By Dan Orlando
Matthew Baron, president of Simon Baron Development, has not taken a conventional route to the top of New York’s real estate world.
Baron, whose firm currently controls in excess of $1 billion in real estate holdings in New York City and the suburbs, dropped out of college because he couldn’t afford it.
He found himself working as a telemarketer for Chase Bank. The Brooklyn native supported himself by tracking down clients with well-padded checking accounts and convincing them to roll funds into Chase’s savings products.
Eventually, he was tapped by Morgan Stanley, who invited him to try his hand on Wall Street, despite his lack of a college degree.
Baron did not particularly enjoy his time as a stock broker, telling Real Estate Weekly that he “hated the stock market.ˮ
“I looked at it as a casino,” said Baron.
However, he credits his time in the Financial District as the dawning of a “hard to shake” work ethic that he refers to fondly as “the brute force approach.”
Fueled by the financial standing of brokers with degrees and more years in the business under their belts, Baron spent his tenure at Morgan Stanley arriving early and leaving late so that he could earn the same as those with head starts.
As his career progressed, he began to take special notice of his clientele that had developed part of their wealth in the real estate arena. Captured by the allure of dealing in tangible investments, Baron resigned from Morgan Stanley in 2001 to pursue a career in real estate.
But the change in field would involve more than a simple shift in employers. It was time for Baron to even the educational playing field.
“My wife said she wouldn’t marry me unless I went back to school and got a college degree,” Baron told REW. While his significant other’s input was certainly a major factor, in hindsight Baron believes that the formal education allowed him to reach higher rungs on the industry’s ladder.
“I did gain a little a little bit of success not having a college degree,” said Barron. “There are a lot of people who have been successful without that, but I certainly think it helps. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without the network and the pedigree that I acquired going to those schools.”
“Those schools” were the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University and Columbia Business School where he earned a B.S. and then an MBA in finance.
Baron has since turned his academic relationship with NYU into a professional one. He is currently an adjunct professor teaching real estate development at the School of Continuing and Professional Studies.
During his second venture into higher education, Baron was able to afford his tuition thanks to the job he worked when he wasn’t putting in all-nighters at the library.
A member of the consulting team for the Harlem Small Business Initiative, he worked under President Bill Clinton.
“(Clinton) was out of office and he’d literally get calls direct from Tony Blair,” Baron told REW, “but he spoke like a down home boy from Arkansas.”
“He’s a really, really sharp guy,” Baron continued, “He’s an amazing orator. If there’s a guy who can sell ice to Eskimos in the dead of winter, he’d be that guy.”
After graduating, Baron took his “brute force approach,” to Pergolis Swartz Associates, the real estate financing and commercial mortgage company where he would eventually serve as vice president before teaming up with Jonathan Simon to form SBD.
Now co-captaining his own ship, Baron supervises acquisitions, financing, capital raising, development and management of SBD’s holdings and interests.
Right now, he estimates that about $800 million of SBD’s capital is invested in developing projects. Though Baron insists that SBD is “excited about all of our deals,” he expresses genuine optimism for the area just south of Astoria, Queens, where SBD just paid $55 million of a site at 29-26 Northern Boulevard where it is building a 400,000 s/f 400 unit tower.
“Long Island City probably has the best transportation,” Baron told REW, noting the “three minute train ride” that transports LIC residents to 59th and Lexington.
While he said the area is not as “sexy or trendy” as Williamsburg and would benefit from an influx of retail, Baron believes that what it lacks in sex appeal is more than compensated by accessibility and the 30-50 percent drop in rent when compared to Manhattan.
SBD also bought the debt on the Crescent Club in LIC and converted that into luxury rentals. The building sold for more than $80 million in 2013.
SBD has also recently made moves in to Manhattan, acquiring the 13-story Rosario Candela-designed building at 12 East 88th Street for $105 million that it plans to convert to luxury condos, and a vacant site on East 31st Street where the company is building a boutique hotel.
With all of his firm’s irons in the fire, the hometown boy turned industry leader told REW that the recipe to his ascension is far from complicated.
“There’s not a lot of secret to what I’ve been doing,” said Baron, “just a lot of hard work.”