Profile: Schrager’s right-hand man

Oct.October 24, 2007 11:08 AM

Ian Schrager may be the face of the redesigned Gramercy Park Hotel and the eagerly anticipated 40 Bond condo project, but Michael Overington is the force behind those scenes.

As a partner in and director of development for the Ian Schrager Company, Overington handles day-to-day project oversight, which includes management of real estate matters both large and small.

“I’m Mr. Pusher. Somebody’s got to be the general and kind of lead the troops,” Overington, 52, said.

Overington started working with Schrager three decades ago; he was a janitor at Studio 54 when Schrager co-owned the world-famous nightclub.

Schrager, now the CEO and chairman of the Ian Schrager Company, went on to introduce the concept of boutique hotels to the world with the opening of Morgans, near Grand Central Terminal, in 1984. He focused on creating what he called “cheap chic” hotels with two Midtown West properties, the Royalton Hotel and Paramount Hotel. Schrager developed a number of others worldwide, including the Delano Hotel in Miami, the Clift in San Francisco and the Sanderson Hotel in London.

He got his start in the condo business with last year’s unveiling of the Gramercy Park project — which is now part hotel and part condo — followed by the soon-to-be completed 40 Bond. Next up is One Madison Avenue.

In 1977, Overington was a film student at New York University, driving a yellow cab and waiting tables, when he saw a blurb in New York Magazine announcing that a new nightclub was opening inside a theater on West 54th Street.

He arrived at the club’s doorstep two days before its April 26 debut as Studio 54. He had wanted to operate the lights at the club, owned by Schrager and his late partner Steve Rubell, a job he had mastered during a high school summer gig at the Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania, near where he grew up.

Schrager and Rubell hired him, but for a cleaning detail. In no time, Overington rose up the ranks to general manager.

Schrager trusted Overington from the outset. When Schrager and Rubell were convicted of tax evasion in 1979 and did roughly a year-long stint in prison (“what we call ‘away,'” Overington said), Overington ran the club. Eventually, the business partners sold Studio 54 and went — along with Overington — into the hotel business.

Overington wanted to continue working for the partners because “they were very cutting-edge and they were great fun to be around and work for, and they were doing really new and fun things, and I wanted to be part of that,” Overington said. “I knew they wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t really special.”

At 40 Bond, which Schrager is building with developer Aby Rosen, Overington’s project oversight has resulted in cutting-edge touches like the Coke-bottle-colored green glass façade and intricate graffiti-inspired sculptural gate.

“You never know what detail is going to take it over the top for someone,” Overington said, describing 40 Bond as a “modern version of a cast-iron building.” The high-polish mirrored stainless steel behind the glass should cause the building to glisten, depending on the sun.

“It’s going to be beautiful,” he added. “It will be like a jewel box, a real piece of art.”

Overington is also working on the conversion of One Madison Avenue, the 50-story landmarked clock tower at 23rd Street that SL Green purchased from Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, before striking a deal with Schrager to develop the building. Overington said the project was in its early planning stages. Whether it becomes a luxury hotel or an apartment building, the edifice will be gutted, Overington said.

On a Thursday last month, Overington and nine designers, architects and contractors donned hard hats for a walk-through at 40 Bond. Overington fretted a bit about the delay in the construction schedule. The 28 units (including five townhouses) are slated for completion this summer, and they have a price tag of about $3,000 a square foot.

He also addressed expenses with the construction crew.

Three thousand dollars to replace a one-inch piece of pipe for the boiler?

“That’s highway robbery,” Overington said.

Two pieces of paper on the wall in the 40 Bond on-site, makeshift construction office read: “Be brutally fair: Michael Overington’s musing on good business practice.”

Overington elaborates: “I push people really hard. I never screwed anyone, but I’m really tough and fair, and people recognize that and respect that.”

Robert Piazza, senior vice president of Bovis Lend Lease, which is in charge of construction at 40 Bond, concurred with Overington’s assessment.

“He can be very charming when he has to be and he can be very boisterous when he has to be. The bottom line is he wants what he wants. Sometimes you get it the easy way and sometimes you have to get it the hard way,” Piazza said.

Overington may seem like a micromanager at times, but “he’s learned to delegate more,” said Piazza, who for two years worked for Overington at the Ian Schrager Company. There’s no refuting the fact that Overington’s raison d’être is the desire to create the perfect product.

From the Bond Street meeting, Overington rushed to the Gramercy Park Hotel to discuss another project he is overseeing — the construction of an enclosed, private rooftop club in the Schrager-rebuilt Gramercy Park Hotel.

Overington said that real estate development is a lot like the nightclub business and the theater in that they are “all about a great show and a great experience.”

But the hotel business is more challenging, he said, because it’s a 24-7, 365-day-a-year business.

In the 1980s, when he went into the hotel business, there was a learning curve. Overington suspects the transition would be more difficult today because of the complexity of the technology.

“The hotel business was pretty boring before we got there,” Overington said.

Overington has to manage a juggling act in his position. “I always want more money and more time. He wants less money and less time,” said Anda Andrei, a partner and design director at the Ian Schrager Company, where she has worked for 24 years. But, Andrei said, Overington makes the process easy because of his sensitivity to aesthetics.

“He’s capable of totally getting the idea, getting the concept, getting the design and trying to make it happen. That’s a very rare quality, especially in our town,” Andrei said.

Critics have called him tough at times — and perhaps he is — but Andrei said that’s a prerequisite for someone in his position.

On weekday nights, he treks from his Greenwich Street office to his home on West 93rd Street, which he shares with his stay-at-home wife Lisa, 45, whom he met at Studio 54, where she was a bartender and a coat checker, and daughter, Caitlin, 14, a freshman at Sacred Heart. The couple also has an 18-year-old son, Alex, who is a freshman at Oberlin College in Ohio.

On the weekends, Overington takes a break from the world of chic Manhattan design and heads to the family’s 20-acre farm in Frenchtown, N.J. Overington is working diligently on using reclaimed material to expand his 2,300-square-foot farmhouse to 4,000 square feet.

There, the gentleman farmer tends to his llamas, sheep and chickens. He keeps a few sheep as pets and shears them; he sells the majority of the herd to restaurants.

Does the former NYU film student regret giving up his dream of working in the film or theater business?

“I still tell people, ‘I’m going to make movies when I grow up,'” Overington said.

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