Meet Ben Brown, The 34-Year-Old In Charge Of The Largest Office Portfolio In New York
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Ben Brown doesn't want this story to be all about him.
The 34-year-old assumed leadership of Brookfield's operations in New York City and Boston last year, putting him in charge of millions of square feet of commercial space, including the biggest office portfolio in New York.
Despite his position, he insists the corporate culture of Brookfield makes it so even the man running day-to-day operations in two of the continent's most important real estate markets feels like just another cog in a well-oiled machine.
“The fact of the matter is, I've got a phenomenally experienced team,” Brown told Bisnow in an interview last week. “I'm not going to ever walk into a situation and think that because of the position I'm in, I would know the right answer. I have the benefit of a lot of really smart people that have seen it all.”
There is no denying the Brookfield machine is whirring faster than ever before. In December, it became New York City’s biggest office landlord, after it closed on its purchase of Forest City Realty Trust for $6.8B. Over the last 18 months, it has been at the center of several headline-grabbing deals, both nationally and in the Northeast.
Amid widespread gloom over retail, it took over mall owner GGP in a $15B acquisition. It also paid close to $1.3B in cash for a 99-year lease on debt-saddled office building 666 Fifth Ave. from Kushner Cos., and announced plans to build 1,200 apartments in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with partner Park Tower Group.
After Brown's mentor, Brookfield Property Group Chairman Ric Clark, decided to double down in the markets in the Northeast, the real estate arm of the Canadian private equity giant is at an inflection point, Brown said.
With Brookfield's 2.1M SF One Manhattan West tower next to Hudson Yards nearly 90% pre-leased and due to officially open in September, the company's attention has turned to constructing its sister tower Two Manhattan West without an anchor tenant. Brookfield made its first foray into the Bronx last year, and it has already started preliminary development work on the massive mixed-use project it’s planning on the Harlem River waterfront, Brown told Bisnow.
As the local tip of the spear for all this New York development, Florida native Brown might not seem like the sensible choice. But Cushman & Wakefield Global Chairman Bruce Mosler, who leads the leasing team at Manhattan West, says Brown has leadership qualities that can’t be taught.
“As you're looking for leaders today to drive your business, you have to have people that understand the current workforce and are part of that generation,” Mosler said.
Brown grew up around real estate in Fort Lauderdale. His father bought properties for a pension fund adviser and later moved into development.
“Basically, every vacation would have some sort of site visit,” Brown said. "We'd go to Charlotte for a weekend, and then we'd be like seeing four different properties. That's just my dad, you know. And then he's like, 'We're going to Atlanta, yeah, but then we'll go to Disney World.'"
"Dumb luck" led Brown to a job at Brookfield, where he has worked for most of the last decade.
At Northeastern University, Brown enrolled in the cooperative program, which stretches a bachelor's degree over five years to bake in time off for work experience.
While interning at Santander Bank — then Sovereign Bank — he worked with a private equity shop called New Boston Fund. Youth-fueled confidence gave him the temerity to ask them for a summer internship, which led to a job.
Soon after the Great Recession hit, he was the one sent to clean up a mess of broken condominium deals in Florida, seeing as he was paid little, didn’t have a family and was one of the few on the team who could locate the properties in the state on a map, he said.
“It was great, but I'm sitting there at 24 years old I guess, thinking, 'God, I’ve got to figure this out because this can't be the next four or five years of my life,'" he recalled.
He sent a résumé into Brookfield at the end of 2009 and was hired in a junior role on the U.S. investments team in 2010. He later worked in London for three years, helping build up the investment business in Europe.
When Clark decided to refocus the business on key markets, with the London office established, it was the perfect opportunity to come back stateside in 2017, Brown said.
Less than a year later, then-head of New York and Boston David Cheikin stepped down. (Cheikin is now the senior vice president of strategic real estate initiatives at Columbia Property Trust.) Brown took over the following month.
The father of a 2-year-old daughter, Brown lives in a brownstone in Carroll Gardens and carries running shoes wherever he goes to ensure he is able to run, which he does about six times a week, he said.
Landing at this position relatively early, Brown said, was because of Brookfield’s company culture — one that doesn’t necessarily promote based on age or experience. He acknowledges that at 34 he may be on the younger side for his role, but said within the company he is not an outlier.
“Maybe this is a bad example but this isn't like GE where you're in this role for X amount of years and then this role,” he said. “I think it's an organization where you're flexible, and senior management puts you where you will be successful and where they need your focus.”
Brown's new job hasn’t exactly gone the way he thought it would, but no role at the company does. He is most proud of the smooth transition of Forest City into Brookfield. He said his biggest challenge is managing his staff of hundreds — he strives to be the sort of manager that is collaborative and gives people autonomy.
“The one thing you can rely on at Brookfield is you won't know what is next,” he said. “The business is just so large and it's so fluid.”
There are some absolutes however: Brookfield is still hunting for acquisitions, although Brown wouldn't say where or what it could buy next.
“I'd love to say there's a big one on the horizon … But that's just the deal guy in me,” he said. “We don't set out the year with a specific goal to deploy a certain amount of capital in any markets.”
With the Forest City acquisition, Brookfield added 18,500 multifamily units, as well as 10.8M SF of office, life science and retail space to its holdings across the country.
Buildings like the rental tower at 8 Spruce St. and the New York Times Building at 620 Eighth Ave. in Midtown are now under Brown's purview. In Boston, Brookfield picked up University Park at MIT, a 2.3M SF development next to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus — marking Brookfield's first foray into life science assets.
Along with the brick and mortar, around 230 people from Forest City joined Brookfield in both New York and Boston at the corporate and property level. The talent that has come on board, Brown said, has been a huge boon, adding a wealth of knowledge alongside the acquired assets.
“Our goals are definitely to have a bigger business in Boston,” Brown said. "It's very tightly held, and it's got a lot of long-term ownership but it's a really great institutional market."
The city is on most international investors' checklist as a market, making it hard to buy and grow a business there, even for one of the world's largest owners of real estate.
“It's a quick plane ride away or a train ride, but it's really hard to helicopter into a market and pretend that you're going to be one of the best guys on the block because just like New York, there's people on every corner, every day that know everything," he said. “We've got to find our opportunities in those gaps … And we're starting to do that.”
In its 2019 investor survey, foreign real estate investor trade group AFIRE ranked Boston second in the world for where respondents wanted to increase their exposure. New York was ranked first.
“Brookfield is in a playing field with all these international investors looking to come to Boston,” Boston-based Newmark Knight Frank Research Director Elizabeth Berthelette said.
For now, New York has most of the company’s muscle, with 25 office properties in the city spanning 26M SF. It also owns some 9,200 apartments across 18 properties, has 2,900 units under development or in planning, and it owns just shy of 3M SF of retail.
Brookfield's New York portfolio is worth roughly $32B, Clark said late last year, and accounts for 20% of the Toronto-based company's global real estate holdings.
At its Manhattan West megaproject, Brown and his team are now moving ahead with the construction of the second ground-up office building, the 62-story, nearly 2M SF Two Manhattan West, without an anchor tenant signed up.
While there have been rumors that Amazon is looking at space there, Brookfield denied them — Amazon already has a 360K SF spread at 5 Manhattan West. Law firm Cravath Swaine & Moore is also reportedly considering the building, but Brown said nothing is official.
“The last thing we wanted to do is complete everything and then have a hole in the ground for a couple of years,” he said on the decision to move forward without a signed lease.
The building fits into the 7M SF Manhattan West complex, most of which is already built, so it is not as nerve-racking as it could be.
“It's not not scary,” Brown conceded.
Cushman’s Mosler said Brown has the talent and vision to think “big picture” and make the assessment to move ahead with the tower without a tenant in the bag.
“What I see in Ben is someone who knows what questions to ask, knows the facts that he wants to collect and at the end of the day, he's willing to take a position on those things. That's not usual for someone of Ben's age,” he said. “He has wisdom beyond his years but, more importantly, he does the homework thoroughly.”
Meanwhile, the company is looking to make up lost time on the multifamily; Clark has said waiting until nine years ago to start investing in the asset class is his biggest career regret.
The company paid $165M for 2401 Third Ave. and 101 Lincoln Ave. last year, and is planning a 1.4M SF development with 1,300 housing units, 30% of which will be income restricted. It is the first time Brookfield has invested in the borough, and Brown said it took a few years and a few missed office deals — the asset class they were originally chasing, because of the low rents and strong demographics — before the company felt good about it.
“It did definitely, I'd say, open our eyes to [thinking about] these other markets that are investable … That doesn't need to be Manhattan, where we can make really good returns on a risk-adjusted basis,” Brown said.
“[The site] has critical mass and scale, transportation and the perfect ingredients for placemaking created in the neighborhood, all the things that we do," he added. "So it felt really good. We just had to get really comfortable with, 'Hey, we actually can invest a fair amount of capital into the Bronx.’”
In terms of the next step in his career path at the company, or where he might end up next, Brown points to his own promotion to show there’s nothing rigid about the company.
“I was the right resource for [the needs of this job], and that may be completely different 12 months' time from now, he said. “Or I could be doing the same thing for 10 years.”
Cameron Sperance contributed reporting to this story.