Skylight Real Estate Partners On Forming an Investment Platform During a Pandemic
Many savvy real estate people always understood, intellectually, that COVID-19 could be as much an opportunity as it was a crisis. But the number of people who had the nerve to actually put their money where their brain was, was vanishingly few.
Bennat Berger, Gavin Evans, Benjamin Joseph and Andrew Miller, however, were among the exceptions. While the world hit the pause button, they got to work forming a brand new real estate investment firm: Skylight Real Estate Partners.
“A lot of people took the position of, ‘I’m going to take this time to just take a step back, spend time with my family, and try and relax,’” Berger said of the early pandemic days. “But that’s not our mentality. We thought it was a great time to focus on putting this partnership together, and it ended up being something that really led us through the pandemic. It kept us going.”
The four took space at 27 Union Square West, and since they took the plunge they’ve filled it out with 18 staff assigned to a variety of roles including construction management, asset management and investment.
The news broke in March 2021 that Joseph, a 21-year Related Companies veteran, was leaving his executive vice president position to join Evans, Miller and Berger in a brand new venture and the cat was officially out of the bag, with the industry immediately abuzz with curiosity.
After all, Joseph was teaming up with three other heavy hitters. Evans, an industry vet who’d earned his stripes in senior positions at Normandy Real Estate Partners and Columbia Property Trust, had led megadeals such as Normandy’s purchase of Terminal Warehouse in 2018, while Berger and Miller, the principals of Novel Property Ventures, were seasoned multifamily investors.
Between the four, Skylight’s investment prowess spanned multiple asset classes and markets, and was now topped off with experienced construction expertise. The industry wanted to know more. One source who spoke with Commercial Observer at the time the news broke compared Skylight’s formation to superhero Voltron, and said the industry should “prepare for excellence.”
Skylight is now off to the races with a focus on three investment strategies: distressed, value-add and development opportunities. Its initial target markets are New York, New Jersey, Central and South Florida and Washington, D.C., but that’s just the beginning.
“The vision was that we could all bring our diverse skill sets to one platform and use those to accomplish some great deals,” Joseph said. “And, it’s happening.”
All the Edgewaters
In November 2021, Skylight closed its first acquisition — a 100-unit multifamily asset in Edgewater, N.J that includes 5,500 square feet of retail space. Swiftly thereafter, in January 2022, Skylight — together with Panther Capital Management and joint venture partner Arden Group — purchased a historic church site in an opportunity zone at 1836 Biscayne Boulevard in the Edgewater neighborhood of Miami, with plans for a 40-story multifamily tower. (“We’re only buying in Edgewaters!” per Miller.) The firm is now finalizing two more nine-figure multifamily acquisitions in New Jersey, which it hopes to wrap by the end of the first quarter.
As a new platform, executing two multifamily deals right out of the gate — the most competitive asset class out there — and in two highly coveted locations, isn’t exactly a shabby debut.
“I think they’re a very interesting triple threat now between New York, New Jersey and South Florida — three really important markets,” Matthew Cervino, a managing director at BentallGreenOak, said. “They’ve got the office expertise from Gavin, the multifamily expertise from Andrew and Bennat and new development expertise through Ben. So, they have this really unique ability to be conversing in multiple sectors and cities.”
Skylight also executed its first transaction in one of the most competitive, cut-throat multifamily investment environments the industry has seen. But, it was ready to rumble.
“There’s a lot of capital chasing deals and driving the prices up,” Miller said. “We looked at probably 100 deals before we found one that we felt really good about.”
Miller described Skylight’s debut Edgewater, N.J. deal as “Class A commuter rental product,” but also as a New York recovery bet: “When the office buildings fill back up, on the West Side [of Manhattan] and throughout [the borough], people are going to need a place to live. Edgewater is a short commute, and this is really some of the best product available in that submarket. It’s also an inflation hedge. If rates and rent start to rise, we’re in a good place.”
The firm took the approach of buying the Edgewater property at a little bit of an expanded cap rate to what the market was trading at. “The rents were strong, but we thought they could be stronger,” Miller said. “Being that this was built in 2014, when it’s time to sell the property, it will give the next buyer a value-add business plan, so our plan is really to operate it as-is, implement our operations expertise, then give the value-add to the next buyer.”
With more than a decade of multifamily investment under their belts at Novel Property Ventures, Miller and Berger had already built an institutional business targeting value-add and core-plus opportunities in the sector. The Skylight partnership now provides an added catalyst for further growth and success.
“Multifamily is a very popular asset class nationwide, so if you really want to scale your growth, it’s very hard to be singularly focused as we were, and making the group was the fastest growth route for us,” Berger said. “We’re doing it with our friends, who are now basically our family here. I haven’t been this happy coming to work for a long while.”
As a test of scale, Skylight competed aggressively on a 5,300-unit portfolio sale in New Jersey in June 2021. It ultimately lost out to Ruby Schron of Cammeby’s International Group, but the highly complex transaction enabled the team to really understand how each of their strengths contributed to the partnership.
“It was a much larger deal than anything Andrew and I had done previously, or any of us could have done separately from one another,” Berger said. “So, it was a really great illustration of what we could do cumulatively.”
Skylight had the competitive advantage in the Edgewater deal, however, with Miller and Berger bringing strong local knowledge to the table. The two have been investing in northern New Jersey for more than 15 years.
“They knew the market cold, and brought so much knowledge to the table,” said BentallGreenOak’s Cervino, who did a Blackstone multifamily portfolio acquisition with Miller and Berger in Hoboken, N.J., just before the pandemic hit. “Andrew and Bennat are both experts on every building on every corner, and they also knew all the owners. They were incredibly plugged in.”
Return to office?
While multifamily properties may be Skylight’s primary focus today, there’s a good chance there will be some portfolio diversity in the future — specifically related to opportunities in the office and high-end condo sectors, in which both Evans and Joseph have plenty of experience.
“We love and believe in New York City, and we believe this [pandemic-related office stress] will all work itself through the system,” Evans said. “But we’re considering when’s the right time to actually proceed with some development or redevelopment in the office space. It’s still shaking out as to exactly where we’re going to make that first bet.”
“The office buildings in Hudson Yards are all spectacular brand new office space, and tenants are very much attracted to those so they’re either back or they’re going to come back,” Joseph said. “Flight to quality is a real thing and it’s going to be interesting to see how it trickles down to A-minus and B-plus properties. If we find something that we think is priced right and well located we’re definitely going to look into it.”
For now, the entrepreneurial nature of the Skylight platform allows it to wax and wane accordingly, whether the firm is doing value-add, core-plus investment or development.
“We’ll ride the waves of the market,” Miller said. “Another great part of the diverse skill set that we bring is that we can take advantage of different opportunities and different types of opportunities and asset classes and business plans as the market evolves.”
Indeed, “the four of them collectively bring unique and varied experiences, which is critical to a partnership, because if everyone’s the same it doesn’t work,” said Dustin Stolly, vice chairman and co-head of Newmark’s debt and structured finance group, who has transacted with the four in their previous roles. “Bennat is in the weeds on acquisitions and diligencing, and in the operational aspect of the business. Ben is an institutional developer of buildings. Gavin has been an institutional investor and acquisitions professional for many years. And then Andrew has been an entrepreneurial investor in primarily multifamily. And so, bring all those unique skill sets and likable personalities to a business and you immediately have a core of very senior professionals that has the ability to attract pools of capital.”
And Skylight’s relationship-driven approach will only contribute to its success, Janice Mac Avoy, a partner at Fried Frank, said. “They are all relationship-minded, and they recognize that real estate is not just about dirt, but about relationships, as well,” she said. “They have a fundamental core belief in building relationships and working with the same people, and they all value their reputation and their integrity more than anything else, so they do what they say they’ll do.”
Over the years, the partnership itself has evolved through that very approach.
Berger and Miller had known Evans in a co-general-partner capacity for 15 years, investing alongside him on occasion while he was at Normandy. “We worked on a bunch of deals together and we all got along very, very well,” Berger said.
“I was the capital partner, and sometimes the operating partner,” Evans said. “Every capital partner thinks every operating partner will do any deal out there because they’re getting a promote if there’s upside. As a capital partner, you want to find the operators that don’t think like that, and only want to spend their time on endeavors where they really believe they’ll make money. I saw that in Ben and Andrew.”
Over the years, the three had oftentimes said, “One day we should do something together,” Berger said. He and Miller had wanted to expand their purview past multifamily investment and achieve greater scale, while Evans had a hankering for a more entrepreneurial role. The trio’s discussions about potentially launching a new platform were ongoing over the years but when Normandy decided to sell to Columbia Property Trust in 2018 they were put on the back burner while the acquisition progressed. “We knew we would circle back, we just didn’t know when,” Evans said.
Evans had enjoyed a family-type environment at Normandy that he was hesitant to leave. “I had aspirations to do something on my own, but at the same time I didn’t want to leave the family,” he said. But while Evans went to Columbia Property Trust along with several of his colleagues, Normandy’s two founders — and Evans’ mentors — David Welsh and Finn Wentworth branched off to start investment firm Senlac Partners. “[Columbia has a] great group of people, but for me, the family dynamic had changed, and the investment strategy was also different than Normandy’s,” he said.
Enter COVID-19. And, a window of opportunity to begin. With Berger, Miller and Evans now on board, Joseph was the final missing piece of the puzzle.
“We had always looked at Ben as being one of the best developers in New York City,” Miller said. “He’d been wanting to do something a little bit more entrepreneurial and it was really a coincidence, timing wise, that this all happened at one time. We embraced it, and then with Gavin and Ben onboard it was a case of, ‘Let’s go full throttle, and build this thing together.’”
Joseph had spent more than two decades at Related, doing primarily ground-up luxury, high-rise residential construction in Manhattan. He cut his teeth working on Time Warner Center — now called Deutsche Bank Center — before transitioning into the residential development group.
“It was a great run, and I have nothing but respect for the three partners of Related and everything that they’ve built there,” Joseph said. “They’ve built a juggernaut; it’s an amazing company and I learned an incredible amount. But, I have, for quite a while, had an entrepreneurial hankering. It was hard to separate from Related because I was involved in a lot of incredible opportunities there. But, between COVID, and also being a ground-up luxury, high-rise residential developer in Manhattan, there were a lot of challenges and headwinds facing that sector. And the fortuitous nature of this particular partnership with the other three guys coming together at that time, it felt like a great opportunity to take my shot at the entrepreneurial level.”
Silverstein Properties CEO Marty Burger hired the young Joseph at Related in 2000, working on the Time Warner Center development deal with him.
“He was a bright young kid,” Burger recalled. “I think it was his second job, and we threw him right into it.”
Over the years, Burger’s famed annual ski trip then introduced Burger to the other now-Skylight partners, well before the platform’s formation.
“They’re all very talented real estate guys from different walks of life, and they’ve come together to form a really exciting platform,” he said. “I thought it was really cool that an interesting group of guys like that got together and are pooling their talents into a real estate firm that’s going to do great things.”
An eye for value-add buys
When Mac Avoy first heard of the firm’s formation she said her first thought was, “Do I have the courage to quit my job and join them?!”
Mac Avoy has known Evans for 15 years although their professional relationship and friendship had somewhat unlikely beginnings.
Evans was at Normandy when he and Mac Avoy met. The firm held the mezzanine loan on the Hancock Tower in Boston in 2007, and had scheduled a UCC foreclosure sale on the property. Fried Frank sat on the opposite side of the table, representing Broadway Partners, and the borrower and the property ultimately ended up selling to Normandy and Five Mile Capital via foreclosure auction in 2009.
“We brought up all this stuff [in negotiations], and we managed to secure some value for our clients,” Mac Avoy said. “We then invited the Normandy guys to the annual Fried Frank holiday party. Late in the evening, Dave [Walsh, co-founder of Normandy], said, ‘Y’know, you guys were such assholes on that deal.’ I turned around and said, ‘Well then Dave, we should be your assholes!’ And he laughed and said, ‘You’re right. You’re going to be my assholes from now on.’ So we started doing tons of work with Normandy, and with Gavin in particular, and Gavin and I became very good friends.”
For Evans, “it’s not just about the asset in a deal,” Mac Avoy said. “It’s about bringing people together around an opportunity and building those relationships in order to capitalize on that opportunity,” she said. “He really has a feel, and a passion, for the value-add buy. He can look at something ugly, and see how it can be beautiful.”
Case in point, Mac Avoy recalled discussing Normandy’s 2017 purchase of 888 Broadway with Evans. “I said, ‘It’s a store. What are you going to do with it?’ He said, ‘No, no, no … you don’t understand. With these ceilings, this is going to be primo office space!’ And then they got the Netflix lease,” she said.
Mac Avoy also got to know Berger and Miller while Evans was at Normandy and they were looking at new deals together. She was struck by a commonality. “There are all of these calls when a deal is [kicking off], and I remember thinking, ‘Who are these guys? And how did Gavin find people who ask just as many questions as him?’”
As for Joseph, “he has this depth of experience in development that not all developers have, because they’ll have the person who’s in charge of construction, the person who’s in charge of fundraising and the person who’s in charge of marketing, whereas at Related, when you’re in charge of a project, you’re in charge of every aspect. That gives him a wealth of experience and knowledge that the other guys don’t have as much of.”
Since the partnership formed, it has had its nose to the grindstone.
“They’re fully committed to doing what they designed when they decided to become partners,” said Stolly, “which is not an easy thing when you’re in the middle part of your career. They are determined to become a big, institutional organization that owns billions of dollars of assets under management. And I think that the respective experience and skill sets that they bring to the table as individuals, and as a unit, set them up well for that.”