The Peacock Slayer
Tom Acitelli Oct. 12, 2009, 4:04 p.m.
When Country-Wide Insurance Company chose to renew its lease in Lower Manhattan last month, the move was shepherded by a close ally.
The lengthy search, which steered the insurance behemoth to Brooklyn and other exotic locales before ending right where it started, was the culmination of a 20-year relationship with Mark Weiss, vice chairman of Newmark Knight Frank.
The alliance first bloomed in 1990, at the behest of Mr. Weiss’ wife, an executive recruiter who had placed half a dozen employees in Country-Wide’s New York City headquarters. Since then, the real estate veteran has brokered six deals for the firm, including the latest, a 109,000-square-foot lease at Donald Trump’s 40 Wall Street.
“Surprisingly, I had trouble getting through once his assistant found out I worked at a real estate company,” said Mr. Weiss, 47, of his earliest overtures to Country-Wide’s chairman, Michael Jaffe. “But once we spoke and connected, we developed a really good working relationship, a trust relationship—a friendship.”
In an era typified by seal-and-run brokers who vanish once a deal closes, Mr. Weiss has fully embraced his coterie of long-term clients, even going so far as to frame his earliest correspondences with Country-Wide, including one letter he sent to Mr. Jaffe in 1990 that begins, “Given your history of returning my calls …”
“I’ve worked very hard at those relationships, and I’ve been pretty fortunate to have represented some really good companies and some very nice people,” said Mr. Weiss, who lists Corning Incorporated among his long-term clients. “It’s easy to continue to do business with people that you like.”
The willingness to nurture such relationships may be one reason why, over the course of 26 years, Mr. Weiss has successfully brokered a surprisingly diverse scorecard of more than 700 transactions, including recent deals on behalf of Advent Software and Washington, D.C.–based law firm Patton Boggs, which in July doubled the size of its New York offices to 60,000 square feet.
Along the way, Mr. Weiss has reeled in the coveted Real Estate Board of New York’s “Ingenious Deal of the Year” award and joined a slew of charities, including the Joint Passover Association and the Achilles Track Club, which helps runners with disabilities race in marathons.
The “Deal of the Year” award, in particular, allowed Mr. Weiss a chance to expand into the complicated world of lease restructuring. The deal, inked in 2005, centered around the top eight floors of office space at the News Corp. building at 1211 Avenue of the Americas, which, at the time, was occupied by JPMorgan Chase. Alongside his partner, Moshe Sukenik, Mr. Weiss successfully brokered a deal for law firm Ropes & Gray that allowed JPMorgan to exit five years before its lease was to expire, while also securing space that several other brokers had tried but failed to deliver for their high-profile clients—all within a dizzying 90-day deadline.
“It was tricky,” said Mr. Weiss, still clearly proud of the achievement. “Moshe and I worked shoulder to shoulder on that thing. I think for that 90-day period we saw more of each other than we saw our wives.”
But, one could reasonably presume, Mr. Weiss’ wife, Cathy, was never far from the broker’s mind. While he hashed out details of the Ropes & Gray deal, Mr. Weiss said, Cathy was privately struggling with breast cancer, an ordeal that drove him to write the book When Your Wife has Breast Cancer: A Story of Love, Courage and Survival.
“It wasn’t traumatic, it was a challenge,” said Mr. Weiss, who said Ms. Weiss is “doing good, thank God.”
“I rose to the challenge as well as I could,” said Mr. Weiss of the illness. “I didn’t do great, but I did as well as I could. Life presents adversities, and we define ourselves by how well we deal with those adversities.”
BY HIS OWN RECOLLECTION, Mr. Weiss’ first year as a real estate broker was inauspicious at best. Charged with canvassing buildings on Madison Avenue for Julien J. Studley, the 21-year-old novice struggled to break through, even as his peers thrived.
“I remember being at broker events and I’m watching all the young—what I used to call peacocks—these guys with their feathers flying, bragging about what they were doing,” recalled Mr. Weiss. “They were just talking about their prospects and how well they were doing and how many things they were involved in, and deep down I knew I wasn’t working on anything that was meaningful whatsoever.”
If the experience was humbling, it certainly didn’t dampen Mr. Weiss’ ambitions. Already a Syracuse University grad, he enrolled in night classes at N.Y.U. to bone up on real estate and took courses on the art of negotiating at Fordham Law School. He sat in on tutorials by financial analysts and became a voracious reader of real estate primers. (He would complete a David Rockefeller Fellowship in 2005.)
The education paid off, and soon Mr. Weiss watched his stock rise. After a two-year stint at Studley, he took a job at development firm Olympia & York—“I hated it,” he says plainly—before accepting a broker position at the Edward S. Gordon Company, which would later be sold to the Insignia Financial Group. He returned to Studley in 1991, where he worked for 10 years until signing on with Newmark Knight Frank in 2002.
“I think I took a step back and realized they were full of shit and that perhaps they weren’t succeeding as much as they said they were,” said Mr. Weiss of the so-called peacocks he encountered in his first year at Studley in 1984. “At that moment, I remember seeing with complete clarity and saying, ‘Ignore everyone else. Focus on learning.’”
Mr. Weiss attributes his ambition and steely focus to his working-class roots. The son of a factory worker and a language interpreter, he suggested his childhood in Merrick, Long Island, may not have been so dissimilar from some of his colleagues.
“Very few of them, if any, come from any kind of silver-spoon background,” said Mr. Weiss, the father of three young boys who lives with his wife on the Upper East Side. “It’s almost as if you look at the subset of people who are successful as commercial brokers and see that failure wasn’t an option for them because they had no fallback position. I think I saw that early on.”