By Al Barbarino
James Nelson is a team player.
When the Massey Knakal partner and former captain of his swim team at Colgate University was honored with the firm’s 2011 Gerald W. Bridges Award for company-wide Salesperson of the Year, he asked his team of associates to walk up to the podium with him to accept the award.
“The Salesperson of the Year award is not a personal award,” Nelson said. “The team atmosphere here is something that I’ve definitely embraced. There’s no way that I could that I could have handled the sales that I did last year on my own.”
Nobody ever won a swim meet alone. And for Nelson, his team of associates — which includes David Fowler, Caroline Hannigan, Mitchell Levine and Matt Nickerson — are as essential to his success as his fellow swimmers were back in college.
But Nelson — now a triathlete who competes in the NYC triathlon — also calls upon his own intrinsic determination and work ethic when brokering some of the largest deals in the firm’s history. He likened it to the two-and-a-half-hour, 40-mile bike rides he cycles every morning during triathlon season, from Old Greenwich, Connecticut, where he lives, to his Midtown office.
“You have to be driven,” he said. “It’s the thrill of the hunt, going in to try to get a listing when you know you’re competing against three or four brokerage firms, and pulling out all the stops. I definitely enjoy that.”
Nelson completed 24 sales worth over $150 million in 2011, a $33 million residential conversion in the West Village among them. His past deals include the sale of 102-08 West 57th Street for $63 million; 625 Broadway for nearly $61 million; the 99-year land lease of 10-12 Bond Street, valued at over $60 million; The Portman Portfolio for $55 million; and a $34 million Bleecker Street retail portfolio in 2010, which yielded the third highest price per square foot ever paid in the U.S. at that time.
In all, he has been involved in the sale of more than 200 properties and loans worth $1.3 billion since joining the company in 1998.
That’s the year Nelson stumbled into the career services center at Colgate University, located in Hamilton, New York. Like many college seniors, he didn’t have much of a post-graduation game plan, and it definitely didn’t involve real estate. If anything, the English major thought maybe he would move out West and become a screenwriter. But it happened to be the day that the Massey Knakal resume drop was due, and he was able to get his resume in at the last minute.
“It was certainly luck,” he said. “Fortunately, Massey Knakal did not require a cover letter back then. I had a resume, I submitted it, and the rest is history.”
Nelson recalled meeting with founding partners of the firm, Bob Knakal and Paul J. Massey, Jr., a couple of weeks later. He was particularly impressed when, during finals week at Colgate, the duo offered to fly him out to the city.
“Being an undergrad, to have this great firm in New York fly me out at a moment’s notice, it certainly set the tone,” he said.
“Between the two of them, I feel confident that I can have 99 percent of any questions answered,” he added, about his relationship with the company founders today. “It’s a very collaborative environment and one that others reciprocate all around the office.”
He appreciates the lift Massey Knakal gave him to jumpstart his career early. Nelson provides a similar lift to associates throughout the firm today — as well as to various charitable organizations through his work as vice president of the Development Committee for The Catalog for Giving, a New York City non-profit that provides funding to at-risk youths through a variety of educational, mentorship and extra-curricular activity programs.
Every three years, the group selects ten local charities that are less than ten years old and have operating bud gets under $1 million to help out. Every dollar goes straight to the charities, Nelson said.
“We make investments in these charities at a vital time in their development,” he said. “Some of them started on a shoestring and we were able to go in and support them and allow them to do the great work that they do.”
Among Nelson’s clients are The Archdiocese of New York, Bank of America, Beck Street Capital, The Lefrak Organization, Related Companies, Time Equities, US Bank, Wells Fargo, The Witkoff Group and Zeckendorf Development.