Stephen Berliner: For Love of the Game
Daniel Edward Rosen April 5, 2012, 2:22 p.m.
Like most good brokers in Manhattan, Stephen Berliner loves the thrills of the job: the adrenaline of winning a client, the creativity of guiding a tenant through Manhattan’s labyrinthine options, the late nights parrying back and forth in negotiations to secure a space.
But early in his career he knew that dealmaking alone wouldn’t be enough.
Getting to the top of the city’s brokerage heap is in many ways a lonely proposition, a ceaseless, single-minded effort to fill one’s pipeline with the biggest deals and clients possible. Mr. Berliner is not lacking in ambition, but the kind of unchecked self-centeredness that would seem necessary in such a pursuit doesn’t fit his style.
Speaking with The Commercial Observer, Mr. Berliner gave off the distinct impression of someone who finds the leasing business a lot more fun when it takes on the collegial air of a locker room, which, in Mr. Berliner’s case, shouldn’t be surprising. Both in high school and in college at Wharton, Mr. Berliner excelled at athletics, and the camaraderie and lessons he learned on the baseball field and tennis court (his two main sports) form the reference points for how he still strives to do business.
“I learned a lot through my own mistakes playing sports,” Mr. Berliner said. “During high school, in baseball I was the worst teammate. I thought, you get players to play better by yelling, by telling everyone they have to do better. And I got to understanding, all you’re really doing is making them more nervous and stressed.”
By the time he was in brokerage, the mistakes of Mr. Berliner’s formative years had yielded to a innate sense of how to motivate and inspire his peers. In the late 1980s, after having been at the real estate company Helmsley Spears for a number of years, his superiors could see his gifts. He was assigned to head the company’s underperforming Long Island branch.
“I was 30 and the youngest branch manager they’d ever had,” Mr. Berliner said. “At the time, I remember feeling how there was a real lack of appropriate leadership in the real estate industry and that this was a great niche for me to be in.”
Mr. Berliner never gave up brokering leasing deals, but the “player/manager” model for his career was born.
Mr. Berliner was not only good at getting the best out of his brokers but his unerring sense of fair play also made him a difficult man to argue with when brokers needed a higher up to settle a commission dispute, the kinds of sticky arguments that are part of the job for almost any manager in the brokerage business.
“Leadership has to flow from the top,” Mr. Berliner said. “To be a leader you have to set the example. Leadership for me has also been about doing business and living just the way I expect my brokers to.”
In the early 1990s, as Helmsley began to fall into decline as a brokerage power, Mr. Berliner pursued other opportunities in the real estate business, switching over to ownership. First he worked for the investor Bruce Brickman, then the investment firm Olmstead Properties.
He enjoyed the experiences, but he began to sense that his disposition wasn’t suited for it.
“I was with Brickman for two years and Olmstead for four years beyond that,” Mr. Berliner said. “I was at these firms in the mid to late 1990s when real estate prices started to shoot up. And they were going up so fast it scared me. When you buy a building for $10 million and sell it for $23 million 18 months later and then $35 million months after that, you start to wonder if you’re going to be able to get the rents to make it all work out. It was crazy and I began to ask myself, am I really an investor?”
In 1999, Mr. Berliner was offered what seemed like the perfect transition back to brokerage. Wanting to utilize his most recent credentials as a landlord, the services company Grubb & Ellis brought him on board to launch a New York leasing arm of the company that would focus on agency assignments.
The year he spent there was a low point in his career.
In a business and in life, Mr. Berliner prides himself on being a straight shooter. Grubb & Ellis, he alleges, quickly irked him by living up to few of the assurances he said it had promised. Still, Mr. Berliner didn’t want to discuss the particulars of his time at the company, and said only that he “waited until my one-year contract was up, then left.”
Though the period clearly offended his sense of right and wrong, Mr. Berliner doesn’t seem to get hung up on it. In his world view, someone lucky enough to be in a city of such boundless opportunity as New York in the present day really has little reason to complain, even if they are dealt a few setbacks.
“My mother and her mother and father were sent to Auschwitz,” Mr. Berliner said.
On his desk, he has a picture of the three of them together in Germany in the 1930s before World War II and the Holocaust. Mr. Berliner’s mother and grandmother made it out of the camp, but his grandfather didn’t.
“When I think about that, every day for me is a great day,” Mr. Berliner said. “I mean, what are we dealing with? Real estate deals. Compared to Auschwitz, the problems we have in life are nothing.”
Mr. Berliner quietly joined the real estate firms Insignia ESG and then GVA Williams (now known as Colliers International) after his quick stay at Grubb & Ellis. After rebuilding at these firms he was offered a job to come over to the tenant representation firm Studley and return to what he loves best: management. At Studley he now oversees the company’s Midtown operations. Mr. Berliner has been in the position for six years and imagines finishing his career at the firm, which is known as a feisty niche player in the market that, in recent years especially, has won outsize chunks of business for its modest size.
In his 50s, he still hasn’t lost his passion for sport. In his last year of college at Wharton, with his organized athletic career seemingly on the verge of winding down, Mr. Berliner said his tennis coach persuaded him to try squash.
“I was captain of the tennis team and my coach told me I would love it,” Mr. Berliner said. Mr. Berliner heeded his suggestion. “He was right.”
Squash is on par with golf in the real estate industry, a pastime enjoyed by so many prominent figures, including the landlords Steve Green and Edward Minskoff, it has become as much a conduit for business and networking as exercise. And while it’s hard to find a golf green in proximity to Midtown, there are plenty of squash courts, including one right across Park Avenue from Mr. Berliner’s offices at Studley.
Not only is the sport a kind of condensed version of tennis, the game Mr. Berliner grew up on, it fits his ethos as well.
“The people who you find playing squash are the smartest and most honorable guys,” Mr. Berliner said. “There is this sentiment of sportsmanship that’s so integral to the game. In tennis you’ll get people who call a shot out of bounds if it’s close, but in squash, even if you really did think the ball went out of bounds, it’s customary to call it in your opponent’s favor if you have even the slightest doubt. There is such a sense of honor to the game. It’s also a killer workout.”
The day after his meeting with The Commercial Observer, Mr. Berliner played in the finals of a 55-and-over national doubles tournament. He and his partner upset a highly ranked team in the semis, eventually losing in the finals to the number-one seed.
After the match, a typically upbeat Mr. Berliner emailed The Commercial Observer:
“It was a lot of fun and my first ever final in a national tournament,” he typed out one day last week to The Commercial Observer. “It took a while to get there, but it was worth it!”