Real estate’s rising stars

Up-and-comers in the 35-and-under crowd, from Naftali's Drew Popkin to Core's Jarrod Randolph

From left: Melissa DiBella, Nick Romito, Drew Popkin and Jason Meister
From left: Melissa DiBella, Nick Romito, Drew Popkin and Jason Meister

It takes time to earn your chops in New York real estate. The learning curve is steep, and the market demands both skills and connections. Most of the industry’s household names, on both the residential and commercial side — with the exception of real estate scions like Jared Kushner, Justin Elghanayan and a handful of others — are at least well into their 40s. But there are always ambitious young guns rising to the top of the industry.

This month, The Real Deal talked to dozens of sources to get a sense of who in the 35-and-under crowd is making waves in the industry. In 2011, we featured the young “Moguls in the Making,” such as Douglas Elliman’s Oren Alexander and Benchmark Real Estate Group’s Jordan Vogel and Aaron Feldman in a similar feature. But now there’s a new batch of players to choose from, so we once again sorted through the prospects and came up with a fresh crop of hotshots.

Read on to find out who they are, and what makes them stand out.

Drew Popkin, 28, the Naftali Group

Drew Popkin

Drew Popkin

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008, Drew Popkin wrote to Miki Naftali, then the CEO of Elad Properties, a subsidiary of the Israeli giant Elad Group, and asked for a job.

Popkin said he was drawn to Elad because he wanted to work with Naftali, considered by many to be one of the savviest deal-makers in the market.

“Miki is very much a ‘you eat what you kill’ kind of guy,” Popkin said of his mentor. “Being able to have him mold and shape me is tremendous.”

But it took persistence to land the gig. He was turned away more than once. “He was a pain in the back,” Naftali joked. “He kept coming and kept coming, and eventually we had to hire him.”

Three months after he wrote to Naftali, Popkin began working at Elad full-time, while taking graduate classes in real estate finance at night at New York University. Because he arrived at Elad as an acquisitions and development associate as the recession began, Popkin got to work on complex restructuring deals.

“It was a tremendous asset to me to come out in that time period — you don’t see the world in a rosy picture,” he said.

When Naftali left Elad to form his eponymous development firm in 2011, Popkin moved over with him. Now he is a top executive at the Naftali Group, overseeing acquisitions and development and reporting directly to chief investment officer Victor Sigoura. At 28, he’s one of the youngest people in the industry in his position, sources say. And he’s overseen about $500 million worth of real estate acquisitions, and nearly $1 billion in debt and equity transactions since starting out in 2008.

“He just spent a couple of years learning everything,” Naftali said, adding that it was very rare for anyone to rack up such numbers at such a young age. “He was willing to do everything and anything just to be successful.”

Those deals include the $55.5 million purchase of 206-210 West 77th Street on the Upper West Side, where the Naftali Group is planning an 18-story condo, and the purchase of a $57 million assemblage on West 25th Street, where the firm is building a 12-story condo. Popkin also helped orchestrate the purchase of 33 Beekman Street, where the Naftali Group is building a 34-story dorm for Pace University in partnership with the Harel Group and SL Green Realty.

Joseph Koicim, a broker at Marcus & Millichap who represented the sellers on the assemblage deal, said that Popkin’s “intensity level is unmatched.”

“It was a complicated deal that also included air rights transactions,” Koicim said. “But Drew is very specific in terms of what he needs.”

Popkin started his career at age 18, when he received his real estate license and joined Citi Habitats as a rental agent. And when he’s not at work, he’s working on building a networking group called EmPiRE for young industry professionals that he co-founded with Taconic Investment Partners’ 26-year-old Spencer Pariser.

Naftali said that while he makes the final call on an acquisition, he defers to Popkin on a lot of key decisions.

“Anything from market research, to bringing the deals, to underwriting a deal, I give him the floor.”

Popkin’s thick skin and determination, Naftali said, continue to impress him.

“There were many times I threw him out of my office, telling him, ‘Raise your eyes from the Excel sheet. Feel the deal, understand the neighborhood.’ What’s really great about Drew is that he went back, he took the feedback and tried to do better,” Naftali added.

Nick Romito, 31, View the Space

Nick Romito (Credit: James Leonzio)

Nick Romito (Credit: James Leonzio)

Hanging on the wall in the entrance of View the Space’s office on West 30th Street is a signed picture of surfing legend Kelly Slater. A few feet away is another, of supermodel Cindy Crawford. The office is mostly filled with baseball-cap-clad young men, many of them avid surfers, including Nick Romito, who regularly chases waves on the Jersey Shore. But that casual vibe belies the fact that the cloud-based leasing portfolio management company that Romito launched in 2011 is one of the hottest start-ups in the New York commercial real estate world today.

Romito started his career as a broker at Murray Hill Properties, representing both tenants and landlords. In 2009, he co-founded commercial real estate firm Titan Global Advisors with AM-Property. While there, Romito felt there was a way to bring the world of big data to the leasing business. With a team of coding geeks, Romito built View the Space, which creates online video tours of office spaces and provides landlords, brokers and property managers with data-tracking services, including how often a space is visited online and even which configurations of the space get the most visits from potential clients. Those numbers help landlords and brokers reconfigure their spaces to meet tenant demand, track leasing activity across their portfolios in real-time and develop relationships with viewers who’ve already expressed interest in the space. Romito said the firm will also be rolling out its mobile platform later this month.

Romito now has 27 employees, and View the Space has more than 1,500 office buildings in 14 major markets on its platform, with a large chunk of them in New York. Clients in New York City include SL Green, which was its first major commercial client, as well as Blackstone Group’s Equity Office portfolio, asset manager TIAA-CREF and Boston Properties. View the Space also handles trophy towers such as RFR Realty’s Seagram Building and the Empire State Building.

“It’s one thing when you’re getting sold products from people who are more IT-focused,” said Kevin Smith, the head of asset management for TIAA-CREF’s North Region. “There’s skepticism that they may not truly understand your business.” Romito’s background as a broker, Smith said, “lends a lot more credibility to the conversations.”

Smith, who oversees a total of about 20 million square feet nationwide, is considering implementing View the Space across his portfolio. TIAA-CREF already has five Manhattan buildings on the system, including 685 Third Avenue and 475 Fifth Avenue. Smith said it lets him track leasing trends across the buildings, even if they are being managed by multiple brokerages.

“I can pull all the information into one place and get a sense of what’s happening,” Smith said. “Nick really gets what’s on a landlord’s mind.”

Romito has raised about $7.2 million for the company from big players in the real estate technology space, including Greg Waldorf, who is on the board of directors at Trulia, and Thomas Byrne, the former president of commercial real estate marketplace LoopNet. Projected revenue for 2014 is in the mid-to-upper single millions, Romito said.

The company is upgrading from its 2,000-square-foot space at 360 Seventh Avenue to a 7,400-square-foot-space at 142 West 36th Street.

Jason Meister, 31, Avison Young

Jason Meister (Screenshot via Fox Business)

Jason Meister (Screenshot via Fox Business)

When real estate bigwigs Joseph Sitt and Rubin Schron made separate $2 billion plays for the Empire State Building last year, they didn’t turn to industry veterans with decades of experience. Instead they were represented by 31-year-old Jason Meister, a broker and vice president in Avison Young’s Capital Markets Group.

Meister, the son of high-profile real estate attorney Stephen Meister, grew up in Midtown and moved to Nantucket, Mass., after college to get his feet wet in real estate. In Nantucket, he formed his own venture to build modular construction spec homes, and also worked as a residential broker, selling homes to heavy hitters such as Lee Iacocca, the former CEO of Chrysler.

He returned to New York in 2008 to join now-defunct commercial firm Grubb & Ellis. There, at age 28, he was part of the six-person team that brokered the high-profile sale of the St. Vincent’s Hospital building at 555 Sixth Avenue to Ofer Yarden’s Stonehenge Partners for $67 million.

In 2011, Meister’s team at Grubb represented World-Wide Holdings in the sale of Tribeca’s 93 Worth Street, a commercial property that Izaki Group Investments bought for just shy of $50 million and converted into a 92-unit condominium. The team also sold a 127-unit residential building in the Bronx’s Riverdale neighborhood for L&M Development Partners to Columbia University for $69 million.

In total, Meister said he’s sold north of $500 million worth of property during his career. But he may eventually make his way back into residential development, he said, noting that he sometimes misses the thrill of completing a construction project.

“When the house is [completed] and you’re sitting on the roof deck and looking out at the water, that to me is really exciting,” he said.

Meister is adept at staying in the limelight; he’s regularly quoted in the press and makes frequent appearances on Fox Business to discuss topics such as the housing market and foreign buyers.

He declined to comment on the Empire State Building bids, citing ongoing litigation.

Jarrod Guy Randolph, 30, Core

Jarrod Randolph

Jarrod Randolph

The term “square footage” has been part of Jarrod Guy Randolph’s lingo since he was 16, when he took an internship at a residential real estate brokerage in his Pennsylvania hometown. After earning his undergraduate degree in real estate finance at NYU, he put in seven years at new development firm the Sunshine Group, now Corcoran Sunshine, and then did a stint at Brown Harris Stevens before jumping to Core in 2012.

At 30 years old, he estimates that he’s sold about $600 million worth of New York property in the last decade, a combination of new development units and resales. That puts him near the top of the pack in his age group, although he’s still a fair distance behind heavyweights like Brown Harris Stevens’ Kyle Blackmon, who was featured in 2011’s “Moguls in the Making.”

“This is all I know,” Randolph said. “I can basically work at Starbucks, and I can work in real estate.”

He recently sold two sponsor unit penthouses at Extell Development’s 151 East 85th Street, for $19 million and $15.8 million. Prior to that, he helped sell out developments such as Extell’s Ariel East and West, as well as Shaya Boymelgreen’s River Lofts in Tribeca.

In February, he snagged his biggest-ever listing, a $25 million half-floor condo at Trump World Tower belonging to a prominent plastic surgeon. And he said he’s now working on bagging a prestigious new $300 million development project Downtown, but declined to give further details.

To find buyers for those eight-digit properties, Randolph said his five-person team compiles a meticulous dossier on high-net-worth individuals, including intimate information such as where their children go to school, where they like to shop and even whether “they have a fishing license in Alaska.”

“There are only 1,000 or so individuals in the world who can afford the product we’re selling,” he said, “and it’s my job to know everything about them.”

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Randolph employs a full-time “cultural attaché,” whose job is to court such buyers by getting them tickets to sporting events, chartering their flights and offering dozens of other services. In addition, he’s working with investors who he said are each looking to pump at least $50 million into the New York residential market, and is going on a 10-day trip to Hong Kong next month to talk to three large banks that manage funds for wealthy investors there.

He was recently named to Forbes “30 under 30” in the real estate category, and is a frequent contributor to Fox Business’ “Spare Change” segment, where he weighs in on current business affairs.

Melissa DiBella, 29, TerraCRG

Melissa DiBella

Melissa DiBella

Brooklyn had a record $5 billion in commercial real estate sales last year, and Melissa DiBella, of commercial brokerage TerraCRG, said those numbers are only going up in 2014.

“There’s such an obvious demand right now,” said DiBella, who was TerraCRG CEO Ofer Cohen’s first hire when he left Massey Knakal in 2008 to start the firm.

“International investors, architects and developers have reached out to us. All this interest is going to raise the dollar volume,” she said.

Over the last eight years, DiBella handled the marketing and sales for about $500 million worth of properties in Brooklyn. As Brooklyn’s stars have aligned, TerraCRG’s own business has transformed. The firm started in 2008 doing mostly loan modifications, short sales and foreclosures, DiBella said, but is now selling a slew of development sites, and recently became active in selling retail sites.

DiBella was made a partner in the firm last year. She and Cohen jointly manage a team within the 16-employee firm that’s sold about 1.2 million buildable square feet since 2008, she said. The team recently sold a 12,690-square-foot site at 470 Fourth Avenue in Park Slope for $20 million, and is now marketing a $23 million site in East Williamsburg at 100-120 Union Avenue that allows for a residential development of up to 130,000 square feet.

DiBella said more developers are now targeting neighborhoods such as Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Prospect Park South and Flatbush. Her firm, she said, tries to stay on their radar by publishing market reports that break down each Brooklyn neighborhood by asset class — data that’s more standard in Manhattan but less common in the borough. “We’re in tune with what’s happening,” she said, so “for many newcomers, their first point of entry into Brooklyn is through us.”

Boaz Gilad, a co-founder of development firm Brookland Capital, which is active in Crown Heights, Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, said DiBella “thinks like a developer.”

David Shorenstein, 33, and Jason Silverstein, 29, Silvershore Properties

From left: Jason Silverstein and David Shorenstein

From left: Jason Silverstein and David Shorenstein

David Shorenstein and Jason Silverstein met when they were brokers at Marcus & Millichap in the mid-2000s. Shorenstein had already brokered $250 million in sales at the firm by the time Silverstein came on board in 2006. They struck out on their own in 2008, launching the investment firm Silvershore Properties.

Silvershore has since amassed a $175 million portfolio of 40 residential and commercial buildings and is one of the most active mid-market investors in both Manhattan and Brooklyn. While they often buy, reposition and then sell properties, they hold on to those that have a significant upside, Shorenstein said. If there are existing retail leases in a building, for example, the partners “might wait them out” before selling.

Their first buy was a $90,000 retail property in Jamaica, Queens that Silverstein described as “the smallest building in New York.” They sold that building for $200,000 during the same year they launched.

Starting out, Manhattan deals were beyond their reach, and so the firm stuck mostly to Brooklyn, where in June 2010 it purchased a Clinton Hill building for $290,000. Silvershore was recently offered $2.3 million for the property, the partners said.

They’ve since upped both the volume and price of their purchases. In 2013, the company bought 20 buildings, worth about $41 million, including 63 Spring Street in Soho for $6.4 million and a 25-unit building at 219 13th Street in Park Slope for $5.25 million. Their capital comes from a small pool of investors, including high-net-worth individuals and at least one group of foreign buyers, a source familiar with their operations said.

“We have a good base of people that we work with,” Silverstein said. “They get more comfortable with every deal that we do.”

“We’re kind of teaching ourselves as we go,” Shorenstein added.

Silvershore recently put a Lower East Side rental and retail building at 101 Delancey Street on the market for $20.5 million. They paid just $7 million for the property in 2012. Besides carrying out an extensive renovation of the building, Silverstein said, “the retail play was where we saw the upside,” referring to the fact that leases for the building’s five ground-floor retail spaces are set to expire in the coming months.

The firm hopes to get into ground-up development as well as acquire commercial towers. “Our goal,” Silverstein said, “[is] to look at the New York skyline and say, ‘That’s one of our buildings.’”

Jack Srour, 27, and Juda Srour, 25, Jay Suites

Jay Suites, which was founded by the Srour brothers in 2009, is one of the market leaders in the hot commercial sector of shared office space, with a 150,000-square-foot footprint in Manhattan. Current and former clients include Mayor Bill de Blasio, who rented space from the company for his campaign operations, and the New York Daily News, which set up temporary camp in a Jay Suites office while its headquarters were shuttered in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The company is among the five biggest shared office space providers in the city, along with Regus, WeWork, Corporate Suites and Virgo Business Centers.

Jack and Juda followed their father, Faraj “Freddy” Srour, into the business. The elder Srour owns several properties in the city, including 361 Lexington Avenue and 2 West 46th Street. Juda started out as an intern at residential brokerage Metropolitan Property Group, while Jack was earning a master’s degree in real estate finance at NYU. When a client asked Juda to help him find a furnished office space, he sensed an opportunity.

“I realized what a demand there was for such spaces,” he said. The brothers are the youngest major players in the shared office market. (WeWork’s founder Adam Neumann is in his mid-30s.)

The company has six locations in the city and is in talks to lease additional spaces of between 20,000 and 30,000 square feet in the Columbus Circle and Union Square areas, Juda told TRD. It’s also considering developing a 44,000-square-foot building in Downtown Brooklyn, on Willoughby Street. Jay Suites would enter a partnership with the landlord and hold a significant equity stake in the building, Juda said.

Because Jay Suites uses Freddy’s contractors to build out its office spaces, Juda said the firm can undercut its competition by up to 30 percent. And there’s a simple system to how it chooses where to locate.

“We really look at where Regus is located, and we try to open the next door,” Juda said, referring to the shared office titan.

Shared office space providers are among the city’s fastest-growing tenants. The five largest providers have a combined footprint of over 2.8 million square feet across all major Manhattan submarkets, a TRD analysis found.

Lyon Porter, 33, and Ari LeFauve 34, Town Residential

From left: Lyon Porter and Ari LeFauve

From left: Lyon Porter and Ari LeFauve

Lyon Porter and Ari LeFauve have more than a few things in common. They both grew up in rust-belt cities on Lake Erie, wore the number 14 on their jerseys when they played college sports, and have young sons. And LeFauve’s first name, Ari, means “lion” in Hebrew.

They’re also successful business partners, having done about $500 million in deals since teaming up several years ago.

While they don’t specialize in top-of-the-market trophy listings — their priciest condo sold for around $8.5 million — they have racked up big overall numbers by closing a high volume of deals.

They moved to Town Residential in 2012 from MNS, where they were the firm’s top-ranked resale brokers. Now they manage Town’s Greenwich Village and Soho office, overseeing more than 2,000 rental units. They’re also getting their feet wet in the new development business, with sales in developments such as Chelsea’s 420 West 25th Street and Williamsburg’s 190 Conselyea Street.

“We’re pitching more new developments than ever before,” Porter said. “But we’ve never forgotten about our rental business.”

The duo is also managing a portfolio of 500 townhouses in the metropolitan area, including about 100 units in Manhattan and Brooklyn, for Australian real estate investment trust Dixon Advisory, LeFauve said. The majority of the townhomes are being converted into single-family rentals, and LeFauve and Porter are involved in all aspects of the design, consulting and leasing. They recently received a letter of intent for a sale at 582 Second Street at $1,400 per square foot, which is a price-per-square-foot record for a walk-up in the borough, Porter said.

Luciane Serifovic, 32, Douglas Elliman

Luciane Serifovic

Luciane Serifovic

A native of Rio de Janeiro, Serifovic’s first job in the U.S. at age 18 was making cappuccinos in an Italian coffee shop. She didn’t speak much English at the time, and would trip up on simple orders. But she mastered the language in about eight months, she said, and went on to earn her real estate license in 2002.

After a yearlong stint at residential firm Citysites Realty, she joined Citi Habitats in 2003. For her interview with Gordon Golub, now a top executive at Urban Compass, Serifovic, then 20, wore glasses to appear more mature.

“I could barely see him during the interview,” she said.

Until 2007, she worked out of Citi Habitats’ Upper East Side office as a manager, which she said became the firm’s top-producing office in the city during her time there. She then ran the firm’s 250 Park Avenue South office, which she told TRD became the top-producing office per desk.

Serifovic joined Elliman as a vice president in the property management division in July 2013. And last month she was promoted to a higher-profile position at Elliman: director of rentals.

She will now oversee the firm’s New York rental operations and provide support for Elliman’s other national markets.

In 2013, Elliman did nearly 9,000 rental transactions in the city, she said. The firm acts as the exclusive rental agent for major landlords, and also does property management for mega-landlords such as the Moinian Group.

She’s already revamped Elliman’s agent training program, she said, coming up with the idea for an app that allows agents to register for classes with their iPhone.

“I don’t think they know my age,” Serifovic quipped, alluding to the fact that she’s one of the youngest people in top management at the firm.