Boy From the Bronx Makes Good in Real Estate World

Stephen Siegel

Stephen Siegel is jealous of Bill Gates.

"I don't begrudge his wealth - he earned it," Mr. Siegel said of Microsoft's co-founder. "What I'm jealous about is the amount of money he has to give away: $40 billion so far. I wish I had more to give."

Nevertheless, he gives plenty to charities in the city and elsewhere, including his old school in the Bronx.

As a young man, Mr. Siegel never expected to leave the Bronx.

Neither had he imagined a career beyond that of a journeyman painter, his father Charles's profession. Most certainly, Mr. Siegel never imagined that he would one day become chairman for global growth of the world's biggest real estate services and investment bank, CB Richard Ellis, a job he has held for the last two years.

"I started working when I was 12 years old," Mr. Siegel said. "I delivered groceries; I stacked newspapers at a neighborhood store. But it was going to City College that opened up a whole new world for me. And even then, I had to work to put myself though college."

One day he received a serendipitous call from a friend at Bing & Bing, a prominent real estate company. His friend told him that there was a low-level spot available. Mr. Siegel got a job in the mail room, at a weekly salary of $70 - 30 percent more than what he was making in his previous, even more menial job. He rose steadily through the ranks.

He then joined another industry giant, Cushman & Wakefield. By his late 30s, he'd become chairman and CEO.

"I had good mentors who passed on their expertise quite openly to me," Mr. Siegel said, quietly deflecting a question about his ambition. "But I was also willing to take chances. Of course, there's also timing, and a little bit of luck that's needed for success."

He displayed how willing he was to take chances when he accepted an offer in 1992 to become president of Gordon & Company, a small real estate brokerage doing about $50 million in annual business. By 2000, Mr. Siegel had raised revenues to $1 billion, mostly by getting the company to go national.

There was also the fact that in that eight-year period, real estate was strong. And there was the fact that the company had been acquired by the Insignia Financial Group, which gave Mr. Siegel more heft in manpower and resources.

"We were very driven and focused," he said.

His performance got the attention of CB Richard Ellis. Mr. Siegel was already tiring of combining management duties with what he loved to do much more, investing. And so exactly two years ago, he came to the behemoth. CB Richard Ellis and its partner and affiliate offices have more than 17,000 employees in some 300 offices scattered through 50 countries.

In 2004, the company posted service revenues totaling $2.4 billion and completed more than 41,600 sale and lease assignments, with a consideration value of over $127.1 billion according to the company's literature.

The firm's institutional property and corporate facilities management portfolio includes 989 million square feet.

There were 39,500 valuation and advisory assignments last year. In addition through L.J. Melody & Company, the firm completed $13.3 billion in commercial mortgage originations, and through CB Richard Ellis Investors, it had $15.1 billion in investment assets under management. The company's stock has gone from $19 when Mr. Siegel joined to $43.58 yesterday.

Now Mr. Siegel spends much of his time in investing and syndicating real estate, nationally as well as abroad.

"I've watched my industry evolving into a thoroughly technology-driven business, with exceptional professionals," Mr. Siegel said. "But those of us who grew up in an environment where business relationships were formed more informally, but no less lucratively - miss the importance that used to be put on developing personal relationships. Because competition has been heightened, real estate professionals tend to subordinate relationships - which you really can't because people are still important. After all, it's people with whom you're doing business."

His success has enabled Mr. Siegel to expand his investments into restaurants and a minor-league baseball team.

He's on various boards, including that of the City Center. "I'm having fun," he said.

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