The Closing: Albert Behler

The Paramount CEO on boarding school, nepotism and dinner </br>with Leonardo da Vinci

Albert Behler

Albert Behler is chairman, president and CEO of Paramount Group, a Midtown-based office landlord that owns 10.4 million square feet of real estate nationwide, including several trophy properties in Manhattan such as 1633 Broadway and 712 Fifth Avenue. Founded in 1978 by German businessman Werner Otto, Paramount raised $2.6 billion last year in a public offering — the largest ever for a U.S. real estate investment trust. Behler, who is German, was tapped to lead the firm in 1991 after starting his career at a company that’s now part of German steelmaker ThyssenKrupp. At age 27, Behler was named president of a Thyssen offshoot in Saudi Arabia and he later led another Thyssen affiliate. At Paramount, Behler has led all of the firm’s U.S.-based acquisitions, which have been in New York, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. In August, a fund managed by Paramount entered into contract to buy 670-674 Broadway, a 77,000-square-foot, mixed-use building for $112 million.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up on a farm with five siblings near Hanover, Germany. I was the family clown. I had to be to get noticed. My father had a small housing-construction company and I worked for him during school vacations, doing some of the toughest jobs — muddy excavation sites or roofing in the heat of the summer. My dad wanted to make sure that no one thought there was nepotism.

You were sent to boarding school at age 10. What was that like?

At that time, if you could afford it, it was common to send your children to boarding school. My parents wanted to do the right thing. But I really hated it. My father was the lord mayor of our little town and I knew he could get approval for me to get a driver’s license [at age 16 instead of 18]. I said, ‘I’ll flunk the next year if you don’t get me a driver’s license.’ At the midterm, I had five Cs so he caved. In year five [out of nine] I began commuting between home and school.

Are you still that forceful?

When I have an opinion about something I’m a bit stubborn. Of course now, at a more mature age, I try to use reasoning to convince the other party and not ambush or stonewall them.

Where do you live now?

On the Upper East Side. I would have liked to go somewhere with more action, like Downtown, but my daughter was going to school in the neighborhood. I also have a small house in Austria in the mountains.

What was your first job?

After compulsory military service, I started an apprenticeship [in international trade] with Thyssen. Parallel to working there, I studied law and business at the University of Cologne. Before I finished university, I got an offer to go to Saudi Arabia and build the Thyssen organization there and in parts of the Middle East. It was the ultimate ‘baptism by fire.’

Was it difficult to adapt to cultural differences in the business world?

I learned very, very quickly to develop empathy and focus on the other person and what they wanted. In the Middle East it’s very important to make sure the other person feels good. You ask 10 times, ‘How are you?’ You go into this for quite some time before you go into business.

What’s your impression of American business culture?

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I like the straightforwardness in New York, and trying to get to a transaction. I’m very results-focused so it plays into what I like to do myself.

What’s the best advice you’ve gotten?

Before I went to the Middle East, I asked my boss what I should do when I’m there and want to do business. Who should I contact at headquarters? He said, ‘Use your common sense, be a little gutsy and try to not make a mistake, but take risks. If you don’t take a risk, you can’t get anywhere in life.’

What do you typically read daily?

I read the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and take an early morning look at the Frankfurter Allgemeine. My girlfriend reads me highlights from the Skimm.

Do you have any regrets?

My regret is that I didn’t move to the U.S. earlier. Europe is very controlled, you can only grow up in your position until a certain level. Here, entrepreneurial spirits get recognized.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken?

I don’t gamble, but in real estate, you take a lot of risks. When you buy an asset, very often you pay the highest price because it’s competitive. When we bought 712 Fifth Avenue [for $264 million] in 1998, it was a very risky acquisition. We paid $485 per square foot, the highest price ever paid at the time for a piece of New York real estate. Today, prices are $1,500 per square foot. I’ve done several of those and you only find out a couple of years later whether you were right.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

My passion is wine. My uncle was a German wine producer. He had a Riesling vineyard and taught me the art of winemaking.

If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?

I would love to have a bowl of pasta and a glass of red wine with Leonardo da Vinci. He was so ahead of his time and his genius of gathering facts from nature and translating those into science is fascinating to me.

What’s your biggest weakness?

Sweets. When I was little, I loved to eat and I was actually a little chubby. I know it’s not that healthy, but if I can enjoy a nice ice cream, it’s something I love. Also white chocolate, not dark. You know Belgian chocolates, the white ones? They’re the best.