Ben Lambert’s legacy: Eastdil founder brought Wall Street to real estate

He professionalized the brokerage business, pioneering the use of sale-leasebacks and the prospectus

Photo illustration of Benjamin Lambert (iStock; Getty/Illustration by Kevin Rebong for The Real Deal)
Photo illustration of Benjamin Lambert (iStock; Getty/Illustration by Kevin Rebong for The Real Deal)

Until the ’70s, commercial real estate brokerage was the unruly stepchild of dealmaking. Properties worth hundreds of millions of dollars were marketed off-the-cuff, research and due diligence were patchy, and the commission-dominant compensation most firms used inspired the infamous “eat what you kill” culture.

Benjamin V. Lambert decided that wasn’t for him. He envisioned the business as an extension of Wall Street, with institutionalized practices backed by detailed property-level analysis and a focus on relationships rather than transactions.

Why couldn’t a broker, he figured, be less cowboy and more investment banker?

Lambert, who died this weekend at 82, put that vision to the test.

Eastdil Realty, the firm he founded in 1967 from an office at 72 Wall Street, popularized the sale-leaseback technique for corporate offices, insisted that buildings be marketed like securities with a prospectus, and religiously avoided being looped in with his rivals.

He even paid his people differently, adopting Wall Street’s salary-and-bonus structure rather than commissions. “Other firms have brokers,” was and remains the unofficial company line. Eastdil has “trusted advisers.”

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Over the decades, he was at the center of several industry-defining transactions. He helped Wells Fargo and the Ford Foundation set up their commercial real estate investment vehicles. He arranged the financing for Donald Bren and Alfred Taubman’s purchase of the Irvine Ranch in California, one of the largest land deals in U.S. history. (A handwritten spreadsheet breaking down the expected performance of the property hung on the wall of Lambert’s conference room, according to a 2011 profile by The Real Deal.)

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He helped dispose of assets from the government-backed Resolution Trust Company after the 1980s savings-and-loan crisis. And of course, his firm had a longtime lock on trophy office towers in core U.S. markets, selling everything from Manhattan’s GM Building and Sony Building to Chicago’s Willis Tower.

In 1997, Lambert and one of his top dealmakers, Doug Harmon, landed what was seen as New York’s trickiest and most plum assignment: selling the $5 billion commercial and residential portfolio of Leona Helmsley, the “Queen of Mean.” The 125-building package, built and bought over the years by her husband, Harry Helmsley, included such gems as the Starrett-Lehigh Building at 601 West 26th Street, the Graybar Building at 420 Lexington Avenue and the Helmsley Building at 230 Park Avenue.

Eastdil also developed a specialized practice in debt and equity placements, bulking up its brand as the first “real estate investment bank.”

Ben Lambert in a New York Times Q/A in 1983

Lambert went back and forth between running Eastdil as an independent shop and as a division of an institutional giant. He started Eastdil as a subsidiary of investment firm Eastman Dillon, bought it out in 1970, sold it back five years later, and bought it again from a new corporate overlord in 1980. (‘I have to have something new to do constantly,’ he told UPI in a profile that year.)

In 1986, he sold a 50 percent stake in the business to Nomura, the Japanese giant that was at the time the world’s largest securities outfit. Eastdil became a subsidiary of Wells Fargo in 1999, and in 2019, Lambert and CEO Roy March orchestrated a management-led buyout in a venture with Guggenheim and Temasek.

“Eat what you kill” is still the prevailing culture in commercial real estate. But almost every other Lambertism has been adopted and mimicked by Eastdil’s main rivals, with varying degrees of success. The business is a lot more institutional now, and Ben Lambert is the biggest reason.