Brokering in good Faith

Retail dervish draws attention from press — and barbs from competitors

Aug.August 01, 2008 12:55 PM

Most real estate brokers don’t show up at cocktail parties with a publicist in tow.

But then again, probably only one has been quoted in the press some 75 times since the beginning of the year. The New York Times calls Faith Hope Consolo the “highest-profile practitioner of the art of matching stores and storefronts.” The New York Post said she’s the “queen of retail.”

A number of her mostly male competitors use other words to describe Prudential Douglas Elliman’s media-savvy chairwoman of retail real estate; none of those words are printable here.

Love her or hate her, however, there’s no one in the industry quite like Consolo.

Over her 25-year career, Consolo has represented some of the city’s most high-profile landlords, names like Trump, Helmsley and Silverstein. She’s played a role in the European retail invasion, billing herself as an ambassador of sorts for the city, and helping to find early local outposts for chichi names like Gianni Versace, Cartier and Fendi.

She’s also been involved with — and some complain takes too much credit for — the retail transformation of a number of New York City neighborhoods, including Soho, the Flatiron District and Times Square.

But as much as her deals, it’s Consolo’s larger-than-life personality and tireless self-promotion that have made her perhaps the best-known face of the industry.

The 50-something blonde with the Martha Stewart haircut and string of pearls moves through the normally staid circles of New York City real estate — its cocktail parties and conferences — like a daytime diva running for Congress. Trailed by a small entourage, she cracks jokes, cups shoulders and trades gossip like a schoolgirl.

As the sun set over Lincoln Center at a recent party on the rooftop of the Hotel Empire in Columbus Circle to celebrate the one-year anniversary of WNBC’s television program OpenHouseNYC, Consolo clutched her limited-edition, black Dior bag in one hand and the shoulder of a television producer in the other.

“I’m giving her the whole story of why they should do retail,” Consolo said in her New York accent as tuxedo-clad waiters offered trays of champagne and tuna tartare.

“Nobody’s doing it,” she said, leaning in. “I want to do a classy reality show. Not like the [television show ‘the Real] Housewives of New York,’ or that show ‘the Real Housewives of Orange County.’ The real estate woman in that show is bad. Please do not identify me with those women.”

“I love what I do, I treat everybody the same — little, big, it doesn’t matter,” she continued. “I always tell them, ‘have faith in Faith.'”

Through such endless campaigning, the ever-loquacious Consolo has helped bring attention to an area of the business once so overlooked, it was hardly considered worthy of its own specialty at many of the big firms.

At the same time, she’s branded her name and garnered the kind of personal notoriety she once dreamt of generating through a television career in daytime soap operas — albeit in a different circle.

Consolo’s semi-annual “Faith Report” is widely circulated in the industry and amongst the media; she spends thousands of dollars on marketing campaigns that feature her glossy photo and slogan “to find real estate in New York, you need Faith.” She has also become a go-to commentator of sorts for many reporters who cover the industry.

That branding, along with her dynamic personality and store of market knowledge, has often paid off with new business.

“Landlords love it, they’ll hire us to co-brand with them,” said Joseph Aquino, executive vice president at Elliman, and Consolo’s longtime business partner.

“She knows the city extremely well,” said longtime client Steve Blatt, president of the company that owns the women’s apparel chain Searle. “She tries to find the location that is good for you, and not necessarily good for her. And she does not take numbers lightly.”

But Consolo’s ubiquity has generated an unusual amount of animosity in her über-competitive industry. When queried about Consolo, several brokers swore like drunken sailors. One launched into a tirade about “Howard Rubenstein puff pieces,” immediately assuming any article originated from the well-known public relations agency.

Another said he keeps a framed copy of an especially unflattering magazine photograph of Consolo next to pictures of his wife and kids on his window sill, so he can look at it for “inspiration.”

“I have a picture of the real Faith,” he said. “She’s no Madonna.”

A relentless promoter

What is it about Consolo that evokes such strong reactions?

Broker C. Bradley Mendelson, of Cushman & Wakefield, echoed comments made by no less than eight other competitors, who complained that “either through actual lies, or innuendo, she takes credit for everyone else’s transactions.”

“You hear that she was singlehandedly responsible for bringing every tenant there ever was to New York City,” said Mendelson, who ended up in court with Consolo in the 1990s over a commission for the Toys “R” Us lease near Times Square — and is one of the few who will speak on the record about his nemesis. “She’s never been a force in the industry. She’s a legend in her own mind,” he said.

Said Jeffrey Winick of retail powerhouse Winick Realty Group, “Faith is all hype; if she can tell me 10 deals she’s done in the last 10 months, it would be a miracle. She writes her own stories. That’s all she does — is write.”

Whether those complaints are true is difficult to verify. It’s tough to get a straight answer out of Consolo when it comes to actual specifics about her activities.

“The average number of deals a year a broker does in commercial is six to 12,” she told The Real Deal last month. “We probably do that number every week or every other week. We do hundreds of deals.”

When later pressed for specifics, however, Consolo’s office said they did 68 transactions for 1.2 million square feet last year — a number other brokers dismissed as patently absurd since it would mean each space was almost 18,000 square feet. Consolo later maintained she misunderstood the question and had included not just leases she brokered but square footage associated with consultancies, fair market value arbitration and lease renewals — not just in New York City, but from around the nation and across the globe.

The most accurately available tally of the size of Consolo’s leasing business in New York City may be her current listings page at Prudential Douglas Elliman, which currently displays some 47 spaces, totaling 337,823 square feet.

Winick Realty Group, by comparison, said they did 165 deals in New York City alone last year, accounting for approximately 1 million square feet. They are currently marketing 162 properties with 2.9 million square feet of space in the city; about 1 million of that is in Brooklyn, according to Winick spokeswoman Victoria Juharyan.

It’s also true that there have been a number of instances in the media where Consolo has been credited with leases done by others.

After writing a profile of Consolo back in May, the New York Times ran a correction stating she was not involved in two of the deals they had credited her with in the Flatiron District. Her role in a third had been exaggerated, the newspaper reported.

Still, supporters of Consolo dismiss such complaints as insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Some even suggest it is predictable criticism coming from an old boys’ network. And many of her supporters are the ones who count: Landlords with millions of square feet to rent out.

“I’ve worked with Faith — everybody has,” said developer Kent Swig. “She’s extraordinarily bright, she understands the retail business, and then you add the third element: her personality. She’s just interesting and fun and calls it like it is, which some people may like or may not. I find her completely charming and extraordinarily enjoyable to be around.”

“Faith Consolo is the best retail broker in Manhattan,” said landlord and developer Charles Cohen, who recently handed Consolo and Aquino an exclusive on 10 buildings, comprising hundreds of thousands of square feet. “There’s a lot of good ones, she’s the best.”

For her part, Consolo is nonplussed by the criticism.

“I don’t sit here complaining about Winick or [Robert K.] Futterman or anyone else — this is the business,” Consolo said. “It’s a commission business, and they don’t pay us by the hour.

“The fact that the landlord or the press or people that write about it like to talk to me instead of them — I can’t help that,” she said. “Maybe I’m smarter. Maybe I’m better looking. I don’t know. All I know is this: My philosophy is I work longer and harder, and every year it’s a new challenge.”

Whatever the reality, Consolo’s career has coincided with a remarkable transformation in the retail real estate of New York City, which has matured into a specialty in its own right in recent years. Throughout much of that time, she has positioned herself as the industry’s most articulate spokeswoman for those changes, educating the public through her newsletters, speeches and the media, and sometimes gaining credit for those changes in the process.

And while it remains unclear whether Consolo is among her field’s most prolific earners — or whether she is an inaccurate source of information — many would agree that she may well be the most colorful.

A flair for drama

Consolo likes to say that real estate is her third career.

Her flair for drama and marketing may have something to do with her first love. After spending most of her childhood in Westport, Connecticut, Consolo moved to the city at 17, entered New York University, and began auditioning for roles on daytime soap operas.

At one of those tryouts, she met an executive from a cosmetics company who was looking for models to work in department stores doing make-up and hair. Impressed by Consolo’s “outgoing personality,” he asked her if she would be interested in helping him recruit other models to do the job.

Consolo never did land a part on a soap opera. Her grandmother secretly intercepted calls from casting people and told them that Consolo was too busy to make it to callbacks, Consolo remembered.

“I was very sheltered,” Consolo said.

Instead, Consolo went to work building a cosmetics company called Super Girls. By the time she sold her share back so she could focus on her schoolwork, they had 500 girls working as models at stores like Bloomingdale’s and Lord & Taylor, and operating in 50 states, she said.

After graduating from NYU with a degree in art history, Consolo went to graduate school at the Parsons School of Design in New York City and Paris, then worked for a time as an interior designer at a New York City architectural firm. In between she got “married a couple times.” The marriages were “brief, not much to talk about,” she said. (Consolo is currently unmarried but in a “long-term” relationship.)

Consolo lived in Los Angeles with her first husband, and she started her own interior design firm there, one she describes as small with a “very select clientele.”

She recalled, “It was very social; I did some of their homes and a lot of offices.

“LA was very glamorous,” she added. “But then I got divorced. This is the truth: My lawyer said, ‘you have to get a real job.’ I said, ‘what am I going to do?’ He said, ‘why not real estate? You travel around the world and you have a lot of experience dealing with very successful people.'”

Consolo interviewed with Barbara Corcoran to work as a residential real estate broker, but decided, “I didn’t want to deal with all these emotional people, housewives. Who cares if the toilet flushes? Who knows if the husband will like the pool?”

Commercial sales didn’t interest her either. But when her lawyer suggested she could parlay her “world-class shopping skills” into a lucrative career in retail, a seed was planted. A couple of weeks later she met the owner of a small firm called 2001 Real Estate at a cocktail party in Palm Beach and decided to visit his office in New York City.

“He was very handsome, they were sweet, and it was three blocks from my house,” said Consolo, who currently lives on Fifth Avenue in the 60s. “So I figured I’d try it.”

Early days

The office was in a fourth-floor walk-up, and Consolo had a little metal desk against the wall in the corner, with two broken handles on the drawers.

(Nowadays, she works in a cavernous office the size of a small apartment at Prudential Douglas Elliman’s Madison Avenue headquarters — and sits behind an oak desk large enough to sign a peace treaty on.)

Her new boss “dropped three phone books on my desk and told me to start cold-calling.”

Consolo got her first big hit when the chairman of Godiva Chocolates picked up the phone.

“I said, ‘do you want to expand?’ He said, ‘I can’t believe you called: I just became chairman and we have only one store!'” she said.

Consolo drove to Redding, Pennsylvania, to meet with the chairman — a “large man who was eating chocolates the whole time” — and signed him as a client. Eventually, Consolo claims, she would help find homes for upwards of 48 Godiva stores over the years.

But it didn’t take long for Consolo to realize where the real money was in retail real estate. In many of the deals she made, Consolo found herself negotiating with the brokers representing the landlords. They all seemed to work for the same “900-pound gorilla on steroids,” a firm called Garrick-Aug Associates.

Soon the firm’s chairman, Charlie Aug, was recruiting her to his firm.

“He chased me like a boyfriend, sent me presents, called me,” Consolo said. “Finally he broke me down.”

When Consolo arrived at Garrick-Aug in March 1985, there were 58 men and “probably like one woman,” Consolo said, and “they didn’t like me too much.”

Former colleagues don’t dispute that. One, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “She immediately alienated her colleagues.

“She locked her door, she would have her manicurist come up to the office, she would berate her staff,” said the former colleague. “Quite frankly, she probably was responsible for the demise of Garrick-Aug, because instead of promoting her company, she promoted herself.”

But Charlie Aug was the only one who mattered. He introduced her to the Rudins, to Larry Silverstein and to a number of other major landlords, and handed her a beefy list of clients to represent.

Within two years, Consolo was on her way to Europe to open up the firm’s first European office in Paris.

It was an exciting and busy time. Consolo was in the office by 7 a.m.; she claims she read 20 newspapers a day. She’d spend 10 days a month in Paris, and five days in London, meeting retailers and trying to convince them to expand.

Then it was back to New York, where she’d tell dubious landlords about stores they’d never heard about.

“Madison Avenue had all these mom-and-pop shops,” recalled Consolo. “I would call the landlord and say, ‘I want to bring a wonderful retailer into the building called Gianni Versace.’ And they’d say ‘Johnny who?’ Part of the job was educating them.”

Retail, and career, blossom

It was a time when retail was still emerging as a specialty in its own right. And over the next 20 years, the blossoming of Consolo’s own career — along with that of many others — would coincide with a wholesale change in the way the industry looked at the specialty.

Ben Fox, the former owner of New Spectrum Realty and current president of Winick, started in the business in 1977. Back then, he remembers, the main shopping district was Herald Square in Midtown, and the rest of town was populated by mom-and-pop shops, which seemed to have sprouted up randomly, like mushrooms in the grass.

“Whenever there was an empty store, whether it was an office building or residential, the agent of the building would just try and rent it,” Fox said. “There were no retail brokers who specialized in handling retail space and marketing new neighborhoods.”

That began to change in the late 1970s, when national retail chains began expanding — the Gap opened its first store in New York City in 1977. It was a trend that would grow throughout the 1980s, as pop culture and media helped drive consumers toward known brands, and a growing homogenization of the kinds of stores that offered them.

The largest force at work, however, was demographic. New York experienced an economic renaissance throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s. Wealth and spending power returned to the city, creating an environment ripe for a retail explosion.

Fox points to the transformation of the Flatiron District as both a watershed — it was one of the first new retail districts to take root — and as indicative of the way changes moved through the city. It started to evolve in 1984, as advertising agencies were forced out of Midtown by high rents and relocated, bringing with them a young and better-educated class of professionals, some of whom moved to the area.

In 1985, Tower Records opened up on Broadway and East 4th Street, “demonstrating how the city was changing and how Downtown south of 23rd Street was a really viable market,” Fox said.

Joseph Aquino arrived at Garrick-Aug in 1988 and began working with Consolo soon after. He remembered the development of the Flatiron District as especially significant for the pair.

In 1988, Consolo walked into a store in Convent Park, London, owned by a hot young designer named Paul Smith. She explained who she was, and they made plans to meet the next time he was in New York City. Consolo showed him Madison Avenue, a predicable fit, but also took him on a tour of the Flatiron District, which was then anchored by Rothman’s, at the time a stuffy apparel shop serving middle-aged men.

Smith loved the area and decided to take a risk, leasing a store on Fifth Avenue and 16th Street. To hear Aquino tell it, the move produced a domino effect. Armani opened up a year later in the Flatiron — he later told reporters he did so because Smith was across the street.

“Once these two designers opened up across the street from each other, it was like a fire,” Aquino said. “The Gap already had one store there; the Banana Republic came in across the street; Daffy’s opened up, Zara.”

Later, Consolo and Aquino helped bring in the upscale Japanese retailer Matsuda, where a pair of cashmere socks goes for $300. They represented a French optical store called Alain Mikli and an Italian clothing retailer called C.P. Company.

Other brokers downplayed the impact Consolo and Aquino had on the area, noting it was already ripe for change, that some 60 stores were involved and that it’s demographics, not brokers, that create transformation.

But Aquino said his team’s dealing got the attention of potential clients and helped win Consolo more business.

“The Flatiron District is where we really showed our strength with the European tenants who we had access to, and what kind of deals we could do,” Aquino said.

Similar progressions unfolded across the city in the years to come, as gentrification pushed up rents, which in turn spread new arrivals to outlying areas, beginning the process once again. Consolo and her team “were greatly involved” in most of them, she said.

Union Square was “a drug dealers’ park 15 to 20 years ago,” said Jeffrey C. Paisner, of Ripco Real Estate, who started in the retail business in the early 1990s.

“Bryant Park, the same thing; Madison Park, the same thing. The Bowery was the Bowery. There were hotels for homeless people there. Now there’s a chic hotel there, and John Varvatos is opening. Every area of the city is gentrifying, and when it gentrifies, there are consumers there to buy from well-branded retailers.”

Around 1990, the area that runs along Sixth Avenue from 14th to 23rd streets got its introduction to Big Box retailing, with the opening of Bed Bath & Beyond, setting the stage for the arrival of other big chain stores like Barnes & Noble, Best Buy and Old Navy. Globalization and the Internet, meanwhile, have made it easier to create international brands, leading to a continued increase in European retailers.

Disneyfication

In the early 1990s, however, came the mother of all retail transformations. And Consolo and Aquino were intimately involved in it.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Times Square served as a magnet for riffraff from the outer boroughs, and a hotbed of criminal activity that spilled out into the surrounding neighborhoods. The block of 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues boasted nine adult movie theaters — the highest concentration anywhere in the world. Those theaters drew prostitutes, and served as a refuge for drifters and scam artists seeking shelter in the winter.

When the city announced plans to redevelop the area in the early 1990s, they sought bids for retail consultants. In a coup that would help raise Consolo’s profile, she and Aquino won the contract.

The city needed to raise $150 million in public funds to complete the condemnation of the easterly portion of 42nd Street, which was then a red-light district. Consolo and her team looked at the block on a plot-by-plot basis and estimated how much tax revenue could be produced.

“Besides the economics,” remembered Aquino, “we also had to put in a tenant profile. We wanted to utilize the theaters for live production, we saw jazz clubs, we saw museums, we saw corporations taking buildings and doing corporate branding, and we saw a lot of exciting entertainment-type retail.”

In the year following the city’s reclamation of Times Square, the crime rate in the surrounding area plummeted some 70 percent. And many of the predictions of Consolo and her team eventually came to fruition — porno houses were replaced by Disney and Madam Tussaud’s, theaters supported by American Airlines and Ford, Loew’s Cinema and B.B. King Blues Club & Grill.

The project proved a publicity boom for Consolo and her group, and opened up a new avenue of business.

“It catapulted us,” Aquino said. “It helped our landlord agency business very much, because landlords saw the depth of our services. They saw that we really looked at a deal from eight different angles.”

The following year, Consolo won the agency for the Bowtie building on Broadway between 44th and 45th streets. Then Paramount hired Consolo to help with 1633 Broadway between 50th and 51th streets, both as consultant to “perk up the building and make it more of a Times Square feel” and to serve as exclusive agent.

Other brokers won most of the largest spaces in Times Square itself. But Consolo and her group helped find a home for an Applebee’s restaurant, Cosmetics Plus, a Universal newsstand, and a 25,000-square-foot theme store that sold sports shoes.

Consolo and Aquino had hit their stride. And around that time, they found something to help them do even better.

The Faith Report

The way Aquino remembered it, Consolo had long been producing marketing reports without her name on them. Without giving her any credit, other members of Garrick-Aug were circulating those reports to their clients.

Meanwhile, Consolo had a pad of personalized stationery with her name written in script at the top.

“I was leaning over her secretary’s desk, and I took the stationery and put it over the report and wrote the ‘Faith Report.’ She looked at me and said, ‘You’re brilliant.'”

Consolo’s signature newsletter was born — which “pissed everybody off” at Garrick-Aug who used to send them out as their own, Aquino said.

In 1992, Consolo’s advertising consultant, Andrew Miller, came out with a catchy slogan: “To find the best real estate in Manhattan, you need Faith.” Consolo began running the slogan with different primary colors and maps featuring the island of Manhattan.

“That’s when it really, really brought the branding home. We only did the Faith Report four times a year,” Aquino said. “With ‘you need Faith,’ we were able to put that out every time we advertised … a couple times a month.”

Ever since, marketing the Faith brand has been a central tenet of her group’s retail strategy. Though that strategy has clearly had success, the tactics associated with it have sparked widespread complaints from Consolo’s competitors.

Consolo’s critics said she will often write and talk about areas or deals that she had nothing to do with in a way that implies she was involved. They said she overstates her role in retail areas that were changing on their own. They complain that she is stingy in sharing credit with other brokers.

Supporting evidence is not hard to come by. Consolo’s office initially responded to requests from The Real Deal for a list of the deals she did last year in New York City with an advertisement featuring the corporate logos of some 36 retailers they claimed to have worked with over “the last two or three years.”

The list made no mention of brokers representing the other sides of the deal. But Aquino initially estimated their group represented both sides of the deal “75 to 80 percent of the time.”

Further discussions with Aquino actually revealed that Consolo had represented both sides in only eight instances — or 20 percent of the deals. Other brokers were involved in representing the tenant or landlord side in about 28 of them, but not credited in the ad featuring her completed deals.

Aquino and Consolo denied there was any intent to exaggerate. And Aquino provided a voluminous sampling of old press releases and articles that mentioned other brokers. But equally voluminous are the complaints from other brokers.

“There’s probably no bigger sin in our business for a broker than taking credit for another person’s deal,” said one broker. “That’s why she is the most despised retail broker in the business.”

Even so, there’s no denying that over the years, Consolo and her team have represented a wide range of clients — in New York, all over the world and across the nation.

They’ve done some 40 Au Bon Pain deals. They’ve represented big landlords, including the Milsteins, the Port Authority, the Haddads, the New York State Urban Development Corporation, the Downtown Alliance and Carlyle Development. They’ve worked all over the city and found homes for a number of luxury retailers, including Bond No. 9, Ralph Lauren and Yves St. Laurent.

A new home at Elliman

In 2005, after outside investors acquired Garrick-Aug, Consolo, Aquino and their team defected to Prudential, where president and CEO Dottie Herman offered a platform that would allow the pair to continue their branding.

“I met Faith and I thought she was terrific and we bonded and I thought she fit into the company,” Herman said. “Retail is a very specific part of real estate. This is what she has been doing her whole life, and she has relationships with landlords all over the country. Faith is like a brand within a brand … I think that anyone that knows Faith loves her.”

Recently, Consolo has begun to expand into the outer boroughs and Upper Manhattan, where retail is still catching up with the massive demographic shift that has sent yuppies priced out of the market into new areas.

In addition to more traditional Manhattan properties, like two new spaces in the Meatpacking District, Consolo and Aquino are handling One Hanson Place, the site of the old Williamsburgh Savings Bank in Brooklyn. They also have the exclusive on 15 properties, a 75-store portfolio, in Harlem.

“I’m going to make Harlem chic” said Consolo, who plans to launch a co-branding campaign called “Beautiful Harlem,” with “You need Faith.”

They scored a major coup earlier in the summer, when Charles Cohen gave them an exclusive on a large portion of his retail properties in New York City.

Still, today’s playing field is an increasingly challenging one.

In the last five years alone, average rents in Manhattan have risen between 300 to 500 percent, according to Winick. As a result, any large commercial brokerage has beefed up its retail practice considerably.

As recently as 15 years ago, retail listings were “an afterthought,” said Paisner.

“Big companies like Cushman & Wakefield handle millions of square feet of space, and they had one person handle it,” he said. “Once retail rents increased so much, it became a big deal. It got bigger and bigger. It started about seven or eight years ago, and it has grown exponentially since then.”

Retail, said Fox, is “10 times bigger now than when I started out.”

It’s the tanking economy of late — along with changes in the retail climate — that has gotten Consolo’s attention.

“There are a lot of people trying to over-negotiate,” she said. “The tenants don’t just want favorable deals anymore. They want sweet deals. These are challenging market conditions.”

But, she added: “Now everybody needs you. Landlords need you. They have fewer choices in tenants than they did a year ago. Retailers need you because they want to know if they are expanding at the right time and getting the best rent. They weren’t questioning it a year ago. They just said, ‘tell me where to sign.’ This is the kind of market where only the strong will survive.”

Consolo acknowledged that “the industry is treacherous.”

“My ankles are bleeding because there’s always somebody at the bottom trying to climb to the top and pull you down,” she said.


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