Over the last three decades, Michael Cohen has been a driving force behind Colliers International’s transition from a family-owned, independent mom-and-pop real estate firm into a global powerhouse. As president of Colliers’s tristate operations, the third-generation executive at the firm splits his time between managerial duties and deal-making, harnessing his firm’s global resources and ownership structure to create a competitive advantage—most recently, as part of the team that sealed AppNexus’s 220,000-square-foot expansion and extension at 28-40 West 23rd Street. He spoke with The Commercial Observer last week about the significance of that deal, the staggering transformation of his company, the city’s changing real estate landscape and even his passion for theater as it relates to Bernard Madoff.
The Commercial Observer: You used to be a small, independent company. What’s it like being an international brand?
Mr. Cohen: There are tremendous advantages to being part of a global brand. You walk into a meeting with strangers and they say things like, “You don’t have to tell us who Colliers is.” That’s very comforting. Colliers has a toolbox of specialists that run the country, if not the globe, dispensing assistance to the brokers and consultants, and that’s something that you just can’t replicate without a deep infrastructure. There are certain nostalgic moments where I look back on some of the people and some of the simplicity of doing business as an independent company, but by and large the pros outweigh the cons.
You and Andy Roos completed a 220,000-square-foot expansion and extension with AppNexus at 28 and 40 West 23rd Street. Can you speak about the importance of that deal?
AppNexus is a very high-profile poster child here in the tech community of New York. They are talked about as the Google of New York City. There’s quite a spotlight on these guys, because they are thought of as New York’s biggest indigenous tech company. Google, Yahoo, Amazon, Microsoft—all of these others are carpetbaggers. They grew up elsewhere. So we’re proud to have AppNexus in our portfolio. The management team is great people, and we placed a very big bet on them, since they occupy a lot of space. We are rooting for them.
You have an executive role, you’re a deal-maker and you own property. Which aspect do you like best?
It’s like choosing your favorite child—I wouldn’t even want to go there. But I guess that the bulk of my time is spent hunting either for tenants for the buildings that we are agents for and we own, or for tenants to represent, which is very consistent with what most brokers in this business do for a living—so I’m not really that different from other brokers. I enjoy the coach part of the player-coach role, and I enjoy elevating the whole team as well as myself—meaning not [just] my team, but the Colliers team here in tristate. I make it a point to work with just about every broker in the office, trying to help them either win business or bring them into business of my own.
When we spoke in April of last year, you described a “boomcession”—i.e., a boom in tech and a recession in finance. How has the financial end panned out?
They have lived up to what I would call—I don’t want to say depressing—modest expectations. We have seen jobs being shed. We have seen space come on the market from the financial industry, and we haven’t seen any growth or glimmer of growth in that industry and there is no horizon line in view. But I don’t want to make it seem like, “Boy, we thought things were going to be bad and they turned out even worse.” I don’t think that happened. They performed as expected under the circumstances and, if anything, I would say things could have been worse and they weren’t.