The Real Deal New York

Norman Sturner
Norman Sturner

Norman Sturner

By Candace Taylor

Norman Sturner is the co-founder and CEO of Murray Hill Properties, which he started in 1971 along with partner Neil Siderow. Since then, the company has bought and sold $10 billion worth of commercial real estate and manages over 5 million square feet of office space. The company’s holdings include Herald Square’s 1250 Broadway, which it purchased for $310 million with investment lender Jamestown in 2008, and 1414 Avenue of the Americas at 58th Street, which Ian Schrager is turning into a luxury hotel.

What is your full name?
Norman Sturner.

What is your date of birth?
Sept. 6, 1940.

Where do you live?
In Short Hills, N.J.

Why no middle name?
We were poor. None of my brothers have a middle name.

Do you have a lot of siblings?
Two older brothers. We’re each four years apart, with me being the youngest.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in the Bronx, then moved to Brooklyn and spent my teenage years in Bayside, Queens. That’s where I met my wife [Harriet].

How did you meet her?
Bayside High School. She was 14, I was 15. She was in a sorority, I was in a fraternity. One of her sorority sisters, who has since become my sister-in-law, set us up on a blind date.

There were fraternities and sororities in high school?
In the 1950s, everybody had a sorority or fraternity.

When did you get married?
I went to college when I was only 16, and married Harriet when she was 19, while I was still in school.

How many kids do you have?
We have two men. They’re 42 and 45, so we can’t call them boys anymore. Four grandchildren.

What are your hours like?
The winter is longer. The summer allows me to both work out and swim in the morning. I don’t get into the office much before 10, 10:30, and leave here around 6:30 or 7. That’s to miss traffic.

How do you get to work?
I’m driven in a car by a driver. Even sitting in the back of a car, I’m the type of personality that doesn’t sit well in traffic. I’m not one for sitting about without doing something.

Do you think that’s one of the qualities that has made you successful?
More than half of it is luck and the rest is perseverance … We never give up on a property or situation, which is not to say we win every one. But until somebody says the dog is dead, we keep walking it.

What’s an example of that?
It was 450 Lex, it was 417 Fifth, it was buildings that they said [we] could not have. It was 135 West 50th Street, it was 225 Fifth Avenue, buildings where the broker brought it to us and said, you have 48 hours, there are bidders against you, great competition, bigger guys, better guys, smarter guys, richer guys, and we wound up with the [building]. Every investment sales broker in the city knows that if we say we’ll do it… we’ll be at the closing day. We’re not tire-kickers. If we don’t want it, we tell them right out that that’s not for us. If we do want it, we will tell them we will do everything legal and imaginable to get it done… In 40 years of doing business, we have not been a defendant, have not had a federal audit and we’ve not lost money for a client.

Even now, in the current economic downturn?
That future is yet to be seen. But having lived through 1971 when the city was on its back and owning the New York Stock Exchange building on 9/11 [Murray Hill Properties has since sold it], we’ve seen a great deal of what the world has thrown at New York City.

How is the current downturn different than the other downturns you’ve lived through?

It’s different in that it’s quicker. It fell off the table quicker than anything I have seen before.

Do you worry about the problems in the commercial sector and higher vacancy?

The near term at best will be difficult. But real estate — commercial real estate — is supposed to be long term. It wasn’t supposed to be — you buy it on Monday, sell it on Wednesday, make a profit. We’ve allowed the Wall Street merchants to turn real estate into a paper commodity. We’ve allowed the mezzanine lenders to overtake the property owners. Will there be people hurt? There always are. Will there be opportunity in the next three years? Incredibly so. We intend to take part in that opportunity and be here when the dust settles and make the most of it.

What is your strategy going forward?

To acquire properties at 50 percent of their replacement value, that don’t need financing. We don’t believe there is any new financing at $250 million-plus.

Are you closing any deals right now?

There are no deals to close because you need to find something that has existing financing that can be assumed, unless you’re willing to pay cash, which nobody’s capable of doing. There’s an enormous amount of pent up capital both on-shore and off-shore that continues to say ‘not yet, wait and see.’… I don’t think we [will] see blood in the streets. There is tremendous value in limited product and this city is absolutely the qualitative apex of limited product.

You have a lot of faith in New York City. Why do you live in New Jersey?

My kids and grandkids. When my grandchildren are off at school, the likelihood is we’ll come back to Manhattan. We moved to New Jersey four years after we got married. When people ask where we’re from, I say “New York.”

What do you like to do for fun?
Harriet comes into Manhattan maybe once or twice a week after work. We go to the theater, restaurants.

What shows have you seen recently?
“God of Carnage,” “Exit the King.” [Harriet] brought the [grandkids] to “Mermaid.”

Where do you like to eat in the city?
We frequent San Pietro [on East 54th Street] — a lot. It’s become a real estate hangout for the pooh-bahs. I’m there certainly once a week, every 10 days, during the day with some real estate person that I need to speak with. It’s not so much see-and-be-seen — Gerardo [Bruno, the president of San Pietro] has a terrific restaurant. Where else in the world do you go into a city and find literally 5,000 restaurants, anything from McDonald’s to 21? If you want an omelet at 3 in the morning, it’s here. If you want a shrimp cocktail at 5 o’clock before the restaurants open, you know that’s here also. I love this city.

Do you have homes anywhere else?
We did, but we got rid of them all. We had a home in Palm Beach, we had a home in Hollywood, Fla. Harriet and I, we would rather travel. You can see the photographs behind me and recognize most of the places. Now that the kids are old enough, we take them with us. The grandkids and the kids.

Where have you gone recently?
Portugal, Spain, Aspen, Egypt, Israel, China.

What trips do you have planned?
We’re going to Alaska in two weeks. We’re flying into Vancouver with all the kids and the grandkids and taking the Inland Waterway. It’s a cruise, but you have to fly to Vancouver to start it. And in December, we’re all going to Costa Rica.

What was your first job?
I was a short-order cook in a luncheonette while I went to school. I was 13. I went to school very young and I skipped two of the years in high school to get into college at 16.

I was one of the smart kids. I’ve since gone downhill.

The online version of the closing interview is an expanded version of the one that ran in the magazine.

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