Jotham Sederstrom Jan. 4, 2010, 5:40 p.m.
Say what you will about dictatorships-human rights abuses, censorship and religious intolerance, for starters-they do make for truly fantastic tenants.
The unconventional wisdom is but one lesson real estate broker Gil Robinov has learned in a 40-year career that has put him in close proximity to monarchies and autocratic governments, from Egypt and Iran to Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, just to name a few.
Indeed, since 1992, when he snagged his first foreign client, Mr. Robinov has represented 25 percent of the 192 member governments of the U.N. In total, the native New Yorker has leased an estimated 30 million square feet of office space to Fortune 500 companies, major institutions and, most notably, overseas governments.
“I’m probably the only broker in New York who really specializes in this area,” said Mr. Robinov, an executive managing director at NAI Global who has been nicknamed Mr. U.N. by his colleagues for the lengthy roster of governments he has helped to acquire office space for near the United Nations Plaza on Manhattan’s East Side.
Far from typical, Mr. Robinov’s unique focus has brought him in close contact with unpopular governments like North Korea, whose five-year lease the broker successfully renewed in 2006, despite a string of rejections from landlords who refused to take in the nuclear-weapons-testing dictatorship for fear other tenants would flee.
The controversial assignment was one of the few Mr. Robinov considered turning down, but he later decided to follow through on a philosophy he crafted earlier in his career while brokering a deal for the League of Arab States shortly after 9/11.
“I’ll never forget what the ambassador said to me,” said Mr. Robinov of the League of Arab States dignitary. “He said: ‘Nobody wants to take me.’ And you know? I felt a responsibility to him. Not that I liked him, or what he stood for, or what his interests were regarding Israel, but I felt that as a New Yorker, and as an American, that if we’re going to have the U.N. here and we’re going to take advantage of the benefits of having it here, these people are our guests and we have a responsibility to allow them to rent.”
Indeed, Mr. Robinov, who is Jewish and appears to be in his 70s, has represented many Middle Eastern countries, including Iran and Egypt, but he insists none of them have expressed anti-Semitic opinions.
“They’ve never said anything to me,” said Mr. Robinov, who in 2009 inked deals on behalf of the governments of Singapore and Fiji. “I became very friendly with the consulate general of Saudi Arabia-most of these guys were educated in the United States-and he would tell me that he had Jewish girlfriends and all this stuff. When you take them out of the office, they’re just people. They’re human beings.”
With the government of Qatar, Mr. Robinov learned that the long time it takes many democracies to find office space-and then get the lease approved by a bureaucratic maze of higher-ups-does not typically apply to countries ruled by dictatorships. In fact, Mr. Robinov inked a deal at 809 First Avenue for the Middle Eastern emirate in less than a week, thanks mostly to the ambassador’s familial ties to the then emir of Qatar.
“He said, ‘Look, I’m a cousin to the emir, and I can get you an answer in just a few days,” said Mr. Robinov of the lightning-quick negotiations with Qatar’s ambassador. “I said, ‘That’s hard to believe,’ but he said, ‘Watch,’ and sure enough, by the next Thursday it was a done deal.”
“The countries that are not democracies-the dictatorships-they can move like lightning,” added Mr. Robinov. “Democracies, they take forever because they have to argue and all that other stuff. It’s interesting how that works.”
MR. ROBINOV’S REAL ESTATE career started out typically enough. Shortly after college in the 1960s, a newly married Mr. Robinov took advice from family members and pursued a job in real estate, cold-calling dozens of firms whose addresses he had found in the Yellow Pages at a public phone booth near Rockefeller Center. It was only after he reached the end of the alphabet that the then-Yonkers resident found a firm-Williams & Company-willing to take a chance on the untested real estate wannabe.
But it took another 25 years as a broker-first at Williams & Company, then GVA Williams and later CB Richard Ellis-before Mr. Robinov began inking deals for foreign governments, the first being Israel.
Mr. Robinov, it turns out, brokered the sale of two buildings near the U.N. Plaza during the early 1990s-800 Second Avenue and 809 First Avenue-and the owners quickly made him the exclusive agent for both. Indeed, what began as a routine assignment soon became Mr. Robinov’s focus, with countries large and small eventually lining up to hire him as their New York City agent.
“If I have to fill up these two buildings, I have to call the governments,” recalled Mr. Robinov last week during an interview at the Madison Avenue offices of NAI Global in midtown. “Who else is going to move there? One’s across from the U.N. and the other is around the corner from the U.N., so it doesn’t take a genius to know I gotta call the governments.”
Although Mr. Robinov does not speak a second language, he has mastered the art of communicating with consulates general and ambassadors whose first language is not English-many of whom, he says, are suspicious of fast-talking New Yorkers.
“The word ‘trust’ is very important because, in general, the members of the U.N., they don’t trust New Yorkers or fast-talking Americans, especially the brokers,” Mr. Robinov said. “I’ve been told that the plumbers take advantage of them, the electricians take advantage of them, the telephone company, the furniture people-everyone’s overcharging them. They trust me, and that means a lot.”