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My First Year As A Commercial Broker: James Nelson, 1998

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In this series, Bisnow talks to New York City brokers about their first year in the business. You can read and listen to our first piece, with CBRE Tri-State CEO Mary Ann Tighe, here.

Today, James Nelson is a principal and head of Tri-State investment sales at Avison Young. But in 1998, he was a senior at Colgate University without any real idea of what he would do next.

My First Year As A Commercial Broker: James Nelson, 1998
James Nelson and his wife, Allison, in the late 1990s

He went to the university's career services, and they told him a brokerage firm called Massey Knakal in New York City was taking applications, but the deadline was that day.

He had a résumé handy, and there was no cover letter required, so he sent it in.

They called while he was on spring break to offer him the job.

Listen to an audio version of this audio story below.

“I said, ‘Well, that’s fantastic. I think I’ll probably start with you in July or August … I want to drive cross-country.’ And they said, ‘No, if you want this job, you’ll show up first week of June, otherwise we’ve got plenty of other people for the position,” he recalled, speaking to Bisnow from Avison Young's offices on the 15th floor of 1166 Sixth Ave.

“I found out later that only two people had applied, and I was their second choice.” 

My First Year As A Commercial Broker: James Nelson, 1998
James Nelson first started working with Bob Knakal at Massey Knakal

Massey Knakal Realty Services, a dominant force on the city’s investment sales scene, was then a decade old. It focused on mid-market sales in Manhattan, and the brokers there worked on a “territory system" — with everyone assigned to a set part of the city.

Nelson showed up in that first week of June, and started working under famed deal-maker Bob Knakal, who started the firm alongside Paul Massey. It was about 20 people then, though it would later grow to more than 100 people with four offices. It would eventually be sold to Cushman & Wakefield for $100M in 2014.

Nelson, who was by that point a partner at Massey Knakal, went to C&W as part of the acquisition before defecting to Avison Young earlier this year.

Nelson grew up in Wisconsin and had only been to the city a few times. He had no sales experience apart from a summer job at his grandfather’s car dealership.

But he showed up in June 1998 at the Park Avenue office, rented a walkup on the Upper East Side with his old college roommate, and got to work. In that first year, he was on a salary of about $28K and was assigned his territory: Chelsea.

My First Year As A Commercial Broker: James Nelson, 1998
Pictures from a Massey Knakal Realty Services award ceremony

“To be seated right next to Bob Knakal, there was no better training, no better experience,” he said. Massey and Knakal were true leaders, Nelson believes, because they led by example. “They would always pitch in where you needed help … [but] there was never these teach-y moments, it was ‘Hey, we are going to tour a property and learn on the fly.’”

The territory system, along with the fact the firm focused on representing sellers, is why Nelson thinks Massey Knakal experienced the success that it did.

“I knew we had a different approach, at the time a lot of brokers out there were generalists,” he said. “Hats off to Bob and [co-founder] Paul [Massey], for saying we are exclusively sell-side representatives. We represent owners to get them the highest price. We can’t be all things to all people.”

In the late 1990s in Chelsea, anything west of 10th Avenue was a wasteland. You could’ve bought a 100-foot-wide warehouse there for about $1M, Nelson said. Meanwhile, Sixth Avenue was all flea markets. And Chelsea Market, which sold to Google for $2.4B this year, had just opened up after investor Irvin Cohen bought the foreclosed mortgage debt on the building in 1990 for $10M.

Nelson said the city was starting to see the aggregation of multifamily properties into portfolios. But big players weren’t foreign buyers or huge firms; they were mainly New York’s real estate dynasties.

“For the most part, when we got hired to sell, we’d know who the first 15 to 20 calls were to make,” he said. “Today, the buyer pool is so much wider and so much more diverse.”

James Nelson was the captain of the swim team at Colgate
James Nelson was the captain of the swim team at Colgate

Within that first year, Nelson made his first deal.

“It was a 50-foot-wide apartment building down on West 19th Street between Seventh and Eighth,” he said. “Everything that investors look for, with a great location to boot.”

He asked Massey to help out on the presentation with the out-of-town owner. Massey came along, and ended up suggesting the owner was better off holding onto the asset, rather than selling.

“I nearly fell out of my chair," Nelson said. "Here’s an owner who flew up here and Paul’s telling him he shouldn’t sell?"

He did sell, though, and Nelson said he learned a valuable lesson that day: Talk less, listen more.

“Because I was so green, I really felt like I wanted to prove I knew what I was talking about, [so] I’d call these owners … [and] I’d do 90% of the talking,” he said. “But if you speak to an owner who’s owned on a block for 30 or 40 years, it’s better to just listen … And that’s what I love about this business. Every day, you learn something new.”

Travis Gonzalez contributed to the production of this story.

Audio Credits: “Street,” recorded by Daniel Simion, “CNBC Nasdaq 4000 Close” on YouTube, “Larry Johnson 4-point Play” on YouTube. “1998 WS Gm4: Rivera saves Game 4, Yankees win World Series” on YouTube.