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One Man’s Vision: Entrepreneur of the Year, Ralph Zucker, Creates Bell Works in Holmdel

Ralph Zucker is always looking to the future. A real estate developer and business man, he visualizes new things in old spaces in a way others either ignore or can’t imagine, and employs hard work and persistence to bring ideas into reality. Awarded the Entrepreneur of the Year 2017 Visionary Award by leading global organization EY, Zucker was recognized for his efforts to identify a solution for Bell Labs and to have taken an architecturally and historically significant building and transform it into Bell Works.

Those of us who have grown up in Monmouth County are familiar with the old Bells Labs; we all know someone who worked for Ma Bell or have a friend who climbed the ladder of the water tower on a dare. But the giant steel and mirror building did more in 1962 than forever change the landscape of rural Holmdel. The six-story building, designed by architect Eero Saarinen, put Holmdel on the world map while employing thousands of workers and producing some of the most astounding technologies and research. It all came to an abrupt end in 1982 when a federal judge ruled Ma Bell a monopoly and ordered the company to be broken apart. By 1996 AT&T was looking for a buyer and sold to Lucent Technologies. When Lucent failed in 2006, Bell Labs was all but abandoned.

Few, if any, saw a future for the sprawling and dilapidated Bell Labs campus that had at one-time produced the technology behind cell phones, satellites, and the Internet. But Zucker saw an opportunity where others saw only history. The founder of Somerset Development, his company of 25 years, Zucker has spent his life transforming old to new based on the concept of new urbanism.

“The motivation for Bell Works, and the overarching themes carrying the project, stem largely from a concept that I’ve long studied called new urbanism,” Zucker shares. “My background is rooted in the large-scale design and creation of places that are designed to foster collaboration and cross-pollination among the people and businesses contained within. Eero Saarinen’s iconic design and clean, expansive atrium, which we envisioned as a pedestrian street, created a space that was specifically geared toward these exact goals. To me, it was begging to be adapted into a mixed-use environment.”

Each new project brings new challenges, and learning from the past has served Zucker well. Taking setbacks as opportunities has enabled him to grow through difficulties. One lesson Bell Works taught was the importance of communicating a vision.

“Both the greatest challenge and achievement has been working with all of the relevant stakeholders to realize the vision for Bell Works,” Zucker says. “We needed to effectively share our story with everyone rightfully invested in the future of this property. The challenge for Somerset was finding ways to effectively communicate the plans for Bell Works so that we were building anticipation while dispelling misinformation.”

But it wasn’t just the local community that had questions. Zucker found both opposition and curiosity from the business and real estate community at large.

“Many thought we were crazy to take on what was the largest vacant office building in the United States,” Zucker says, “especially in an era where office floor plans are shrinking and there are fewer “mega tenants” like Bell Labs to repopulate the building. Our most notable effort came when we hosted ‘a town center for one night’. We invited thousands of stakeholders to enjoy an evening inside the vacant building, and simulated what Bell Works’ pedestrian street might ultimately look like. We invited a host of local eateries, retailers, and community leaders to set up exhibits in the main atrium. The event’s huge success and attendance really captured the hearts and minds of everyone involved, which ultimately has been our greatest achievement.”

An important addition to Bell Works for the community-at-large happened early November with the opening of the Holmdel Library and Learning Center. The state-of-the-art 18,000 square-foot facility is three times the size of the former library and will include multiple conference and meeting rooms, extensive database resources, book and magazine collections, as well as permanent historical exhibits honoring Bell Labs and Holmdel Township.

“This tenant is particularly special as it serves as a reminder of how, even as Bell Works evolves into a regional destination, it remains a deeply integral part of the fabric of the Holmdel community,” Zucker says. “I’m proud and excited to welcome the library to Bell Works’ increasingly diverse environment as it offers a uniquely dedicated, public-facing destination for all visitors to learn, collaborate, relax, and enjoy.”

The Bell Works concept of a Metroburb is truly blossoming with leases for more than 75 percent of the available office space signed. November brought the first anchor tenant in iCIMS, a leading provider of innovative Software-as-a-service (SaaS) talent acquisition solutions. When Zucker began the journey he was determined to turn the iconic two million-square-foot Bell Labs into a tech hub and urban-style destination in the heart of suburbia. The addition of more retail businesses will soon bring multiple dining options, including a food hall, coffee shop and restaurant, as well as childcare services, gym and fitness center, salon, hotel and more.

“The addition of iCIMS brings hundreds of workers to the space,” Zucker says. “This past year we’ve also welcomed the new headquarters for cloud-based business management and fleet management solutions company WorkWave and other prominent commercial tenants such as Guardian Life Insurance, Acacia Communications, Jersey Central Power and Light, MetTel, McCann Systems LLC, NVIDIA Corporation, Spirent Communications and more. It’s been extremely fulfilling watching the building come to life again, finally reaching its potential as a one-of-a-kind, unconventional space which is once again fostering collaboration, innovation, and creativity for everyone who steps inside the doors.”

Married to Denise, with whom he shares seven children and eight grandchildren, Zucker believes deeply in teamwork. When asked about his many achievements, including the Entrepreneur of the Year 2017 Visionary Award, Zucker credits the hard work of many.

“I appreciate the accolades, but really it’s all about a common-sense approach and a great team of dedicated people,” Zucker says. “I’m gratified to be surrounded by so many individuals who believe in our vision and work tirelessly to make it a reality. It’s an honor to receive recognition for something I feel so passionate about, especially regarding Bell Works.”

His eye forever on what comes next, Zucker is currently revitalizing a community in Aberdeen.

“GlassWorks is well underway, and we believe it’s going to be yet another engine for the region,” Zucker shares. “What makes the project especially unique is that GlassWorks is being developed and designed to foster walkability and urbanism but also create a welcoming neighborhood environment. Unlike other traditional developments, our approach offers a scalable rental community and seamlessly blends rental and for-sale opportunities. Plus, with its prime location in the heart of Aberdeen, a wonderful, close-knit community, we believe it’s going to become a living destination for all generations, from young professionals to families, to seniors.”

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Holmdel Township and Somerset Development Introduce the Holmdel Library & Learning Center

From left, Somerset President Ralph Zucker, Congressman Smith’s Chief of Staff Jo Schloeder, Freeholder Serena DiMaso, Freeholder Director Lillian Burry, Holmdel Mayor Greg Buontempo, Holmdel Deputy Mayor Pat Impreveduto, Holmdel Committeeman Michael Nikolis, Holmdel Committeeman Eric Hinds, and Holmdel Committeeman Tom Critelli (Photo Credit: Peter Dant Photography)

Early November the residents of Holmdel were invited to a ribbon-cutting and tour of the 18,000-square-foot Holmdel Library & Learning Center housed within Somerset Development’s Bell Works. Designed by Arcari + Iovino Architects, the new library includes a variety of educational components, in addition to an 80-seat meeting room, and state-of-the-art technology throughout the facility.

The library was built as part of a $1.7 million deal between Holmdel Township and Somerset Development, with Somerset providing $1 million toward the project. To connect Holmdel High School to Bell Works, a sidewalk is being built along Crawfords Corner Road to span the one-mile distance. Bell Works tenants will receive a guest pass to use the library; New Jersey residents are eligible to apply for a free internet pass to access all online materials; and residents of Holmdel will have borrowing privileges as well as access to online resources with their library card.

The new library features: an exhibit honoring Bell Labs, AT&T, and the history of Holmdel Township; free, on-site access to digital research and reference tools; subscription-based resources for law, medicine, arts, entertainment, employment, grants, and politics; multiple meeting and conference rooms; a lounge, charging stations, and sitting areas for 80 people; access to more than 100 magazines; and a dedicated children’s and teen wing

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Locals Cheated on their Hairdresser for a Good Cause, Raised Funds for Hurricane Relief

More than 200 people attended Cut-a-Thon for Hurricane Relief hosted by Salon Concrete of Red Bank, on October 30, 2017 at Bell Works in Holmdel to help those in need after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. The event raised more than $11,000 for the Professional Beauty Association’s Disaster Relief Fund and involved other Monmouth County organizations, such as Hometown Heroes and Yoga Peace Kula of Belmar and Howell.

From left, Ralph Zucker, Christine Zilinski, and Freeholder Serena DiMaso (Photo Credit: Tom Zapcic Photography)

From left, Ralph Zucker, Christine Zilinski, and Freeholder Serena DiMaso (Photo Credit: Tom Zapcic Photography)

The owner of Salon Concrete, Christine Zilinski, believes in business owners giving back to the communities in which they work and part of her business model is to encourage other business owners to become more involved. Soon to be opening her second salon location in Holmdel as part of Bell Works, Zilinski has begun establishing her business as part of the local fabric.

Understanding that there are many individuals who would love to help a good cause but often do not know how to get started, Zilinski reaches out to clients and other hairdressers. Fifty area hairdressers from various salons donated their time to provide the haircuts. Salon Concrete’s cut-a-thon also included an education component where stylists paid $50 to learn from selected New York and Los Angeles professionals.

“For me it’s about getting people to have a sense of responsibility about owning a business,” Zilinski says. “As business owners we are able to reach so many people. The average person may interact with 50 people in a week, whereas I’m interacting with more than 700. We should be the ones to bring our community together.”

Having owned and operated her salon in Red Bank for more than 15 years, Zilinski is excited to expand into another Monmouth County location, but more so specifically as part of Bell Works this coming March.

Salon Concrete 2

Photo Credit: Tom Zapcic Photography

“We want to be part of Bell Works because of the entrepreneurial spirit Ralph Zucker has created there,” Zilinski says. “The mindset is progressive and is about helping the community, each other, and fostering personal and professional growth.”

Ralph Zucker, founder of Somerset Development and the visionary behind Bell Works, has had a big impact on Zilinski and her way of thinking.

“In one of my conversations with Ralph he shared such an important piece of wisdom about having the courage to follow-up on an idea. He told me that when all the nay-sayers say it isn’t possible, and they will, listen to what your gut says because it always tells you the truth. That was so powerful. So many try to instill their fear in you, but not Ralph Zucker. He’s a visionary for sure.”

Ralph Zucker Photo Credit: Peter Dant Photography, located at Bell Works in Holmdel, specializes in people and places. Call 732.670.9425 for perspectives and pricing.

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