The Closing with Michael Shvo

The broker-turned-developer talks about his extensive art collection, his low profile during the recessionand why he won’t do a reality show.
By E.B. Solomont | October 01, 2014 07:00AM
Michael Shvo

Michael Shvo (photo by STUDIO SCRIVO)

Real estate impresario Michael Shvo, who embodied the excess of the last real estate boom, burst onto the development scene last spring with three high-profile projects in Manhattan. The move was something of a departure for the 42-year-old Israeli émigré, who famously ascended the ranks at Douglas Elliman (logging $300 million in sales as the firm’s top-producing broker in 2003 after only four years in the business), before notoriously parting ways with the brokerage to start the Shvo Group in 2004. As a brash and often brilliant marketer, he became known for celebrity-studded launch parties and 24-hour sales offices before a semi-retirement during the recession. In May 2013, Shvo re-emerged, snapping up the Getty gas station parcel at 239 10th Avenue in Chelsea for a record $800 per buildable square foot and installing a much-buzzed-about art installation called “Sheep Station,” featuring work by surrealist sculptor Francois-Xavier Lalanne. He’s also developing condos at 100 Varick Street in Soho and 125 Greenwich Street in the Financial District.

Name: Michael Shvo
Born: 12/29/72
Hometown: Born in Arsuf, Israel
Marital status: Married Four Years

You once owned 30 apartments. Where do you live now?
Throughout the years, I’ve owned and sold properties. Our home is at the Time Warner Center. We own a home in Water Mill, where we spend weekends in the summer.

What were you like as a kid?
I was a dreamer. At a very early age, I came from Israel to New York and saw this great skyline. That’s when I had the notion that when I’m old enough, I’d actually come to New York and be part of this great city.

What did your parents do?
They were both organic chemists and taught at Yale and Stanford, clearly not on the business side, definitely not on the real estate side.

So what sparked your passion for real estate?
I was six years old when I moved to New York. I was coming from a city, [Arsuf, north of Tel Aviv,] where the tallest building was a few stories high. Seeing all these great buildings — the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building — blew my mind.

When you moved back to New York, in 1995, you managed a fleet of taxis. How did you go from there to top broker — and now a developer?
I moved here with $3,000. At the time, I was living down on Mercer Street and the building’s rental agent said, ‘You know, you should be a broker.’ She introduced me to Yuval Greenblatt [now at Elliman]. I became a real estate broker, starting really from nothing.

How has the business changed since you got into it?
Brokers [15 years ago] were really sellers of information. Today you have to compete with the Internet. A lot of these guys doing the reality shows, they’ve asked me what I think. I always say, make sure that you monetize this exposure because this thing doesn’t last.

Why haven’t you done a reality show?
I am a private person. [TV] is all about the drama, and in life you try not to have drama.

You met your wife, Seren Ceylan Shvo, in Istanbul in 2009. How exactly?
I was there to introduce my best friend, who is a big developer in Istanbul, to a couple of big hotel brands. My wife was his girlfriend’s best friend. A few months later, she moved to the States. I guess she liked me enough to stay.

How do you feel about being known as the “bad boy” of real estate?
I can’t tell you why people think one thing or the other of me. When you change the status quo, there are people that like it and people that don’t like it. I would hope I have critics. If everyone thinks it’s OK, then there’s truly no value to the creation.

You used to carry multiple phones. Do you still?
I carry two iPhones. I use one to speak and the other is to type emails.

During the recession, you kept a low profile. Was it intentional? What were you focused on?
In December of ‘07, I was asked to give a lecture to the advisory board of Hilton Hotels about the status of the real estate market. My team was preparing this huge presentation for me, and they showed me a shot of a garbage bag with the Louis Vuitton monogram on it. I [thought], ‘Something is out of control here, this can’t continue.’ I decided to retire. Six months later, Lehman collapsed. I spent four years collecting art, met my wife, got married and dabbled in a little bit of real estate.

Tell me about your art.
It is really divided into three major categories: In the city we have an extensive collection of pop art, so Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, [Jean-Michel] Basquiat, [Alexander] Calder, great monumental pieces. In the Hamptons, we have a collection of American heritage color field painters, so Frank Stella, [Kenneth] Noland, [Tim] Davis, [Samuel] Morse. [And] we are one of the larger collectors in the world of [artist duo] Francois-Xavier and Claude Lalanne, with over 100 of their works.

You’ve got three Manhattan projects planned right now. Does it feel risky to have them all going at once?
The risky move is to try to hit the market at the right time. The way to minimize risk is to build product that doesn’t exist.

What’s your relationship been like with Elliman Chair Howard Lorber since leaving the company? I heard he invested in 125 Greenwich.
Howard and I have always had a great relationship. We see each other almost daily at Cipriani.

What do you consider your proudest accomplishment?
Finding my wife.

What’s your greatest disappointment?
That my father is not alive to see what I’m doing.

What’s your ideal weekend?
Going to listen to my favorite performer, Antonis Remos. He’s the greatest pop musician in Greece. His performances start at 1 a.m. and go until 7 a.m.

What would you like people to say about you in 20 years?
I think in 20 years, it would be great if people said, ‘I want to live in a Shvo building.’