By Harry Keaney
Joseph Murphy is a believer in what he calls "the power of one," the idea that a single individual can achieve much, contribute much and, indeed, change things. It’s an idea to which Murphy’s own life and career bears eloquent testimony.
He’s an optimist, perhaps even an idealist. And now, as he eases gracefully into his mid-60s, this son of immigrants from Cork and Tipperary has lost none of the shrewdness that has vaulted him from austerity to affluence.
Witness the recent purchase of the bankrupt Concord Resort Hotel, in New York’s Catskill Mountains, by a Murphy-led limited partnership called Concord Associates. The $10.25 million price tag is seen as a bargain, particularly since it was less than half of what Murphy originally planned to pay.
In the Concord, Murphy bought more than a 1,200-room hotel. It’s a storied institution, owned virtually since its inception, in the 1930s, by the Parker family. By the 1950s, the gilded age of the Catskills, it was one of the East Coast’s top vacation spots, part of the so-called Borscht Belt because of its popularity with Jewish families.
By the 1960s and ’70s, however, the easy availability of jet travel was a harbinger of trouble as people flew off to places like Florida, Atlantic City, even Europe. There was an economic downturn, and taxes and insurance rates increased. One by one, Borscht Belt resorts closed; the Concord held on until last November, when, laden with debt, it too was forced to close.
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But now, hope springs anew in the Catskills, generated in no small part by plans for massive investment in the Concord as well as by improved prospects for casino gambling in the region. The Concord, with almost 1,000 workers, many of whom have spent 40 to 50 years or more in the place, is also the largest employer in Sullivan County.
Murphy’s group plans to work with the Sheraton chain in carrying out multi-million-dollar renovations to attract business travelers, conventioneers and outdoor enthusiasts. It will be called the Sheraton Concord Resort Hotel and Convention Center, and will be marketed as a top-notch resort on 1,710 acres with three golf courses, 40 indoor and outdoor tennis courts and an array of recreational activities.
"This is the biggest convention-size hotel in the metropolitan area outside of New York," Murphy told the New York Times. "The natural attributes of the area are obvious. It takes an hour and a half, two hours, to get here for 20 million people in the metropolitan area. And it’s a tank of gas away from the 70 million people in all of New York State. We’re saying, if you build it, they will come."
Murphy’s plans for the 1,700-acre site includes two or three new golf courses in addition to the existing three, 24-hour restaurants, new cross-country skiing trails, a full-service spa and a golf school. This in addition to refurbishing the downhill ski slopes (the Concord has its own mountain), the horse trails, the indoor and outdoor pools, skating rinks and tennis courts.
In the beginning
Back in the heyday of the Concord, Murphy was concluding his service as a Marine platoon sergeant, subsequently setting out a career that would make him a millionaire by the time he was 35.
As a youngster, work and education were his dominant influences. His family was not well off.
He was born in 1935 in the Inwood section of Manhattan. His father, Michael, from Dunworley, Co. Cork, was a teamster with Air Express; his mother was May Sullivan, from Ballyporeen, Co. Tipperary. She died when Murphy was 16. She left two other children: Kathleen, 14, and Sheila, 12.
"Growing up was tough, but my mother was wise enough to send us to Good Shepherd Grammar School in Upper Manhattan," he said. "Catholic schools were, as they are today, terrific."
Subsequently he attended Rice High School in Harlem, run by the Christian Brothers, where he was, he admits, an "average student."
"It seemed life required that I work after school in all kinds of jobs, as a messenger, in restaurants," Murphy said. "My mother was ill for quite a few years before she died and I took care of the family. Going to high school, the brothers ‘adopted’ me and gave me a scholarship to Iona College. The entry to Rice High and the scholarship to Iona were critical way points on the road to where I was going."
But there was an interruption. After a year in Iona, he joined the Marines, ending up in Korea. Three years later, he returned, graduating with a degree in business administration in 1959.
"By that time I was married with two children and working full time at night," he said.
He often did his homework on the train as he traveled between New Rochelle, where Iona is located, and his place of work at the time, First National City Bank, in lower Manhattan. In 1961, he became a CPA and worked with, among others, Price Waterhouse.
From 1970 to 1990, Murphy was president of the Lambert Brussels Corporation and the Lambert Brussels Real Estate Corporation. In that position he was responsible for the $2.5 billion capital of Groupe Bruxelles Lambert, of New York.
Today, he is chairman of Value Investors, Inc., a real estate investment company whose portfolio includes two large buildings, one in Pittsburgh, the other in St. Louis, as well as other smaller real estate holdings.
But hard work and business acumen are only two keys to understanding Joe Murphy. There’s also his curiosity, an outgrowth, perhaps, of his Christian Brothers-imbued love for education and knowledge.
When he worked days at First National, he visited the New York Stock Exchange, watched the goings-on there and, in time, came to know virtually all of the ticker names.
A similar curiosity led to his appreciation of ballet and opera. Years later, when someone suggested that he change the name of Barbizon Plaza, one of the Manhattan hotels his company owned, he demurred. Instead, he visited Barbizon, in France, and found out all he could about the town.
In 1981, he sold the 900-room Barbizon to Donald Trump.
Of course, when in Barbizon, he made it his business to familiarize himself with the Barbizon School of Art. Murphy is a passionate lover of art, particularly works by contemporary Irish artists such as Louis le Brocquy, Sean Keating, Nathaniel Hone, William Sheehan, William Crozier and Brian Maguire.
"I am fascinated by human beings’ ability to create beautiful things with art," he said. "It starts with a curiosity and takes on a yearning for knowledge that may exist above and beyond the day to day mundane working for a living.
"Ireland is great country for literature," Murphy added, "but art tells a completely different picture. Art can convey a history much more concisely than a literal history. History can be passed down literally and visually but attention has not been focused on the visual arts."
Murphy has already set about correcting this deficiency. When Ireland’s National Art Gallery undertook a U.S. tour in 1993, many Irish Americans were dismayed to discover it did not include any paintings by Irish artists. When this came to Murphy’s attention through an article in Art & Antiques magazine, he decided to do something about it.
He co-sponsored a 1995 U.S. tour by the Crawford Gallery of Cork that included a variety of paintings and sculptures dating from 1776 to 1995, the majority featuring artists from the late 20th Century, all of them Irish.
His interest in art goes back to the mid-1960s. He recalls having been in New Mexico for his sister’s wedding and visiting a local art gallery promoting the works of Peter Hurd.
He began to collect different pieces and, since 1982, when he and his wife, JoAnn, who has a degree in art history, purchased their first Louis le Brocquy oil painting, the couple have been regular buyers at Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions.
While working with the Lambert Brussels Corporation, the Belgian baron, Lambert, designed his bank and filled it with art. "I became aware of European executives’ sophistication relative to art," Murphy said.
It’s an idea he has already put into practice in his own family’s bank, Country Bank, of which he is chairman.
Sligoman and former Bank of Ireland senior vice president Bill Burke is president of the bank.
Although the artwork undoubtedly adds Irish character to Country Bank, Murphy is striving for something even more intrinsically Irish.
"I have a theory that big banks are relatively impersonal," Murphy said. "For a community bank, such as we are, we have the opportunity to be something. The Country Bank can be a personality and can be known for its friendly service, typical to that which you might find if you visited Ireland. Most people who visit Ireland don’t come back saying ‘Boy, the museums were terrific.’ They say, ‘The people were wonderful.’ The question is, how do you take that whole feeling of good service and high quality and infuse that into a banking environment. If I can succeed in doing that, then I think we will have succeeded in giving the bank a character. And that character can be distinctly Irish."
If wealth, corporate directorships and the like are barometers of business success, then Joe Murphy undoubtedly qualifies. However, it’s a measurement one suspects Murphy himself would regard as shallow.
Last year, he gave his alma mater Iona College a gift of $5 million, the largest in its 58-year history. Recalling how the Christian Brothers had taken him from the streets of Inwood, where he parleyed nickels earned as a shoeshine boy into dollars earned selling newspapers, Murphy said he owed the brothers a deep debt of gratitude. "Without their guidance and commitment to my education, it is doubtful I would have the blessings of success in life," he said.
He previously had given about $4 million to the college, and contributed to the Murphy Center for Sciences and Technology which was opened in 1984 in honor of his parents. Mazzella Field, also at the college, is named in honor of his wife’s family.
He also donated to Rice High School to enable it open a computer library, and was chair of the school’s 90th anniversary dinner in honor of the beatification of Brother Edmund Rice, the Irishman who founded the Christian Brothers.
His two oldest children, the twins, Patricia and Joseph Jr., born while he was in his senior year at Iona, are diabetics. (He has three other children and six grandchildren). Murphy now knows as much as anyone about diabetes, one of the fastest growing diseases in America. A committee of which he is chairman raised $36 million for the Berrie Diabetes Center, one of the best in the entire U.S. which was opened last October at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. He and his wife are also on the board of the new center.
For Murphy, it’s all part of what he regards as the responsibility that comes with economic success, a responsibility that has made him a particularly generous benefactor of schools and church — the influences that, in large measure, shaped him at the outset.
"The most satisfying thing is not making money but what an individual can do to make a place better than they found it," he said.