It was a milestone worth celebrating – 25 years as one of the most successful commercial real estate firms in New York City.
Paul Massey, CEO and co-founder of Massey Knakal, a company he started with friend and colleague Bob Knakal in 1988, beamed as he greeted arriving guests at an anniversary party in Tribeca last week.
The firm put the number of guests at 900 — a mix of clients and employees that filled the Tribeca Rooftop space on Desbrosses Street.
From its humble beginnings in the late 80s with just Massey and Knakal sharing a two-room office, the company has grown to 213 employees. It has a 20,000 s/f headquarters in the heart of Midtown and offices in Queens, Brooklyn and New Jersey.
Massey, a native of Dedham, Massachusetts, a town on the south shore of Boston, attended Roxbury Latin High School before going to Colgate University, where he studied economics.
Though commercial real estate was never on his radar while in college, a national accounts officer from CB Richard Ellis visited his fraternity and offered him a summer job.
“I loved it,” said Massey of the experience. He met future business partner Bob Knakal at CB, a few years later, though they were both “summer kids” with the company, in different offices.
After moving to New York City in 1983, Massey first lived in an attic over his father’s cousin’s house in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. His first day on the job at CB, he got lost after arriving at Port Authority.
The time he first met Knakal was a memorable one — taking cover during a food fight.
During a CBRE conference in Westchester in the early 80’s, while Knakal was still in college and Massey just recently graduated, a food fight broke out during a get-together dinner arranged during the conference.
“We had an uproarious dinner which wrapped up with a food fight,” said Massey. “We ended up under the table defending ourselves.”
Though they went to different colleges, they realized they were members of the same fraternity, ATO, and their friendship started from there.
They both spent four and a half years at CB, and Massey “loved every minute of it.”
The duo spent a year planning to start a company together, putting the wheels in motion in 1987. “I think we were just itching for a challenge, and too young to know any better,” said Massey.
Massey Knakal’s first office was a two-room space on East 52 Street, in a building that still used a manual elevator. Over the course of a decade, the company grew slowly but surely, adding a broker or two every year.
By the year 2000, Massey Knakal reached a turning point, when they nearly sold the company. After the buyer got “cold feet” due to volatile capital markets, they realized they wouldn’t have been happy.
“It wasn’t about the buyer, we had unfulfilled dreams,” said Massey. “The first ten years we were like the baker in the bake shop, baking cakes, working in our business but not on it,” said Massey. “Every year we said, ‘let’s grow our business’ but never did much about it.”
So they started doing something about it.
“We started doing things to the company like getting a CFO, so I wasn’t doing the books at the dining room table instead of playing with the kids on Sunday, or getting a recruiting director and a training director,” said Massey. “So that kind of brought us right into the period of 2000 to 2007, in which the wind was completely at our backs. The business, on a relative basis, exploded in size, which was fantastic.”
An important moment came in 2006, when Massey Knakal formed an advisory board filled with executives from some of the top firms in the industry to help give them some guidance.
“We went around to our friends at CB and JLL and Cushman and said, ‘What do you make of this,’” said Massey “We realized we had created a player-coach atmosphere, so the manager and the partner who ran the office was also a producer, and that became a strain on them to really dedicate themselves to the sales staff.
“We went out and brought in passionate managers — Garrett Thelander, Todd Korren, David Simon — these guys live to be a manager. Effectively their role is coach, they’re like the Joe Torre’s of our business, in all the good ways.”
Close friends and partners for 30 years, Massey gives praise to Knakal for the intelligence and insight he brings to the firm. “He’s much smarter than me,” said Massey. “He’s the Wharton guy — he has a photographic memory, he can play three-dimensional chess, and every once in a while he’ll make some strategic observation that really helps us, or save us from an epic blunder that I wouldn’t have thought of, or our management team might not have had a perspective on.”
He describes his relationship with Knakal and his other partners at the firm as a “marriage.”
“A marriage has to grow, and ours has grown really well,” he said. “If you start with the same goals, and stay the same way, it works.ˮ
Recently, the company has talked about further geographic expansion, looking in particular at more opportunities in New Jersey, and Massey to continue growing.
“We’ve significantly invested in our management team lately just so we can allow for scale,” said Massey.
The company recently signed a lease for its New Jersey headquarters in Rutherford, a space around 5,000 to 6,000 s/f that will ultimately house 60 employees.
Massey has lived in Larchmont, NY, for 21 years, where he and his wife Gretchen raised their three children, Paul III, Sarah, and Greta.
Massey’s oldest son, Paul III, works in commercial office leasing at Avison Young. “I had nothing to do with that,” said Massey. “He had a couple different things he was considering (after college). I’m not that dad, he made his own decision. What’s cool is having him in town and going out for a beer after work.”
He spends summers with his family on Martha’s Vineyard, which also provides an opportunity to see family members that live on the south shore.
An avid sportsman, Massey loves skiing, sailing, is a black belt in karate, and has run the NYC Marathon four times.
He’s also on several public company boards and some nonprofits, including the Tenement Museum.
“It’s been a blast,” said Massey of the past two and half decades. “In 30 years, we’ve met so many people that we really like. It’s such a great industry. It’s a big small world.”