David Firestein isn’t stumped by the question of what he’s most proud of – it’s even emblazoned on his license plate.
“It says SBUX 1, which is the New York Stock exchange symbol for Starbucks,” says Firestein with a laugh.
The SCG Retail CEO brokered the deal for the first Starbucks in New York City in the early 90’s — and every one since then.
Early next year, Firestein will mark the 200th retail store opening of Starbucks in Manhattan.
Along with Starbucks, he has brokered deals in Manhattan for national chains Costco, Whole Foods, AMC Theaters, Staples, Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace and outdoor goods superstore, REI.
After founding Northwest Atlantic Real Estate Services in 1994, Firestein grew his company through a merger with Westchester-based company The Shopping Center Group (SCG) in December 2011. This past May, a new division of the company, SCG Retail, opened in Manhattan.
A New England native, Firestein attended Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH, and then the University of Massachusetts where he earned an MBA in real estate and marketing, before re-locating to the West Indies post-college to teach tennis – he played in high school and college – and open a restaurant.
But real estate was always on his mind.
“I decided at eight or nine years old playing Monopoly that I wanted to be in real estate,” he said. “When I got out of school, the real estate market was bad but I didn’t want to do anything other than real estate.”
He returned to the states in 1978 and started doing brokerage for a couple years before going to work for Steve Roth at Vornado following his takeover of the company in 1981.
“I was lucky enough to be a part of that team. I really learned the business at Vornado,” he said.
Roth was in the mall business, and made a huge power play by purchasing New Jersey-based chain Two Guys From Harrison, which was “the Kmart of its day” said Firestein.
After purchasing the chain, Roth shut down the retail operations and began leasing out the spaces, located in major shopping centers. “I really learned the business in those years,” said Firestein.
One of the tenants the group worked with was AMC Theatres, which Firestein eventually worked for after leaving Vornado in the mid-80’s, doing deals for the national chain throughout the mid-atlantic and northeast.
When he eventually went back into brokerage, one of his biggest deals was the AMC at 42nd Street near Times Square, which he called a “game changer.”
“At the time, it was a major deal for lots of reasons,” recalled Firestein. “It was the early 90’s, Disney went to 42nd Street and 42nd Street was pretty rough in those days. Disney didn’t want to go alone.”
He added that the AMC location is still the highest grossing theater in the country.
In addition to his work with AMC, Firestein did deals with Loews, Angelika and Sundance theater chains. “They’re very tough deals to do,” he said. “They take years to be done.”
He added that he is currently working on a movie theater venue slated for Williamsburg.
It was in the same early 90’s time period when he brought Starbucks — a company that at the time only had 400 stores total – to Manhattan, cementing his status as a power retail broker.
“I would say I drank the Kool Aid, but I drank the coffee,” he said. “I’m a huge fan of them as my client, but I love the company, too.”
The deals Firestein says that he is most proud of include Starbucks, the aforementioned 42nd Street AMC Theater, as well as Whole Foods locations in the Time Warner Center and Tribeca.
He looks to continue his success and stick to his philosophy of putting the tenant first.
“If we do the right thing for the tenant, that to me is the key to a long relationship and I think that’s why a lot of tenants have been with us for a long time,” he said, adding that Costco and Starbucks have been clients for more than two decades.
“It’s a good long-term philosophy for staying in business a long time.”