Moguls in the making

A look at the top 35-and-under NYC real estate players

Apr.April 01, 2011 11:54 PM

Back row, left to right: Roshan Shah, James Nelson, Justin Ehrlich, Kyle Blackmon and Michael Gambino; front row, left to right: Angela Sung, Zach Vella, Ariel Schuster and Julie Pham.
Back row, left to right: Roshan Shah, James Nelson, Justin Ehrlich, Kyle Blackmon and Michael Gambino; front row, left to right: Angela Sung, Zach Vella, Ariel Schuster and Julie Pham.
Real estate’s up-and-coming dealmakers have faced tremendous obstacles in the past three years.

When 20-something Florida native Oren Alexander moved to New York in 2008, for example, he wanted to get into development or work for a REIT, but said he quickly discovered that “there wasn’t much opportunity.” Instead, he tried residential brokerage at Prudential Douglas Elliman, but still waited months to do his first deal. “It was a tough time in brokerage,” he recalled.

Meanwhile, the recession wiped out many young brokers and developers who entered real estate in the booming mid-2000s, as The Real Deal and others have reported. Since then, difficult conditions have dissuaded many recent college graduates from entering the field. As a result, the overall industry has seen a gradual graying over the past few years (see “A brokerage brain drain?”).

But with deal volume now accelerating as the worst of the downturn fades, ambitious young people are again finding ways to distinguish themselves. Young developers Zach Vella and Justin Ehrlich of VE Equities have been selling newly constructed units like hotcakes, while Jordan Vogel and W. Aaron Feldman of Benchmark Real Estate Group have purchased $70 million worth of multifamily properties in the past two years. And 31-year-old Roshan Shah, a senior vice president at CB Richard Ellis, recently represented the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation in its move Downtown.

This month, The Real Deal presents a real estate-only list of 10 talented professionals ages 35 and younger who — according to their colleagues and bosses — represent the future of the industry.

Oren Alexander, 23, Prudential Douglas Elliman: The Party Boy

Oren Alexander
Oren Alexander
Prudential Douglas Elliman’s Oren Alexander is only 23 years old, so it’s not surprising that he’s a regular at hot spots like Mister H or the Mulberry Project. Unlike his fellow partiers, however, Alexander possesses an uncanny ability to parlay social acumen into multimillion-dollar deals.

For example, Alexander represented Miami trial lawyer James Ferraro in the $8.2 million purchase of a penthouse at the Park Imperial (owned by former Related Companies vice chairman David Wine) in June of 2009 — just a few months after he’d started working at Elliman. The newly minted broker was skiing in Aspen when he heard Ferraro was staying nearby. Through mutual friends, Alexander wrangled a breakfast meeting with the lawyer at the chichi Little Nell Hotel, then started showing him apartments back in the city. Within a week, they had an accepted offer.

“I’m out networking and partying with everyone,” said Alexander, who with his twin brother Alon was recently named one of NYC’s hottest bachelors by Gotham Magazine. “When I go on a trip, I make sure I find a client.”

Some of Alexander’s real estate expertise comes from the fact that he started so young. His father, Shlomi Alexander, is a developer of high-end luxury homes in Florida, where Alexander got his real estate license at age 18. Alexander is currently marketing a $60 million Miami Beach spec house developed by his father. He splits his time between Miami and New York, where he heads a team of four people at Elliman and just received an accepted offer on a $13.4 million co-op apartment at the El Dorado on Central Park West (the listing is a co-exclusive with Stribling’s Cathy Taub).

As for recent comparisons to another party boy who once dominated residential real estate –Michael Shvo — Alexander considers them “a big compliment.” In fact, the similarity may not be accidental. “I remember, before I was in the city, just hearing about this guy,” Alexander said of Shvo. “I thought, ‘He’s amazing.'”

Julie Pham, 35, the Corcoran Group: The Underdog

Julie Pham
Julie Pham
Julie Pham’s real estate career began with heartbreak. At 29, Pham was dumped by her boyfriend, just days after the two moved into an expensive new apartment together. Pham, then a film student at Columbia University, realized she needed a new apartment and a job.

“I ended up saying, ‘I have to figure out how to make it on my own here,'” she recalled.

But while searching for a post-breakup crash pad, she uncovered a passion for real estate, realizing that “film didn’t keep me up at night the way real estate did.”

With no sales experience, she “blanketed” New York City real estate firms with her resume; Corcoran was “one of the few that called me back,” she said. That turned out to be a good move on the company’s part: Pham was named Rookie of the Year in 2006 by the Real Estate Board of New York, and has since sold some $300 million worth of real estate.

Her clients include famed economist Nouriel Roubini, who recently bought a $5.55 million apartment with her help at the Brick House Condominiums at 6 East 1st Street. In December, she represented the buyer of a $13.2 million penthouse at Jean Nouvel’s 100 Eleventh Avenue.

One of her proudest achievements is handling the $40 million sellout of boutique Greenwich Village condo conversion 173 MacDougal, which came on the market in August 2008 and closed all of its units in November 2009, “when the market was still very rough,” she said.

Pham said her success comes from her “underdog mentality.” The child of Vietnam War refugees who settled in Tulsa, Okla., Pham was at first intimidated by her well-connected peers in the New York City real estate world. Corcoran, after all, is the longtime home of super-brokers like Carrie Chiang and Leighton Candler.

But rather than getting her down, the stiff competition motivated her. “I found that it drove me,” she said.

Roshan Shah, 31, CB Richard Ellis: The Free Agent

Roshan Shah
Roshan Shah
Before Roshan Shah was made senior vice president at CBRE in February, he posted a sheet of paper in his office reminding him of the $5 million in revenue he needed to generate for the firm in order to get the promotion.

“Seeing it every day when I walk in the office gets me going, gets me focused,” Shah said.

But the 31-year-old wasn’t always so focused on a career in real estate. He had been accepted into Boston University’s accelerated medical program when he encountered the dean of the university’s undergraduate business school by chance on a campus visit, and ended up switching his focus. After taking a class in real estate finance his senior year of college, Shah took a job at CBRE in New Jersey. He soon caught the attention of legendary broker Stephen Siegel, the firm’s chairman of global brokerage, who recruited him to work in the Manhattan office. “He saw that I had a knack for developing new business,” Shah said.

After a year of working for Siegel, Shah began working independently within the firm (though he still frequently teams up with Siegel and others on deals), carving out a niche representing hedge funds and private equity companies. “I don’t believe in having a set team,” he said. “I’m a free agent.”

Shah, who is always focused on gaining new clients, played a pivotal role in helping CBRE win Google as a client, and was part of the team that brokered Google’s $1.9 billion acquisition of 111 Eighth Avenue. Shah also recently represented the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation on its deal for 25,277 square feet of space at 77 Water Street (it’s still keeping a partial presence in Harlem). Shah said he cultivated a relationship with the organization for years; now he’s working on finding Manhattan office space for the Clinton Global Initiative.

Shah was also part of the agency team at 335 Madison Avenue, which recently reached a deal for Facebook to fill two floors in the building, or about 60,000 square feet.

Justin Ehrlich, 33, and Zach Vella, 34, VE Equities LLC: The Busy Builders

Justin Ehrlich and Zach Vella
Justin Ehrlich (left) and Zach Vella
 Zach Vella and Justin Ehrlich, partners at VE Equities, are among the most active young developers in post-Lehman New York City, acquiring properties out of bankruptcy and starting new ground-up construction projects in a still-difficult environment.

At one of their current projects, 471 Washington Street — a partially completed condominium they bought out of foreclosure for nearly $19 million in 2010 — Vella said 90 percent of the units went into contract after only a week of sales. Another project, 949 Park Avenue, has sold two of its six units for more than $2,000 per square foot since hitting the market early last month, Vella said.

Two other condo projects, six-unit 1 North Moore and 60,000-square-foot 250 Bowery, will soon begin sales.

“We’re taking advantage of the market — trying to find opportunity and putting our capital to work,” Ehrlich said.

The two friends went to college together at Boston University. After graduation, Vella jumped into New York City development. Using seed money from friends and family, he worked as a general contractor on his own projects — mostly small elevator buildings in Tribeca.

“I basically learned on the site,” he said. He began doing larger projects, including developing college dorms and the six-unit condo conversion 53 Warren Street with partner Ben Soleimani. About two years ago Vella teamed up with Ehrlich, who had been a partner at Marlboro Equities, and they formed VE Equities.

For Vella, who did a stint in art school, “it’s the design aspect of it that’s the most exciting.” The resulting projects are “very bespoke, detail-oriented and design-oriented,” with a focus on high ceilings, workable layouts and views. “We spend a tremendous amount of time with our layouts,” he said.

The formula seems to be working, despite the difficult economic conditions. Condo conversion 53 Warren hit the market in 2009 — “the absolute worst time possible,” Vella recalled. Still, it sold out in six months, he said. “We noticed that everything else was sitting on the market, but our projects were still selling,” Vella said.

Ariel Schuster, 33, Robert K. Futterman & Associates: The Gap’s Go-To Guy

Ariel Schuster
Ariel Schuster
Ariel Schuster is the youngest person ever to become a partner and executive vice president at Robert K. Futterman & Associates. The retail specialist has completed nearly 4 million square feet in sale and lease transactions since starting at RKF 10 years ago.

In 2010, Schuster completed the two largest supermarket deals in New York City: At 250 East 57th Street, he inked a deal for Whole Foods Market as the retail anchor, and he also completed Fairway Market’s new 45,000-square-foot lease at 240 East 86th Street.

For the last eight years, Schuster has also represented all of the Gap brand stores in the tri-state area; that means many of the ubiquitous khaki-hawking Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy stores in the region are his handiwork, including a 64,000-square-foot lease renewal for Old Navy at 610 Sixth Avenue, and the lease for the new Gap 1969 concept store at 513 Broadway in Soho.

Schuster also introduced PetSmart to Manhattan with a 30,000-square-foot store at 632 Broadway.

Born in Jerusalem, Schuster moved to the United States at age 10, graduated magna cum laude from Tulane University, and then received a master’s degree in real estate finance from New York University.

He attributed his success to “being in the right place at the right time, and a little luck.”

“I was able to start getting tenants early in my career and that kind of snowballed,” he said. For example, the first retail client he represented on his own was the discount hair salon chain Supercuts. In that case, he called to set up a meeting the day a new real estate liaison started at the company.

“I called to set up a meeting, and we kind of just hit it off, and worked on a bunch of deals over three or four years,” Schuster said.

James Nelson, 35, Massey Knakal Realty Services: The Apprentice

James Nelson
James Nelson
As a senior at Colgate University in 1998, James Nelson was in the campus career center when he saw a job posting for a position at Massey Knakal (cofounder Paul Massey is a Colgate alum). The due date for résumés happened to be that very day, Nelson recalled, and since Massey Knakal didn’t require a cover letter, he decided to throw his hat in the ring.

Nelson hails from Madison, Wis., and had only been to New York City once or twice, but he got “a great gut feeling” about Massey Knakal when he came to interview.

The job was to assist company cofounder Bob Knakal, and to this day, Nelson attributes much of his success to Knakal’s tutelage.

“The bulk of what I learned early on was just sitting in a cubicle next to Bob,” said Nelson, who has been involved in the sale of more than $1.3 billion worth of properties and loans since starting at the firm. In 2004, he became the youngest partner in Massey Knakal’s history, and he’s been the company’s top salesperson for three out of the past four years (with the exception of the company’s founding partners).

The first sale Nelson did on his own was a 30-unit apartment building at 264-268 West 19th Street, which he sold for $3.6 million, or 12 times the rent roll. In 2007, he sold Beck Street Capital’s 625 Broadway to landlord Argo Real Estate for $60.9 million. More recently, he brokered the all-cash sale of a former VillageCare nursing home at 607-09 Hudson Street in Greenwich Village for $33.25 million and a Bleecker Street retail portfolio for $34 million, which, at $6,700 per above-grade square foot, was one of the highest prices ever paid for retail in the United States, Massey Knakal said.

Angela Sung, 33, Senior Vice President of Management Services/Government Affairs, REBNY: The Lobbyist

Angela Sung
Angela Sung
Until last year, Angela Sung was the deputy chief of staff to the city’s deputy mayor for economic development — a position she held under both Robert Lieber and the more controversial Daniel Doctoroff.

A graduate of NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, she’d started working for Doctoroff as an intern, and ended up staying at City Hall for six years, working on the rezonings of Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Harlem’s 125th Street. She also helped craft Mayor Bloomberg’s high-profile sustainability blueprint, PlaNYC.

Then, in April 2010, REBNY senior vice president Marolyn Davenport retired after 26 years. Sung, who’d worked extensively with REBNY in her City Hall position, was tapped to replace her, a move that would no doubt give REBNY access to her strong government network. There’s little turnover in the senior ranks of the powerful trade organization, so “when Marolyn left, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Sung said. “It was really a rare opportunity to move into a job like this.”

In particular, she said, she was eager to work one-on-one with building managers and owners. At REBNY, Sung’s job is to network with high-profile members of the real estate world to determine what their concerns are and then help to formulate REBNY’s lobbying agenda. She then advocates for those policy changes at City Hall and in Washington, D.C.

For example, she said, in 2010, many REBNY members were concerned about federal proposals to tax “carried interest” — the profits generated by partnerships such as hedge funds, private equity funds and private real estate funds — as ordinary income rather than as capital gains. While the proposal was largely aimed at closing tax loopholes for hedge funds, it would have had unintended consequences for real estate partnerships, she said.

“It was going to have a huge impact on the way real estate does business,” she said.

Due in part to opposition from groups like REBNY, the two proposals regarding carried interest tax failed to pass the U.S. Senate, though they could return next year. If that happens, Sung will no doubt be back on the scene.

Kyle Blackmon, 33, Brown Harris Stevens: The Luxury Specialist

Kyle Blackmon
Kyle Blackmon
Kyle Blackmon had to demonstrate his skills as a salesman before he ever set foot in the door at Brown Harris Stevens.

Blackmon moved to New York City in 2000 after graduating from the University of South Carolina, and took an executive recruiting job that involved “making cold calls all day.”

But it turned out to be good practice: Once he’d set his sights on working in real estate, he cold-called Brown Harris Stevens, got a manager on the phone and talked his way into an internship. “I said, ‘I’ll clean out the closets — I’ll do anything,'” he remembered.

As an intern, Blackmon remembers getting sage advice from the venerable broker MacRae Parker, a broker who joined BHS in 1961. Parker “would allow the interns to sit with him and ask questions,” Blackmon recalled. A few months later, Blackmon was hired as an assistant to veteran broker Ileen Schoenfeld, and he got his own desk in 2003. He soon did his first seven-figure transaction — a three-bedroom new condo on 18th Street for $1.6 million. He’s since sold some $300 million worth of real estate.

Blackmon also had the foresight to become an early buyer at the Zeckendorfs’ über-luxury condo at 15 Central Park West, where he signed a contract to buy a two-bedroom unit in September 2005. “I knew it was going to be a special building,” Blackmon said. Since then, he’s sold more than $90 million worth of real estate there, including representing former Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill in a $42.4 million penthouse purchase — one of the priciest condo sales in city history.

Blackmon was only 28 at the time. Due to confidentiality agreements, he still “can’t really talk about that,” he said, but allowed: “It was a remarkable transaction.”

Michael Gambino, 30, Cushman & Wakefield: The Competitor

Michael Gambino
Michael Gambino
Michael Gambino met top Cushman & Wakefield commercial broker Michael Burgio by chance.

Gambino had just gotten his MBA at Union College, and realized in the process that he wasn’t interested in a desk job. “I wanted to be in sales — a commission-based, competitive environment,” recalled Gambino, who played basketball in college.

Through his aunt, Gambino met retired commercial real estate broker Jack Vickers. Vickers had helped Burgio get his start in the industry 26 years earlier, and he suggested that Gambino meet with him. Burgio, a tenant representation specialist, recognized right away that the youngster was “aggressive,” and had “a full tank of gas,” Gambino recalled. Burgio hired him, and Gambino has been his right-hand man ever since. These days, the two work as a team, with Gambino handling nearly all of the new business development. “I identify all of our prospects,” he said.

The two represented Brazil’s Itau Securities in a deal to lease 25,000 square feet on the top floor of the GM Building. They also completed a 21,000-square-foot lease on behalf of Viking Global Investors, and represented the Spanish bank Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria when it renewed its lease on the 45th floor at 1345 Avenue of the Americas, and expanded to the 44th floor for a total of approximately 85,000 square feet.

In 2006, Gambino received Cushman & Wakefield’s “Rising Star” award, an annual distinction given to an up-and-coming broker who has significantly contributed to the firm’s success. Then, in 2011, he was awarded the Vincent J. Peters Award of Excellence at Cushman & Wakefield.

Jordan Vogel, 32, and W. Aaron Feldman, 31, Benchmark Real Estate Group: The Next Big Landlords

Jordan Vogel and W. Aaron Feldman
Jordan Vogel (left) and W. Aaron Feldman
Jordan Vogel and Aaron Feldman met while working at veteran broker Stephen Siegel’s acquisition and development firm, SG2 Properties.

Vogel headed up acquisitions for the company, while Feldman managed daily operations for SG2’s Manhattan portfolio of some 500 apartments. Then, “toward the end of 2008, we realized it was an exceptional time to be buying real estate,” Vogel said.

With Siegel’s blessing, the two decided to go out on their own in 2009, leveraging their relationships in the business to raise capital. They started with a list of 20 potential investors; eight of them agreed to contribute funds.

Since then, they’ve purchased eight properties worth some $70 million, and raised $30 million in equity, Vogel said. Their goal is to eventually own 1,000 New York City apartments while providing healthy returns — 20 percent internal rate of return on a five-year hold — for their investors, he said.

Benchmark’s strategy is to buy rent-stabilized, multifamily residential buildings in prime neighborhoods with 15 to 40 apartments each, then add value by renovating them.

“Our M.O. is, we’re trying to buy the worst buildings in the best neighborhoods,” Vogel explained. Then, they spruce up the common areas and renovate free-market units to yield higher rents. “Six to nine months after we close, you have a renovated, really nice-looking building,” he said.

Recently, Benchmark purchased a 16-unit apartment building at 318 East 11th Street for $4 million, and spent $9.5 million to buy 10 Fifth Avenue, an elevator building with 14 apartments and 3,000 square feet of retail. In early April, they’re slated to close on a $4.6 million purchase of a 20-unit apartment building at 54 Barrow Street.

The key to the strategy is low leverage, and being “very conservative in our assumptions when we’re underwriting,” Vogel said. Benchmark makes sure it can cover its debt service even if no rent-stabilized tenants move out. If they do, it’s “gravy,” Vogel said. “There’s no pressure to vacate apartments.”

Of course, it’s not easy to find deals and beat competitors to the punch.

Vogel said he tours an average of 10 properties a week. Since the duo started Benchmark, which is headquartered in Midtown, they’ve made offers on 160 buildings and purchased only eight.

“We’re extremely hungry for deals,” he said. Still, “it’s a real hustle.”

But the strategy is working: They now have some 60 investors. “We’ve been keeping our promises,” Vogel said. “Investors are very happy and want to ante up for more.”

Honorable Mentions

Fredrik Eklund: Vella and Ehrlich say 33-year-old Eklund, a managing director at Prudential Douglas Elliman, is their secret weapon. He sold out 53 Warren, and he’s now representing 471 Washington Street, 1 North Moore and 250 Bowery. Eklund, who also owns his own brokerage firm in his native Sweden, is also slated to appear on the upcoming New York version of the Bravo reality show “Million Dollar Listing.”

Chris Poore: A senior vice president at Corcoran, Poore, 34, is one of the firm’s top 10 agents. Last year, he represented buyer David Zaslav in one of the biggest deals of the year: the $25 million sale of comedian Conan O’Brien’s Majestic apartment.

Lipa Lieberman: Lieberman, 31, is an ordained rabbi and director at Eastern Consolidated specializing in investment sales. Prior to joining the firm in 2008, he worked as sales director at Cornerstone Property Group, and he sold more than $60 million worth of real estate during his first three years in the industry. In January, he sold the Banca di Roma building at 34-36 East 51st Street for $30 million, representing both sides of the transaction.

Caroline Bass: This popular 28-year-old Citi Habitats agent was named The Real Deal’s Best Rental Broker of 2010. According to Citi Habitats officials, she is in the top 1 percent of producers at Citi Habitats.

Ross Perlman: The 31-year-old started at Newmark Knight Frank in 2002 as an associate and has since been promoted three times to his current position of managing director. Working with Newmark Vice Chairman Neal Golden, Perlman completed several noteworthy transactions over the past year, including the leasing of Starwood Hotels & Resorts’ new 275,000-square-foot global headquarters in Stamford, Conn.

Justin Piasecki: A 29-year-old senior vice president at the Carlton Group, Piasecki has originated and closed almost $3 billion worth of loan and asset sales over the past few years. That includes $350 million of non-performing loans on multifamily, retail, office and mixed-use properties for a national bank, and $250 million of non-performing loans and REO assets for a Southeast regional bank, said Piasecki (who declined to name the banks).

Young Titans

Some of real estate’s biggest players weren’t young enough to make our list, but are still 40 or under. They include:

Seth Pinsky, 39: President of the NYC Economic Development Corp.

Kelly Kennedy Mack, 37: President of Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group

David Schechtman, 36: Senior director, Eastern Consolidated’s Turnaround and Distressed Group

Bjarke Ingels, 37: Founder of Danish architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group and designer of the pyramid-shaped residential building on W. 57th Street (see related story here)

Lockhart Steele, 37: Founder of

Evan Stein, 39: President of J.D. Carlisle Development Corp. and M.D. Carlisle Construction Corp.

Cynthia Wasserberger, 39: A senior vice president with Jones Lang LaSalle

Tracie Hamersley, 36: Head of the Hamersley Team at Citi Habitats

Related Articles

Matt Lauer exposes Hamptons estate to the market
Matt Lauer exposes Hamptons estate to the market
Matt Lauer exposes Hamptons estate to the market
 Fredrik Eklund and the property (Getty, Steve Frankel)
Fredrik Eklund lists Bel Air mansion for rent as family moves to “forever home”
Fredrik Eklund lists Bel Air mansion for rent as family moves to “forever home”
Gordon Ramsey and his Lucky Cat restaurant (Lucky Cat)
Gordon Ramsay to open first South Florida restaurant in Miami Beach
Gordon Ramsay to open first South Florida restaurant in Miami Beach
Michael Fulfree and Bianca D’Alessio of Nest Seekers International (Nest Seekers)
They can sell the Hamptons. But can they sell “Selling the Hamptons”?
They can sell the Hamptons. But can they sell “Selling the Hamptons”?
(iStock/Illustration by Kevin Rebong for The Real Deal)
NYC investment sales hit multi-year peak to end 2021
NYC investment sales hit multi-year peak to end 2021
Stay atop the market (and ahead of your competition) with TRD EDU
Stay atop the market (and ahead of your competition) with TRD EDU
Tax assessments rise 9%, signaling higher bills for landlords
Tax assessments rise 9%, signaling higher bills for landlords
Tax assessments rise 9%, signaling higher bills for landlords
Regal at 106 Court Street (Downtown Brooklyn Partnership)
Regal theater on Downtown Brooklyn’s Court Street unexpectedly shuttered
Regal theater on Downtown Brooklyn’s Court Street unexpectedly shuttered

The Deal's newsletters give you the latest scoops, fresh headlines, marketing data, and things to know within the industry.