Jotham Sederstrom Nov. 16, 2009, 3:05 p.m.
Before he was a leader in the New York commercial real estate market, Howard Nottingham was a Chevrolet dealer in Indiana, a career that, he says plainly, he was happy to scrap.
Besides a few perks here and there—like being invited to take a sponsored pace car for a whirl at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home to the Indy 500—he has no regrets about a career change that has led him along the circuitous highways of Indiana, Ohio and New York before finally ending at Studley in midtown.
“Honestly, I’ve been happy every day I’ve been out of it, but I’m a pretty happy guy, in general,” Mr. Nottingham said. “All I know is I didn’t like the car business. Not in the least.”
But if the automobile industry was not the key to success Mr. Nottingham had hoped it would be, it did provide the father of four with an astute sense of salesmanship that has served him well over a 27-year real estate career.
Indeed, since being hired as a broker at LaSalle Partners and later Cushman & Wakefield before winding up at Studley as an executive managing director, Mr. Nottingham has been at the helm of many of the most complicated deals of the past decade.
With a client roster that has included Chase Manhattan Bank, MetLife and Cablevision’s Rainbow Media Holdings, Mr. Nottingham has netted an estimated 12 million square feet in transactions—and that volume is expected to increase in 2010, thanks to a number of deals currently shifting around the city’s proverbial pipeline.
“Right now, I’m as busy as I have been in a long time,” said Mr. Nottingham, 56, during an interview last week at Studley’s Park Avenue offices. “People still need to figure out what they need to do about their real estate needs. In some cases, they have too much, and in other cases, what they have is antiquated and they need out of it.”
Nowhere was the latter problem more obvious than in 2003, when the dean of New York Law School hired Mr. Nottingham and fellow Studley executive managing director Woody Heller to address limitations of the institution’s century-old Tribeca complex, which, as enrollment grew, was busting out of its seams.
The deal spanned four years and involved zoning variances, rent-controlled tenants and complicated tax-exempt bond grabs—all while the residential market was softening and project costs at the site were soaring.
In the end, the $136 million sale of a development parcel on Church Street and the subsequent construction of a state-of-the-art school building nearby earned Messrs. Nottingham and Heller the Real Estate Board of New York’s “Ingenious Deal of the Year” award.
Since then, Mr. Nottingham has been tasked with increasingly complicated deals, including one on behalf of Time Inc. in 2007 that placed Lehman Brothers in a 200,000-square-feet sublease at 1271 Avenue of the Americas, where the media company leases most of the property. A year later, of course, Lehman collapsed, and now, like Peter Turchin at CB Richard Ellis, Mr. Nottingham and his team have been tasked with leasing prime space recently abandoned by Lehman.
“It didn’t turn out well,” said Mr. Nottingham of the 200,000-square-feet Lehman space he’s trying to lease. “Hopefully, with any luck, we’ll have that space cleared up by next year.”
BUT DESPITE THE GLORY such complicated deals promise to bring to real estate professionals of his ilk, Mr. Nottingham said he would be happy to trade the complicated deals for what he described as the “cookie cutters,” the open-and-shut cases that he was involved with as a young broker for LaSalle Partners back in the 1980s.
“Usually, by the time I’m at the end of a big deal, I’m pretty worn out by it,” acknowledged Mr. Nottingham, who lives in New Canaan, Conn., with his wife, Sandra Nottingham. “It’s been going on for so long and it’s so hard and there’s so many complicated issues. There’s so little anymore that are straightforward. I’m not doing the fun little easy cookie cutters anymore.”
Looking back, even some of Mr. Nottingham’s earliest achievements were notable for their complexity. His first successful deal, in fact, was anything but “cookie cutter.” A broker for LaSalle Partners in 1984, Mr. Nottingham managed to reel in Prodigy—at the time one of the first online services—when the company began its search for office space in White Plains, N.Y. The resulting deal totaled 200,000 square feet of space.
“And they were going to do all of this on a thing called the Internet,” recalled Mr. Nottingham of the joint venture between IBM, CBS and Sears that ended up folding years later. “I’d sit in a meeting and they would talk about it, and I had no clue what they were saying. I mean, this was 1984, so I had no clue what they were saying.”
“I sort of get it now,” he added wryly.
Soft-spoken and armed with a dry sense of humor, Mr. Nottingham appears less interested in touting his lofty title or his prestigious client roster than do many of his colleagues in the real estate industry. Talking about the absurdity of professional titles that at their lengthiest can span for days—think senior executive managing director of restructuring or some such—the modest Midwest native dropped a juicy Page Six–style blind item about a well-known peer at a competing firm.
“I don’t know why people get so fixated by that, but they do,” Mr. Nottingham said. “I know a guy—and you know him, too—who is very, very senior at a major, major organization, and I’m absolutely convinced that you could never give him a raise, and keep giving him bigger titles, and that would be all he needed to be very happy.”
For now, Mr. Nottingham says he has plenty of reasons to be happy, not least of all his continued success in the real estate game and his retirement from the automobile industry. Asked if he has any fond memories of those days, or even if he has a lasting interest in the automobiles themselves, Mr. Nottingham demurs.
“All my cars have over 100,000 miles on them,” he said. “And that’s fine by me.”