Surviving Tragedy: Corey Abdo on Life After David Winoker
In June, Winoker Realty—a second-generation real estate investment and services firm, strong in the Garment District and beyond—lost its president and principal, David Winoker, in a skydiving accident that rattled the real estate industry. In the wake of his death, Corey Abdo, the firm’s executive vice president and principal, took the reins at the firm. Now, a little more than six months after assuming the top position, Mr. Abdo spoke with The Commercial Observer about riding the tech wave in Midtown South, plans soon to unfold at Winoker and the June 15 day he lost his colleague of 11 years.
The Commercial Observer: This past year was tragic, given the untimely death of David Winoker, and working through it must have been a challenge. How did 2012 ultimately pan out for the firm, business-wise?
Mr. Abdo: 2012 was better than break-even. We weren’t sure what was going to happen, halfway through the year, because of the tragedy, but it turned out to be a good year for the firm, which was fortuitous for everybody, because it’s a really good group of people that work hard [and] know their jobs. The tragedy could have been terrible, and it was, in so many ways. However, from a business point of view, the company continues to thrive.
Were there any interesting transactions toward the end of the year?
We’re a volume shop. We had a couple of larger transactions this year—40,000 square feet closed in the summer, a deal that I did with a company called FarePortal at 135 West 50th Street—but, like I said, we’re a volume shop. One of our main focuses is serving our customers, both tenants and landlords. The deals come in all different sizes.
The Garment District has been a landing zone for companies initially seeking space in Midtown South, and Winoker has some interests in the Flatiron District. Has Winoker benefitted from this run on Midtown South?
Oh, absolutely. More and more technology companies are looking in this neighborhood because of what’s happened in Meatpacking and Chelsea. This is probably one of the last neighborhoods in town where you can still get a good value deal. Most of these buildings, though older, have been renovated and upgraded from a technological point of view.
It’s funny, we spent years trying to get away from the tag of being known as the West Side, Garment District company—which was never a fair moniker, although a lot of our buildings that we own and manage are in the neighborhood, and a lot of our promotional business is done in this neighborhood. The fact is, we do transactional brokerage all over the city. But we’re experts on this neighborhood because this is where we live.
So now the technology firms, the media companies and firms from Park Avenue South that are still looking for value are coming this way, and it’s a very exciting time for us. It bodes well for the future.
In the future, do you see a focus on making investments in other neighborhoods?
Yes, we look to make investments anywhere that there’s an opportunity. This is a city that’s made up of dozens of neighborhoods. This is where our officers are located, but like any real estate firm, the transactions we do can be anywhere.
Which other neighborhoods are you interested in?
Besides here, Park Avenue South, Flatiron, Chelsea, and even reaching farther down in Soho, Noho or Tribeca—all of those areas.
Have you seen a change in tenants looking for space?
The most voracious appetite for space in the last 12 months has obviously been tech companies and media companies. And yes, they are looking for both startup space and transitional space. Depending upon how they’re funded, they’re still keeping a close eye on the bottom line. That’s going to bring them to [the Garment District]; it’s going to bring them to a newly developing area called NoMad, which is an up-and-coming area. There’s still value there. The buildings tend to have smaller floorplates, but they’re ideal for the boutique firms—the 3,000- to 5,000- to 7,000-footers can still find a full-floor identity at a reasonable price point.
There’s a lot of activity in these markets. Most of the firms in New York—probably more than 95 percent—have 20 or fewer employees. So there’s always a lot of activity in that market, and our brokers are very busy. That’s a big part of our market share.
What’s your strategy going into 2013? Will we see changes?
There are certain things that I can’t talk about now because we are in the final stages of a reconstitution of the firm, but I’m very, very optimistic about the direction we’re going in. Like I said, this past year was one of those curveballs that life throws at you, and after the initial shock, I think we realized that we didn’t hit an iceberg—we lost our captain.
But everybody knew their jobs. Our clients and our customers have all remained loyal, and there are going to be new and exciting announcements coming very shortly. I don’t mean to be secretive about it, but I just can’t speak definitively on a specific direction, other than that it is up.
Does this reconstitution have to do with a change in strategy or personnel?
It is both.
Tell me a little bit about how Winoker has grown.
I’d say that in the last two years, we’ve grown our promotional brokerage department probably by 20 to 25 percent. Building management—that part of the platform—has been stable.
David was actively talking to owners about bringing in new properties. My function here is working with brokers and the tenant-rep side of the business, and we’ve been growing that steadily. When I joined the company 11 years ago, there were maybe four or five promotional brokers, and now there are 17.
We’ve had some attrition, but for the most part we’ve been able to hold on to our good people.
How many buildings does the firm manage at this point?
We have 27 buildings under leasing and management, either third-party or a combination of the above. Some of those we have ownership position with.
Do you remember where you were when you heard the news about Mr. Winoker?
Yes, I do. I was in the middle of a run. It was a Friday night at about 5:30. I was running. I was out jogging from my house down to the high school track where I run. I got the phone call.
Obviously, I ran back to my house as fast as I could, took a quick shower and I jumped in my car and I started driving to Poughkeepsie, which is where the hospital was that David was taken. I didn’t even stop to think for two seconds until I got into the car and started making phone calls and was able to reach people and start to get a clearer picture of what had happened. It’s a day, it’s a moment that, obviously, I will never forget.
The world changed for me and 35 other good people here on that day.
What was the atmosphere at the firm in the aftermath of his passing?
Shock, disbelief. David was 49 years old. I was not only his partner, we were friends. We became very close, working together hand-in-hand for 11 years. We had a lot of great plans that we were instituting—ways to grow the company, to become more efficient. All of that is instantly changed, in the matter of a microsecond. Once you get over the shock and you start to accept the reality, you do what you have to do to keep things together.
That’s what the second half of 2012 was—making sure that everyone here was okay and business was going to continue as usual and not suffer. As it turned out, it did quite the opposite. Business has continued to grow and flourish. I think everyone rededicated themselves—in David’s name, or out of a sense of pride.
Ultimately, it’s been a bonding experience. We have not lost one individual, one employee, one owner, and I think that that speaks more for the quality of the personnel here than anything I could say.
When Mr. Winoker died, you were placed in the position of having to bear the burden of leadership for the firm without warning. How did you deal with that?
I don’t want to sound trite, but it really is on a day-to-day basis. The first order of business was to meet with all of the owners and assure them that the systems that David had set up and instituted to care and manage their buildings were good, well-thought-out, very efficient systems. And David had staffed the firm with a talent level that I think is on par with any company in the city.
Give me a sense of what the future holds for the firm.
If you look at a company as an organism, an organism is tested when times are tough, not when times are good. For us, I think we went through one of the toughest tests that you can put on an individual or a firm. I think the results will speak for themselves, and they’ll say a lot about the character and the talent of the people that work here.