Minimum wage days

From lifeguarding to milking cows, a look at how six top NYC real estate players got their start

Aug.August 01, 2019 10:00 AM

From left: John Catsimatidis, Darcy Stacom and Brad Hargreaves (Illustration by Paul Kisselev)

It’s hard to forget a first job, whether it was scooping ice cream, waiting tables or selling knives door-to-door.

But it’s funny to think that the CEOs, developers and top industry brokers — who these days have hundreds of employees under their purview and salaries that put them in the uppermost stratosphere of earners — once made minimum wage.

Last year, The Real Deal brought you the first edition of this annual series, in which bigwigs like Harry Macklowe, Don Peebles and MaryAnne Gilmartin talked about shoveling snow, pumping gas and flipping burgers at McDonald’s, respectively.

This summer we went back for more, talking to six more industry power players to find out how they got their start and what they learned from their first foray into the workforce.

Darcy Stacom
Chair and head of New York City Capital Markets at CBRE

When CBRE’s Darcy Stacom was 15 years old, her parents called her into the living room of their Greenwich, Connecticut, home and told her to take a look around.

“I’m thinking, ‘Someday, this will be mine,’” she said, “and they go, ‘We just want you to know we plan on spending every dime, so we’re sending you to work in New York City this summer.’”

So, her mother and father, Matthew Stacom — the late veteran broker who played a key role in the making of the Sears Tower in Chicago — got her a job at her father’s firm Cushman & Wakefield. She worked in the mailroom in the summer of 1976 before her sophomore year of high school and in the market research department the following year, Stacom said.

“I was expecting to spend the summer at the country club with all my friends,” she noted. “Instead, I ended up commuting [by train].”

Stacom, who is now 59 and likely rakes in millions per year as one of the city’s top investment sales brokers, said she started out earning a rate that amounted to about $13,000 a year at the time.

She reported to a middle-aged female manager in Cushman’s market research department. And her responsibilities, such as updating building surveys, would sometimes increase in the afternoons due to her boss’ curious habit of occasionally slumping over after lunch, Stacom recalled.

“This woman was fantastic, but she was not quite with it in the afternoon,” she said. “I came to realize that her endless glasses of water were vodka.” 

Stacom also volunteered at Greenwich Hospital as a candy striper, a gig that eventually landed her on the front page of the Greenwich Times thanks to the many hours she put in. But that was the only non-real estate gig she ever held. Stacom attended Lehigh University, worked at Cushman every summer through college and started there full-time one week after graduating. (Her parents, of course, never actually spent all of their money.)

“I really saw all of the functions that went on behind brokerages and became very respectful of the people in the mailroom or on the reception desk or the switchboard or in market research,” she said. “They were the ones that were paid the least, but in many ways, really made things stick or let them fall apart.”

John Catsimatidis
Founder and CEO of Red Apple Group

Greece-born billionaire John Catsimatidis has dabbled in everything from real estate to radio to politics, but he’s still arguably best known as the head of the New York City grocery store chain Gristedes.

The supermarket portion of Red Apple Group spans about 350,000 square feet and generates slightly less than $300 million in revenue per year, making up about 2 percent of Red Apple Group’s overall business, according to Catsimatidis.

So it’s fitting that the 70-year-old mogul got his start at a supermarket called the Red Apple on 137th Street and Broadway in 1966.

“I just finished Brooklyn Tech High School,” Catsimatidis said. “I went home and sat on the couch, ready to watch television all summer until college.”

But his mother had other ideas and went to the local grocery store, less than three blocks from their home, to get him a summer job that paid $1.10 per hour. Instead of watching television, Catsimatidis  said, he spent the season — about 10 hours per day and seven days per week — packing yogurts  and making sure all the beers were cold.

He went to New York University that fall to study engineering but dropped out during his senior year to buy and run his first grocery store building  — a property on Grand Concourse in the Bronx that he said he purchased for about $400,000. That move eventually led to Catsimatidis acquiring Gristedes from 7-Eleven’s parent company, the Southland Corporation, in 1986.

“I was making $1 million a year at the age of 23,” he said. “Then I started buying real estate.”

Young Woo
Founder and principal of Youngwoo & Associates

Before launching his eponymous development firm in 1979 and spearheading about 55 residential and commercial projects across the city, Young Woo milked cows.

“Our family actually immigrated from Korea to Paraguay [in 1965], and we couldn’t stay in Paraguay, so we moved to Argentina,” Woo recalled. “The first job we got was working at a dairy farm and milking the cows.”

He was 12 years old when he held down that first job on that Argentinian farm. 

The 66-year old developer said he appreciated working on a farm at such a young age and got a kick out of competing with other workers to see who could get the most milk.

But Woo wasn’t a big fan of the 2 a.m. wakeup calls, which were necessary to make sure the milk was ready to deliver to a cheese factory before 7 a.m. And he said the cows needed to be milked every day to make sure they would be able to consistently produce.

His family spent more than two years on the farm; Woo ultimately ended up in New York and landed in the real estate industry thanks to his background in architecture.

Although Youngwoo & Associates is now best known for big projects like its 22-story mixed-use development at 2420 Amsterdam Avenue in Washington Heights, DeKalb Market in Downtown Brooklyn and a $500 million Opportunity Zone fund, the firm —  which is currently developing more than $1 billion worth of construction — also still owns farmland in Paraguay and a winery in Argentina.

For Woo, getting to know the animals back when he was milking cows was one of the most fascinating parts of the job.

“Cows are like humans. You can tell their personalities by looking at their faces, and you know some of them are the bad guys or good guys,” he said. “It’s amazing how each cow has a different personality.”

From left: Pam Liebman, Young Woo and Benjamin Brafman (Illustration by Paul Kisselev)

Pam Liebman
President and CEO of the Corcoran Group

Corcoran’s CEO, Pam Liebman, learned at an early age to stand up for herself in the workplace.

The Staten Island native got her first job while she was a student at Curtis High School, working at her local swim club over the summer.

Liebman, who recalled being a good student and president of the student body at the time, said she mainly took the job because she was bored and wanted to work. She doesn’t remember what she earned but said it was “considered good pay” at the time.

The 57-year old — whose firm closed $4.53 billion in Manhattan sales in 2018 and had 1,320 agents in the borough as of January — recalled one day when her boss tried to get her to stay on lifeguarding duty for one more shift after she had just finished working a double.

“They were totally favoring the guys because this other guy was supposed to do the next shift on the chair, and I think [my boss] just wanted to hang with him or something,” she said. “He said, ‘Pam, why don’t you do another shift?’ I said, ‘Why don’t you go to hell?’”

So she quit on the spot and got a job at a nearby club for the rest of the summer.

Liebman said she worked about four lifeguarding gigs before taking a job as a camp counselor when she was at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

But she turned out to be less effective at managing seventh-grade campers than managing residential agents, noting that she almost got fired for being too hands-off.

“I think I was ignoring the kids too much and not supervising them,” she said, “because at some point, I was just like, ‘I don’t really care. Do whatever you want to do. Just say I didn’t know about it.’”

But right after graduating college, in 1984, she joined Corcoran, and she hasn’t looked back.

Benjamin Brafman
Founder of Brafman & Associates

Benjamin Brafman has had a long career as one of the country’s most prominent criminal defense attorneys, representing celebrities such as Sean Combs and Michael Jackson and real estate execs like Charlie Kushner and Steve Croman.

The 70-year-old lawyer started his own defense practice in 1980 and estimates he has since worked on at least 1,500 cases, with a success rate of about 80 percent. Brafman represented Kushner 15 years ago in his trial for witness tampering and tax evasion. In 2017 he represented Croman, who spent eight months in jail after pleading guilty to charges of tax fraud and mortgage fraud.

But prior to passing the bar, and even graduating high school, Brafman worked as an assistant to a group of waiters and busboys at a hotel in Rockaway Beach called the Baders. He was 12 years old and would walk from his home in Arverne, a few blocks away, to help them set up the tables and meal stations for about 10 hours each day in the summer.

“I wasn’t officially working for the hotel,” Brafman said. “I was actually working for a couple of the waiters who I had befriended and who liked me, and I think they paid me 50 cents a meal. And I’ve been working ever since.”

Brafman said he had a “very winding” path to his career as a lawyer — one that also included stints mowing lawns, tutoring and selling Monkees concert T-shirts.

And he still has fond memories of his first gig at the Rockaway Beach hotel. “The waiters were cool guys, and it was fun,” he said. “It wasn’t hard work.”

Brad Hargreaves
Founder and CEO of Common

Brad Hargreaves runs one of the city’s first and most active co-living companies, with 30 properties (some renovated buildings, some ground-up) in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Hargreaves, 33, studied molecular biology at Yale University, and his first job in college was a far cry from his efforts to shake up the rental space. He joined a Connecticut-based startup called 454 Life Sciences, where he sold genome sequencers — used to automate the process of reading DNA strings — mainly to Asian buyers. The startup was acquired by another company and shuttered in 2013.

“I was the intern, and therefore the lowest man on the totem pole, so I had to be up at 3 a.m. selling genome sequencers to Japanese scientists,” Hargreaves said.

The sequencers were mainly used to better understand serious diseases like cancer by examining the underlying genetic causes. And the main accounts at the time were large government organizations and universities, along with a few agriculture and pharmaceutical companies, he noted.

That internship soon turned into a part-time job, and Hargreaves stayed with 454 Life for about nine months overall. At the time, the sequencers were selling for about $50,000 apiece, which he estimated was more than he earned during his entire time with the company.

“It was fun to sell them,” he said. “But you had to have real expertise on these things and what they could do, so it was a good mix of very technical knowledge and sales. You’re still going for the close.”

Though he liked the work, Hargreaves decided to try his hand at entrepreneurship and went on to launch Common in 2015. Prior to that he co-founded an education startup called General Assembly, and he said seeing employees, students and teachers struggle to find decent affordable housing options helped spark the idea for Common.

The co-living company, which now serves 800-plus members, has landed $65 million in venture funding to date.

“I went into college wanting to start a biotechnology company,” Hargreaves said. “I realized about halfway through college that the thing I actually liked [most] was starting companies.”

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