The Reformed Accountant
Tom Acitelli Sept. 21, 2009, 4:53 p.m.
When August DiRenzo reported to legendary Cushman & Wakefield honcho Jim Peters on his first day of work as a broker in the mid-1960s, the upstart asked a simple question.
“O.K., what do I do?”
“Look out the window,” said Mr. Peters, peering from his Cushman office tower, then located on Madison Avenue, 13 blocks south of its current headquarters. “What do you see?”
“Buildings,” answered Mr. DiRenzo, surveying the soaring edifices on 40th Street, many of them packed to the gills with glitzy advertising firms.
“Go into those buildings, find out who wants to move and then let me know,” said a matter-of-fact Mr. Peters, who would later rise to become president of the global real estate behemoth. “That’s what you do.”
Four decades later, Mr. DiRenzo—a vice chairman at Cushman whom friends, family and associates know as Augie—continues to employ many of the same canvassing skills he honed in those heady days before financial advisory services and market data departments became the industry norm.
With an estimated $10 billion in commercial property transactions, Mr. DiRenzo has helped execute some of the biggest deals in New York City history, not least among them the 99-year lease of the World Trade Center to Larry Silverstein and dozens of complicated mega-deals with longtime clients Cablevision, Verizon, Citibank, Met Life, Computer Associates and Con Edison.
“As it is now, it hasn’t changed,” said Mr. DiRenzo, from a corner office that sits across from an identical space occupied by his younger brother, Donald, another vice president at the firm. “The business is canvassing, developing relationships, having a good understanding of the business and integrity. Above all, integrity.”
In a career of plaudits that reads something like a lifetime achievement award, Mr. DiRenzo has earned the coveted “Deal of the Year” award from the Real Estate Board of New York for his unique handling of a complex deal in 1976, involving the State University of New York’s school of optometry at 315 Park Avenue South.
Additionally, Mr. DiRenzo has been named among Cushman’s Top 10 brokers worldwide in eight of the past 15 years. But Cushman spokesman Dwayne Doherty is quick to point out that the accolades could go back even further than that: “That’s when my data stopped,” insisted Mr. Doherty.
This year alone, Mr. DiRenzo has handled approximately 500,000 square feet in commercial transactions, including a July deal that will move Cablevision employees from Madison Square Garden to 11 Penn Plaza during an ambitious renovation at the home of the New York Knicks. The 140,000-square-foot deal at 11 Penn, which Mr. DiRenzo estimated was one of about 40 he has inked for the Garden-owning Dolan family, will include expanded studio capabilities for Cablevision, he said.
“At Madison Square Garden, they had quite a bit of employees housed within the arena itself, so they had to find a new home for these people,” Mr. DiRenzo said. “But they’re also expanding the studio space, too, so it’s a big deal.”
MR. DIRENZO WAS BORN in East New York, Brooklyn, where, before joining Cushman as an accountant, he earned money by washing cars, shining shoes and selling junk he found on the street, among other low-paying entrepreneurial endeavors he fell into as a working-class 13-year-old boy.
Asked if he’d deign to return to any of those professions one day, perhaps at the car wash, Mr. DiRenzo demurred. “I’d like to own a few,” he joked.
A graduate of finance at New York University, a young Mr. DiRenzo set out to become an accountant in the early 1960s, having been inspired by a Cushman & Wakefield advertisement in the Sunday New York Times. He was hired and paid the princely sum of $8 a week, but he was soon moved to appraisals, a welcome relief from the monotony of number-crunching.
“I’m pretty good at numbers, but it was just too slow,” said Mr. DiRenzo, the father of three grown children who lives with his wife, Marilyn, at homes on the Upper East Side and Long Island. “It was just too boring.”
The boredom would soon vanish, as Mr. DiRenzo took on an increasingly high-profile portfolio. One of his first big deals, in fact, came early on in his career when, through a travel agency client, he met the head of the toy industry trade association. While dallying with people at Mattel and Tonka Toys, among others manufacturers, Mr. DiRenzo was able to pull off an unlikely get: luring the trade association away from ritzy 200 Fifth Avenue during the 1970s and, subsequently, mogul Harry Helmsley.
“That was the beginning, when it all really, really started,” recalled Mr. DiRenzo, who said Mr. Helmsley eventually retaliated by luring the toy people back to his landmark building.
So was Mr. Helmsley angry with Mr. DiRenzo and his bold power play?
“I would guess it would ruffle my feathers,” Mr. DiRenzo said, laughing.
His most storied deal was on behalf of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which in 1995 began weighing the option of selling a long-term lease of the World Trade Center, following mounting political pressure to turn over some assets to the private sector.
Cushman & Wakefield, said Mr. DiRenzo, became involved with the property in 1997, and a request for proposals was issued soon afterward. Mr. DiRenzo was charged with reviewing all the project expenses as the director of Cushman & Wakefield’s World Trade Center Financial Advisory Consultant Team. What he found was jaw-dropping.
“At the time, the Trade Center was about 10 million square feet and we probably had about 3 million square feet of vacancies,” recalled Mr. DiRenzo, who said that vacancy rates in Lower Manhattan had skyrocketed to a whopping 15 percent. “When you’re going out to sell a piece of property, you don’t want to sell it with that much vacancy—I don’t care who you are. It never works.”
Despite intense interest from investment bankers, Port Authority officials weren’t satisfied with their initial offers and briefly took the property off the market until conditions improved. Two years later, as the economy brightened, tenants returned and so, too, did investors, including developer Larry Silverstein.
“And the rest is history,” Mr. DiRenzo said. “No matter what deal I’ve ever done, I’ve never done it on my own. We have smart people at Cushman—smarter than me. That’s who I like to surround myself with.”