The Closing: Michael Phillips
The Jamestown principal on dropping out of college, working closely with Google and his vintage motor scooter collection
Michael Phillips is a principal and the president of Jamestown, the real estate investment manager based in Atlanta and Cologne, Germany, with offices in New York, Boston, California and Bogotá, Columbia. The firm has nearly 9.1 million square feet of assets under management worth $12 billion and recently closed one of the city’s largest commercial property trades to date: the $2.4 billion sale of the Chelsea Market building to Google. The Real Deal first reported the news of the deal in February, and the sale closed in March. Jamestown still owns stakes in seven properties in New York, including Industry City, and has developed mixed-use projects such as Ponce City Market in Atlanta and the Innovation and Design Building in Boston. Phillips ran a home-furnishings store in Atlanta called Maddix Deluxe and was a restaurant landlord in New York and other cities before joining Jamestown in 2008. He came on board as creative director and now oversees the firm’s New York operation. Phillips is also an active investor in Sparkman & Stephens, a naval architecture and yacht brokerage firm. He’s one of a few openly gay executives in New York commercial real estate.
DOB: March 30, 1969
Hometown: Palo Alto, California
Lives in: Upper East Side and Atlanta
Family: Life partner, Dominick
What were you like as a kid? I was a very early riser and always excited about whatever was coming that day. I would’ve been good in school if I was interested in it. I don’t think I ever was, and I would certainly come and go at my own choosing.
What were you interested in? I was always into boats and sailing, as well as architecture and the built environment. I grew up going to Sunset magazine events and to cooking classes with my grandmother. That’s how I became interested in food. In Atlanta, in my high school years, I was very influenced by the city going through a lot of urban planning changes.
Why did you move to Atlanta? My mother went to law school at Emory, and so we went there to follow her. She was a Porsche-driving hippie who had gone to Stanford and Berkeley. My parents divorced when I was very young, so it was a lot of moving around — back and forth between California and Atlanta. My mother now lives in Menlo Park. My father, who was an engineer, passed away a couple years ago.
You went to the American University of London. Was it easy to fit in there? Sure. It was a group of people from all over the world that weren’t particularly academic but were very interested in what was current at the time. I had an apartment off campus in London and traveled on the continent in my summers. I left after one year because I decided to start a business.
So, that’s when you launched Maddix Deluxe? My sister and I bought a fledgling business in 1989, developed it into a bigger one and sold it in 1995. What I realized was how much I love to create a product. Now it’s real estate.
How did you segue into development? I had a manufacturing division for my retail business and needed a location to house it, so I bought a 30,000-square-foot warehouse and cut it into 12 spaces. I occupied one for my business and leased the others out. I was quickly making a lot of money as a landlord.
After that, you started a firm called TuckerMott, which partnered with Jamestown on a project in Atlanta. How did that come about? Through TuckerMott, I ended up being a developer and a landlord of restaurant spaces and would come to New York. In 1998, the chef Anne Quatrano introduced me to Amy Scherber, a young baker at Chelsea Market [and founder of Amy’s Bread]. I then stopped developing for about seven years and really focused on my yacht business. I was living on an island off the coast of Mount Desert, Maine, where my partner and I have a home. I also had an office on Fifth Avenue and spent a lot of time in New York. In the mid-2000s, TuckerMott started working on assets with Jamestown, one of which was Chelsea Market.
How has your role at Jamestown changed since you joined in 2008 as creative director? When we launched our [open-end core fund] Premier Property Fund, my role was a lot of relations and management work and growing the business. We went from $3 billion in assets under management to almost $12 billion in a very short period of time. Jamestown is part institutional investor and part startup, in a way — chief cook and bottle washer. But it’s very similar to what it started as. I’m now one of the faces of the company, among two other principals.
Do you travel to Jamestown’s headquarters in Germany much? And do you speak any German? Nicht. I do not speak German very well. I’m in Europe three or four times a year.
How did you meet your life partner, Dominick? Through an introduction by a mutual friend at a trade show at the Jacob Javits Center.
He’s worked as an interior designer on some of Jamestown’s properties. What’s it like working together on occasional projects? Fantastic. Nothing’s better than collaborating with someone whom you have a long understanding of the world with.
Do you think the industry has become more accepting of homosexuality in recent years? I’m embarrassed to say I don’t think a lot about that. I’ve been fortunate to be raised in a world that is fairly colorblind and sexual-preference blind. New York is great place for that. San Francisco too.
We’ve reported on the lack of diversity in commercial real estate in terms of race, gender and LGBTQ. Do you think that’s about LGBTQ or do you think it’s that commercial real estate is not interesting to a lot of people as an industry? I think it’s very interesting and I don’t experience discrimination in New York, so maybe I’m not the best person to discuss it.
You’ve done two major deals with Google. Have there been any perks from working so closely with the company? We all should be, and in many ways are, impacted by technology disruption and innovation every day. The motivation to create space for a convening culture is a thread throughout my life, whether it was creating retail places in my early 20s or in my work with large innovation hubs. In terms of Google, it’s incredible to live adjacent to that — a great last arc for us at Chelsea Market.
How aggressive is Google as a tenant? I wouldn’t necessarily say “aggressive.” They’re dynamic. Their people judge our Halloween contests on the ground floor, and they participated in an innovation lab we did at Hudson Guild in 2016. Google made a really early commitment to be a part of an urban environment and a community in New York. They were coming from Silicon Valley, which is a place of compounds and campuses that are closed, protected and separate.
Did you participate in the Halloween contest? I’m not a costume-wearer, generally. I’m too much who I am all the time.
You considered taking advantage of the Chelsea Market building’s 300,000 square feet in unused air rights for a while. Why didn’t that happen? The upper floors of the building are complicated. Obtaining the air rights was important for the future of the building and the tenancies. With Google, it makes it possible to continue the stewardship of the building in a way that may not be so easy to do otherwise. It’s zoned for office, so that’s what it ultimately will be. More production space is likely a good use for the building’s rooftops.
You recently said Jamestown will keep Chelsea Market’s intellectual property and naming rights outside of Manhattan. What do you look at when you consider other cities to set up shop in? Our dream is to create a global network of innovation hubs like Industry City, Ponce City Market and the Innovation and Design Building — 1 to 6 million-square-foot campuses in urban, world-capital cities.
Where else do you see Jamestown establishing a bigger real estate presence in the future? We’re invested in South America in four countries, and we’re in many of the big coastal cities in the U.S. We’re open to Europe and have considered our options there.
What has been your most challenging deal? Ponce City Market, which was previously a vacant building. Every other building that we had done in that regard always had a base tenancy that we built off of. To take 2 million square feet and turn it into something dynamic in a single phase was probably the riskiest thing. I look back on that process and wish it [had been] more fun when we were doing it, because it was a lot of hard work and a lot of unknown. But people really liked it, and it was successful. It was the hardest thing we’ve ever done.
How crucial is the Sunset Park rezoning to your vision for Industry City? The rezoning is important, but I don’t think it’s essential. Things like education are not allowed under the current zoning, so we can’t have a school in the building as it is. That represents an archaic way of thinking about industrial manufacturing from the early 20th century.
What’s the hardest part of operating a large food hall? Anytime you’re working with retail, there’s a certain amount of neuroses — in a good way. These are mostly owner-operated, non-chain vendors, and people put their blood, sweat and tears into a business that supports their family and their livelihood. The hardest part of that is worrying about ensuring that they remain financially viable and well regarded.
What’s your favorite dish to cook or eat? At this point I’m more of a producer of food than a cook, but I would say I love all kinds of curries. That’s my favorite thing to cook and eat. I also love custard-based desserts. An amazing pistachio trifle would make me crazy.
What’s the most extravagant purchase you made recently? I bought a Honda Super Cub 125, which is being delivered from Japan. It cost $2,200. It’s an old-school three-speed motor scooter; I collect them. This is the 60th anniversary of these workhorses that you see all over Asia. I also collect nautical travelogues from the 1920s to the 1940s.
What are your professional aspirations at this point? I’m really interested in digital media. Creating more digital content, for marketing and social media, is an essential part of what we do in our business. I’m also very into large-format entertainment retail. We created an amusement park [at Ponce City Market] last year. And I’m very interested in circumnavigating the globe. I don’t know if that’s personal or professional.
—Edited and condensed for clarity.