By Sarah Trefethen
Peter Braus first learned about real estate through a kind of osmosis.
He grew up in Larchmont NY, but his father ran the real estate firm J.R. Braus & Company on 53rd Street and Madison Avenue.
“I was a business-minded kid. I was the kid who would do a lemonade stand, or mow lawns for money,” Braus, now a managing principal of Lee NYC, recalled.
“I would go to the city a lot, and my dad’s office, and when you do that as a kid, you sort of absorb things.”
By the time the younger Braus decided to join the business himself, however, his father’s cousin had taken over the company, by then known as Sierra Realty.
The cousin’s partner, Jim Wacht, had risen up through the firm. Braus, in his late 20’s, had no experience in real estate — at least, not as an adult.
“I told them I wanted to join the company, and they said, ‘That’s nice, but we don’t want you. You don’t know anything,’” Braus said.
He did have some business experience outside the real estate world. His first job out of college was in advertising with Jordan McGrath Case & Taylor. He earned an MBA from Columbia before going to work for Poland Spring, helping to introduce the concept of bottled water to restaurant owners and managers. Along the way he, he made some contacts and learned a few things about the way restaurants run.
This knowledge came in handy when — passed over by Sierra — he went to work for New Spectrum Realty Services, a company that had spun off from the storied retail brokerage, Garrick Aug.
Braus had early success leasing spaces in Nolita, and estimates he did about a dozen deals in the now-trendy neighborhood before most people had heard its name.
“People said, ‘Where is Nolita? What is Nolita?’” he said. “Everyone else was focused on doing deals on Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue. I was a kid getting started in the business, and you have to sort of go where the other people aren’t.”
Another early deal was a 30,000 s/f commissary for Danny Meyer, the restaurateur, on the West Side. This early experience taught him a lesson that he still passes on to everyone who works with him today, he said. A good broker understands a client’s business well enough to know what kind of space they need.
“Anyone likes to talk to someone who relates to their business,” he said. “That was something I learned. If you can speak their language, they know you’re not going to waste their time. Part of becoming a good broker is learning what’s going to be the appropriate space for a client.”
This insight is part of Braus’ larger philosophy: brokers need to be more than middlemen.
“We’re a cost center in the deal — we add cost to the deal for the client,” he said. “If you can’t add value to a deal as a broker, then you have no business being in that deal.”
Braus stayed at New Spectrum long enough to see the firm bought out by Newmark Grubb Knight Frank. He left product marketing for real estate in part because he preferred working in smaller companies, he said, and he went to back to Wacht, who was then running Sierra on his own. “I said, basically, ‘Do you want me now?’” Braus said, “and he said yes.”
Today, Braus and Wacht head up a full-service real estate firm that employs 50 people in brokerage alone. Sierra joined with Lee & Associates in 2011, giving the firm a national platform. The firm is making a strong play in the outer boroughs, and has a noteworthy presence in the booming retail market in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Braus lives in Tribeca with his wife, Kaija Braus, and their school-aged sons, Henry and Nate. He serves on Manhattan Community Board One and is on the board of the Downtown Alliance.
As a senior executive, Braus is focused on expanding Lee NYC’s business, and they plan to continue hiring new staff. But he still devotes about half his time to deals, he said, providing leadership and guidance to as many projects as he can.
One of his favorite deals closed in 2012, when Lee NYC sold 202 Fifth Avenue, known as the Commodore Criterion Building, for $40 million to Poreclanosa, a Spanish tile company.
The building is only 15,000 s/f, but provided a unique branding opportunity on the building’s signage overlooking Madison Square Park.
By the time Lee started marketing the building, Braus said, other brokerages had tried and failed to find a buyer at the desired price.
“You had to find the needle in the haystack,” he said. “That was a great deal for us. I love it when I can work on something that people have not been successful at and sort of prove to myself that I can do it.”