The Postgraduate: Newmark Grubb Knight Frank’s Brian Waterman
Brian Waterman’s 27 years at Newmark Grubb Knight Frank sprang from a 90-second interview with NGKF Chief Executive Officer Barry Gosin in 1986.
Mr. Waterman, now a vice chairman at NGKF, was fresh out of college and considering a career in law. His mentor, Saul Katz, Sterling Equities’ co-founder and president, shot from the hip and said there were already enough lawyers in the world, and that Mr. Waterman should look into real estate, the field that had minted Mr. Katz’s fortune.
Mr. Katz put Messrs. Waterman and Gosin in touch.
Not quite two minutes into the job interview, Mr. Gosin told Mr. Waterman he was hired, and to immediately start canvassing. “It was my first and only job interview,” Mr. Waterman said.
He shared this tale on the 15th floor of 229 West 43rd Street, formerly the New York Times Building, for which he is the leasing agent. It was the morning after the Real Estate Board of New York’s 117th annual banquet—the preferred timing choice of precisely no one involved with the interview. But Mr. Waterman betrayed no signs of sluggishness, perhaps thanks to the raw, currently vacant space that surrounded him, with its 14-foot ceilings.
“You can’t help but be awed by this environment,” Mr. Waterman said of the simultaneously industrial and airy floor with unimpeded westward views (protected by Theater District air rights). “People love the blemishes—the bricks and pipes. Building owners often try to cover up that stuff, but you can’t make a building what it’s not.”
Mr. Waterman’s longevity at NGKF qualifies him as an expert on what New York buildings should and could be. But he repeatedly stresses that commercial real estate is an industry with a permanent learning curve, and that NGKF offers the finest master class.
“I grew up at Newmark,” Mr. Waterman said. “I cut my teeth as an agent working with Mr. Gosin and [NGKF Chairman] Jeff [Gural] on their building portfolios. That was a great education. I always tell my kids, ‘God gave you two ears and one mouth. Listen closely and take in as much as you can.”
A few projects stick out in Mr. Waterman’s mind as watershed transactions that propelled him beyond the pupil phase of his career. There was the 1993 conversion of 305 Seventh Avenue from an office building to commercial condominiums for nonprofit organizations and an intricate—if not migraine-inducing—deal in which he helped the Federal Employment and Guidance Service procure a lease for 175,000 square feet at 315 Hudson Street.
“The FEGS transaction was the big game changer,” Mr. Waterman said. It netted him the Henry Hart Rice Achievement Award for “most ingenious deal of the year” at the REBNY banquet in 1999. I asked if there was any disconnect between being lauded and then ignored by one’s peers as your words get lost in the banquet’s notoriously loud chatter.
“My parents knew I won,” Mr. Waterman said. “They weren’t there, but they knew.” REBNY honored Mr. Waterman again with its Young Real Estate Man of the Year award in 2001. He went on to be the chairman of the Young Men’s/Women’s Real Estate Association. “Believe it or not, I took the reins of that after winning the award,” he said.
NGKF, the city and the commercial real estate industry have all undergone seismic changes since Mr. Waterman’s salad days, when he joined a firm called Newmark & Company. “When I came to the company, there were 22 people working here,” he said. “And—I don’t want to date myself, but—there was one computer.”
“I’ve been through a lot of transformations and iterations of NGKF,” Mr. Waterman said. The financial brokerage firm BGC Partners acquired Newmark Knight Frank in 2011 and last year merged it with Grubb & Ellis, which had sold all of its debt to BGC after filing for bankruptcy.
There was discontent among several G&E brokers over the acquisition and merger, but Mr. Waterman shrugged off the legal unpleasantness as “a blip on the radar.” He praised BGC Chief Executive Officer Howard Lutnick and said that the breadth of the current NGKF and its employees makes the company resemble “a walking encyclopedia.”