This Billionaire Started Out as a Man With a Van

Bloomberg - October 5, 2016

Moishe Mana arrived in New York from Israel in the 1980s and turned his “man with a van” delivery gig into one of the city’s great moving and storage companies. Trucks bearing the Moishe’s Moving name rumbled everywhere on Manhattan streets.

Today, the 59-year-old Mana has little to do with the business that helped make him a billionaire. The man who claims to have once faced down Mob boss John Gotti Jr. would rather talk about art, specifically the abandoned warehouses and dilapidated properties in run-down parts of New York, New Jersey and Chicago that he snapped up to convert into urban arts and cultural meccas.

Now the Israeli immigrant wants to do the same in Miami, but on a far more ambitious scale. He’s become the single biggest landholder in Miami’s Wynwood section, a gentrifying area north of downtown. Here, he’s proposing a massive, high-rise development of residential and office space to lure technology companies and international trade businesses -- built around museums, art spaces and dance studios.

Mana insists his focus on cultural attractions distinguishes him from a typical developer, a term he rejects with almost as much scorn as he reserves for a certain better-known builder, Donald Trump.

“I don’t take a building and just do condos,” he says in a thick Israeli accent. “I bought 45 buildings in two years in Miami because I build lifestyles around neighborhoods. My business model is a bit different.”

Art Collection

To that end, he says he will experiment in Wynwood with solving the problem of artists getting priced out of neighborhoods where real estate is booming: they would pay rent for micro apartments with their work. That happens to fit his endgame of accumulating an art collection that one day is more valuable than his land.

Mana’s fortune is valued at $1.1 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the first time he appears on a global wealth ranking. And most of it today is in real estate.

Often seen wearing dark sunglasses and T-shirts or collared shirts with a couple buttons undone, Mana drives a Mercedes sedan, which is not saying much in America’s luxury car capital. He doesn’t indulge in all the excesses his wealth could afford him, his friends say.

“He could, but he never would, own a private jet," says Eugene Lemay, his longtime business partner.

Brooklyn Building

Mana came to America on a one-way ticket in his mid-20s. Living in a derelict building in Brooklyn, he took a job with an Israeli renovations contractor, and soon bartered to use his van for night deliveries.

He started out delivering towels to gay saunas and eventually turned the gig into Moishe’s Moving. His non-union prices undercut the trade union monopoly, and his moving business made him a millionaire in just a few years.

Mana also founded a document management company, GRM, which is now more like a tech company with imaging and digital storage serving 15 U.S. cities, a business that the Bloomberg index values at more than $200 million.

Milk Studios

But real estate was in his blood; he was, after all, the son of real estate brokers. He bought a building in New York’s then-neglected Meatpacking District in 1998, and set up Milk Studios for fashion photography.

Mana’s transition to the art world started when clients sought his help storing their collections. The idea evolved into Mana Contemporary, a 1 million-square-foot cultural center in an old tobacco warehouse in the former industrial backwater of Jersey City. It includes art studios, exhibition spaces and art storage.

Mana is already a major player in downtown Miami, having spent about $300 million purchasing properties. “He bought by the pound, not the ounce,” said Lyle Chariff, president of Chariff Realty Group in Miami.

He’s taken a similarly aggressive approach in Wynwood, where since 2009 he’s acquired more than 40 acres of land. He recently received approval to build 9 million square feet with buildings as high as 24 stories, the previous limit was 12.

Cultural Institutions

Some residents early on objected to the scale of the development, coming at a time when gentrification was already well under way in Wynwood, driving a handful of art galleries to less-hyped Little Haiti nearby. “Gentrification is bad for a community when identity and culture starts to get washed clean," said Books Bischof, a partner at Primary art gallery.

Mana’s company eventually satisfied critics by agreeing to lure institutions involved in dance, painting, photography and other art before building high-rises. Gentrification is “absolutely natural,” he said, “if anything, it really enhances the neighborhood.”

He’s already pledged to offer artists affordable living arrangements and work spaces that would be shared with techies and medical professionals. At the same time, he has a vision of creating a hub of trading-related businesses to sustain the neighborhood and wean it off its reliance on tourism -- which was hit by the recent Zika scare.

"You can build so many restaurants and coffee shops and galleries, but if you don’t have business next to you, it’s not going to hold," he said.

Art, Politics

Miami has afforded Mana with an unusual opportunity to mix art and politics. The Israeli immigrant despises Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rants, offering to give $2 million to charity if Trump would disclose his tax returns. When that didn’t work, he had another idea.

He asked the anarchist art collective Indecline to install an unflattering naked statue of Trump. The piece, titled "The Emperor Has No Balls," was later stolen and recovered but it had no head or legs either. Mana restored it.

That experience pales compared to what he said he endured building his moving business, like people shooting out windows of his offices and trucks. One day, he said, he received a call from a man identifying himself as John Gotti, the now-deceased Mafia boss, who was unhappy with his use of non-union labor.

“I had no idea who he was," Mana said, with characteristic chutzpah. "I said you can kill me but there will be many others behind me too."