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The End of the Super Broker Era in Commercial Real Estate

With firms suddenly rethinking everything, is star power all it was once cracked up to be?

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Is the era of the super broker over?

That’s the question that had to be raised in the last couple of months when two prominent New York City-based investment sales brokers left their perches at large public real estate services firms. 

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Bob Knakal is out at JLL (JLL). Darcy Stacom is gone from CBRE (CBRE), and is starting her own firm.

Does a commercial real estate broker’s name carry as much weight as it did in the heydays of Edward S. Gordon, the late founder of commercial real estate brokerage the Edward S. Gordon Company (which he sold to Insignia Financial Group)? Or Peter Hauspurg, the late co-founder of the now-defunct investment sales shop Eastern Consolidated? Or Robert Futterman, founder of Robert K. Futterman & Associates, a retail leasing, investment sales and consulting firm (which Futterman sold to Newmark and has ever since had an off-again/on-again relationship)? Or Jeff Winick, who established and led the retail leasing brokerage Winick Realty Group (in which he was forced to sell his stake)? Or the late Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of the retail division at Douglas Elliman and a master of retail marketing with her slogan “You Need Faith,” which was plastered all over New York City?

Part of the reason that JLL ended its relationship with Knakal in February was because Knakal had too much of a public profile. A source previously told Commercial Observer that JLL has been taking an investment banking approach, touting the importance of team over individual brokers. After Knakal appeared in an early February New York Times profile that only mentioned JLL once — and far down in the story at that — he was subsequently shown the door.

The turnover also comes amid perhaps the toughest real estate market in living memory, with a lot fewer deals amid high interest rates and hybrid work schedules. 

Today, top commercial real estate brokers generally don’t rely on just their names to get and keep business.

“If you look at the top brokers in the city, they don’t have their own shop,” said Eric Anton, a 27-year broker and director of the global capital group at Marcus & Millichap (MMI). “If you look at the big four or five or six companies, that’s where all the players are. And I think it’s because they leverage all the resources of the national firms.”

Some of the the top-notch brokers that have spent decades at big firms include Stacom, who recently left CBRE after 22 years; partners Doug Harmon and Adam Spies, now at Newmark and previously at Cushman & Wakefield (CWK) and before that Eastdil Secured; and Mary Ann Tighe, who has been CEO of CBRE’s New York tri-state region since 2002 after leaving a small shop.

Big individual names often correlate with big accolades.

Stacom, Harmon, Spies and Tighe have for years all graced the pages of Commercial Observer’s annual Power 100 list of the top commercial real estate professionals. 

Recipients of the coveted Real Estate Board of New York awards include a lot of the big-name brokers, with Tighe a nine-time winner of the “Deal of the Year” award for ingenious brokerage, a record number of wins since the award was created in 1944; and Stacom, who received the “Most Ingenious Deal” award five times.

The power of me

Some brokers can bank on their individual star power as they jump firms.

Investment sales broker Adelaide Polsinelli, a vice chairman at Compass, said she retained clients when she migrated from Marcus & Millichap to Eastern Consolidated to Compass.

“They don’t care which firm I’m with,” Polsinelli said. “They just want to work with me.”

Residential broker Ryan Serhant of Serhant built a successful business at Nest Seekers International as a star on the TV show “Million Dollar Listing New York.” It was his name, not Nest Seekers’, that allowed him to establish his eponymous firm; create a branding course, Sell It Like Serhant; and sell books such as “Brand It Like Serhant” and “Sell It Like Serhant.”

Brands — even well-established ones like Silicon Valley Bank and Credit Suisse — come and go, Serhant said. But individuals prevail.

Knakal, the head of JLL’s New York private capital group, was abruptly terminated in February after six years at the global real estate services company — and a few years before the end of his contract. 

It’s not clear what the big-name broker will do next, but Knakal has had a knack for retaining clients as he’s moved from Massey Knakal Realty Services, the firm he co-founded with Paul Massey (and eventually sold to Cushman & Wakefield), to Cushman & Wakefield, and then to JLL. And the public separation with JLL did not dampen his brand: Knakal was fielding offers almost immediately.

Andrew Davidoff, CEO of The Emmes Group of Companies, a privately owned real estate investor-operator, said his company is “very loyal” to Knakal, working with him on approximately 20 deals since the broker’s days at Massey Knakal. Davidoff said he’s “agnostic” about where Knakal works. 

Similarly, Robert Lobel, president of Bell Rock Development Group, an acquisitions, development and advisory company, said it doesn’t matter to him “whether Bob is affiliated with a large firm or not.” In fact, Lobel said, Knakal doesn’t need to have a JLL or a C&W in front of his name because Bob is a “brand unto himself.”

Lobel, who has been transacting with Knakal since 1986, compared working with the broker to shopping for a Chanel product: “You don’t need to go to the Chanel store on Fifth Avenue to buy Chanel. You’ll be very happy to buy it at Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s or wherever they sell in other places.”

Knakal declined to comment, and JLL didn’t respond to a request for comment.

More than a name

Tighe said potential clients aren’t impressed with just an individual’s name.

They filter out first for the broker’s experiences and references, showing that they can get the job done. The brokerage platform comes second.

“I think part of the reason for that is that they want to know that the resources are there. I think they also want to know that the firm is going to be around,” she said.

Third, Tighe said, clients want to work with brokers who show up with potential solutions for their business.

Early-career brokers can accomplish one and three by serving as an apprentice to somebody doing the deals they want to be doing. “You have to get on to the team, and into the room where deals happen,” Tighe said.

An individual broker’s star power helps as you are “pre-credentialed,” Tighe said. People can find her on Google, and she has a Wikipedia page.

In tough market conditions, experience is golden.

“People need experienced advisers now because they’re facing issues they haven’t seen before,” said David Schechtman, who leads the middle-market team in investment sales at Meridian. Those issues, he said, include defaults on their mortgages, technical defaults and finding new buyers.

A different animal

On the tenant-representation side, brokers need to win over potential clients whose jobs are outside of real estate. Personal social media accounts can be used to forge those connections.

“If you’re not constantly working on elevating your brand and keeping your name out there, you’re gonna fall to the wayside,” said James Famularo, who leads Meridian’s 50-person retail leasing division.

He said brokers in the modern era need to have a “dynamic” social media presence, with video tours and interviews, if they want business. 

Jayson Siano left CBRE, where he worked from 2007 to 2010, to co-found retail leasing firm Sabre Real Estate Advisors, which designs and executes rollout strategies for companies like Orangetheory Fitness and gym chain Solidcore. ​Ken Breslin dissolved his brokerage company, Breslin Realty, to form Sabre with Siano.

At CBRE, before the advent of social media, Siano said he relied on “traditional reputation and name recognition in the industry” to do business.

“I built Sabre from a New York tri-state business to a national business all through the use of digital marketing, content creation and social media,” the CEO said. He enhanced his personal brand this way as well.

Today, if Siano doesn’t get clients through word of mouth, they typically come via Instagram, where he said his clients are “more active.”

David and Goliath

Armed with a solid reputation, some star brokers have set out on their own, peddling their good name to close deals. They have been met with varying levels of success.

Massey has been a top name in the business since his days at Massey Knakal. After a stretch at Cushman & Wakefield, he launched investment sales firm B6 Real Estate Advisors in 2018. The firm has struggled lately with an exodus of talent amid Massey’s personal financial woes and an apparent inability to pay the firm’s office rent. B6 had just three employees on March 14, including Massey, according to its website. Massey declined to comment.

Stacom is in the early days of setting up her new venture. Time will tell how her business fares.

The investment sales powerhouse is starting what she called a “very small” company, Stacom CRE. Stacom will be the lone broker bringing in the deals. She will have a couple of other brokers providing support, and other services will be outsourced. 

A number of brokers said they’d bet on Stacom and Knakal. 

“I will tell you, if you queried half the people who work with her, they wouldn’t even know which company she’s with, or was with,” Polsinelli said. “That’s why someone like Darcy can leave, because her name stands on its own. Bob Knakal’s name stands on its own. I like to believe my name stands on its own.”

A challenge of a small shop is a dearth of resources at its disposal.

Tighe left a small shop, Insignia, to work at CBRE in 2002 because “I saw the way the world was going. You really need resources. I can’t do all these things,” she said, ticking off commutation analysis, workplace strategy, infrastructure analysis and assessing a building’s and its owner’s financial strength.

“You really need the depth of talent,” she said. For example, Tighe noted, CBRE has 16 full-time market research employees tracking 425 million square feet in Manhattan. At her firm, Tighe said, one-third of all Manhattan deals of at least 50,000 square feet are for space that is never made public. Smaller shops may have to rely on CoStar for their data, which wouldn’t include off-market space. 

Though single-broker shops may not be equipped with all of the resources of larger firms, successful solopreneurs have established their own methods for thriving. Those include being selective in deals, obtaining clients via referrals, and relying on long-term relationships and repeat business.

Retail broker Cory Zelnik set out on his own 17 years ago after breaking from Winick, where he was a partner and president. In 2006, he created Zelnik & Company, where he serves as the CEO. He used his name, he said, “because I was who people knew. I didn’t want to have ‘XYZ Company’ and have to be explaining it all the time.”

While star brokers can have well-known names, they need to have the goods to back it up or their stars will fade.

“The branding is great but in the end you have to perform, so the experience and expertise is always important,” Zelnik said.

Super brokers are not going anywhere.

Indeed, Polsinelli said, they’re “a force to be reckoned with. I don’t know that there are as many new young ones joining the ranks, but, in terms of names, there’s still name recognition, and it’s a very powerful thing.”