The Retailer Turned Retail Broker

JBR Podell 02 0 300x205 The Retailer Turned Retail Broker

In her previous career, Joanne Podell owned a fleet of furniture stores across the New York metropolitan area, hawking stylish leather sofas the way she now brokers retail space.

So it might be a tad bit unsurprising to learn that when she was tasked to scout space for furniture giant Ethan Allen 10 years ago, the retailer-turned-retail broker took a special shine to the job, even going so far as to unearth what she believed at the time to be lucrative uncharted territory for her client.

The effort earned Ms. Podell, now a broker at Cushman & Wakefield, the Real Estate Board of New York’s coveted Retail Deal of the Year award, an honor given each year to brokers whose crafty dealmaking prowess impact not only the client but New York City itself. In this case, it was the decision to ink a deal on West End Avenue, then barren but presumably ripe for development, that convinced REBNY to bestow on her the prize.

But here’s the twist, dear reader: Despite the warm wishes the award wrought, despite the recognition and wellspring of word-of-mouth business it earned for the then-New Spectrum broker, the Ethan Allen deal, to this day, still upsets Ms. Podell.

“At the end of the day, I’m disappointed in how it turned out,” said Ms. Podell. Lackluster business led to the store eventually shuttering. “We made a deal on the West Side, on West End Avenue, and put a lot of money in and built out a beautiful store, and it didn’t do the business we had hoped it would. I haven’t gotten over it. I never do a deal unless I believe in it. That’s critical to my ethical being.”

Indeed, Ms. Podell’s dedication to her clients’ success is evident from the repeat business she has done for companies as far ranging as TD Bank, Nike and, yes, Ethan Allen, who tapped her to scout another location for the store on the Upper East Side seven years after her first effort. That lease, at 1010 Third Avenue, has yielded success in part because of spillover crowds at nearby Bloomingdale’s, Ms. Podell said.

“It’s a beautiful store,” said Ms. Podell of the newer location. “We learned that despite the fact that you’re furniture, you can’t be destination-driven in a city like New York. You need to be next to your customer.”

But if recent numbers are any indication, Ms. Podell, a broker with 17 years of real estate experience and the former chairwoman of REBNY’s retail committee, is just getting warmed up. Indeed, since January, she has tallied more than 68,000 square feet in retail transactions. The figure, she told The Commercial Observer last week, is the most she has ever posted in a three-month stretch.

Ms. Podell can chalk those numbers up to a diverse range of deals, from a retail renewal for the Museum of Modern Art store and an 11,416-foot renewal for the Gap to TD Bank, for which she helped scout three new branch locations this year alone. In total, she’s inked nine deals in 2010.

“That’s a lot,” said Ms. Podell, an enthusiastic board member of the women’s real estate organization, WX. “It’s more than I’ve ever done at one time. As a broker, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a good market or a bad market if you’re committed to your client.”


MS. PODELL WAS BORN into a large extended family near Pelham Parkway, a lower-middle-class neighborhood in the Bronx. It was there, as the oldest of three siblings, that she watched her father’s entrepreneurial skills pay off, notably as the head of an exporting business that shipped home appliances to South America. It was his ability to create successful businesses that inspired Ms. Podell to start her own furniture company in the early 1980s.

“I was actually one of the first people to bring leather furniture into the country,” said Ms. Podell of her store, Brazil Contempo, which grew to 10 locations before shuttering in 1990.

In search of a new line of work, she wound up in real estate after a friend suggested that Ms. Podell’s own experience scouting space for Brazil Contempo had armed her with the basics needed to become a broker.

Ms. Podell got her start as a broker in 1993 at Garrick-Aug Associates, the retail-driven real estate firm that gave many of the industry’s most successful salespeople their start. Think RKF chairman and CEO Robert Futterman, Prudential Douglas Elliman star Faith Hope Consolo and CB Richard Ellis top broker David LaPierre, among others.

Shortly after being hired, and under the tutelage of the late real estate legend Charles Aug, Ms. Podell inked a transaction on the Upper East Side for Duane Reade that she describes now as a more complicated task than she was ready to take on. The deal, on Second Avenue near 64th Street, required Ms. Podell to buy out one tenant and move another one who demanded compensation from the building’s landlord. In the end, however, everything worked out in the young broker’s favor.

“It was actually the first residential neighborhood that Duane Reade ever leased,” recalled Ms. Podell, who later worked briefly at Grubb & Ellis before joining the firm New Spectrum, where she worked until 2003. “After I finished the deal, I sat down and cried. It was so pleasurable for me. Most people start out with a pizza deal, or something simple. After I did that job, I said to myself, ‘I can do this.'”

But perhaps even more thrilling than inking that first deal, said Ms. Podell, is her favorable relationship with her colleagues in the retail brokerage world, a smaller subsector of the real estate universe that experts have estimated numbers about 500-strong. Ms. Podell described the group as an entirely different real estate breed.

“It is a very unique group in that we ultimately need to work together,” Ms. Podell said. “Many of us are smart enough to recognize that this is not a zero-sum game. We know that if we share information and coordinate our efforts, we all do much better.”

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