Tom Acitelli Oct. 27, 2009, 8:24 a.m.
Two years ago, a major premonition rattled and shook Peter DeCheser.
Ten years into an escalating career with Massey Knakal, Mr. DeCheser, then a senior director of sales, began noticing faint but definitive signs of a financial backlash on the horizon.
First, an investment group he was representing suddenly pulled out of the market in the midst of an aggressive buying spree, just as the group was closing in on a building in the Financial District. Shortly after that, a privately held firm pulled out of a deal—again, totally out of the blue.
The last straw came in October 2007. An investor had deposited more than $1 million on a development site on the Fulton Street Corridor. But when he failed to secure financing for the deal, the investor drew back, defaulting on the contract and subsequently forgoing his deposit.
“I literally had an epiphany,” recalled Mr. DeCheser of the trio of deals that shattered before his eyes during the summer and fall of 2007, a year before the crises came. “Metaphorically, I looked out the window and I saw the storm on the horizon, and it frightened me.”
The series of episodes, all seemingly isolated, convinced Mr. DeCheser to reassess his career, both from a personal and a financial standpoint. Less than a year later, he accepted a job as managing director at Jones Lang LaSalle’s growing New York offices.
“For me, leaving Massey Knakal was a personal decision,” said Mr. DeCheser, 48, during an interview in the Jones Lang office he seized last April. “First of all, it was for my own personal growth, but also to be able to provide my clients with what they’re going to need during this tumultuous time that I’d seen coming.”
The decision paid off, as Mr. DeCheser has settled into a role that, lately, has largely been centered on providing real estate services to building owners still unwilling to buy or sell property. Instead, they have committed to increasing their tenant rolls and revamping their buildings.
Currently, Mr. DeCheser said, his team is servicing an estimated 200 building owners who control more than 40 million square feet in Manhattan, providing them everything from tenant rep services and building management teams to building upgrades and project development. What he hasn’t seen much of in his short time at Jones Lang is building sales.
“There is financing available,” said Mr. DeCheser, before reversing his position and going on to describe the unwillingness of many banks to loan in this economy. “And I hate myself for saying that because it’s just not true.”
But don’t call him Mister Doom and Gloom just because of his minor preoccupation with the current economic malaise. Armed with an upbeat, chatty disposition, Mr. DeCheser has sold more than 120 buildings in his career and has provided analysis for an additional 600, mostly in the downtown Manhattan market. He is now working on several building deals in the Financial District and Tribeca that he said would likely close near the end of the year.
“I think the first year and a half here, for me, has been spent trying to put some focus and some structure on our efforts to reach out to property owners of mid- to small-cap assets,” said Mr. DeCheser.
“Ultimately, we want to become the market leader in investment sale properties here in Manhattan, meaning not only the number of transactions but the overall revenue that’s generated each year.”
MR. DECHESER GREW UP in West Orange, N.J., the son of a dentist whose true passion was not molars but architectural relics—the kind that Harrison Ford dug up in Indiana Jones movies. A part-time archaeologist, the elder DeCheser exposed his 9-year-old son to the world outside of the Garden State, taking him on archaeology digs in Rome, Pompeii and Greece, among other exotic locales across the globe.
Besides making a Heinrich Schliemann fan of Mr. DeCheser, the experiences he shared with his father turned the young scavenger into a history buff and a lover of Latin, which the self-proclaimed Greco- Roman–phile studied while at Colgate University.
After graduating from Harvard with a graduate degree in privatization and global reform, Mr. DeCheser moved to Manhattan and embedded himself in the nonprofit world. Reporting to a building on Washington Street in the Financial District, he instantly fell in love with the area and its history.
“I consider myself a European trapped in an American body,” said Mr. DeCheser, whose Jones Lang office is accentuated by a solemn portrait of George Washington and, on a nearby wall, a painting of a Greco-Roman soldier. “And, to me, Lower Manhattan in many ways is a very European city.”
But while the nonprofit sector and his downtown surroundings satisfied Mr. DeCheser, an old Colgate roommate—incidentally, Paul Massey, the co-founder of Massey Knakal, who also happened to be his teammate on the school’s wrestling team—convinced the then-36-year-old to try his hand at real estate.
But Mr. DeCheser went into it not without a bit of soul-searching, he said.
“I had this stereotypical view of what a Manhattan real estate person was, and it wasn’t pretty,” said Mr. DeCheser, who has since disavowed his presumptions. “It was a middle-aged frustrated housewife with a horrible hat and a terrible attitude.”
Working as a junior assistant to co-founder Robert Knakal, the budding real estate novice quickly learned the ropes, and soon earned what he described as “my piece of New York.”
“I learned from, in my opinion, the best building sales broker in Manhattan,” said Mr. DeCheser of his mentor, whom he continues to keep in touch with. “There’s Bob Knakal and then there’s everybody else. It’s like Tiger Woods against all the other hacks who play on the weekends.”