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New York Times | A Lesson Learned from a Legend

06.18.06

By, Alison Gregor

ROBERT K. FUTTERMAN doesn’t come from an old real estate dynasty, but throughout his 23-year career in the industry he has been dogged by the legacy of Robert A. Futterman.

“He was a real estate guy from the 1950’s,” said Mr. Futterman, the chief executive of Robert K. Futterman & Associates, a firm based in New York that specializes in retail property. “I’ll speak to these older real estate guys now and then, and throughout my whole career, they’ve said: ‘Robert Futterman, I know that name. Are you any relation?’ “

Although the answer is no, Mr. Futterman learned enough about the other Mr. Futterman — who owned a company much like a modern-day real estate investment trust and wrote a book on urban development called “The Future of Our Cities,” published in 1961 — to take away a lesson.

“He was this intensely visionary and hyper real estate guy” who died in 1961 at the age of 33, at the height of a very fast-paced career, when he choked on a piece of meat, Mr. Futterman said. The story has resonated with Mr. Futterman, who is himself described as “driven” and “visionary” by colleagues and competitors alike. Yet the same peers who describe this silver-haired 47-year-old as intense say he is happiest with his arm draped casually over a business associate, closing a deal.

“I like having West Coast offices, so I can, if I choose to, work all night,” said Mr. Futterman, who shares custody of two sons, ages 13 and 11, with his former wife. “But I’m not totally obsessed. There’s a balance. Time to play; be with the kids.”

Still, Mr. Futterman has managed to expand his company, which he founded in 1998, into one of the country’s largest independent real estate firms specializing in leasing retail space. He has branched out into advising shopping mall developers, dabbles in property development himself and is now working to expand overseas.

Mr. Futterman began his career in retail real estate after leaving the University of Maryland without graduating and with the realization that a job in concert promotion — a focus in college — was not in the cards.

Since then, he has completed transactions in retail real estate leasing totaling more than $2.5 billion. Former colleagues at Garrick-Aug Associates, where Mr. Futterman landed his first job in 1983 for $250 a week as a retail store canvasser — meaning that he paced the streets of the city looking for vacant retail spaces for lease — characterize him as a “machine.” He rose through the ranks at Garrick-Aug to salesman, broker and then senior managing director.

“Throughout his tenure at Garrick-Aug, he was always the No. 1 producer and very well respected,” said James Aug, son of Charles Aug, the firm’s founder, who hired Mr. Futterman. “Many people tried to emulate him, and none ever succeeded.”

Mr. Futterman’s most notable job has been leasing 347,000 square feet of retail space in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle to retailers like Hugo Boss, Tourneau, A/X Armani Exchange, Sephora and Williams-Sonoma.

Mr. Futterman landed that job in 1999, a year after he left Garrick-Aug. Though Robert K. Futterman & Associates didn’t have much of a history in multitenant high-end shopping centers aimed largely at tourists, Mr. Futterman wasn’t intimidated. “I was the leasing agent for Donald Trump for many years, so we were involved in Trump Tower” while working at Garrick-Aug, he said.

“We were also the leasing agent at the Herald Center and the Manhattan Mall,” he added, “so anything that’s been vertical retail in New York, we’ve been involved in it.”

In other high-profile leasing projects, he has helped Rockefeller Center attract a collection of jazzy stores like Anthropologie and restaurants like Brasserie Ruhlmann. Another project was the leasing of space at the General Motors Building at 767 Fifth Avenue, at 59th Street, to Apple Computer, which opened a flagship store there last month.

He has also been the leasing agent for the rejuvenated Grand Central Terminal. Grand Central “has been an enormous success,” Mr. Futterman said. “Talk about a transformation from yet another situation where people said retail would never work,” he added. “Now, we’re 99.9 percent leased with a waiting list a mile long.”

More recently, his firm, which has grown to 85 employees from 22 at its founding, landed the job of leasing 160,000 square feet of space at the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, where Mr. Futterman says he envisions a department store, perhaps a Harrods Food Hall. The firm has also been selected by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as the initial retail consultant to the World Trade Center site reconstruction, which could eventually include 500,000 square feet or more of retail space, Mr. Futterman said.

“We’re happy about that,” he said. “Part of the spirit of our attitude when it comes to helping out the Port Authority is, being a New Yorker, you’ll do anything you can to help see that location get built.”

It was 9/11 that prompted him to expand his company into the national tenant representation business.

“After 9/11, the phone went dead, and business seemed to have come to a halt,” Mr. Futterman said. “We needed to reinvent ourselves as not just a regional company, but one that could take all the tenant-oriented relationships that we had and suggest that they hire us or that we represent them in formulating a strategy to expand around the country.” A Lesson Learned From a Legend

With his experience at the Time Warner Center, he has expanded into leasing the shopping-center components of mixed-use developments for property developers throughout the nation. Those sites include Meadowlands Xanadu in East Rutherford, N.J., and Mercato in Naples, Fla. Besides having its headquarters in New York City, his firm has offices in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco and is poised to open a fifth office in Miami.

While the core of the business continues to be leasing retail space for tenants and landlords in New York City, the firm has also found a niche advising property developers.

The developer David Edelstein had asked Mr. Futterman to examine the Shops at Desert Passage, a 475,000-square-foot shopping complex languishing on the Las Vegas Strip, before buying it in 2004. The shopping center was poorly designed, Mr. Futterman said, with sales averaging around $400 a square foot, while other Las Vegas malls were at $1,000 a foot. But the location was good, he added. Mr. Edelstein also consulted with Mr. Futterman on redevelopment of a pedestrian mall on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach that was in decline, with little foot traffic, after hitting its peak with several upscale retailers in the 1950’s. Both shopping centers are now having a revival.

Mr. Edelstein gave much of the credit for these turnarounds to Mr. Futterman. “Whenever I buy anything that has any retail component, I get his opinion,” Mr. Edelstein said. “He’s not a number cruncher. He’s a visionary. He sees where there’s value and where there’s not, and can think ahead to figure out how to create the most value.”

Mr. Futterman also joined in as a minority investment partner in the Shops at Desert Passage, which is being renamed Miracle Mile Shops.

NOW Mr. Futterman is looking to become more involved in international projects.

“I would think there’s enormous growth in the Far East in addition to markets like Dubai,” he said. “I think developers there are looking to align themselves with a company that can bring them Western brands.”

Even if he has cast his glance offshore, Mr. Futterman remains a dominant player in New York City, said Faith Hope Consolo, a former colleague at Garrick-Aug who last year became chairwoman of the retail leasing and sales division at Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate.

Ms. Consolo said that she remembers going head to head with Mr. Futterman when they were at the same company and that this continues today, only on a larger scale. “He’s a fierce competitor, and he would say that about me, too,” she said. “We used to meet in the hallways of our old office, and now we meet in the shopping streets across the country.”

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