This Russian-born dynamo is leaving her mark on far more than New York’s townhouses
By Marla J. Wasserman | Photography by Naila Ruechel
Don’t let looks deceive you. Despite her long blond tresses and model-like physique, Janna Bullock is a business-woman through and through. With her recent buying spree of several prominent Manhattan townhouses that she painstakingly refurbishes and flips for a handsome profit, the real estate world is taking notice of this Russian beauty.
Just four years ago, Bullock founded RIGroup, a real estate company that initially had limited funds. After wisely developing properties in her native Russia, as well as investing in England, France, and New York, Bullock now has the backing of several hundred million dollars. What makes Bullock’s meteoric rise so intriguing is that she grew up in a communist regime and never had any business training until she came to America as a young adult. “When I grew up in Russia, I studied language, literature and philosophy,” she says. “I wrote my thesis on Dostoevsky and taught high school students.”
As a result of Bullock’s goal to have her buildings be LEED-certified, she has become a leader in the green revolution.
After coming to the United States in 1989, Bullock worked as everything from a babysitter to a paralegal. But, her innate passion for architecture and design kept gnawing at her and she began decorating for herself and friends. Eventually, Bullock enrolled at Duke University and got her M.B.A. “Duke proved that everything I ever thought about was true,” she says. “I realized that the time and effort is the same whether I worked on a five thousand square foot or a fifty thousand square foot property.”
Although Bullock’s largest holdings are in Russia – where RIGroup has ten million square feet under development – some of her most talked about projects are in Manhattan. Bullock has purchased several of the most prestigious townhouses in the city and has refurbished them with a combined flair for historical elements and modern design. “It is my passion and hobby to restore old things, to bring things to life again,” Bullock says. “These are real substantial houses and I always thought it was a mistake when families came in and changed them into sheetrock spaces.” Case in point: Bullock restored 9 East 67th Street into a single-family mansion after it had been divided into 13 apartments. The 25-foot wide limestone mansion, originally built in 1888, now boasts 13,000 square feet of elegant living and is priced at $28 million.
Similarly, her work on 54 East 64th Street, the legendary townhouse that once housed the offices of the New York Observer, so impressed the industry that it was selected as the location for the 2005 Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club showcase. Bullock confesses that she has a special affinity for the home: “That was my favorite project so far because it was my first one.” After buying the property in 2004 for a little under $10 million, Bullock renovated it and then sold it for $18.7 million. Admiration for her attention to detail has resulted in a second one of her properties, 14 East 82nd Street, being named the site for this year’s Kips Bay designer show house as well. Despite the hard work it takes to get a home primed for these charitable projects, Bullock is pleased that she has again been chosen and can help others through her work. “It is a win-win situation,” the philanthropic Bullock says. “You get your property exposed and help raise money for the kids.”
Bullock’s most recent townhouse purchase resulted after a crazy doctor blew up his East 62nd Street home in a bizarre suicide attempt. In snatching up the latest property, Bullock says it is the opportunity of a lifetime because it offers a chance to build a mansion from scratch. “I ran and grabbed it,” she admits. “This will be the first new townhouse on the Upper East Side in 80 years.” Bullock’s plans for the building will be music to the ears of Al Gore. Just as she did with another residence, Bullock intends to build a “green” home. “It will be an environmentally friendly property,” Bullock says proudly. There will be geothermal heating and cooling and a roof-top garden. “I am a mother and want to extend living on earth,” she says. As a result of Bullock’s goal to have her buildings be LEED-certified, she has become a leader in the green revolution.
Bullock’s success is not limited to Manhattan townhouses. RIGroup’s holdings span the globe with hotels in France, prominent houses in London and an array of Russian real estate. “Real estate is a global industry,” Bullock explains. “You see the same names in China as here.” For now, Bullock plans to continue investing in the places she knows best and admits that her cosmopolitan background has proven to be an asset. As for her gender, Bullock acknowledges that she is an anomaly in a male-dominated world. “Being a woman . . . everyone is trying to take advantage of you,” she says. “To survive, you pretend you are not a woman.” With that, Bullock laughs and throws back her blond mane, knowing full well that success has only enhanced her beauty.