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Weekend Interview: Newmark Vice Chairman Karen Bellantoni

This series gets into the heads of the decision-makers of CRE, the people shaping the industry by setting investment strategy, workplace design, diversity initiatives and more.

Newmark Vice Chairman Karen Bellantoni is passionate about bringing new people into the industry. The New York City retail broker said commercial real estate is difficult to break into and she would like to see the industry increase its entry-level opportunities. She does her part to mentor newbies and improve diversity in the ranks, hosting Zoom meetings and dinners for women in the industry and inviting junior brokers to yoga and spin classes.

“There are very successful women and people of color in this business, and it’s important we further highlight their successes to provide young professionals considering the field with mentors and leaders to whom they can relate,” Bellantoni said. “We can do the work now to help change the industry for the better.”

Bellantoni has three decades of retail real estate experience and does deals on the tenant and landlord side in urban markets across the U.S. She also served as an adviser to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for the World Trade Center redevelopment.

The following is lightly edited for style and clarity.

Newmark Vice Chairman Karen Bellantoni and her dog, Duncan, hiking in Orinda, California, before a tenant retreat in Napa.

Bisnow: Baron Rothschild once said “the time to buy is when there’s blood in the streets.” Where is the blood today?

Bellantoni: Through the pandemic, economic impacts sent rents in New York City’s retail sector lower, creating opportunities for retailers to lease space at approachable rents, which had not been approachable pre-pandemic.

However, today, we’re already seeing rents bounce back and huge absorption in the market, so the more approachable opportunities are starting to diminish. I’m seeing the greatest retail activity in SoHo, the Flatiron District and Madison Avenue — specifically the blocks from East 70th Street to East 90th.

Bisnow: What is your most controversial CRE opinion and why are you right about it?

Bellantoni: My uncommon opinion is that luxury retail is one of the most resilient subsets of the retail sector. Despite inflation and other headwinds, there always seem to be factors that propel the luxury market. The sector bounced back from the financial crisis. Then, during the peak of the pandemic, because people were on video conferences all day, they were spending more on jewelry, earrings and necklaces. For the same reason, Covid-19 also increased demand in the beauty industry — for everything from hair and makeup products to cosmetic procedures. Right now, luxury businesses are expanding. The pandemic has proven that the luxury market is one of the most resilient subsectors of retail and stronger than many people thought it would be.

Bisnow: If you weren’t in real estate, what path would your career have taken?

Bellantoni: Even before I graduated from college, I had a passion for fashion. My first job was as a buyer for a store out of Ohio, in junior sportswear. When I moved to Manhattan, I worked as a buyer focused on jeans and bottoms for another department store. It’s why a lot of retail clients and tenants trust me, because I understand that side of the business. Some of the brands I initially got to know when I worked as a multibrand buyer are clients I work with at Newmark.

Newmark Vice Chairman Karen Bellantoni and Alan Bonett at her daughter Ashley's wedding.

Bisnow: If you could make one change to the industry, what would it be?

Bellantoni: I’d like to see commercial real estate increase entry-level career opportunities. It’s a challenging business to break into and in which to build a career. A more inclusive environment is always a positive, and it should be an industry goal to have more people thriving and striving at all levels.

Bisnow: What is one thing you would do differently from early in your career?

Bellantoni: I wouldn't change anything; what has happened and how it has happened allowed me to evolve from a young associate to where I am now. I am very proud of the way my career has turned out. I have worked hard, continue to work hard and remain grateful for all the great things in my career and life.

Bisnow: As a leader, how do you decide who is worth mentoring and who is simply not a good fit?

Bellantoni: I seek out people who have similar work ethics and solid character. Skills can be developed over time. The most important thing for any young person in the CRE business is to be truthful, thorough and diligent and to always remember to follow up. The lesson about always following up I’ve learned the hard way, through my own past mistakes.

Additionally, there is no substitute for in-person mentorship. Though I host Zoom meetings and dinners for women in the industry, I like to also invite junior brokers to yoga and spin classes. Spending time together in new ways and settings is incredibly beneficial.

Newmark's Karen Bellantoni in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on a weekend getaway with Beth Bradford and Dan Foy, friends of 20-plus years from the CRE business.

Bisnow: What are your thoughts on the metaverse? Does it have any relevance for CRE?

Bellantoni: I must admit that I was skeptical about the internet in the 1990s, and it turns out I was terribly wrong. I didn’t believe that people would shop online, especially for clothing.

This time around, I’m adopting the philosophy of being open. Similar to how I originally felt about the internet, I am not sure what the future of the metaverse holds. However, leveraging insights from past experiences, I think customers and retailers alike will be willing to try it out and see how it goes.  

That said, physical stores as a representation of brand remain some of the best and most cost-efficient ways for customer acquisition.

Bisnow: What do you see as the lasting impacts of the pandemic on CRE?

Bellantoni: In the midterm, there have been and will likely continue to be hurdles for construction in retail, in particular — e.g. getting elevators, HVACs, fixturing, etc. — due to supply chain constraints. However, we’re also seeing creative workarounds to these challenges because real estate professionals are some of the most solution-oriented people around.

In the long term, I think awareness about airborne disease will be something that affects building codes and will inspire other changes to make us more resilient to future impacts.

Bisnow: As you know, there is a massive conversation underway regarding advancing more people of color and women into the C-suite. What are you doing to address those voices and that movement within your own organization?

Bellantoni: Throughout my real estate career, I have always made a concerted effort to support other women in the industry, especially through mentorship. That said, we must always try harder and push for continued change.

There are very successful women and people of color in this business, and it’s important we further highlight their successes to provide young professionals considering the field with mentors and leaders to whom they can relate. We can do the work now to help change the industry for the better.

Bisnow: So, this is the weekend interview. What’s your typical weekend routine?

Bellantoni: The best things in my life are my kids, my partner and my dog. I begin every day taking my labradoodle for a walk. Through the pandemic, we would take fabulous walks in Central Park — always discovering new corners — which has become a new home for me.

Lockdown also tested my cooking skills. Now that we can, my family and I love to go out to eat. New York City has spectacular food, and there is always something new to try.

Additionally, I try not to answer emails over the weekend and focus on my family. When we can, we visit our daughter, who lives in Los Angeles.