Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

As leasing agent for some of Manhattan’s most iconic buildings, CBRE executive vice president Brad Gerla has access to some impressive real estate—like J.P. Morgan’s former pied-à-terre on the 31st floor of 14 Wall Street or the neo-Gothic inner workings of the Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway.

So it was strange to chat with him one recent rainy morning in a nondescript conference room in an equally nondescript–dare we say blah–office, save for the fact that the conference room was nestled inside the former MetLife headquarters at 11 Madison Avenue.

cbre brad gerla Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

Brad Gerla.

Mr. Gerla has made a name for himself as a go-to guy for noteworthy Manhattan buildings, mostly of the sort found in Lower Manhattan, where he works out of the firm’s dedicated Downtown office.

In addition to 11 Madison Avenue, Mr. Gerla has at various times handled leasing for Silverstein Properties’ 3, 4 and 7 World Trade Center and 40 Wall Street. There is also the recently recapped 14 Wall Street, 233 Broadway and L&L Holdings’ 195 Broadway, where Omnicom Group recently took 200,000 square feet for its New York headquarters.

In some cases, the leasing is preceded by a repositioning or reimagining of the property. Due to the shifting dynamics Downtown, this has become more and more the case not only for the buildings—offices as luxury lofts, for example—but also for the tenants who occupy them.

To chart it all involves a trip back to a time when the Financial District was solely that.

“I started at Williams back in the ’80s—at the time it was called Williams—and back then we had a pretty impressive group who are now major players in the marketplace: Bob Alexander, Peter Riguardi, Neil Goldmacher, David Falk,” Mr. Gerla said of his early days in the business.

He left Williams to join Jones Lang Wootton until its merger with LaSalle Partners in 1999.

“When Jones Lang Wootton and LaSalle merged, half of us went to Cushman and half of us went to, at the time, Insignia/ESG,” Mr. Gerla said.

Edward Gordon, the legendary broker who sold Edward S. Gordon Co. to Insignia Financial Group in 1996, told Mr. Gerla that he’d be perfect for Insignia’s Downtown office, so in 1999 off he went. By design he already had a familiarity with the area from his time at Williams, where he made a conscious decision to make the area his specialty. At Williams, David Levinson, a broker then, had some assignments Downtown, so Mr. Gerla had taken the opportunity to learn the market.

“At that time there wasn’t a lot of interest in Downtown or a lot of hype, and I felt that if I could be the expert in that market I could really develop a niche for myself,” he said. Relationships with landlords and tenants in the area developed and evolved, and Mr. Gerla had become the go-to guy for the action by the time Edward Gordon redeployed him to the area.

Of course, much has changed since then. Mr. Gerla has lived through the destruction of 9/11 and the subsequent and ongoing redevelopment of the World Trade Center site and surrounding area. And, in a sense, he has been tasked with helping it along, through specific work assignments and projects he has taken on outside the office.

“We’re involved in all the groups Downtown—the Downtown Alliance, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council,” Mr. Gerla explained. He owes his involvement to CBRE colleague Cherrie Nanninga, who previously served as deputy chief financial officer and director of real estate for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

“Cherrie used to work at the Trade Center and got very involved with this. We’re all very involved,” Mr. Gerla said.

CBRE makes a point to stay involved and has a commitment Downtown, he said.

“Listen, for us to do well you have to have a community that’s doing well and you have to give back,” he said. “You can’t just sit there and do deals; you have to give something back to the community.”

Mr. Gerla said he works to get clients to donate some of their vacant space to students involved in an arts group Downtown.

Then there is the leasing itself. Silverstein’s 7 World Trade Center is nearly full, leased to a roster of tenants that includes Moody’s and Ameriprise Financial. Nearby 3 and 4 World Trade Center are expected to be ready for tenant occupancy by the end of 2014 and 2013 respectively. A major tenant is being sought for 3. Asked if the shifting makeup of area tenants has made for any sleepless nights, Mr. Gerla referenced the interest that each has garnered and the love that he has for the job.

“It’s our business—you adapt to the conditions you’re dealt,” he said. “I don’t think it’s challenging at all. I love what I do.”

He added that there is a lot of interest at the moment in 4 World Trade Center. “We are active for 3 and 4 for major media firms and major social media firms, advertising, entertainment … The bottom line is, for those particular buildings it’s not about location, location, location anymore. It’s about quality, quality, quality. And tenants of that size and that sophistication want new product.”

Tenant construction in Tower 4 begins toward the middle of 2013, and though there are no contracts signed, Mr. Gerla said that his office has “a lot of proposals and a lot of negotiating back and forth,” from tenants that run the gamut—insurance, media, and tech.

“We never saw the advertising agencies downtown, we never saw the media,” Mr. Gerla pointed out. One such media deal, for the Daily News, earned Mr. Gerla and colleague Howard Fiddle a 2010 nomination for the Real Estate Board of New York’s Deal of the Year award.

The Commercial Observer asked Mr. Gerla how he unwinds? We already knew the answer: golf. We offered the response on his behalf and acknowledged that a cursory Google search of him brought up a 2009 New York Times article that featured an image of him teeing off at the Rolling Hills Country Club in Wilton, Conn.

“They were redoing our club and I guess they were doing an article about redoing clubs in Connecticut and the Times wrote an article and I just happened to be on the tee box when they were walking through,” he offered. “But I’m a lacrosse player. I still play.”

In addition to skiing, basketball and golf, he plays lacrosse—seemingly really well. His team—the Elder Statesmen—have picked up tournament wins in an over-50 league. “We’ve actually won all our tournaments,” Mr. Gerla said, before reeling off a list of far-flung locations where over-50 lacrosse tournaments are held each year. The list includes Vail, Lake Placid and Fort Lauderdale, where in January the Elder Statesmen were crowned the 2012 Grand Masters National Champions.

It’s real, full-contact lacrosse as well, although, as Mr. Gerla concedes, “you’re playing against other 50 and over guys, so it’s not like you’ve got some young guy who is going to wipe you out.”

When not on the road dashing the tournament hopes of lacrosse opponents, Mr. Gerla lives in Westport, Conn. He has two daughters and a son (who also played lacrosse). His son is a junior in the business school at Tulane. One daughter, 23, just graduated from Emory and is working as a paralegal and studying for the LSAT. His younger daughter is a senior in high school.

Then there are the two dogs, Vizlas, described in terms like “gorgeous” and “lean.”

“I grew up as a kid with a poodle and always just boring dogs—and these seemed so gorgeous and with so much energy,” he said, proudly. After admiring a friend’s Vizla, Mr. Gerla did some research into the breed. They’re Hungarian hunting dogs and were nearly eradicated on orders from Hitler.

Mr. Gerla has been at CBRE since it bought Insignia ESG in 2003 and became the country’s largest real estate services outfit. His recent deals include leases at 414 West 14th Street. Entertainment law firm Davis Shapiro Lewit & Hayes signed on for nearly 7,000 square feet there several weeks ago. Mr. Gerla represented the owners, the Carlyle Group and Capstone Equities. And along with colleague Adam Foster, Mr. Gerla was recently named the leasing agent for 111/115 Broadway.

He said he has seen a pickup in activity across all of the buildings he leases, and he met The Commercial Observer at 11 Madison because he had an afternoon meeting with building management. A subtenant there, Mr. Gerla declined to say who, is giving up two floors there in May of 2013 in a move that will add 250,000 square feet of space to the market.

The history of a building like 11 Madison, one of his favorites, is something that Mr. Gerla finds fascinating and useful.

“When you take on these iconic buildings, you learn the history,” he said. “I find that tenants and brokers are interested. It’s always something that they listen to and if you can just throw out a tidbit that maybe can relate to their business …”

Then the wheels start turning.

“Like 11 Madison was built by MetLife,” he offered. “If an insurance company was coming here this was the insurance building. This was MetLife’s headquarters. My point is that I enjoy that. I enjoy the history, I enjoy knowing, understanding the building, when it was built, how it was financed and I think that lends itself when you come to reposition buildings.”


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