By Daniel Geiger
Joseph Thanhauser used to work for a major commercial real estate owner and operator in a corporate office in a white-shoe building along one of midtown’s most central thoroughfares.
The job was okay. He sat in a cubicle and handled leasing deals for the firm’s star studded collection of Manhattan office towers.
There were two coffee rooms in the office, and although it was unspoken, one was for employees and the other for executives. Thanhauser preferred the latter, so much so that even after one of the secretaries caught him going in and warned him sternly, he persisted. Then one of the senior executives at the company had a word with him. Not one to be cowed into submitting to corporate hierarchies, Thanhauser quit and started his own leasing company.
So started Byrnam Wood, the firm that Thanhauser has operated since, a place where has practiced brokerage the way he feels it should be done, without the conformity, straitlaced etiquette, and dogma he’d grown tired of.
His restiveness manifested itself in even the smallest details. When he became dissatisfied with the computers available a few years ago, Thanhauser, who is an electrical engineer by training, began buying the individual components from parts distributors and assembling the machines on his own. He keeps a picture of one of the pinnacles of this effort on his Blackberry, an exotic looking custom built tower made of clear glass or plastic that provides a view of the computer’s guts.
Finally, Thanhauser grew tired of the Windows operating system because of the updates it would surreptitiously install, altering or adjusting the settings and function of his computer. He didn’t like the idea of that kind of interference in his domain, so he switched over to Apple.
Thanhauser’s iconoclast nature appears not only in the way he runs his company, but also how it competes against much bigger rivals.
He dismisses the sacred mantra held among most large brokerage firms that a sweeping geographical presence is necessary to win big tenants, whose needs extend nationally or globally. Byrnam Wood has only a handful of brokers and is based solely in Manhattan but has worked successfully in a number of different markets for major accounts.
“Why would I want to go with a firm that might have a great New York office but has guys who are lousy in Atlanta?” Thanhauser asks. “I think we’re at an advantage to other firms because when we work with a tenant in another market, we help them put together the best team in that city, rather than someone who’s ‘our guy’ that we’re tied to but may actually be far from the best.”
A few years back, Thanhauser said that he began to notice that Staubach, a national real estate brokerage chain that dwarfed Byrnam Wood in size, had an interesting ace up its sleeve for winning business. Like Byrnam Wood, Staubach, which was acquired by Jones Lang LaSalle a few years ago, was one of the few firms that specialized in tenant representation, what can be a powerful selling point to clients.
Firms that work with both landlords and tenants, rather than just tenants exclusively, open themselves up to more business, but can also at times appear to have a conflict of interest, suggesting an incentive to bring tenants to vacant buildings.
Thanhauser said that Roger Staubach, Staubach’s founder and a former professional football star in the 1970s with the Dallas Cowboys, would attend important pitches for the company and leave potential clients with a signed football. The prospect of receiving that ball and meeting such an iconic player, from Thanhauser’s perspective, was enough to get the firm’s foot in the door with tenants and give it a leg up over competitors.
So Thanhauser went on eBay and bought up a number of footballs signed by Staubach.
“This way, tenants would be guaranteed to get a ball if they met with us for a pitch too,” Thanhauser said.
He considered taking the joke to an even more outrageous level, brainstorming a truncheon signed by the figure skater Tonya Harding.
In some ways, Thanhauser’s outlaw style appears as if it could be double-edged. After all, his sense of humor and disdain for corporate culture could cut at not merely rival brokerages, but also the big tenants that he sought to work with. Yet large clients have taken an affinity to Thanhauser’s straightforwardness and simplicity. His firm, which is modestly staffed with only a handful of brokers, has won a number of prominent clients.
Last year, for example, Byrnam Wood represented the law firm D’Amato & Lynch in its 52,000 s/f sublease at 2 World Financial Center. Thanhauser, in partnership with Gordon Ogden, a principal at Byrnam Wood, also handled a 50,000 s/f lease for Publicis Modem, the digital advertising subsidiary of the ad giant Publicis Groupe, in a deal to relocate the company to 85 Tenth Avenue.
“When we go into pitches, tenants see that we’re not giving them a canned approach, we’re not formulaic and we’re not going to hand the deal off to underlings,” said Gordon Ogden, who has worked with Thanhauser at the firm since 1997. “What you see is what you get, and tenants, I think, appreciate that.”