Simon Ziff is a classic example of the small-town boy done good in the big city.
Born in Philipsburgh, Pa., near Penn State University, the Ackman-Ziff Real Estate Group president grew up around his grandfather’s clothing store. He studied finance at State College and everyone figured he’d stay in the area because everyone else did. Mr. Ziff, however, had bigger plans.
“Real estate was a way to get to either of the big cities—Pittsburgh and Philadelphia,” he said.
But after graduating college in 1987, he moved to the other big city, New York, knowing only one person in the area, to attend New York University’s graduate real estate program.
“We got an apartment together and he spent the entire next year trying to get me to join a cult,” said Mr. Ziff, 47. “That was my introduction to New York.” He managed to resist.
In 1989—while still attending NYU—he was hired as an analyst by Larry Ackman and in 1995 he became a full partner. During his tenure at the helm he’s expanded the firm nationally to Boston and Miami and new financing fields.
“The business plan required us to grow the firm from 5-10 professionals to 25-30 professionals in order to gain greater leverage with both the capital sources,” said Mr. Ziff, a 20-year member of REBNY. “This coupled with adding the joint venture equity business made us a unique firm in our industry. Most importantly, it was the level of this talent that we feel set us apart.” It seems to be working. He said the firm did $7.4 billion in financing in 2007, its best year so far.
He still swears by the NYU program that brought him to New York, where he occasionally lectures and scopes out top talent. “I’ve hired over 20 people from the program, including two partners,” he said.