The Real Deal New York

The Closing: NGKF’s James Kuhn talks about his Howdy Doody days, his “Sons of Anarchy” addiction and his $50 watch

January 01, 2014
By Katherine Clarke

James Kuhn

James Kuhn (photo by STUDIO SCRIVO)

James Kuhn is president of the commercial brokerage Newmark Grubb Knight Frank. He joined Newmark & Company Real Estate in 1992, after 15 years of owning and managing real estate with investor Bernard Mendik, with whom he acquired 6,000 apartments and more than 11 million square feet of office space, including office towers like 2 Penn Plaza. In 2011, Newmark was acquired for $63 million by global financial services firm BGC Partners, which bought brokerage Grubb & Ellis the next year and merged the two companies. During his career, Kuhn has been an advisor, broker or principal in more than $4 billion of transactions.

What is your full name?

James David Kuhn. Most people call me Jimmy but my mother called me James.

What’s your date of birth?

5/17/48.

You grew up in New York, right?

I grew up in Stuy-Town. It was a great place to grow up because everyone there was the child of a war veteran. There was no class structure and nobody had a lot of money. I went to public school on 10th Street and First Avenue.

Your dad was a war veteran?

Yes, he flew B-17s in World War II.

What did he do after he came back from the war?

He worked for the IRS chasing tax evaders, and then went into real estate in the movie-theater-site-location business. Eventually, he came to work with me.

What were you like as a kid?

I looked like Howdy Doody. I had asthma, curly red hair, freckles and big ears.

You were a fencer in high school?

I was a fencer in high school and college, and then in the veteran’s division. I was seventh in the country up until about 10 years ago. I’m retired now.

You’re also a musician?

Yes, it all started when I was eight and my parents bought us a piano. I had a high school band called Jimmy and the Jelly Beans. It was band of four redheads. We played mostly in churches and temples. When I got out of grad school, I tried to become a songwriter, but I had too many student loans to pay back.

You’re in a band now with NGKF managing director Billy Mendelson, called Square Feeet? Where do you play?

We play about once a month, sometimes at the Red Lion [in the West Village] or Prohibition [on the Upper West Side]. It’s me, Billy and three other guys. We’ve been together 12 years. We’re a classic rock cover band, and I play keyboards.

Where did you go to college?

Syracuse for undergraduate and graduate. I was an aerospace engineering major initially, but that didn’t work out too well. I switched over to business and got an MBA. My dad said I could do anything but real estate.

Why was that?

He never really made much money in real estate, until he came to work for me.

Where do you live?

On 73rd Street between Lexington and Park, in a townhouse I bought in 1987. I have a summer house in Quogue on the ocean. I bought the land in 1983.

How long have you been married to your wife, Marjorie?

It will be 30 years this coming March. She was a student in a class [I taught] at NYU. We didn’t start going out until after she’d finished the class.

How many kids do you have?

Three. My oldest son, Joey, is a brilliant filmmaker. My daughter, Carly, works as a producer for the “Chelsea Lately” show in L.A. My youngest son, Jake, just graduated from Duke with a major in Japanese. He’s interning for a music producer.

When did you decide to get into real estate?

When I got out of grad school in 1972, there was a recession. The only job I got was in the mortgage department at Metropolitan Life Insurance Company foreclosing on New York City landlords. I made $12,000 a year.

Didn’t you try to foreclose on Harry Helmsley?

Yes, at 1 Penn Plaza, but my superiors didn’t think it was a good idea. It was okay; I didn’t get fired.

How did you meet Bernie Mendik?

He was one of the other landlords I tried to foreclose on. He decided to hire me instead. He and his partner Larry Silverstein were splitting up, and he needed someone to do acquisitions for him.

How did you end up joining Newmark?

I knew Barry [Gosin] and Jeff [Gural]. They had started a fledgling brokerage company, and they wanted me to run it, so I started here as president and COO in 1992.

How are the three of you different?

Barry is serious, Jeff is laid back, I am emotional. People like Barry after the first meeting, people like me after the second meeting, people like Jeff before they meet him. Barry is Neil Diamond, Jeff is Lou Reed, I am Billy Joel.

Do you often put your foot in your mouth?

People will tell you I’m a ‘tell-it-like-it-is’ kind of guy.

What are your bad habits?

I watch much too much TV. My wife says I’m always plugged in. I like “Sons of Anarchy” and “The Good Wife.”

Are you a tough boss?

You never have to guess where you stand with me, and you may not always like what I tell you, but I’m fair and loyal.

Who are your closest industry friends outside of NGKF?

Mike Fascitelli [formerly of Vornado] and Jeff Levine [of Douglaston Development] are some of my closest friends in the business.

Do you make as much money as you’d like to?

I don’t put much value on possessions. I drive a Jeep Wrangler and I wear a $50 watch. The reason I make less than I’d like is because I’d like to give a lot more away.

  • Mike Kennedy

    Castle Brands Inc. and Philip Frost MD. own Douglas Elliman & Company via
    Vector Group Inc. (VGR)–time to jump aboard.

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