Day in the life of: James Wacht

Lee & Associates NYC’s president on taking ballet classes, mediating to white noise and keeping spirits high at work

Mar.March 01, 2019 12:00 PM

James Wacht (Photo by Emily Assiran)

Thirty years ago, James Wacht was a young real estate attorney whose clients included a rough-around-the-edges property management firm named Sierra Realty Corp. “They were your typical old-school real estate guys. Yellers and screamers, table pounders,” he said. “But I got along with them.” Newly married and looking to start a family, Wacht decided to leave the legal business, and he joined Sierra in 1989. Today, the 63-year-old is president of the commercial brokerage Lee & Associates NYC — part of a national network that Sierra’s office and retail leasing business merged with in 2011. It’s a busy time for Wacht’s office, which he runs with partners Joel Herskowitz and Peter Braus. Lee & Associates ranked No. 9 in Manhattan and No. 5 in Brooklyn in The Real Deal’s tally of New York’s top retail brokerages in 2018 with 62 deals totaling 224,612 square feet across both boroughs. And the firm ranked No. 11 among Manhattan’s top office leasing firms last year with 353,000 square feet across 55 deals. The brokerage launched a residential division with a focus on middle-market sales and rentals last summer and hired a nine-person team to start a new investment sales group just a few weeks later. The company is also involved in the acquisition and development side of the business through its partnership with Cogswell Realty. Cogswell Lee Development teamed up with Tishman Speyer to buy a 19-story office building at 183 Madison Avenue for $185 million in 2014, and the sponsors sold the property for $222 million last year. In addition, Cogswell Lee is part of a joint venture with Taconic Investment Partners to redevelop the site of a shuttered Pathmark in Inwood into a 550-unit rental building. That’s not to say it’s all work and no play for Wacht, who lives with his wife in the same Upper East Side building he lived in as a child. The brokerage boss is known to put together company outings, including a canoe trip on the Gowanus Canal and a scavenger hunt at the American Museum of Natural History. “It’s interesting seeing people in a different context, because you’ll learn a lot about them,” he said.

7:30 a.m. I’ve never been an early riser. I don’t like it. I get up, I make a cup of coffee and I sit and read the New York Post. That’s my favorite thing to do in the morning because it just gets me going and it’s silly.

8:00 a.m. I either go play tennis in Central Park, or there’s a gym in my building, where I’ll work out for a while. Years ago, I was getting bored of doing the typical training thing, and my personal trainer, who was a ballerina, said, “Well, you’re getting bored. Let’s do ballet.” So, I did it for five years. I was terrible, but I really got into it. It made my tennis game a lot better, because it really helps with balance, coordination and focus. And I looked ridiculous in tights.

9:00 a.m. I often have breakfast with somebody I’m trying to do business with or want to catch up with. There’s a diner over here that I go to on 57th Street. And if I’m meeting somebody who’s coming in from Westchester, I’ll do a breakfast meeting in Grand Central Terminal.

10:00 a.m. When I get to the office, I print out my to-do list and update it from the day before. Right now, I have 18 things to do, but I’ll be happy if I get four of them done. I tend to have a fairly open-door policy, so people are always coming in and out during the course of the day, and I can rarely spend a half hour without being interrupted. Occasionally, I will shut my door and put a sign on it, “Do not disturb,” and nobody pays any attention to it.

10:30 a.m. Every morning, I try to say hello to as many people as possible and ask them what’s going on: “How’s your wife?” “You just had a baby. Let’s see a picture.” We started a residential division in the summer, and I met with that team this morning to see if there are any issues that need to be addressed and basically tell them they’re doing a great job.

12:00 p.m. Often I’ll go out to lunch with people. I love the networking part of our business. I go to whatever’s within a block. Right here, I go to LAVO, where you can talk and be heard. There’s another little Italian place across the street, which I like at night, ’cause it’s empty. But if I go at lunchtime, it’s loud and I can’t hear people.

1:00 p.m. In the morning, I’m very productive at a high level of energy, so I try to get a lot of things accomplished before lunch. I find that there’s a lag in the day usually from lunchtime until about three o’clock, when I catch my second wind.

2:00 p.m. I meditate during the day. I try to do 20 minutes to half an hour. I have one of those white noise machines, which has a setting on it called city. It’s like garbage trucks, subways, car doors closing, and I find that very soothing.

3:00 p.m. I used to play backgammon. I grew up with a family of professional gamblers. But about 15 years ago, I discovered internet backgammon, and I started playing like four or five hours a day. And after a week I said, “OK, I gotta stop, because I can’t control it.”

4:00 p.m. Right now, I’m very big on our strategic vision. I’m updating our five-year plan, doing an assessment of what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are and what we need to do to become a better company. I think we’re about 80 percent there.

6:30 p.m. I like it when it gets quieter. You get to walk around and sit down, and people can talk for more than three minutes. My partner Peter has a bar in his office, and once a week, he opens it up to everybody in the office. We’ll just sit around and have drinks, and it’s really nice.

7:00 p.m. In the evenings I go out a lot with my wife. She’s a restaurant reviewer and a theater critic, and she loves going to concerts. The one problem with my wife’s business is since we got married 31 years ago, I’ve gained 50 pounds and she’s gained two. My favorite restaurant is this Japanese noodle parlor on 55th Street called Katsu-Hama. A nice bowl of ramen for 10 bucks — can’t be beat.

9:30 p.m. Even when I get home from theater or dinner or tennis, there’s usually an hour or two of work that I do: catch up on emails, plan the next day. Things that require some focus that I can focus on.

11:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. The time I go to sleep really varies. It depends on what book I’m reading. I’m a voracious reader, and if I’m really into the book, I can stay up real late. I listen to jazz at night too. It’s a nice combo.

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