Tom Donovan: Massey Knakal’s King of Queens


Tom Donovan. (Photo: Arman Dzidzovic)
Tom Donovan. (Photo: Arman Dzidzovic)

To say Massey Knakal’s Tom Donovan knows Queens like the back of his hand might be an understatement–so much so that his colleagues call him “MapQuest” when it comes to the borough.

He derived his GPS-like abilities from delivering pizzas across Queens as a youth, and later as an NYPD cop patrolling the borough’s streets.

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“Part of my territory today is in the precinct I worked,” he said. “I got to know certain neighborhoods and the basic demographics and dynamics of the whole borough. I also learned some of the fastest ways to get around town. That’s why they call me MapQuest.”

Mr. Donovan, 45, who joined Massey Knakal in 1998 to head up its Queens office, has grown the division from a two-person operation into an office of 20. He has brokered 218 transactions valued at more than $1.2 billion, according to the firm.

The Massey Knakal partner is also a former U.S. Marine Corps Reserve officer who saw combat during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He said that experience, coupled with his nearly 10-year stint as a cop, shaped his work ethic and management style.

“You’re not getting shot at, but you’re dealing with people’s largest assets in many cases and you have to stay very disciplined and see to it that the clients’ best interests are met,” Mr. Donovan said.

“One of the reasons I’m so proud to be at Massey Knakal is the same as being in the NYPD and the Marine Corps: to be with the best.”

Mr. Donovan swears by the slogan, “If they don’t know who you are or where you work, they can’t hire you,” which he said has led to significant repeat business and airtight relationships with clients and colleagues.

“I’m a real relationship builder,” he said. “I do a lot of networking outside of the 9 to 5 hours and I try to make clients my friends rather than business [associates]. I’ve taken the Massey Knakal platform and worked on building a secondary network of attorneys, investors and others and incorporated them into my business.”

Real estate can be a tough gig, but it’s a tame business compared to his highly disciplined professional past, which was catalyzed when Mr. Donovan set out at 18 years old to join the Marine Corps.

“I grew up a poor kid from Queens and it was really the first time I was separated from family for more than a week or two,” he said.

Mr. Donovan was born in Ozone Park, the youngest of three children. He attended St. Francis Preparatory High School in Fresh Meadows, later completing coursework in business management at St. John’s University while serving in the Marine Corps Reserve between 1988 and 1992.

At 20 years (and four months) old, he said he became one of the youngest officers in NYPD history in 1990 and served until 1999. (Mr. Donovan was a cop for one year into his start date at Massey Knakal, the firm confirmed.)

“I knew there was something better for me than being a cop,” he said. But his military and paramilitary experience has proven priceless in shaping him, both as a person and as a partner managing Massey Knakal’s Queens branch.

“Marine Corps boot camp is like nothing you’ve ever experienced,” he said. “You’re not allowed to free think or think of the outside world. You get one hour a day of alone time to write letters and take a shower. It’s ‘instant and willing obedience’ to all orders.”

That discipline taught him to pay great attention to detail, be aware of his surroundings and watch others’ body actions and non-verbal cues.

“I always joke that I’m a human lie detector,” he said. “As a cop you are trained to see what people are hiding. It’s not what they say but how they say it to you. Sometimes the most nervous people are the innocent ones, and often the criminals are the calmest.”

“In a military or paramilitary organization [like the NYPD] where there’s no speaking back, I always said I would never allow anyone who works for me to raise their voice to me, and I knew that I wouldn’t speak to them the way I was spoken to as a cop,” he added. “I’m happy to say I’ve never had to raise my voice in 17 years and I’m very proud of that. I lead by example, not by my title.”

While the military experience was invaluable, he always treated success in real estate as a necessary next step.

“I never want to go back to being a marine or a cop,” he said. “I had to be successful [in real estate]. I said, ‘this is my one shot to make it.’”

And he has. Mr. Donovan was awarded the Salesman of the Year award by Massey Knakal in 2000, 2001 and 2008, and was honored those same years with the Outstanding Business Development and Goodwill Promotion honors.

He also received the second place (2009) and third place (2010) company-wide Salesperson of the Year awards, and for five consecutive years (2009-2013) was the recipient of the Harry Macklowe Award for Salesperson of the Year in Queens.

Over the last decade, he has arranged 15 percent of all Queens multifamily sales by dollar volume and 16 percent of the total units sold, according to Massey Knakal.

He lists the $57.5 million sale of the “Metropolitan Portfolio,” a 454-unit in Elmhurst and Sunnyside, Queens in 2003, among his most memorable deals. At the time it was one of his—and the firm’s—l largest transactions.

“That was one of the benchmarks that made me a leader, not only in the company but in the Queens market,” he said.

Mr. Donovan is coming off a breakout 2013, having arranged more than $222 million in sales, including the $47 million sale of a former Queens hospital. He said he has his eyes on Ridgewood, where multifamily prices have nearly doubled on certain thoroughfares in the last 24 months, with buyers who normally look at larger buildings showing a renewed interest for smaller opportunities. And, with Long Island City and Astoria flourishing, he noted that the Queens Boulevard corridor is among the hottest in the borough.

In his spare time, Mr. Donovan enjoys travel and a fine cigar. He has also dedicated himself to numerous charitable endeavors.

Mr. Donovan, a brain tumor survivor, accepted a position on the Board of Directors of the Brain Tumor Foundation in 2008. He was appointed to the Associate Board for the Parker Jewish Institute for Health Care and Rehabilitation and is a member of the VFW Catholic War Veterans and the Columbus Citizens Foundation, a non-profit organization in New York City committed to fostering an appreciation of Italian-American heritage and achievement. He also sits on the Board of Directors for the Varadi Ovarian Institute for Cancer Education.