The Real Deal New York

Burger on a roll

Brown Harris Stevens’ super-broker John Burger is on a hot streak — with $88 million worth of sales in a single month

February 01, 2013
By Candace Taylor

Burger is one of the brokers listing a duplex at 55 Central Park West for $35 million.

John.Burger

Burger’s big deals

944 Fifth Avenue: $50 million co-op

145 Central Park West (The San Remo): $20 million co-op

88 Central Park West (The Brentmore): $18.2 million combination co-op

John Burger spends a lot of time walking through Central Park. The Brown Harris Stevens superbroker specializes in the grand apartment buildings located on the leafy thoroughfares bordering the park, and he prefers to travel between them on foot.

“I do a lot on Central Park West and a lot on Fifth and Park avenues, so I shuttle back and forth,” said Burger. “I try to walk as often as possible, even in the middle of January, because it can be very beautiful and very peaceful.”

Lately, he’s been getting a lot of exercise.

In 2012, the Manhattan luxury market saw an unprecedented burst of activity, and Burger — a 29-year industry veteran who focuses on high-end properties — reaped the benefits. In December alone, he sold some $88 million worth of Manhattan real estate, including a $50 million co-op at 944 Fifth Avenue reportedly owned by NorthStar Realty’s David Hamamoto. On Central Park West that same month, Burger sold a corner apartment at the twin-towered San Remo for $20 million, and an $18.2 million combination unit at the Brentmore.

“John has probably sold more apartments on Central Park West than any other agent,” said his boss, BHS president Hall Willkie.

While fellow agents praised Burger for his professionalism and intimate knowledge of top Manhattan buildings, the longtime broker also holds a trump card: Sources said he has, for years, been the residential broker of choice for his boss’s boss, the überwealthy developer William Lie Zeckendorf. Representing Zeckendorf —who is co-owner of BHS’s parent company, Terra Holdings — Burger has handled lucrative deals such as the $34.6 million sale of the developer’s co-op at tony 927 Fifth Avenue. And being in the good graces of the company’s owner, brokers said, yields untold benefits.

“If you’re going to pitch a listing and you can say, ‘I’m the personal broker for the owner of the company,’ that’s helpful,” said a broker who has done deals with Burger, but requested to remain anonymous.

Journalist Mike Wallace’s duplex at 730 Park Avenue, which is on the market with Burger for $17.95 million.

Posh clientele

BHS, founded in 1873, has long focused on Manhattan’s elite. With some 352 full-time brokers, Willkie said, the firm hires mostly experienced agents rather than industry newcomers.

“We really dominate the high end of the market and we have for a long time,” Willkie asserted.

That focus has recently yielded enormous dividends for the venerable firm. BHS brokers, the company said, listed four of the five most expensive properties sold in 2012 — all of them over $30 million. And the fourth quarter of 2012 was the strongest fourth quarter ever for the firm.

Burger attributed the uptick in luxury sales to wealthy homeowners’ attempts “to lock in preferential capital gains” tax rates before changes slated for this year took effect.

He, of course, had already been at the top of his game for some time.

In 2005, he handled media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s $44 million purchase at 834 Fifth Avenue, setting a record for the highest price ever paid for a New York City co-op. In 2008, he topped that by selling poet Georgia Shreve’s duplex penthouse at 1060 Fifth Avenue for $46 million. The buyers were hedge funder Scott Bommer and his wife, Donya.

765 Park Avenue living room

In both 2010 and 2011, the Wall Street Journal named Burger Manhattan’s top broker by closed transaction volume. In the most recent ranking, he was credited with nearly $254 million in sales.

But he’s had a particularly hot streak lately. In addition to closing deals at 944 Fifth Avenue, the San Remo and the Brentmore in December, Burger’s $29.6 million three-bedroom listing at the Dakota — owned by Bruce Barnes, the head of the building’s co-op board — reportedly went into contract that month.

The famed Dakota, overlooking Central Park West, is one of the buildings where Burger has made his mark over the years. BHS’s sister company Brown Harris Steven Residential Management previously managed the Dakota, and during that time Burger was the firm’s “broker specialist” there. He no longer has an official relationship with the building, but “still does more business there than anybody else,” said fellow industry veteran Kirk Henckels, a vice chairman at residential brokerage Stribling & Associates.

Burger “is a gentleman, and a knowledgeable one,” said Henckels, who recently represented the buyer in Burger’s $18.2 million deal at the Brentmore.

Unlike other top brokers, who often have teams of agents, Burger works with only one longtime assistant, agent Kristin Clark (though he does sometimes partner on individual deals with fellow BHS brokers).

“It’s just the two of us,” Burger said. “Quite frankly, sometimes that means that we are not able to accept every client that comes our way.”

And that’s fine with Burger. “I don’t want it to be a factory of listings,” he said. “I want to take wonderful listings that I believe in, usually from clients that I myself have put into those listings. We’re very selective.”

Currently, Burger is marketing Calvin Klein’s former penthouse at 55 Central Park West for $35 million as a co-exclusive with Douglas Elliman brokers Raphael De Niro and Howard Margolis. And with his BHS colleague Fritzi Kallop, Burger has the listing for the late newsman Mike Wallace’s duplex penthouse at 730 Park Avenue for $17.95 million.

 

Floor-plan fiend

Like many of his wealthy clients, Burger dislikes talking to the press about his personal life.

“I’m a very private person,” he told The Real Deal. “I don’t want to start talking about my summer house and this and that. That’s none of anybody’s business.” (According to public records, Burger owns a home in Water Mill on the East End.)

Burger did say that he’s the son of German immigrants and was born at Doctors Hospital — ironically, now the site of high-end condominium 170 East End Avenue — in the traditionally German neighborhood of Yorkville. Burger speaks German as well as Spanish, which he learned while living in Chile for a year with his parents as a child. He still lives on the Upper East Side, though he declined to name his building.

In his early twenties, just out of college, Burger started working at a small Upper East Side real estate firm that he said is no longer in the residential brokerage business. In 1984, he did his first deal, selling a two-bedroom on East 77th Street for $112,500.

At the time, listing information was stored on index cards, and fledging brokers were expected to memorize the floor plans of units in the city’s best buildings.

“When I started, you had to understand each and every building and each and every layout very well,” Burger recalled. “You had to study it and commit it to memory because you couldn’t just whip out an iPad.”

In particular, Burger focused on the work of J.E.R. Carpenter and Rosario Candela, whom he called “the two great architects of prewar New York.”

That turned out to be good training. He’s currently marketing a full-floor apartment at the Carpenter-designed 640 Park Avenue for $26 million, and has a $20 million listing for a five-room spread at Candela’s 765 Park Avenue.

And thanks to all that memorization, Burger said he can often match clients with the right apartment without having to search online. “Today, most people need the computer in order to make the match,” Burger said. “I can make the match in my head.”

It took a while for that knowledge to pay off, however. In 1988, Burger was hired at BHS, which then had only around 30 brokers. “I’m certain that during the first 10 years, there were secretaries at Brown Harris Stevens that made more money than I did,” he said with a laugh.

But over time, small deals led to bigger deals. “We all started at lower price points and, along with our clientele, we graduated to higher price points,” Burger said. “The apartment that today is $15 million, when I started, was $2 million.”

Case in point: Burger’s very first client — the one who bought that two-bedroom on 77th Street — is planning to put his Park Avenue penthouse on the market with Burger in April for $14 million.

And the 944 Fifth Avenue apartment he sold in December for $50 million?

“I’m very proud that, 14 years ago, I was able to find that apartment for that seller,” Burger said, though a confidentiality agreement prevents him from talking about the specifics of the recent megadeal. “I recommended that he buy it, and it turned out to be a superb investment.”

Willkie noted that Burger has a knack for earning — and keeping — clients’ loyalty.

“They talk to their friends and say, ‘You’ve gotta do John Burger.’ ” Willkie said.

“That’s what happens over time with a professional, very talented broker,” he added.  “It really snowballs.”

 

A powerful patron

Snowball or not, most brokers don’t have William Lie Zeckendorf in their Rolodex.

Zeckendorf is best-known as the codeveloper, with his brother Arthur Zeckendorf, of the undeniably successful 15 Central Park West, which famously sold $2 billion worth of condos, more than any other development in the city’s history.

But he’s also one of the owners of Terra Holdings, which acquired BHS in 1995. And more recently, he made headlines with an epic series of personal property flips: In 2010, Zeckendorf sold his penthouse at 15 Central Park West for a record-setting $9,940 per square foot, or $40 million, then bought a full-floor apartment from the estate of the late financier Bruce Wasserstein at 927 Fifth Avenue for $29.1 million.

A short time later, Zeckendorf listed the 927 Fifth apartment with Burger. It sold for $34.6 million to the Bommers, who Burger had worked with at 1060 Fifth. Zeckendorf then paid $27 million for a 17th-floor apartment at Candela-

designed 740 Park Avenue, a deal in which sources say Burger represented him, though Burger declined to comment specifically on any of Zeckendorf’s personal transactions.

Burger did say, however, that Zeckendorf has been a client of his for “many years, even before he was the principal of our firm.”

Sources noted that Zeckendorf does not work exclusively with Burger. For example, broker Richard Wallgren, who was director of sales at 15 Central Park West during its initial sell-out, listed Zeckendorf’s penthouse there. (Wallgren was a BHS broker at the time; he is now an executive vice president for sales at Macklowe Properties.)

Still, brokers said Burger is viewed as the Zeckendorfs’ “favorite,” not only handling their deals but being recommended for other plum listings.

In recent years, Burger’s “relationship has improved with the Zeckendorfs,” said one broker, speculating that the connection is one reason Burger has so many more big-ticket deals than other brokers. “I think John’s a great broker, but there are other brokers just as capable.”

“When you have a certain level of seniority and perspicacity, very often people seek you out for the level of experience you bring to the transaction,” said Burger is response to such statements. “That’s probably one of the reasons I’ve had the good fortune of being successful.”

He added: “Brown Harris Stevens has been very good to me.”

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