Phoenix Rising: Newmark Grubb Knight Frank’s Jeff Rosenblatt, Post Kent Swig

It didn’t take long for Jeff Rosenblatt to sense something awry in the house of Kent Swig.

It was 2009 and Mr. Swig, at the time a large landlord in the city, had purchased the real estate services company Helmsley-Spear a year earlier. In the months after his big acquisition of the legendary brokerage firm, Mr. Swig had offered Mr. Rosenblatt a senior position managing its leasing operations.

jeffrey rosenblatt web Phoenix Rising: Newmark Grubb Knight Franks Jeff Rosenblatt, Post Kent Swig

Jeff Rosenblatt.

Mr. Rosenblatt had been a successful leasing broker at several major brokerage companies, including Newmark Knight Frank, Cushman & Wakefield and Grubb & Ellis. But Helmsley-Spear seemed to have a real chance to become a power of its own in the city.

Not only did the company have a decades-old brand and name recognition with some of the city’s biggest and most powerful landlords, but Mr. Swig’s ownership also appeared to give the firm a guaranteed pipeline of business handling deals in his substantial commercial portfolio.

Like many brokers before him who have gambled on a startup or sought to move to a less-established firm for the chance to build a brokerage from the ground up, taking a personal hand in styling its culture and cultivating its talent, Mr. Rosenblatt was intrigued. Mr. Swig was also very charming, wooing Mr. Rosenblatt over lunch at some of the city’s best power dining spots, like the Regency. Mr. Rosenblatt had also known Mr. Swig—though not well—for almost two decades, since the early 1980s when Mr. Swig was dating Elizabeth Macklowe, the daughter of landlord Harry Macklowe, who had worked at Newmark Knight Frank when Mr. Rosenblatt was there early in his career.

“When I first met him, he just seemed like this really nice California surfer guy,” Mr. Rosenblatt recalled.

And so, with the help of a lucrative signing bonus, Mr. Rosenblatt took the plunge. His decision to join—and Mr. Swig’s decision to hire him—seemed affirmed when, within months of hopping over to Helmsley-Spear, he brokered a large lease, one of the first significant deals the firm transacted and which demonstrated that both he and the firm could still do meaningful deals outside of mainstream brokerage.

Celebratory drinks and dinner were planned. But this time Mr. Swig didn’t pick the Regency. They ended up at the Midtown diner Burger Heaven.

“It just seemed so strange,” Mr. Rosenblatt recalled.

And then, not long after, a real estate lawyer who was an acquaintence of Mr. Rosenblatt’s called and wanted to know how everything was going. His tone was grave.

“He said, ‘This guy is in big trouble,’” Mr. Rosenblatt recalled. “I was like, what are you talking about? This guy is a billionaire. And he just repeated: ‘This guy is in trouble, you’ll see.’”

Mr. Rosenblatt didn’t know it then, but he had a front row seat to one of the biggest collapses of the real estate downturn.

Mr. Rosenblatt grew up in East New York, one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods, the son of working class parents.

“It prepared me for the brokerage business,” he likes to joke.

Mr. Rosenblatt’s career began inauspiciously; he was referred to the business by a friend after graduating from college. He was immediately struck by the real estate industry’s hierarchies and cliquishness, which seemed to create daunting barriers for a young broker with few connections.

“As a newcomer, I remember feeling like many of the successful people in the brokerage business came from families who were involved in real estate or were wealthy,” Mr. Rosenblatt said.

The hurdles are even more profound for young brokers trying to negotiate their entry into a commission business. Many usually have to brave months, even longer, of earning little or no money while they build the knowledge and relationships to finally start doing deals.

“The first six months were brutal,” Mr. Rosenblatt recalled. “I wasn’t making any money.”
He happened into the right firm, however, starting at Newmark in 1980. At the time, the company, led by Barry Gosin and Jeff Gural, was a scrappy startup. The firm had an atmosphere and ethos that he clicked with: brokers who hadn’t been handed any advantages but were determined to make their way in the business nonetheless. Mr. Gosin himself was an early archetype for both him and other young brokers.

“Barry was a self-made guy and he was an early mentor to me, a super-driven and super-motivated guy,” Mr. Rosenblatt said. “He was motivating to be around. He had this attitude that nothing was going to stop him and he was super passionate about the business. I could relate to that and draw a ton of motivation from that. You could actually make it if you worked hard, even if your dad wasn’t some real estate executive. My dad drove a taxi.”

Mr. Rosenblatt gravitated early on to agency leasing, a talent of his to this day, though he also handles tenant representation assignments. Newmark was a good place to get used to landlord rep. Mr. Gural owned a large trove of commercial real estate assets and gave Newmark executives the opportunity to invest in his deals and also take on the leasing in those buildings.

“Because the principals owned real estate, there were openings for a young broker to work on the agency side, doing deals at those properties,” Mr. Rosenblatt said. “They’d buy a loft building and convert it. I learned so much seeing how you reposition an asset to appeal to office tenants.”

One of the tricks to Mr. Rosenblatt’s early success was that he treated landlord assignments more like tenant work.

“A lot of landlord brokers would wait for tenants or brokers to come knocking,” Mr. Rosenblatt said. “If you were representing a tenant, though, you would always be knocking on doors to find space for them or to try to find clients. And that’s the approach I took—if I had a space to fill, I was out there actively looking for tenants.”

By the mid-1980s, Mr. Rosenblatt received recognition for his work, winning the Real Estate Board of New York’s prestigious Most Ingenious Deal of the Year award for helping to convert 1414 Avenue of the Americas into a showroom building for shoe makers, a thriving tenant group of the day.

A perusal of his recent deals would hardly provide a clue there was ever a hitch in his career.

In recent years, Mr. Rosenblatt led successful leasing campaigns at 5 Columbus Circle, a building he has been representing for almost 20 years. Late last year he negotiated two leases totalling 17,000 square feet at the 220,000-square-foot property. Before that, he filled several floors when the building’s biggest tenant, the Hearst Corporation, vacated to consolidate space at its new Eighth Avenue headquarters.

With his typical approach of aggressively scouring the market for potential replacement space users, Mr. Rosenblatt quickly discovered that developer Gary Barnett was trying to clear tenants from a property he owned nearby, 225 West 57th Street, a building Mr. Barnett recently reached a deal to redevelop and partially lease to the department store Nordstrom in one of the year’s biggest retail deals. Mr. Rosenblatt helped to pave the way for that transaction, albeit indirectly, by taking several tenants from the property and relocating them to 5 Columbus Circle.

More recently he brought the CUNY School for Professional Studies into an approximately 70,000-square-foot space at 116 West 32nd Street for 15 years. Mr. Rosenblatt spurred that lease when, knowing the space would appeal to an educational tenant, he pitched the floors to brokers at Newmark who represent tenants in that sector and happened to have the requirement for CUNY.

Other brokerage companies noticed Mr. Rosenblatt’s talent. In the late 1990s he was recruited by Bruce Mosler to join Cushman & Wakefield. After a stint there he joined Grubb & Ellis.

Helmsley-Spear, however, was the most difficult point of a midcareer search for the right platform for his skills.

Mr. Rosenblatt remembers moving into Helmsley-Spears’ offices at 60 East 42nd Street, the same space from which the legendary Harry Helmsley, a founder of Helmsley-Spear, once ran his real estate empire. The space, in many ways, looked much like it probably did in the 1950s, without computers or other modern infrastructure like phone systems or document storage.

“You practically felt like the ghost of Harry Helmsley was going to walk out and greet you,” Mr. Rosenblatt recalled.

When news of Mr. Swig’s financial difficulties, including numerous defaults and foreclosures on his buildings, began to circulate through the industry, it became even harder to do deals. Mr. Swig, however, was reassuring.

“He never showed signs of stress,” Mr. Rosenblatt said, recounting how Mr. Swig would reassure staff he was going to get through his difficulties.

Eventually Helmsley-Spears’ offices were moved to 770 Lexington Avenue, a building where Mr. Swig had space for Terra Holdings, parent of Brown Harris Stevens, a residential brokerage that he co-chairs. Construction of Helmsley-Spears’ offices was never fully finished, and staff occupied offices that were in disarray and without even basic supplies such as pens. A staircase that had been planned between the brokerage’s floors was halted, leaving a gaping hole in the floor that had to be cordoned off to prevent employees from taking an accidental fall.

“It was just impossible to do deals,” Mr. Rosenblatt said.

By 2010, with the company on the verge of collapse, Mr. Rosenblatt left the firm.
He still had ties at Newmark, which by then was known as Newmark Knight Frank. Mr. Rosenblatt remembers that David Falk, president of Newmark Knight Frank’s New York operations called him and offered him a position back at the firm.

“David is really one of the good guys in this business and when he called me, I just felt like I had had a lot of success at the firm and that it would be great to go back,” Mr. Rosenblatt said.

In some ways, heading back to his old firm felt like starting all over again. Because his ability to broker transactions had stagnated at Helmsley-Spear, it would take him months of work to reboot his pipeline of deals.

“It was kind of like coming back to working out after laying off for a while and getting out of shape,” Mr. Rosenblatt, who is a fitness buff, said. “You know what you have to do, you know the work you have to do, and that it’s going to take a certain amount of time to see results, and you just go out there and do it.”

As Mr. Rosenblatt’s recent deals reflect, he has muscle memory for leasing.

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