Jotham Sederstrom Oct. 11, 2011, 11:38 a.m.
If Leon Manoff were to sketch his nine-month search for office space on behalf of ASME, the 131-year-old association of mechanical engineers, it would look like a swirl of concentric circles, with each spiral extending farther from the organization’s space at 3 Park Avenue.
Over the course of his search, in fact, the Colliers International tenant agent toured floorplates 20 blocks north and more than three miles south, all across Lower Manhattan. In total, Mr. Manoff and his clients considered more than 30 buildings over the span of roughly 10 tours.
But as is so often the case, the building that ASME executives liked most of all was hiding in their own backyard, at 2 Park Avenue, directly out the window.
“Two Park was one of the first properties we inspected—because it was literally across the street,” said Mr. Manoff, a vice chairman at Colliers International who has worked at the company since 1987, when it was still Williams Real Estate. “By the time they made their decision, I told them they knew as much about the industry as a lot of the brokers.”
That deal, which culminated this June with a 100,000-square-foot lease, is not only a testament to the agent’s hard work and dedication but a recurring theme in his life. Like those outwardly spiraling circles, the Mexico City-born New Yorker has traveled on a dizzying and inspiring path to Mexico and back that has included kidnapping, taxicab confessions and a smattering of luck.
Throughout his 35-year career in real estate and a traumatic childhood that preceded it, Mr. Manoff has brokered more than two million square feet of deals, including multiple transactions for the likes of book publishing group Macmillan, insurance company Aetna, and Newsweek and Reader’s Digest. All along the way, his firm named him as its “Top Producer” in 2007—one year before Real Estate New York included him in its own honor roll of brokers.
“I do get pleasure out of doing all the deals, but I get more pleasure out of going to the bank with the check,” Mr. Manoff said. “Even today, that’s where I get the most satisfaction. My ego is fed by the size of my bank account. It’s nice to have 15 minutes of fame, but having grown up the way I did, it’s all about the account and the security.”
Among his most recent transactions, Mr. Manoff and his colleagues, Andrew Roos and Michael Cohen, arranged the 85,460-square-foot lease at 685 Third Avenue for the accounting firm Marks Paneth & Shron. Inked last month, the transaction marked the first long-term lease since the 33-story property was acquired by pension fund TIAA-CREF.
For Mr. Manoff, the 16-year lease was a product of a one-year search that will shift the firm’s accountants from its current home at 622 Third Avenue while maintaining its close proximity to transit hubs such as Grand Central.
“Geographically, they were looking for a building that would allow them their close proximity to transportation, and Grand Central is a close destination,” he said. “It fell right in the sweet spot.”
While his spate of recent transactions is certainly nothing to ignore, it’s his relationship with the Flatiron Building that may be most impressive. Indeed, six years ago, Mr. Manoff finalized a deal for Macmillan Publishing for the entirety of the iconic asset’s 178,000 square feet. Heralded for its ambitious size, the transaction remains a bright spot in the broker’s significant career.
“It’s safe to say that the building is one of the most widely photographed buildings in the country, and perhaps the world,” said Mr. Manoff, himself an owner of one such likeness, which he hangs in his Madison Avenue office.
“But as an office structure,” he added, “people have questioned whether that use is the highest and best use for that particular building, and I think it is.”
One of three siblings born in Mexico City, Mr. Manoff found himself in the United States at the age of 7 after his parents’ traumatic divorce led to what he described as an actual abduction.
“My parents divorced and my mother kidnapped me from Mexico,” recalled Mr. Manoff, 58, who relocated to Rego Park, Queens. “Today, you would find my picture on a milk carton for that.”
While barely surviving on food stamps in Queens, the young man struggled to learn English—even while his mother exchanged vows with the man whose surname he would eventually inherit.
But amid a series of sicknesses in his family—afflicting first his stepfather, who, after a mental illness, was institutionalized, and then his sister, who suffered from anorexia—Mr. Manoff flew to Mexico to reunite with his father and brother, whom he hadn’t seen in nearly a decade.
“We lived on welfare for a while and it was tough going,” he said of his youth in Queens. “But we really persevered.”
His time in Mexico, however, lasted two years at best. Back in New York, he juggled a handful of jobs, including as a window washer and an ice cream scooper at Baskin-Robbins. But it was while driving a taxi that he received a job lead that would transform his life.
His passenger, he learned one evening, was a broker at Sutton & Towne. And during a friendly chat, the real estate agent handed Mr. Manoff a telephone number for Bob Tunis, who wound up giving the taxi driver a shot at the real estate company’s Great Neck outpost.
It was while working at the firm that Mr. Manoff learned the fundamentals. Indeed, even while maintaining his job as a taxi driver, the 23-year-old agent kept his head down, canvassing local businesses like his life depended on it.
“I took to the prospects of the money,” said Mr. Manoff, who now works a few doors from Mr. Tunis, another vice chairman at Colliers. “I followed the money and, never having had it, I wanted it badly. It taught me that my only limitations were the ones I imposed upon myself.”