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A Spectacular Success, Forged by Unfathomable Tragedy
Raymond A. Sanseverino, Partner and Chair, Real Estate Department Loeb & Loeb LLP
by, Chris Dessi
My Sicilian Grandmother used to call me a “chiacchierone.” Translated to English- it means I talk a lot. I think it’s a good trait to be able to carry on a conversation with people from all walks of life. It’s helped me in my career for sure. I can talk to anyone. I believe the best trait of a good conversationalist is someone who knows when it’s time to shut up and listen. This can be a double edged sword. I love listening when people have something to contribute. I loathe listening when people don’t have anything to say. Seems obvious, but it’s rare to find someone with something truly meaningful to contribute. Most talk is small. Most interactions are tertiary at best. Passing interactions. How are the kids? How’s the job? Parents doing well? Yada yada. This is when I zone out. My wife yells at me for it. She’ll spot me across the room at parties and shout across the room. “CHRIS, STOP IT, YOU’RE EMBARRASSING ME.” Not really, she just shoots me a look. If you’re married, you know the look. I can hear her shouting at me in my head – so it’s v-e-r-y real for me.
Jokes aside – I seek deep interaction. Don’t we all? We all crave thoughtful people and compelling conversation in our lives. People with something to contribute.
A few months ago, in an unlikely place, on a normal Sunday I had a profound conversation that shook me to my core. I was in the car with my daughter Talia, her classmate Sophie, and Sophie’s Dad Ray. Ray had invited us to join them for a New Jersey Devil’s game. Ray has season tickets and thought it would be a great way for the girls to enjoy the sport. Ray and I didn’t know each other well at the time. We maybe had two conversations before that car ride. The first time we spoke was at Ray’s home. He and his wife Kimber threw a pool party for the girls first grade class, and their parents. Generous guy, I thought. Great family. Lovely wife.
The girls had on headphones in the back seat. Riding along I thought we’d pass the time with small talk. So I asked Ray a few simple questions about how he had gotten his start in law, where he grew up, where he went to school. Ray’s thoughtful, profound, and at times gut wrenching answers left me gobsmacked. I was speechless. I won’t spoil why Ray’s story is so inspiring just yet. You’ll have to read on and hear it from him. Ray has been gracious with his time, his answers, and his life story. I learned that Ray’s is a life well lived. Strong character, deep resolve, a true inspiration. Ray Sanseverino is a true and profound success. Now it’s time to find out why. Enjoy.
Chris Dessi: You passed the bar exam in 1973, and you’re currently Chair of Loeb & Loeb’s Commercial Real Estate Leasing Group. How did you get there? What was your path to success like? Tell us about that journey.
Raymond A. Sanseverino: During my senior year at Franklin & Marshall College, I decided that I wanted to go to law school. When I got to Fordham Law School, I decided that since I was going to practice law for the rest of my life that I should excel at it, so I worked really hard. It helped that I found my passion, because I love what I do. My first job after graduation from Law School was at Rogers & Wells (now known as Clifford Chance), which at the time was headed by Bill Rogers, who had served as Attorney General and Secretary of State of the United States under different administrations. After about 3 years there, I became anxious for advancement and considered leaving. I was comfortable at Rogers & Wells, had high ratings, was well-liked and I was treated very well. There was a certain security in working as an associate at a large firm, but in order to keep the peace among all of the associates, the firm had to treat those in the same class somewhat equally in terms of compensation and partnership opportunities. After I decided to leave Rogers & Wells, my first interview was at a tiny firm of 4 partners, one of whom, Sol Corbin, was especially impressive. I was told by Sol that I would not have to wait the then-typical seven years to be considered for partnership and that I would not be held back by big firm rules and procedures and salary constraints, that I would make it–or not make it–purely on my own merits. The firm would not have to limit my advancement for the sake of keeping peace among other associates, for there was none!
As I pondered the move, the decisive question I asked myself was “in 5 or so years, do I want to be known as Ray Sanseverino, partner of Bill Rogers, or do I want to be known as Ray Sanseverino, great lawyer?”
When I answered the question that I wanted to be known for what I had accomplished, rather than feeding off someone else’s glory, I left Rogers & Wells and joined Corbin & Gordon. I was made partner there 2 years and 3 months later. I was 5 years out of Law School. Several clients to which I was assigned to do work at Rogers & Wells followed me to Corbin & Gordon, which was a wonderful surprise and made me realize that despite my lack of social or business contacts, I could develop a law practice based on the quality of my work and superior client service. As I began to handle transactions on my own, a number of my adversaries hired me after the transaction was done to handle other deals for them. The path that I envisioned for myself when I made the move worked extremely well for me. I was judged and treated solely based on my performance without the constraints of the large firm structure, and I was incentivized to work hard and build a practice.
About 3 years after I became partner, we renamed the firm Corbin Silverman & Sanseverino LLP and I became its managing partner for 15 years until we merged our practice into another firm, where I stayed for 4 years, until I joined Loeb & Loeb LLP in August 2006, with two of my partners from Corbin Silverman & Sanseverino.
Chris Dessi: How much of your success was due to luck? Or are you of the mindset that you create your own luck?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: I firmly believe that luck is the residue of design; it does not happen unless you put yourself in position to succeed. Having said that, I was lucky to be born in the greatest country in the world, where opportunities are limitless.
Chris Dessi: Did you have a mentor? How important do you think mentorship is for young executives?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: I did not have a mentor in the formal sense that someone took me under his wing and said I will help you, but I had mentors in the sense of various role models starting with my mother, then one or two partners at Rogers & Wells and Sol Corbin. I watched them and learned from them. Having a mentor is certainly helpful and I think some need it more than others, but one can learn from observing how others navigate life and business and then emulate them.
Chris Dessi: When did you first think of yourself as a success?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: At the end of my first year of Law School, when I ranked 4th in my class, was invited to join The Fordham Law Review and won several awards for academic excellence.
Chris Dessi: You have three amazing daughters, and a wonderful marriage. Many young executive struggle with work life/balance – myself included. What advice do you give them? How did you strike a balance?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: Striking the proper balance is most difficult. You have to determine what is most important at a given time in your life and career and how much is enough. To me, my family is the most important aspect of my life and my children have given me more joy anything else. So I decided to make them the priority through their early teen years, at which time they wanted to spend more time with friends and their own activities. I had my first two children when I was very young, 22 and 27, and I did not spend much time networking and entertaining clients through their formative years. I decided that I would build my practice later, when they were older. Now that I have a seven year old daughter, I cut back on my networking activities a bit to give her the time that she needs from me. I can do a lot of my work at home and I need little sleep, so I try to get home to spend time with her and work later after she is sleeping. I also have a very understanding wife, who often receives the short end of the stick. But whether or not you achieve the balance is really determined by the members of your family.
Two incidents told me that I had succeeded in balancing work and personal life. First, when my younger (now middle) daughter was age 12 or 13 she told that she wrote about me in one of her class assignments. She said, in part, that “my dad always has time for me even though he is in all those books”. When I asked her what books, she said you know, Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in American Law. She understood that it takes a lot of time, effort and hard work to be recognized as outstanding lawyer, but that I was always there for her.
The second incident was when my oldest daughter told her husband that when they had children, he would need to travel less to be able to attend their children’s events. He said “I see how hard your dad works, he must have missed a lot of your events.” She said “no, he never missed a play, a concert or a dance recital that I was in.”
Chris Dessi: On paper your resume reads like success, after success. Can you tell us about your biggest failure? How did it change you or shift your approach moving forward?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: I do not think that I have suffered any material professional failures. On the personal side my biggest failure was the dissolution of my second marriage. After my first wife died, I remarried a little more than two years later as I wanted to restore for my then young daughters and myself the family unit that we had lost. The marriage was too soon after my first wife died and the woman I married was not the right person for me. That failure caused me to be too cautious in my personal relationships and perhaps too analytical.
Chris Dessi: Who has been the greatest positive influence on your life? Tell us about that person.
Raymond A. Sanseverino: My mother is the strongest person I know, mentally and emotionally. She is a fantastic mother whose devotion to my sister and me was and is absolutely unwavering and rock solid. My mother never said no to any need that my sister or I had, no matter our age or circumstance. Although I learned many crucial life lessons from my mom, I do not recall her telling me how to conduct myself, but rather she taught me by example, by how she conducted herself, which she did with a great deal of grace and dignity. I learned perseverance from her – never quit until you have achieved your goal. I learned the importance of dealing with adversity, for life is full of adversity. Had my mom succumbed to adversity, I know I would not be where I am today. She had many obstacles to overcome and difficulties to endure in raising two children alone on a low paying secretary’s salary, commuting several hours a day from Uniondale, Long Island to Brooklyn, so we could live in a suburban home. Yet, I never heard her complain once about her lot in life nor did she ever utter the word quit. She raised my sister and me without any rancor, but instead, with a huge amount of love and an abundance of selflessness and an indefatigable spirit. I learned from her that there is no excuse for failure. No one is interested in excuses why something was not done. I remember all of the commendations my mother received from her employer for excellence in performance and attitude. I learned commitment, responsibility and sacrifice from her stellar example.
Chris Dessi: What do you think is the one characteristic that all the successful people you know share?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: Determination coupled with a willingness to work hard. I do not know anyone who is successful who does not work hard. Not all, but many successful people (me included) have to push themselves beyond their comfort zone to achieve their goals.
Chris Dessi: You have 20 minutes to sit alone in a room with the 21 year old Ray Sanseverino. He’s about to embark on a phenomenal career, but he will soon see tremendous adversity in his personal life. What advice do you give him?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: Persevere. You have overcome much in your 21 years to get where you are today. Do not let personal adversity stop you from achieving your professional and personal goals. Equally important, find a vocation you are passionate about and you will never work a day in your life.
Chris Dessi: You’re an Italian-American guy. You were raised in a blue collar environment. You have navigated in a white collar conservative professional environment most of your professional life. Have you ever had to overcome discrimination?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: Yes. Although I was at the top of my class, an editor of The Fordham Law Review, published three articles in Law School (when most students publish only one), and won seven awards for academic excellence, I could not get interview at several major New York law firms. Although it was not said, I believe it was because of my heritage. I also think that Italian-Americans have had to overcome the perception that most are mobsters. Often, when people think of Italian-Americans, they think of Tony Soprano (or real life mobsters). It is an image I feel that I have had to fight for years, one that I detest. When I think of Italian Americans, instead, I think of Scalia, Alito, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, and Christopher Columbus, just to name a few greats. I am quite proud of my heritage, but that is not the perception others have of us.
Chris Dessi: I speak with many successful executives that question the value of college. You’re very active with your Alma Mater Franklin and Marshall, and you have a JD from Fordham. What do you say to those detractors of education? I guess what I’m asking is – what did you get from your eduction, and do you think it’s all worth it?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: A college education is so worth the time and expense, especially a rigorous liberal arts education, like the one I received at Franklin & Marshall College. There, I was taught how to think, to see the world in new ways, how to write, how to communicate, how to analyze situations, how to find solutions. I was exposed to great literature, brilliant minds, and I was launched into a life of meaning and achievement. It shaped me into an educated and engaged citizen and prepared me for the rigors of law school. College helped me to mature and it provided many leadership opportunities, which have served me well. I do not believe in those who say “college is not for everyone.” To the contrary, I think it is for everyone and it is not just about whether it will enable you to obtain a high paying job. Although F&M certainly launched me into a trajectory of success, college is more about helping to make you a more informed person and a better citizen in democratic society. Fordham Law School taught me how to think and analyze like a lawyer as well as the substance of the law. I believe in this so much that I put my money where my mouth is. I have endowed a scholarship at Franklin & Marshall for needy students and I support Fordham Law School. I am eternally grateful to both institutions and extremely proud to have received degrees from them.
Chris Dessi: How do you define success?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: Achieving a high level of satisfaction with your professional and personal life. Being happy every day.
Chris Dessi: For someone who has seen great monetary success – what do you think is the most dangerous thing about that type of success?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: Forgetting how you got there and where you came from. I never forget and often remind myself of the days when spending 25¢ to buy a ice cream cone for my daughter was a significant decision.
Chris Dessi: How important are habits and routine to your success? What is your Rhythm? What time do you go to bed? Do you exercise? Do you meditate? Do you pray?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: While I find comfort in habits and routine, I do not view them as important to my success. But I do think it is important to exercise as it brightens my mental out look and enables me to work long hours. Typically, on Sunday to Thursday nights, I go to bed between 1:00 am and 1:30 am and typically I wake about 6:30am in order to swim laps in my pool (from May to October) or to work out on my Elliptical machine before going to work. I do not meditate, but I do pray.
Chris Dessi: I know you were a star athlete in high school and college. How important have athletics been to your success?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: Very important. First and most important, athletics enabled me to go to college. Also, I learned things on the athletic field that I could not have learned in the classroom, things that become part of you, that define you, things that once you learn it and live it, you know of no other way. I learned tenacity, overcoming obstacles, discipline and persistence. I learned the importance of doing it right. Sports is a great equalizer. No matter what your socio-economic background is, the playing field levels everyone.
Chris Dessi: I know that your father left you at a young age. I also know that you lost your first wife to a car accident, that left you badly injured. How have those defining moments, and your home life afterward affected your career success? Has it helped you, or hindered you? Tell us about overcoming that adversity.
Raymond A. Sanseverino: I think those moments have actually helped me, not that anyone should have to go through them. My childhood circumstances made me determined to excel, to work hard, never to have to scrape by. The death of my first wife (whom I had dated in high school) was devastating to my family and me. There were days when I did not want to get out of bed, but I had to survive for my two daughters, so in the end, I refused to give up or to be beaten back, although that would have been the easy course. I remarried a little more than two years later, which turned out to be a bad decision, but I kept my focus on my law practice and my two daughters through lots of difficult and tumultuous times with my ex-wife. All of those experiences have made me stronger. Flourishing, despite lots of adversity, gave me the confidence that I could overcome anything. As a result, I fear no obstacle.
Chris Dessi: I know you as a humble person, but I need you to brag a little here. What has been your greatest success to date? Tell us about it.
Raymond A. Sanseverino: On the personal side, raising two loving and wonderful daughters who are smart, ambitious, driven and high achievers and helping to raise a third (she is not yet 8 years old), being able to buy a house for each of my mother and sister, providing financial support for my mother and being able to endow a scholarship at F&M for students in need. All of this has given me more satisfaction than I can describe. Professionally, building a very large practice without any social contacts or connections, but purely on the basis of the quality of my work and superior service, and being recognized by clients and my peers for the quality of my work.
Chris Dessi: My daughters know that I hate witches – what’s one thing that scares the hell out of you?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: I would not want anyone to know.
Chris Dessi: Best day of your life?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: Each of the days that my three daughters were born.
Chris Dessi: Worst day of your life?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: 5/24/80, when my first wife and I were driving to Manhattan for dinner and we were hit broadside by another vehicle and she was killed and I was in the hospital for three weeks.
Chris Dessi: You have access to a time machine, but you can never come back to present day. You can go into the future, or into the past. Where do you go in time?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: To 1787, when the United States Constitution was being drafted.
Chris Dessi: Name someone who knows more about you than anyone else in the world.
Raymond A. Sanseverino: My wife, Kimber
Chris Dessi: Most powerful book you’ve ever read that you recommend to everyone.
Raymond A. Sanseverino: It is actually a play: King Lear, by the greatest writer in the history of the world, William Shakespeare. If I had to pick a book, it would be D-Day by Stephen Ambrose.
Chris Dessi: What’s one word that your wife would use to describe you?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: Intense
Chris Dessi: If you could share a meal with any 4 individuals, living or dead, who would they be?
Raymond A. Sanseverino: Jesus Christ, Ben Franklin, William Shakespeare, Michelangelo
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This interview is one of 24 interviews included in a book by Chris Dessi called
Just Like You: 24 Interviews of Ordinary People Who’ve Achieved Extraordinary Success.
Order your copy for just $2.99 today.
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