The Closing: Joanne Podell

The Cushman & Wakefield executive vice chair on overpriced Manhattan homes, confronting sexism early in her career, and scoring Nike as a client

Aug.August 01, 2017 11:00 AM

Joanne Podell (Photo by Studio Scrivo)

Joanne Podell, a veteran retail broker and executive vice chairman at Cushman & Wakefield, was named the company’s top producer nationwide in 2016. She is the second woman in the history of the company to receive that designation. Podell, who has brokered more than 100,000 square feet in the past year, spearheaded the largest retail transaction in New York City in 2016 when she represented sports giant Nike in a 70,000-square-foot lease for its flagship store at 650 Fifth Avenue. She also represents Ann Taylor and Dean & DeLuca, among other tenants, as well as a handful of landlords, including Empire State Realty Trust, Jack Resnick & Sons, TIAA-CREF and the Trump Organization. Podell joined Cushman from Newmark Grubb Knight Frank in 2001.

DOB: April 5, 1946
Hometown: The Bronx
Lives in: Water Mill, New York
Family: Divorced; Three children

What’s your full name? Joanne Podell. No middle name. I should get one.

Where did you grow up? I started out in the Bronx. I was born on Pelham off the Grand Concourse. A lot of the people in New York City whose husbands and fathers went to World War II were moved into the Bronx. We lived in a Quonset hut first, a round kind of metal structure put out as temporary housing by the government. I had no idea how poor we were. When I was eight or nine, my parents moved us to North Merrick on Long Island when my dad got a decent job as a salesman in an electronics store. He eventually opened his own store down on Washington Street, which wasn’t what it is today.

What were you like as a kid? I was a caretaker of my two younger sisters. That was my job. I was a good student — not a great student — but I loved business. When I got a little older, I worked for my dad in another store he had on 46th Street.

How did you like the retail business? I was 15 and already merchandising the store and arguing with him over what we should be buying. There was a brand called Lady Manhattan with these shirts that were real popular — everyone wanted colorful ones, and he was only buying white. But in those times, if you were a girl graduating from high school, you were expected to be a nurse or a teacher. You couldn’t do anything else.

Did you go to college? Yes, to Ithaca College. I had decided to become a physical therapist. Then I got up there and realized it was too much science. My brain doesn’t think that way, so I became a social studies teacher. I got a job in Yonkers. In those days, they didn’t have the facilities for kids who needed full-time care to go to school, so I would go to the homes of those who couldn’t make it to school and teach them. There was one kid who lay in bed in a hoist because his bones kept breaking. There was one little girl who’d had a baby at 13. It was life defining.

When did you get married? When I was 21. He was five years older. We had three kids in four or five years, and I was working in his furniture business. We later separated. So by 35, I was on my own.

How did you get back on your feet? I went into the furniture trade myself and built up a very nice business with multiple stores. Then I made a big real estate mistake. I needed a storage warehouse and bought into a limited partnership, which gave me a lease on a facility in Queens. The rent became too much, and I went out of business. I lost everything and had to start over again. I got horrible advice, I think, because no one took me seriously — the men, the lawyers. I say that without any rancor. I’ve gone on to do fun things.

What did you do after that? I didn’t know what to do. My oldest son, who was in college, started laying carpets. My middle son worked in a bar. I really thought we were going to run out of money. But we managed. My boys were amazing.

Was it difficult being a woman in business back then? Oh my God, always. I used to import leather furniture, and I was pretty well known in the business. I would go to all the big furniture shows in New York. I was walking through one of the showrooms and they completely ignored me. Then, when they realized who I was, they came running after me. One time, I was emailing back and forth with a guy whose factory I was supposed to visit. I get into the car with him and he says, “I never had a woman in my car before.”

So, how did you get into real estate? After I lost everything, I went to see Charlie Aug [the late head of retail brokerage Garrick-Aug], who I sort of knew through the furniture business. He said, “You’ll be great at this.”

How were your early days in the business? When I first started, I remember taking my boys to dinner. They said, “Mama, how’s your new job?” I said, ”Would you like to know the difference between me and a streetwalker? We both walk the streets all day, but she gets paid!” I went two years without making a deal, but I knew it was going to work out.

What was your first deal? A Nine West shoe deal. My second was a Duane Reade deal on 62nd and Second.

How did you score Nike as a client? When I was representing Nine West, the guy who handled their real estate left and another fellow came on board — Giovanni Scotti. Gio and I just got along great. When he moved to Ann Taylor, he asked me to represent them. And when he moved to Nike, I went with him again.

Where do you live now? Recently, I bought a new house in Water Mill. I said to my middle son, who was with me at the closing, “I want to show you where I grew up.” When we moved there, I thought it was an extraordinary palace. But I drove up to the house and realized it was only about 1,500 square feet.

Do you also own a place in the city? I’m still a renter — in Midtown East. When I could finally afford to buy a home, I couldn’t justify the cost to buy in Manhattan and couldn’t understand the value. That’s why I bought on Long Island.

Are you dating anyone? I socialize. I’m not here to solicit dates.

What do you do in your spare time? I play golf out at Hampton Hills. I’m not giving you my handicap. Assume it’s not good.

What are your politics? I’m conservative. I voted for Trump. I know him, and I know that he didn’t have to do this. He did it because he loves this country and he wanted to do a good job. I did work for him years ago, and he was very respectful. I was upset by the portrayal in the press of how he deals with women, because that’s not how I found him at all. The locker room talk was horrible, but men do that. It’s terrible and silly — but that’s middle-aged men.

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