On an unseasonably warm winter afternoon, The Commercial Observer zoomed up Madison Avenue, packed into the back of a cab with members of a Cushman & Wakefield retail team that has been closing its fair share of the avenue’s luxury retail leases at a blistering pace.
En route to survey some of the retail spots the trio has worked on, we passed others—such as 635 Madison Avenue, home of crystal manufacturer Baccarat. The company’s history dates back to early-18th-century France and Louis XV, or le Bien-Aimé, who commissioned the first piece of Baccarat crystal. The retail team also included a French citizen, an affable and robust Paris native (he was raised in the Paris suburb Versailles) with an eye and love for the New York City retail scene.
He’s senior director Eric Le Goff, and over the past 12 months he, together with executive director James Downey and associate director Sarah Mohr Fabian, has leased 18,500 square feet of storefront space on the choicest of luxury retail corridors: Madison Avenue, between 57th Street and 72nd streets.
“The approach that we’ve taken is very much a team-oriented methodology,” said Mr. Downey, when asked about the trio’s recent success. “We have really focused and built a practice that is based on premium to luxury retail. By targeting that as a group we’ve been quite successful in distinguishing ourselves on Madison Avenue, Fifth Avenue and in the major luxury markets throughout the United States.”
Being three very unique personalities (from very different backgrounds) has helped the team serve its luxury retail clients, the three say. Ms. Fabian, 31, has roots in fashion, but on a different end of the spectrum. She joined Cushman & Wakefield five years ago, from a Liz Claiborne company—Laundry, by Shelli Segal—where she was doing sales and merchandising for the brand through major department stores.
Despite liking her work, she found herself feeling “not challenged.” Simultaneously, an interest in certain aspects of the real estate grew. A friend at Cushman & Wakefield suggested she consider retail brokerage, and the rest is history. An native Manhattanite who grew up at 82nd and East End Avenue, she was a 2012 REBNY nominee for “Most Promising Commercial Salesperson.”
After joining the Cushman & Wakefield legal department 30 years ago as a corporate counsel, Mr. Downey, 58, said that the world of sales and brokerage was more appealing than the world of law.
“[I] very quickly decided this was a very exciting place to be and wanted to get out of the legal department and move over to the sales side of the house,” said Mr. Downey. His first foray into brokerage was a fashionable one: the Saks Fifth Avenue account Cushman & Wakefield had at the time.
Mr. Le Goff, 40, studied law and real estate and later started at Cushman & Wakefield in Paris. Feeling the pull of New York, however, he predicted to the firm’s chairman that in three years’ time he would knock on his door and request a transfer to New York.
“It was the energy,” he explained. “Paris for me was a little too slow. To do business, I just wanted to be in this incredible city.”
But what about the food? Regularly seeing his family? Springtime in Paris? Mr. Le Goff forgoes all of these, save one, in exchange for the energy the city provides, particularly as it relates to business. He can often be found at Le Bilboquet, a French bistro on East 63rd Street (he recommends the Poulet Cajun).
Hanging out with the three, it’s easy to see their synergy. They sometimes finish one another’s sentences.
Mr. Downey said that among the three of them, their respective titles are irrelevant. “There are no prima donnas,” he declared. “It’s not a me, me, me thing—it’s a we, we, we thing,” added Mr. Le Goff.
A glance at the deals they’ve done shows how effective the selfless three have been as a three. Just announced, and right off Madison Avenue on 67th Street, is a 2,333-square-foot lease for Bottega Veneta Men. The Italian luxury goods house, perhaps best known for its woven leather goods, also leased 2,048 square feet at 849 Madison Avenue from the trio in the first quarter of 2011 for a women’s store.
Emilio Pucci, in the third quarter of 2011, signed on the dotted line for 3,922 square feet at 855 Madison Avenue.
And the aforementioned Baccarat recently completed a 4,893-square-foot deal for its store at 635 Madison Avenue.
While the trio represents luxury brands that are always on the hunt for retail space across the United States, the past 12 months have been busy for this stretch of Madison Avenue. The frequent turnover on Madison Avenue means the team needs sharp eyes and fast feet to keep up with the area’s ever-changing landscape.
“Because we’ve created this niche where we focus on the luxury and premium brands and, in New York, specifically markets such as Soho, Madison and Fifth, we get to focus,” said Ms. Fabian. “I’m on Madison Avenue three times a week and that gives me a knowledge base which is huge and I see the changes, which are every day.” Mr. Le Goff visits maybe once a week, he said, and Mr. Downey once every month.
Part of visiting is certainly to see the changes—shifts in energy as well as in tenants. But it’s also helpful in maintaining relationships with clients, many of which, Ms. Fabian pointed out, are small families who have owned there for years.
“This is their business,” she said. “They call us when they have something coming on or we’re calling them just to say hello.”
Not surprisingly, the velocity of the deals has picked up.
At the bottom of the downturn, in 2009, a USA Today article about the hard times on this very same stretch shows Mr. Le Goff staring bleakly out of a window onto the avenue. As if on cue, it’s rainy and gray out.
“I remember in 2008, 2009 some brokers were saying, ‘Well, Madison Avenue is over. Luxury players are going to go somewhere else if they still exist,’” he recalled.
“That’s absolutely not true. We’re not believers of that because, again, there is only one Madison Avenue in the United States.” Asked about the effect that the recession had on luxury retail and, hence, their business, Mr. Downey said that they were seeing vacancy rates as high as 16.5 percent during the worst of it.
“It was, as Eric said, a very depressed, dour forecast for what was going to be happening for Madison Avenue and the luxury markets in general.”
When asked when the market started to improve, both Mr. Downey and Ms. Fabian replied, in unison, “The turnaround started in the first quarter of 2010.”
Hysteria abated, said Mr. Downey, as rental rates rose and clients became anxious to take advantage and snag a prime spot, until, finally, the sun shone once again on this stretch of Madison Avenue.