The Massey Knakal mafia
How the brokerage spawned an army of I-sales players
If Massey Knakal were a head coach in the NFL, it would have a coaching tree to rival Bill Belichick or Bill Walsh.
The former building sales firm, which was purchased by Cushman & Wakefield in 2015, counts no fewer than a dozen spinoffs or investment sales/divisions that are run by 18 MK alumni.
In addition to firm namesakes Paul Massey (founding partner and CEO of B6) and Bob Knakal (senior managing director at JLL), former MKers Robert Shapiro (executive managing director at Cushman & Wakefield), Craig Waggner (managing director at Cushman & Wakefield), James Nelson (principal, head of tri-state investment sales at Avison Young), Ofer Cohen (founder and president of Terra CRG), Josh Lipton (founder of Invictus Property Advisors), among others are all heading up their own firms or divisions.
But Knakal, who started MK with Massey in 1988, says there wasn’t something in the water or any secret sauce that led to such a high number of success stories that grew out of a mid-size operation.
“Investment sales isn’t a very complicated business,” Knakal said. “It’s a lot of blocking and tackling and doing fundamental things. And having the discipline to do those things day after day, week after week, month after month. And I think discipline is something we instill in folks and I think you see that in the manifestation in how well these folks are doing.”
Knakal attributed much of the success to first having a plan in the hiring process: people who were former athletes, members of the military or who showed some excellence (i.e. editor of a college newspaper or captain of the debate team) were prioritized as they were likely to excel in a competitive environment, but also within a team framework.
“Most important, we said to our HR folks, after you interviewed someone, no matter how many boxes they check in terms of their capabilities and academic achievement, if you didn’t feel like you’d want to go out and have lunch with them or go have a drink with them, they’re probably not someone you want to offer a job to,” Knakal said.
Once hired, an MK agent would go through training that could take up to six months. Knakal said there were three major components to the training: market knowledge; understanding how to find and pitch business; and executing the business.
The territory system prevented employees from cannibalizing one another and fostered a team culture at the firm, Knakal and Paul Massey said.
“Some competitors, your biggest competitors can be in your company, and the territory system eliminates that internal competition,” Massey, who is the founding partner and CEO of B6, said. “So if you’re not competing with each other and not negotiating with each other when you end up at the summer picnic all together, everyone loves being around each other. They were at each other’s weddings, they were godparents to each other’s kids.”
Others who worked at the company agreed.
“[Some prospective employees] would say, ‘I don’t want to be confined, I want to do everything,’ Tim King, who worked at MK for six years and is now managing partner of SVN CPEX Real Estate, said. “I used the example of taking glasses off. ‘See the sun shine on the table? What happens if I focus the light through my glasses? I can set the table on fire.’ It’s the focus. Not everybody buys that.”
David Simone, who worked at MK for 10 years and now owns Concourse Realty in the South Bronx, said the approach built a family-like atmosphere where employees played softball, rented vacation homes and went to parties together.
“They were great brokers and really great people,” Simone said.
King, for his part, said every day at MK was “the golden age” at the firm.
Not bad for a company that started at the end of the 1980s with just three employees — Knakal, Massey and a secretary — in a three-room, 800-square-foot sublet office and grew to 250 people and occupied 100,000 square feet of space across four offices at its zenith.
“It was a good run,” Knakal said.