Stuck in the Middle With You: Jersey to the Left, Downtown Brooklyn to the right, Bruce Surry excels in lower Manhattan
Daniel Geiger April 11, 2012, 8 a.m.
Bruce Surry stumbled into lower Manhattan much the way he got into brokerage in the first place: by seizing on opportunities as they arose.
It was the mid-1970s and Mr. Surry was a sales executive at Xerox. He was successful at the firm and had risen enough in the company ranks to become manager of one of its main Manhattan branches offices, at 60 Broad Street. Yet there was something repetitive about the corporate life. For years he’d been feeling it and he was more ready for a career change than perhaps even he knew.
An avid poker player, Mr. Surry said he met the legendary brokerage executive Edward S. Gordon, who ran the eponymous brokerage company often referred to simply as ESG, at a late-night card game. They immediately clicked, and Mr. Gordon got to thinking that Mr. Surry could be a valuable member of his burgeoning business.
For one, Mr. Surry knew a host of corporate clients from his time at Xerox, the kind of clientele Mr. Gordon was already trying to cater to by taking a more sophisticated and analytical approach with his brokerage services company—a focus that would eventually make him a pioneer in the business.
He could also tell Mr. Surry had the smarts and the disposition to be a good leasing dealmaker—Mr. Surry beat everyone at poker that night.
“We just immediately got along. It was a great night and a great game,” Mr. Surry remembered. “I think we both knew that a lot of my skills in sales at Xerox would be easily transferable to brokerage.”
“Ed was every bit the legend that he is known for being,” Mr. Surry said, noting that his impression of Mr. Gordon drew him to the business as much as the work itself did. “I could just tell immediately meeting him what a special guy he was and that he was a man who had a vision. I wanted to work with someone like that.”
But there was something else that Mr. Gordon saw in Mr. Surry that added to his luster as a potential hire.
Having worked at 60 Broad Street, Mr. Surry was well acquainted with lower Manhattan, and it just so happened that Mr. Gordon was looking for someone to spearhead a Downtown office for ESG. Although the financial district was still a place that attracted large tenants, by then Midtown had supplanted the area as the city’s pre-eminent office district and the place where most of corporate America was establishing New York outposts. Most brokerage companies were responding in kind, allowing their operations to be Midtown-centric.
Always the strategic thinker, Mr. Gordon realized that lower Manhattan would always have a place in the city’s office market, for the simple reason that it could provide a low-cost alternative to Midtown. He reasoned that if he could double down and establish a Downtown post at a time when competitors were losing their focus on the neighborhood, he could position ESG as the pre-eminent dealmaker in the neighborhood.
Mr. Surry was faced with a not-so-difficult career choice.
“I knew the neighborhood extremely well,” Mr. Surry said. “I was also at stage where I was really ready to make a career change.”
Within a year of joining the Edward S. Gordon Company, Mr. Surry was named the head of the firm’s new Downtown office. The year was 1979.
If it was Mr. Surry’s courage that helped him switch jobs in his 30s and his good fortune to have met a winner in the business like Mr. Gordon to help him do it, then it was tenacity that made his career a success.
The Manhattan office market, though one of the strongest and most lucrative in the world, is also known for its ruthless down cycles and perhaps no other area of the city felt those dips more consistently and profoundly over past decades than lower Manhattan. After all, it’s hard to play second fiddle to Midtown during tough times when Midtown itself is charging discount rents to drum up business.
“I’ve been through some really tough times in lower Manhattan,” Mr. Surry said. “After Black Monday in the late 1980s we saw the market there dip for years. By the early 1990s, vacancy rates were well over 20 percent.”
Mr. Surry branched his business beyond lower Manhattan into Midtown and even nationally to diversify his pipeline of clients and deals. Still, there was something that he liked about having lower Manhattan at or near the center of his focus.
“It is such a competitive market, you’ve got Midtown, the Jersey waterfront, Downtown Brooklyn. Every one of those is your competitor,” Mr. Surry said, acknowledging that he enjoyed the challenge. Good brokers are appreciated in lower Manhattan, where the real estate alone didn’t just sell itself like it perhaps would in coveted areas of Midtown.
And for all of its stomach-turning drops through the years, lower Manhattan always managed to bounce back. Mr. Gordon was right—if you could maintain a beachhead in the area, a good broker could always be there first to enjoy its bounties.
Sure enough, by the late 1990s, Downtown was humming again with the dot-com boom. And now, in the wake of a city-wide downturn during the recession, lower Manhattan suddenly again looks like a nice specialty to have as the World Trade Center advances toward completion and the neighborhood again seems on the verge of becoming a focal point for tenants after the million-plus-square-foot commitment last year by Condé Nast to relocate its Midtown headquarters to the neighborhood.
Mr. Surry, now an elder statesman at CBRE, is positioned to be able to practice brokerage in fertile territory. He is the agent for several prominent Downtown buildings, including 32 Old Slip and two buildings owned by Vornado, 40 Fulton Street and 20 Broad Street, that he has helped to fill. He also has a busy tenant rep practice.
“You finally get the feeling that all of the pieces are there for lower Manhattan after all these years,” Mr. Surry said. “It’s a live-and-work area with a big residential population now; there’s new office towers. The politicians get it because they’ve created the incentives to help tenants come to the area. Everything is clicking and I think Downtown is going to attract a lot of tenants in the coming years, which is going to keep anyone working there very busy.”