Bob Knakal Starting New AI-Powered Brokerage

After his departure from JLL, the investment sales broker will get back to being his own boss

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You can knock Knakal down, but you’ll never knock him out.

After his recent unceremonious departure from JLL, Bob Knakal has struck out on his own and on Tuesday launched the artificial intelligence-backed capital markets brokerage BK Real Estate Advisors.

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The move marks a return to the startup culture Knakal was a part of when he co-founded his own shop, Massey Knakal Realty Advisors, more than three decades ago. It will be a small, 20-person firm focused on investment sales, debt and equity deals.

“Most companies say, ‘We offer every service in the world, so come to us,’ ” Knakal said. “We have the ability now to truly recommend who we believe is the best team to our clients to get the best execution, rather than simply having to choose from a limited pool of people who have the same business card.”

A man in a red tie sitting on a card table surrounded by maps.
Bob Knakal in his “Map Room.” Photo: BK Real Estate Advisors

But the twist for Knakal’s new shop will be AI. The technology has paradigm-shifting potential for real estate, and Knakal — a broker with $22 billion in deals under his belt — plans to be an early adopter. 

Knakal posted a video on social media Tuesday announcing the new venture. He reflected on how technology has changed the world during his 40-year career, and said AI will bring even more dramatic changes over the next five years.

Machine learning will give the new firm an edge in prospecting, boosting Knakal’s ability to stake out territory and unearth sales opportunities in Manhattan’s fiercely competitive investment sales market, he said. 

It will also ratchet up the analytic power of a small team, which means it’ll be easier to create statistical models and give clients deeper insights into the market, Knakal said.

“We think that AI has tremendous potential and is extraordinarily powerful,” he said.

He’s currently in the process of building out a team of brokers and AI experts. He has already hired Seth Samowitz, a co-founder of charter bus startup Busie and a former Keller Williams real estate agent, as chief operating officer. Knakal said Samowitz has a “very advanced AI background.”

It’s been six weeks since Knakal was abruptly let go from JLL (JLL) before the end of his contract thanks to a clash with leadership, as CO previously reported. Part of the reason for Knakal’s firing was his growing public profile, which came to a head after the New York Times profiled Knakal but mentioned JLL only once, a source previously told CO.

Knakal wouldn’t say much about his parting of ways with JLL but said he’s spent much of his newly gained free time in his renowned “map room,” a glaringly bright 600-square-foot gallery of New York City cartography that Knakal set up in a nondescript Midtown office building during the early days of the pandemic.

The space is a wistful homage to the old ways of doing things. Even as he embraces new technology, Knakal said he plans to keep the map room just as it is. 

An enormous map of Manhattan is, after all, a useful conversation tool for meeting with prospective clients, and Knakal said he’s had a lot of visitors during his downtime, including a few city planning officials who stopped by recently to talk about how to solve New York’s housing crisis.

Even if the map room is relatively new, Knakal is no stranger to the New York City grid.

Knakal’s rise to stardom dates back to the 1980s when he and Paul Massey founded Massey Knakal after the pair met at CBRE (CBRE) predecessor Coldwell Banker Commercial. Massey Knakal became famous for its territory system, which assigned brokers to specific neighborhoods around the city and gave them part of the commission if a co-worker originated a deal in the area.

The partners had a 26-year stint together before their firm was acquired by Cushman & Wakefield (CWK) in 2015, launching Knakal into a more peripatetic era.

He stayed at C&W until 2018 when he was terminated from the firm a week before his contract was set to expire. He quickly joined JLL that year to head up the firm’s New York investment sales team.

Despite the shifting company name on his business card, Knakal built up a knack for retaining clients throughout his career. Andrew Davidoff, CEO of The Emmes Group of Companies, recently told CO his company is “very loyal” to Knakal and is “agnostic” about where he works.

That skill will get easier now with AI, which Knakal said he can utilize to give clients a market edge for whatever downturns may come.

“We’re also going to analyze data to give our clients more insight into the marketplace so they can make better decisions and get better execution,” Knakal said. “Everything we’re doing is in the client’s best interest. … But the downfall for real estate is most data sets are not very good.”

Abigail Nehring can be reached at anehring@commercialobserver.com.