Acceptance Speeches: Chatting With the Big Shots REBNY Plans to Honor
Laura Kusisto Jan. 19, 2011, 2:06 p.m.
Leslie Wohlman Himmel
Managing Partner, Himmel + Meringoff Properties
Leslie Himmel met her business partner, Steve Meringoff, at a lecture at N.Y.U., where she was the first one to raise her hand and ask the speaker, Harry Helmsley, a question. “What’s been your greatest achievement to date?”
Mr. Meringoff was so impressed with her “moxie,” as Ms. Himmel recalls, that he set in motion a cooperation that would eventually turn into a formal partnership more than 25 years strong. Asked the same question-what she sees as her biggest accomplishment to date-Ms. Himmel answered immediately: “Being partners with Steve Meringoff. That’s synergy. It’s fun and complex.”
“We’ve been through a few cycles together,” she said. “We have an ‘unlimited partnership'” (as The Commercial Observer once dubbed it). “He challenges me every day and helps me reach for the stars,” she said.
Lately their firm Himmel + Meringoff, at which Ms. Himmel is the managing partner, has embarked on an aggressive buying spree, as well as successfully leasing 521-33 West 57th Street and 729 Seventh Avenue. That and a history of successfully acquiring second-tier properties and transforming them into desirable office spaces has helped earn Ms. Himmel the Bernard H. Mendik Lifetime Leadership in Real Estate Award, awarded to a REBNY member for a lifetime of exceptional accomplishment in the profession and dedication to leadership in New York real estate.
She said her firm’s approach is “very similar to the family-generational-owned real estate.” That cautiousness has helped the firm ride out the recession. “We hold for the long term,” she said, but added, “I believe there’s a time to sell and a time to buy.” She said now is the time to buy, and the firm is looking for properties that are anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 square feet, with a value of $40 million to about $200 million. It recently bought 158 West 27th Street, but invested all the equity in the building themselves. “We closed four financings and purchased a property in December,” she said. “There are plenty of lenders for owners and buyers who are doing long-term ownership in their philosophies.”
Ms. Himmel, who graduated from Harvard Business School in 1978, originally decided on real estate over investment banking because she thought it would offer a more balanced lifestyle. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. “I worked 24-7 [25 years ago],” she said, “and I continue to work 24-7.” She also said the secret to her success has been buying underdeveloped properties in emerging neighborhoods. The West Side is growing due to the huge Vornado development planned in the area, she noted, adding that Long Island City is also becoming an office hub.
“You really have a city within cities,” she said. “Almost every street is unique. Twenty-sixth Street is very different than 27th Street.
Although the award is given for lifetime achievement, Ms. Mendik, 56, has no plans to slow down. “I’m very lucky to love what I do every day.”
Such optimism manifests itself in careful preparation. “I walk on streets to see what I see visually.”
She went to her first REBNY banquet about 30 years ago, and recalls sitting in the balcony and thinking, “I’d love to be one of those people one day.” She’s been involved extensively with the board since 1992, when the industry was crippled by a credit crunch much more serious than the industry’s in now. Ms. Himmel co-chairs REBNY’s Economic Development Committee, which she co-founded in 1992 under then Chairman Bernard Mendik. At the time, most were skeptical. “Watch me!” the spunky Ms. Himmel replied. “And actually we really did help solve the problems over a few years.”
Her partner, Mr. Meringoff, returns her admiration. “Yeah, we’re great partners,” he told The Commercial Observer earlier. “We’ve never had a harsh word, never had a fight and never had a disagreement. We may have disagreed about things, but it’s always been good.”
Ms. Himmel said she expects the next few years to be some of her busiest yet, especially with the opportunities for investment. “My vocation is my avocation,” she said. “It’s fun. I love the business.”
Chairman and CEO, the Singer & Bassuk Organization
Andrew Singer has one important piece of advice gleaned from years in the business. When attending the REBNY gala, he said, “Wear shoulder pads and shin guards.”
Of course, this year Mr. Singer will be seeing the affair from a somewhat different vantage, sitting up on the stage, after having earned the Louis Smadbeck Broker Recognition Award, which honors an executive who exemplifies the characteristics of a successful commercial broker. But he’s not wasting much time fretting about his speech. With 3,000 brokers in a single room all anxious to network and make deals, he said, “nobody cares what any of us are going to say.”
Mr. Singer started in the business in 1968, 43 years ago, and he’s missed only one REBNY banquet. “I’ve seen the fortunes of the real estate business ebb and flow,” he said. “You can tell by whether the balconies are filled and how close the tables are together.”
As for his predictions for the seating arrangements at this year’s banquet, he said, “It was a greatly improved year over 2009.” The banquet in January 2010, celebrating 2009, was less ebullient, he said. That year “was a bad year for most people. It wasn’t a boom year.”
The recession hasn’t slowed him down at all, though. “We did $1 billion in financings and advisory work,” he said. His company, the Singer & Bassuk Organization, arranges debt and equity financing and provides consulting services for major property owners headquartered primarily in New York, on properties they own throughout the United States. The average deal size is $50 million, but in recent years they’ve closed transactions ranging from under $5 million to more than $400 million.
The challenge lately hasn’t been finding investors with money, but finding buildings to park it. “The money is available,” he said. “The deals to put it into have been very weak.”
Lately, however, the availability of deals has increased. “The activity level is, in fact, rising. This was a boom year for us. A lot of financings were not done in 2008, 2009 or early 2010.” He added, “There are more and more opportunities again with refinanced buildings where loans were in fact coming due in 2010 or 2012.”
Mr. Singer has won REBNY’s Most Ingenious Deal of the Year award four times. In April 2008, he won for the fourth time and the second year in a row for a complex $225 million financing of the rehabilitation of a major apartment house in Tribeca. In 2006, he won for the $256.5 million construction financing of 20 Exchange Place in Lower Manhattan. In 2005, Mr. Singer won the Ingenie for arranging the acquisition financing of the same building-the first time a broker has won the award twice for arranging separate financings on the same property. And, in 2001, the winning transaction was the Kaufman Portfolio, which involved arranging loans totaling $205 million in a single placement covering the office buildings at 437 Madison Avenue, 747 Third Avenue, 777 Third Avenue and 77 Water Street in Manhattan.
Since 2003, Mr. Singer has been directly responsible for arranging mortgage and mezzanine financing in excess of $10 billion, including Carnegie Hall Tower, 747 Third Avenue, 777 Third Avenue, 230 Park Avenue South, The Archive, 50 Murray Street, The Lucida condominium and 255 East 74th Street, also a condominium.
His secret, he said, is developing close, long-term relationships with his clients. “It starts with being as knowledgeable as you possibly can about what the needs and desires of your clients are,” he said. “We truly understand our clients’ needs.”
Asked how long he plans to stay in a business he’s been working in for almost half a century, he replied, “Retirement I equate with calling it a day. That is not anything I want to do.
“I’m going to do this until they won’t let me do it anymore.”
Partner and Real Estate Practice Chairman, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan
Leonard Boxer has an eye for details in an industry of dreamers.
One of his longtime clients, of nearly 25 years, is Larry Silverstein. He’s helped Mr. Silverstein with the acquisition of the World Trade Center site lease, and has now moved on to working with the developer on getting his towers there built, including helping them get financed and leased.
“Larry is a very dedicated individual who has just put his head down and keeps going,” said the partner at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. “He was a dark horse to acquire the site, but he’s been living it for 10 years.”
Mr. Boxer has served as REBNY’s counsel for the past five years. Now he will receive the Kenneth R. Gerrety Humanitarian Award, which recognizes meritorious service to the community by a REBNY member.
He graduated from New York University School of Law in 1963, after earning a bachelor’s there as well. He’s received numerous awards for service to the community, including being a recipient of the Humanitarian Man of the Year Award from the American Jewish Committee and an honoree of the UJA-Federation New York Lawyers Division in 2002.
This award is “unique because it’s a recognition by the industry of my contribution to the industry by the membership of REBNY,” he said. “My career goes in a lot of directions,” he added. “This award is especially meaningful for me. I’ve been practicing as a real estate lawyer for 35 years and the premier real estate lobbying organization chose me as their counsel.”
He said he loves his job because “I get involved with all of the legal and esoteric issues that the industry is involved with. I find the solutions that make sense for real estate entrepreneurs and lenders.” He is the head of Stroock’s real estate practice group, one of the largest in the United States, with more than 50 lawyers. “I can’t say that things have been as robust as they were before the downturn,” he said. For major deals, the choices usually come down to only a handful of firms in the county. “But we’ve had more than our fair share of transactions,” he said.
Mr. Boxer has been going to the REBNY banquet for more than 20 years, and has received numerous awards from other organizations, but said this is certainly unique. “I was surprised and I was honored. To be recognized by your peers is something that doesn’t happen every day, even if some of them are technically your competitors.”
Frank A. Freda
Executive Managing Director, Global Facilities Management, Cushman & Wakefield
Frank Freda started in the real estate industry in 1977, and currently oversees Cushman & Wakefield’s facilities around the globe.
He was awarded the George M. Brooker Management Executive of the Year Award, which honors the memory of Brooker, the first vice president for REBNY’s Management Division and one of the profession’s most respected members
During his first 13 years at C&W, Mr. Freda was a member of the company’s legal team, overseeing and directing the day-to-day activities of eight in-house attorneys. For the next 20 years of his tenure, he held various positions with increasing responsibilities overseeing the firm’s provision of property, facility and project management services to major corporate clients.
Very active in local affairs, Mr. Freda is past president of the board of directors of the Malverne Little League; a member of the board of governors of the Diabetes Research Institute; and on the executive committee of the March of Dimes Walk-A-Thon, NYC Chapter. Mr. Freda is a member of CoreNet, IFMA, IREM, the Building Owners and Managers Association, the New York Building Congress and the Board of Directors of the Management Division of the Real Estate Board of New York. Mr. Freda is also a member of both the New York State and New York City Bar associations.
He graduated from Hofstra University in 1974, and earned a law degree from St. John’s in 1977.
Chairman of Newmark Knight Frank
When Jeffrey Gural says humbly that he didn’t expect to receive the Harry B. Helmsley Distinguished New Yorker Award, we believe him.
“I was very honored to receive this award,” he said. “But I was kind of surprised. I’m not a big developer. Most of the big names in our industry are on the development side,” he said, naming Steve Ross, the Dursts and the Rudins. “We’re really not developers,” he said, “though we own a lot of real estate.”
The award is presented to a REBNY member for invaluable contributions to New York’s civic welfare and the real estate community. As they say, it couldn’t have gone to a nicer guy, which Mr. Gural pretty much admits himself. “Truthfully,” he said self-consciously, “I’m known as being a nice guy and easy to make deals with. I’m involved with a lot of charities and have a lot of nonprofits as tenants.”
Along with Barry Gosin and Jimmy Kuhn, Mr. Gural is responsible for overseeing the management and leasing of more than 8 million square feet of properties owned by Newmark Holdings, a division of the brokerage Newmark Knight Frank. Since entering the business in 1978, when Newmark’s focus was New York, the real estate scion has overseen an expansion into international markets. He’s the son of the late mogul Aaron Gural, and the nephew of Leon and Maurice Spears. “Newmark has grown to be a big company,” Mr. Gural said. “It’s been a good run. Most people enjoy doing business with me.” His approach is more “like Wal-Mart,” he said. “People are customers. It’s not an adversarial relationship between landlord and tenant.”
Mr. Gural cites his firm’s 265,000-square-foot mega-deal with the Gap in 2009 as one of his proudest accomplishments to date. “That was the biggest deal that I’ve ever done,” he said. “Considering that the market had kind of tanked; we had a building that was half-empty; the city moved out and there was nothing you can do about it … they were consolidating into one location.”
A few months ago, Newmark also signed a lease with the Shubert Organization, which took 20,738 square feet at 520 Eighth Avenue. As Mr. Gural told The Commercial Observer earlier: “What happened is, I’m actually very friendly with Bob Wankel, who’s one of the people who runs the Shubert Organization. And my father and I were very friendly with Gerry Schoenfeld. Bob is actually the chairman of the Times Square Alliance, and we were representing him and we had a nonprofit tenant at 520 Eighth Avenue who had to give up half of their space because, as you know, a lot of the nonprofits are struggling.
“And I saw Bob and I mentioned that we had space at 520 Eighth Avenue because I knew they were looking to relocate [some of their business]. He said, ‘Great, we want to be in one of your buildings,’ because they’ve been in a couple of our buildings before. So we showed them the space and it worked out. Believe it or not, we have a lot of theater people in that building.”
Nonprofits have steered a fairly smooth course through the recession. “They take up a lot of space in the city,” he said. A lot of his firm’s buildings are Class B, the sort where nonprofits belong, he noted. Mr. Gural said that, in particular, Newmark’s been helping a lot of charities move into the garment district, where rents are significantly lower, sometimes in the mid-$30s a foot. “We’re proud of the fact that we have a lot of nonprofits as tenants help get through economic crisis,” he said.
President of Brause Realty
David Brause is accustomed to finding himself in good company in this business.
Mr. Brause, the president of the 83-year-old family realty company Brause Realty, grew up surrounded by some of the heavy hitters in Manhattan real estate. Now as the recipient of the Young Real Estate Man of the Year Award, the 39-year-old finds himself following in the footsteps of the likes of the late Lew “Mr. New York” Rudin, who previously won the award.
“I was honored, truly honored and humbled,” he said. “If I can follow any of their examples, of any of my predecessors,” he trailed off, as if imagining the possibilities.
Mr. Brause started in the business 18 years ago and has been active in the ownership and development of approximately 3 million square feet of space. He’s still flying high from the 700,000-square-foot redevelopment of a 1911 manufacturing building in Long Island City, which will be the new headquarters of JetBlue Airways.
JetBlue, which needed about 200,000 square feet, was considering moving to Florida. But Mr. Brause, with help from the city, pulled out all the stops to keep them here. “We did a whole marketing presentation-the aerial view from the top of the beautiful building, showing where we were in terms of Court Square, Queens Plaza, Jackson Avenue, where the BID was and where the economic development activities had been in terms of the $80 million that was being expended on the park. MetLife got involved. Silver Cup Studios got involved,” he told The Commercial Observer around the time of the deal. “And after that, they went out for drinks in Long Island City and had a great evening. I think that kind of began the courting of JetBlue to Long Island City.
The lease allowed the city to retain some 900 airline jobs that would have otherwise flown to Florida. “People are always looking for a great story,” he said, “and in this, you had papers pick it up that were all over the country. You had Seattle and you had Detroit. You had Denver. Clearly, you had Florida, which was written in kind of a different tone.
“But it really was our deal to lose. Not my deal to lose, but New York City’s deal to lose. They were already here. As Mayor Bloomberg and Seth Pinsky always say, ‘You have to focus on keeping the jobs in New York that are already here.'”
Mr. Brause has also been involved in the construction of a 34-story luxury apartment building on East 57th Street in Manhattan and the construction of a 200,000-square-foot, mixed-use office, residential and retail development in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., anchored by Goldman Sachs & Co.
Mr. Braus graduated from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and went to work for Goldman Sachs as a financial analyst, involving real estate. He echoes his family’s cautious philosophy. “It’s more a question of keeping space leased, managing the office buildings that we’ve got and from time to time acquiring them,” he said.
However, he said his biggest contribution has been pushing the family into undertaking new developments, such as MetLife Plaza, also in Long Island City. The 400,000-square-foot Brewster Building was originally a carriage house. With the completion of a major expansion and renovation by Brause Realty in 2003, Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. fully leased the building as its operational headquarters for more than 1,500 employees.
Mr. Brause said he expects 2011 to be busy. “The opportunities haven’t been there,” he said, but there are “interesting assets coming on the market.”
He also said the company is setting its sights further afield, even though Manhattan remains its “bread and butter.” He cites Long Island City, Brooklyn, upstate New York and Connecticut. “You get a much better return on investments outside of Manhattan,” he said, though he concedes the risks are greater. Going forward, he sees himself “continuing on a good path,” potentially being up there on the REBNY stage at another point. At this year’s banquet, he notes, he’ll be “in the company of a wonderful group of individuals who are still active and still not retired.”