It was perhaps the fourth consecutive afternoon of 90-degree heat in New York, and broker Jeffrey Lichtenberg was sitting high above the sweat and swelter in an air-conditioned office some 50 stories over Manhattan.
A lush bird’s eye view of Central Park unfolded quietly below, and as Mr. Lichtenberg spoke, a wisp of steely resilience drifted across his thoughts.
“I’ve definitely had a comeback,” said Mr. Lichtenberg, 57, during an interview with The Commercial Observer last week. “I’m back, and I’ve been exposed to the marketplace.”
Indeed, since his emergence as an independent broker in 2000 following a 24-year career in the commercial real estate industry, marked by some of the biggest deals of the 1990s, Mr. Lichtenberg has climbed his way back toward the top, one transaction at a time.
These days, the Long Island-born consultant works independently from his home in Hewlett Neck, a Nassau County hamlet and haven, home to a mere 500 residents. But with current and former clients like the Trump Organization, Nathan’s Famous and the Vector Group, which manufactures a half-dozen cigarette brands under the Liggett Vector tag, Mr. Lichtenberg is, more often than not, working at any number of Manhattan office buildings.
None has brought him more attention, however, than Donald Trump’s 40 Wall Street, an 80-year-old office tower that had the distinction last year of seeing more leasing activity than any other building in Lower Manhattan. That year, Mr. Lichtenberg and a handpicked agency team from CB Richard Ellis leased up 250,000 square feet despite drawbacks like not being able to access the building by car and an older exterior than most buildings in the surrounding area. As you read this, Mr. Lichtenberg and his team are closing in on an additional 100,000 feet in transactions, he said.
“We did a great job,” said the broker from a conference room inside the 44th Street offices of the Vector Group. “We knocked the cover off the ball.”
The assignment piggybacked on his work at the Trump Tower, where, with Jared Horowitz of Cushman & Wakefield, he leased approximately 180,000 feet of space during a two-year period. That, despite a hectic, ground-floor retail scene that, he said, turned off some prospective tenants.
“There’s certain tenants that like it and certain tenants who don’t,” said Mr. Lichtenberg of the tourist-drawing 58-story tower at 721 Fifth Avenue. “It’s not like the normal institutional office building, where every hedge fund wants to be in there. We had to find the one out of 10 tenants that wanted it-and we did.”
Asked if he preferred working as an independent consultant rather than as a company man for firms such as Insignia/ESG or Peter R. Friedman LTD, the broker gave it a thought and, after a pregnant pause, shrugged.
“Yeah, at this point in my life,” said Mr. Lichtenberg, the father of two grown daughters, including a 23-year-old who joined CB Richard Ellis as a broker eight months ago. “I can do whatever I want when I want. And, no politics; I enjoy no politics.”
IT WASN’T UNTIL the summer between his sophomore and junior years at Hobart College in upstate New York that Mr. Lichtenberg, until then a left-leaning English major, turned his gaze on the real estate industry. After reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, two peons to architecture and individualism by Ayn Rand, Mr. Lichtenberg began to apply the writer’s thoughts to his own life, much as Alan Greenspan and Warren Buffet famously did many years before him.
“I came back a different person,” said Mr. Lichtenberg, who named his company “Fountainhead Enterprises” after the 1943 best seller. “I came back from wanting to live on a commune to wanting to build something.”
After graduating from Boston University with a B.A. in finance and accounting, Mr. Lichtenberg ascended from a low-level job in the real estate field to a top position at the boutique, New York-based brokerage Peter R. Friedman LTD, which culminated with him being named as a partner.
During a 19-year run at the firm, Mr. Lichtenberg tallied industry-buzzing transactions for the advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi as well as for the Taubman Company and Grey Advertising, among other deals.
But it was his work with Bertelsmann that offered both a high point for Mr. Lichtenberg in the form of the Real Estate Board of New York’s coveted “Most Ingenious Deal of the Year” award, and also his lowest, he said.
The award came in 1993 following his work on the acquisition of 1540 Broadway in Times Square by Bertelsmann. The move was among the first to get the ball rolling in a bid to remake the then-gritty area.
However, in 1999, after an investigation by the Manhattan district attorney’s office tied to construction projects, including at the Bertelsmann tower, Mr. Lichtenberg’s real estate license was suspended for one year. In a bid to stay close to the industry, he went into business as president of a building maintenance company called Triangle Services.
When his license was reinstated, however, he chose to remain an independent consultant. “It changed my life forever,” said Mr. Lichtenberg of the ordeal, for which he showed contrition last week. “It was clearly the worst mistake I’ve made. It was a dumb thing. I ran my life totally different from that. I tried to be the straightest guy in the room. That was my reputation. And I’m very fortunate that most people believe that I made a one-time mistake.”
The ordeal long behind him, Mr. Lichtenberg, who earlier this year founded a new building maintenance firm called Lionheart Maintenance, has returned to form. Indeed, he even hinted that new opportunities are on the horizon, as well as new clients.
“My focus is on real estate,” said Mr. Lichtenberg, smiling. “Going forward, I’d say in the next few months, there’s going to be a major change in my life, and I might not be operating quite as independently as I am now. And I really look forward to it because it will help bring me back to being involved.”
He thought for a second and then added, “I mean, this is a business I love. I love negotiating deals and pulling a rabbit out of a hat and doing things people say can never be done.”