Breaking Ground: RXR’s Joanne Minieri Talks Three Decades of Development
Thirty five-year industry veteran Joanne Minieri was just starting out in the industry as a public accountant when Bruce Ratner hired her as the CFO of the then-burgeoning Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner Companies in 1994. During her 17 years at the company, Minieri oversaw Forest City’s development and financial strategies and played a key role in many of its biggest deals, including the predevelopment of the 8-million-square-foot Atlantic Yards project (since renamed Pacific Park) and—with it—the development of Barclays Center and the acquisition of the New Jersey Nets (now the Brooklyn Nets).
And it wouldn’t be the last time she received the full court press from a real estate heavy-hitter. When a Newsday article alerted RXR Realty President Mike Maturo that Minieri was back on the market in 2016, he snapped her up to oversee RXR’s $3 billion residential construction pipeline.
Being the COO of construction and development for the real estate titan that weighed in at No. 4 on Commercial Observer’s Power 100 list is sure to keep you on your toes.
The 58-year-old Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, native and Hofstra University alumna currently goes back and forth between her house in East Hampton, N.Y. and condominium unit in the West Village and draws from her experience in both the private and public sectors in monitoring RXR’s projects—which currently include roughly 6,000 multifamily and condo units—from beginning to end.
One project under her watch is the 12-story 475 Clermont Avenue, formerly 810 Fulton Street, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, giving Minieri a chance to get back to her roots.
Commercial Observer: You’ve had a very successful career in construction. Are you seeing women advance in the industry?
Joanne Minieri: Yes, because the opportunity is there and women are interested in it. I sit on the board of Nontraditional Employment for Women, which is a New York City nonprofit that offers training for the trades. Women understand that construction is an opportunity and a career choice that they can make, and more and more women are making that choice and rising to the higher levels of management today, which is fantastic and we should continue to promote it.
What’s driving that increase?
I think what’s happening is the construction industry recognizes that it needs more talent. You need talent to fill your job requirements in order to grow your business, and there are many women who have that talent and will be successful in achieving the goals and targets of your projects, and of your companies. There have been women in this field for a long time who are now stepping out and endorsing this career path. They have true successes under their belts that are tangible. And what’s more interesting is that there is an open-mindedness and acceptance of this in the real estate industry today.
How different is this perspective from when you started out in your career?
Over the years I was often the only woman in the room. Right now, where I am in my life and my career, I think it needs to be talked about. It doesn’t always have to be an issue [to address], it can gladly now be a statement of fact that yes, more women are in the industry. And yes, more successful women are in the industry. And that’s fabulous.
How did you get your start in real estate?
I worked for an accounting firm called Kenneth Leventhal [& Company], which focused on real estate audits and valuations. When you start out in your career you hope that you can get a job that you enjoy doing and is somewhat inspiring. Not that public accounting is always inspiring, but the people I worked with were, and there were always opportunities to learn something new. This was around the time of the savings-and-loan crisis and I worked on good bank-bad bank [valuations] and gave testimony about valuations in bankruptcies. We did so many different things related to financial value analysis within the industry that it continued to be something I loved to do. Looking at assets and how much they were worth, and whether any loans on them could be repaid or not was fascinating. So in some respects I fell into it, but I liked it and so I stayed with it.
How did you transition to the construction side?
One of my clients was a developer and I ended up doing their construction management and accounting for years because every construction project is a multi-year project. My first exposure was actually at 175 Water Street [now AIG’s headquarters]. I was the construction accountant on that job and that was pretty exciting.
What did you enjoy about it?
When you’re in accounting you’re normally working with paper, a pen and a calculator. But while I was monitoring the building’s cost, timing and schedules I was able to go down there and meet with the construction manager. I looked at the site, I wore the hardhat, I saw the steel going up and the concrete being poured. So connecting that experience with the financial pro forma really brought a different level of interest. I ended up working at Kenneth Leventhal for 10 or 11 years. Interestingly, the people I worked with are here with me now at RXR. Mike Maturo and I were in the same group there.
And you were hired by Forest City Ratner Companies while you were still there?
Yes. Real estate companies were looking to become real estate investment trusts [REITs] at the time, so they would hire an investment banking firm plus an accounting firm to do the IPO and the audits. Bruce Ratner [co-founder of Forest City Ratner] and his cousins at Forest City Enterprises were looking to create a MetroTech REIT so they hired Kenneth Leventhal, and I was assigned to their account. I’ll never forget, a partner at the firm, Steve Shepsman, came into my office and said: “Joanne, we’re sending you back home to Brooklyn.”
You’re from Bensonhurst, right?
I was born in Bensonhurst and raised in Canarsie [Brooklyn]. The MetroTech deal being contemplated never got completed, but Bruce was forming his company and Forest City was targeting New York as a key market. Bruce had one or two buildings at the time and he needed a CFO because he was about to embark on a development pipeline. I was technically on loan to him until he found that person. Everyone we interviewed for the job I’d say, “Bruce, this is a good person,” and he’d say, “Yeah? I don’t know.” Then one day I said, “Okay, Bruce—what’s going on?” And he said, “Why don’t you just take the job?” But I was on the partner path at Kenneth Leventhal and didn’t want to get out of the race a quarter mile from the finish line. Months went by, I made partner and I go into Bruce’s office and he says, “Congratulations!” and gives me a big hug. Another week goes by and he calls me into his office and says, “Okay, you finished the marathon, you won. Now are you going to come and join me or what?”
I was there for 17 years and I had a terrific career at Forest City. Under Bruce’s leadership we did billions of dollars of development. We did big-box retail, we did movie theaters, hotels, entertainment retail on 42nd Street, we designed and built the New York Times building, the Frank Gehry building [at 8 Spruce Street] and—of course—Barclays Center. I was in a small group with Bruce and David Berliner, the general counsel of the company at the time, when we purchased the New Jersey Nets.So I was involved in that transaction, too [laughs].
That must have been interesting!
It was an incredible experience. We had to discuss the acquisition with the board of Forest City who were asking us, “What are you doing? A basketball team? We’re a real estate development company!” But we were really buying the tenant for the arena that we were building. It was an exciting time, and I’m in real estate to this day because no two deals are ever the same.
We built communities—and you’ll see similar themes here at RXR— and we went into pioneering areas that nobody was developing in, like Downtown Brooklyn with the Barclays Center. With my financial background and having the opportunity to work with somebody whose objective is to build a portfolio within a key market, I was super lucky.
How did your time at Forest City end?
I’d been there for a long time and I decided to take a little break because I was ready to do something else. But I received a phone call one day from a friend I’d done a project with and he said, “A good friend of mine was just elected to county executive for Suffolk County, Steve Bellone. He’s working on a big economic development initiative and he needs help. You’re great, you’re not doing anything, go out and help the guy.” Within the first hour of the meeting [Bellone] told me the job was mine if I wanted it.
I thought it would be nice to do some public service, and I figured I’d do it for two years. So I became the deputy county executive and commissioner of economic development for Suffolk County. A big initiative of Mr. Bellone’s was transit-oriented development and transit infrastructure. There was untapped demand for multifamily housing on Long Island around transit. Connect Long Island [the rapid transit busing plan] was his initiative and I loved it. I thought it was spot-on.
Did you cross paths with any of the RXR leadership team while in Long Island?
It’s funny, in Suffolk County they have the Long Island Association and when you become the commissioner of economic development they ask you to come in and say hello, and who do I see? Mike Maturo. So we reconnected. I actually had a meeting with Scott [Rechler, RXR’s CEO,] and Mike because they were pursuing a development business where they were bringing residential properties to transit-oriented areas in the tri-state area.
Four years later I was still in the role. I loved my time there but I wanted to go back to the private side, so in July of 2016, I left. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do but I thought I’d just take a minute and pause. But news of my departure was in a Newsday article and I woke up to an email from Mike Maturo inviting me to lunch and saying, “We may have something for you at RXR.” So after that lunch Mike created a role for me here at RXR.
What was the biggest draw to RXR?
Honestly, I think it was the people—Mike, Scott, Frank Patafio [the head of acquisitions at RXR] and others. I knew they were forward thinkers and I knew that the energy and passion to achieve the next big thing was in this think tank of people. I’d seen what RXR had been accomplishing, and it was just a phenomenal opportunity. I was wowed by it.
Did you have to hit the ground running?
I hadn’t even been here two months when I’d been to three groundbreakings [laughs]. When I got here, they had four or five projects that Seth Pinksy [executive vice president of metro emerging markets at RXR] had gone out and won for RXR to execute on the development plan. It was my role to build, develop and open the pipeline of projects. We have two master plans: Downtown New Rochelle, which is close to 4 million square feet, and on Long Island we have Garvies Point [a mixed-use community located along the shores of Hempstead Harbor in Glen Cove, Long Island], which was a labor of love between Scott and Mike for many years. We’re under construction on two residential projects and one condo there; it will include 1,100 multifamily units with 75,000 square feet of retail.
Right now we have nine projects under construction and another number of projects that are in pre-development or development.
We just opened—and are over 50 percent leased on—Atlantic Station in Stamford, [Conn., a two-phase mixed-use project comprising luxury residential units as well as retail space]. People want to live around transit and where they can afford to live and enjoy to live. Stamford was an established office market; a few companies left in the downturn but it’s coming back and we’re going to begin Atlantic Station phase II shortly.
We’re also entering into the industrial warehouse space with a great opportunity in Maspeth [Queens]. What’s great about RXR’s leadership is they are able to identify where the need is and where the demand is and figure out how they’re going to attack it. And they’re great at it. They’re fearless in that regard. They analyze, they study and then they go for it.
How has the construction industry changed over the years?
I think there’s more awareness of the advancement of technology and more focus on the ability to be better time managers. One of the biggest situations you find yourself in is running out of time or facing delays. Technology can assist in mitigating those issues. I think the construction industry has realized this and is trying to improve their processes in design-build projects, working toward becoming more efficient in everything they do. There’s an interesting dynamic when you’re trying to design something and the design changes and then the market is also changing, or you have new trade tariffs coming in. Being able to implement and spend as scheduled over a set period of time is always a very delicate component of the industry.
Do trade tariffs concern you?
We’ll always be concerned, but there are other offsetting factors. Sometimes there’s an unexpected collision when costs go up and market rents go down, but you try to plan for it. Right now interest rates are going up so you readjust your returns, as you would with the cost of product and labor going up. You manage through it all but it’s a delicate balance.
How are lenders and investors viewing ground-up construction projects?
I think RXR’s track record [brings] a desire to lend to us. You want to be the sponsor with the great track record so lenders and investors know that you’re in it through completion and you have a commitment to the product that you’re building. Mike spearheads the fundraising here, but with the locations and designs of what we do, coupled with our track record, people like what we do. As you know, we also recently began a debt fund and are lending money for construction projects. So we now have a project in Islip in Suffolk County, [N.Y.] plus a project in Rye, [N.Y.] through our lending platform.
What’s it like working on the 475 Clermont project as a Brooklyn native?
It’s my old stomping ground! When you grow up in a place it’s always inside of you. Brooklyn is special for a lot of people now, but I’m from the Brooklyn that maybe wasn’t as exciting to be from back then. It feels special not only because I was born and raised there but the majority of my career was also in Downtown Brooklyn [at Forest City]. This is a wonderful development; it’s an 80/20 property and will open in the first quarter of 2019.
How is the $350 million redevelopment of Pier 57 coming along?
Pier 57 is progressing well and will be turned over [to Google] in September. It’s exciting and different, a really fabulous asset and a historic renovation. We’re in the process now of leasing out the retail, which has substantially decreased because Google expanded, but that in itself is an indication of how phenomenal an asset it is.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
The team I work with and the energy that you get, and give, because of what you’re achieving here. It’s a very dynamic environment. You want to meet projects on time and on budget, but you also want to be there when that ribbon is cut and people are moving in and hear them talk about how great it is.
What’s on the agenda for the rest of 2018?
We’re opening our first residential building at Larkin Plaza [now renamed Sawyer Place, in Yonkers, N.Y.]. And after the New Year we’ll open New Rochelle ‘s Church/ Division garage redevelopment project [RXR is redeveloping a former parking garage in the town’s downtown district into a mixed-use project comprising two 28-story towers with 730 rental units and 20,000 square feet of retail], and 475 Clermont, plus we’re moving forward in the first quarter of next year with our Long Island University development. That’s a fabulous project, and under Seth Pinksy’s leadership. We also purchased a golf course [in February, for $20 million]—The Engineers Country Club—in Roslyn [N.Y.], and we’re looking to do a rezoning and residential development over there. So we’re working closely with the village of Roslyn Heights.
Do you think construction and development could be an even bigger part of RXR’s strategy in the future?
I do, and I hope Mike and Scott hear me say that [laughs]. We’re looking at Queens and the Bronx and we believe strongly in the downtowns. Everyone wants to live in downtowns, even empty-nesters. The way of living is changing and we are responding to it. And Scott and Mike aren’t sleepers, so we’ll be busy.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I have a house in East Hampton, [N.Y.] and I spend a lot of time with my family. I also like to dine out and I’m not a golfer but I play golf, meaning I can hit the ball. I started playing because it’s a nice thing to do on vacation. But if I play terribly I don’t go crazy and throw the golf club, I move on.
Have you played RXR’s golf course yet?
Not yet. I haven’t found the time!