomed immigrants.
“Much like Tower City, I was totally wrong,” recalled Ratner. “What you see now is that we are at a lower population, but we are doing much better.”
Over time, he found that the solution to advancing Cleveland came from a combination of increasing the population of people that bring in higher incomes than the average and ensuring that the people in your community continually do better.
Despite being wrong in his initial theory, the success of Global Cleveland is greater than Ratner ever dreamed. He believes immigrants are a great asset to the community and that they spur the public to progress further: “They are much like my father was when he came, and his family. They are hungrier. They’ve come from countries who have had much worse conditions — where they didn’t have freedom; and they have a higher idea of the potential than when you live in a country and take everything for granted.”
Education is also an important factor in helping the community do better.
When co-writing his new book, The Great Reboot: Cracking the Longevity Code for a Younger Tomorrow, Ratner found that education is a subset of longevity. When people have access to education, they in turn have higher incomes, which affords them healthier food and better living conditions — thus, lengthening their lives.
“Everyone talks about education,” said Ratner. “When you look at people, it’s only one person at a time.” Rather than trying to educate thousands of people at once, Ratner believes each person should find one other person and educate them — leading to a more educated community.
“I am a very bottom-up rather than top-down guy. You can pass all the bills you want to pass, but look at how much of that money gets down at the level that it’s needed. We’ve had our most successes going into communities and working with those people in the communities because they are the only people that can solve the problems.”
Ratner draws inspiration from Theodore Roosevelt's speech about the man in the arena, explaining that people in the arena fail and get up again — better to be in the arena and know defeat than sit through life and be a critic.
“The key to it is to just be in the arena. That is where the hope is. That is where the action is. That is where the opportunity is,” said Ratner.
The Great Reboot: Cracking the Longevity Code for a Younger Tomorrow will be published, along with a show and an app, by National Geographic this summer. Dr. Michael Roizen, Peter Linneman and Albert Ratner work together to discuss “the next great disruptor,” longevity. In the book they predict that “90 will be the new 40” and explain promising medical breakthroughs that could prolong life, exploring how this could change our economy.