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The Teflon Don

NJBIZ at 25

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Dos Equis may already have its preferred pitchman for its beer, but if it wanted a truer-to-life Most Interesting Man in the World, it might find it in Donald Trump.

No, the police have never questioned him just because they found him interesting, but consider: He has flirted with the presidency multiple times, and was briefly a front-runner in 2011; was tapped to drive the celebrity pace car of the Indy 500, but backed out; has appeared ringside at WrestleMania; was roasted by Snoop Dogg on Comedy Central; paid researchers to investigate Barack Obama's birth certificate; served as a boxing promoter for Mike Tyson; derailed Rosie O'Donnell's career comeback; has a hairstyle that's sparked countless articles; owns Miss Universe; and has fired dozens of bright-eyed youngsters on national network television.

And that's all without leaving the society page. How does his business career stack up with the best of New Jersey's past quarter-century? Is he a legend, or one of the fallen? Sources we spoke with went back and forth on this one, and we did, too. "The Donald" is larger than life in almost all his endeavors — part of the secret of his success — and he's really too big to put on either of the already-mentioned lists.

Whether you consider him a legend or loser probably traces back to his handling of Atlantic City's casinos. He officially got his start in 1986, when he bought out Holiday Inn's casino and rebranded it Trump Plaza, and he later added Trump Marina and the $1 billion Trump Taj Mahal. That's an impressive lineup, but critics will point out that Trump Entertainment Resorts, the company running his Atlantic City empire, declared bankruptcy three times between 1991 and 2009, with Trump's stock ownership reportedly being slashed in the restructuring deals.

"I don't know how you classify that as winning, but he tries to," said one Atlantic City insider of those bankruptcies. Only with Trump now on the outs, the source said, have the three properties eliminated their "silo mentality" and focused on working together.

Putting the casinos aside, you've still got Trump Shuttle (never turned a profit in four years), Trump Vodka (poured down the drain in four years), Trump Magazine (actually, there were three; the most recent attempt at this oft-recycled idea was scuttled after two years), and perhaps best of all, Trump: The Game, a Monopoly knockoff that had underwhelming sales in 1989 and was discontinued. Inexplicably, the board game was revived in 2004 following the success of "The Apprentice"; the only addition seems to be the catchphrase "You're fired!" from the TV show.

Any two of those disasters together probably puts you on the fallen stars list, yet Trump still endures. "Has he created the greatest illusionary spectacle (for the public)? Yes," said one insider.

And it's not as though everything he's touched has fallen apart. He has had success in real estate, particularly some of his early projects in New York, and of late, he's done well — and won accolades — in golf courses. The single-digit handicapper has built two Trump National Golf Clubs in New Jersey, in Bedminster and Colts Neck; he's aiming to put a cemetery for the rich and famous on the grounds of the club in Bedminster, in which he himself would be interred, over the objections of critics who say the Atlantic City Boardwalk might be a more fitting resting place. He hasn't yet succeeded in getting golf's governing body in the United States to bring the U.S. Open to Trump National, but few who walk off the greens after 18 holes say they're disappointed by the experience.

"I think Donald today, for the first time, has money," an influential developer said. Before that, he was just a developer "with a great brand. … He's been able to come back from the depths, when he was probably broke."

One source, who would have put him at the top of the fallen stars list, characterized him as "the most egocentric being I've met" — to the point where the water bottles at his golf courses bear his likeness — "but he's the Teflon man." Trump hasn't become a legend by being a success, but whether it's his charisma or his brand, his failures don't stick to him. That might be another entry in his quest to be honored as the world's most interesting man. –Joe Arney

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