When Helen Hwang moved from South Korea to New Jersey as a teenager, she had to learn a new language. Undaunted, Hwang spoke until she overcame mistakes, eventually taking honors English in high school.
The fearless approach led to her admission to Cornell University, where she first majored in chemistry, with plans to become a doctor. But after interning at Tishman Speyer and Mirage Resorts Inc. (now MGM Resorts International) and Boyd Gaming in an Atlantic City development, Hwang switched to Cornell’s hotel school to study real estate. She would later study investment and development at New York University’s Schack Institution in 2004.
The complexity and variety of real estate, in contrast to rigid chemical laws, was a welcome change for Hwang. “You have to be more nimble,” she said, and people in the industry were a constant source of surprises and lessons.
After graduating from Cornell, she joined Cushman & Wakefield, where she has worked for over 12 years and is now an executive vice president of the New York Capital Markets Group.
“I appreciate what I have,” said Hwang, who entered the business with no hereditary ties or special connections. “They hired me when I had nothing.”
Hwang was recently named among “50 Outstanding Asian Americans in Business” by the Asian American Business Development Center. An oldest sibling, she has become a trailblazer for her family: her brother has interned at Cushman, and her sister works at the firm’s multifamily valuation group. Hwang’s father is also a property owner in New Jersey, where she still lives.
One of Hwang’s first projects was the sale of 415 Greenwich Street, an office building that has since been converted into condos by developer KBS Capital Advisors. Since then, her work has taken her to all types of properties – including a record breaker.
In 2007, Hwang was part of a Cushman team, led by Arthur Mirante, which sold 666 Fifth Avenue to Kushner Companies for $1.8 billion, the largest single-building deal at the time.
In May 2010, much of that team, including Richard Baxter, Scott Latham, Ron Cohen and Jon Caplan, left Cushman for Jones Lang LaSalle. But Hwang remained at Cushman, along with Karen Wiedenmann, an executive vice president. The two have now worked together for eight years.
Last October, Cushman purchased its remaining 35% interest in Sonnenblick Goldman, which focuses on investment banking, note and hotel sales. Hwang now works with around 20 professionals in New York, including Wiedenmann, Steven Kohn, the president and principal of Cushman & Wakefield Sonnenblick Goldman and the head of the New York Capital Markets Group, Nat Rockett, an executive vice president, and Michael Rochford, an executive vice president that heads the investment banking group.
“We’ve been extremely successful in winning business,” said Hwang. “It’s about collaboration. It’s very critical for us to work together.”
Beyond the capital markets team, Hwang said, she can consult with Cushman’s leasing brokers to better understand a building’s rent capabilities, as well as its property management and project management staff. The firm’s depth has been an asset in landing assignments, and giving owners the expertise to not just sell, but also explore recapitalizations, joint ventures, and other possibilities.
“We’re giving the owner a host of options,” she said.
Recent months have seen resurgence in sales. Hwang said $17 billion in Manhattan transactions have closed or gone into contract since January – a number not far from 2006. Cushman has seen $1.6 billion in transactions under contract and closed in the last 12 months.
The increase in pricing has been driven by a large amount of capital chasing a short supply, Hwang said, along with an improving leasing market and New York’s general economic upsides.
The Cushman team recently sold Africa Israel’s 88 Leonard Street, a 352-unit rental building in Tribeca, a transaction that had many property and deal complexities, said Hwang. According to Bloomberg, the sales price was around $220 million.
Cushman also recently finished a leveraged lease for a Manhattan office building worth around $100 million, said Hwang. As Real Estate Weekly reported, Hwang and her team are currently marketing a retail portfolio for Vornado Realty Trust, along with a stake in the Paramount Group’s 1633 Broadway.
Hwang said roughly 30% of deals are recapitalizations, 15% are land or redevelopment transactions and 15% are hotel sales, leaving around 40% for fee deals, office and residential sales, which appeal to the bulk of investors. Institutional investors are targeting low-risk assets, but some buyers have considered new types of properties, in the face of short supply.
“They’re expanding their investment criteria,” said Hwang.
In May, the Cushman team sold two buildings owned by the Children’s Aid Society for $33 million to Broad Street Development, which plans a 60,000 s/f luxury condo on the site. Another small condo owned by the Aid Society is still on the market.
The addition of Sonnenblick has boosted Cushman’s note sales, which have recently included the $75 million senior mortgage on 80 Broad Street and 510 Madison’s junior mezzanine loan, which paved the way for Boston Properties to take control of the property from Harry Macklowe. Other deals were the sale of Bank of America’s senior mortgage at 218 West 18th Street and Capmark Bank’s mortgage on 408 Broadway, the office of Spin magazine, which was sold for $32 million.
Cushman is also is in talks to sell two development sites at 327 East 64th Street and 412 East 90th Street, owned by the car rental company Hertz Corp. It also sold a leasehold interest at 30 Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to Angelo, Gordon & Co for $57 million. The building is triple net leased to Con Edison.
Through the whirlwind of deals, Hwang remains a tenacious competitor, but also an active networker, organizing social events and sports outings for brokers and developers across the city, and mentors high school students in her free time. Although she’s known for selling buildings, Hwang’s strong reputation is built on her rapport with people.