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Frontline broker who is running rings around his competition

Despite being born into a real estate dynasty, Sean Black turned his back on tradition to pursue dreams of sporting success.

SEAN BLACK
SEAN BLACK

The recently appointed executive director at Cushman and Wakefield made it all the way to the 1996 Olympics as a champion boxer and even flirted with a career in modelling before answering his calling to the real estate industry.

“I tried to escape my destiny, and I just got pulled back into it,” said Black, whose uncle ran JJ Barnicke, the largest privately held real estate firm in Canada before it was sold to DTZ. During his summer break from the University of Western Ontario, Black would work at the real estate company prepping cold call lists and researching potential clients.

But fate would put him in a boxing ring for the next several years after he was cut from his school’s football team.

“In a very short period of time, I got very good at boxing,” said Black, who quickly hedged that statement by saying it was time spent at the gym that allowed him to succeed as opposed to natural talent.

“It wasn’t that I got very good. It’s just more that my will could not be suppressed,” he explained. “When I got to the gym I was challenged by all of the guys who were there.

“It didn’t take me long to realize that if I could put in three more hours’ worth of training a day, that it didn’t matter how good you were, sooner or later just by sheer will, I was going to catch you in terms of skill and surpass you. If you didn’t’ do what I was doing in terms of the regiment, it was going to be very hard to beat me.”

The rookie eventually found himself competing in multiple global tournaments, including the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Later in his career, Black was heading back from a training session in Jamaica when he landed in Miami and a chance meeting with two agents led him to a brief but successful career as a model. Another campaign to reach the 2000 Olypmics as a boxer followed but, as Black explained, his exposure to a business world in which his peers were enjoying successful white collar careers changed his direction for good.

In 2000, instead of competing in the Sydney, Australia, games, Black joined Grubb & Ellis focusing on office leasing in downtown neighborhoods. A stint at what was then Newmark Knight Frank followed before he joined JLL in 2009
and saw his career thrive with the burgeoning tech sector.

He helped co-working superstars stars WeWork lease a total of 400,000 s/f of space in multiple locations throughout NYC.

He has also negotiated space for office sharing leaders NYC Office Suites and Cowor‌k│‌rs; placed Foursquare in a 56,000 s/f office at 568 Broadway, Business Insider at 40,000 s/f of a 150 Fifth Avenue location and, most recently, helped Skip Hop execute a 18,000 s/f expansion and lease restructuring at 50 West 23rd Street.

“New York City is a city that has evolved over the years, it continues to evolve,” said Black who said that tech companies mean a brighter future for Manhattan office leasing, not a bleaker one.

“If you look at tech companies, what’s most interesting about them and why they are shaping the landscape of New York City is because when they grow, it’s not like a manufacturing company,” Black said.

“If I want to make more iPhones, I need more machines. If I want to build something from a technology standpoint, I need more people. So with more people, I need a place to put those people, so I’m going to put them in office space.”

But what about the ability to work remotely? Wouldn’t even promising startups with understandably conservative budgets opt to forgo Manhattan rents and spend their precious funds elsewhere?

“We thought that one day maybe the office sector might be hurt by technology because people could work everywhere,” said Black. “As it turns out, the opposite is true because people want to be together and they want to be able to collaborate and collaboration fosters innovation. You need to have that intellectual discourse occurring.

“In terms of the landscape of New York City, it’s going to continue to change dramatically.

“Just take a look at the tech companies,” continued Black. “Most of them are still emerging companies. Most of them haven’t even hit growth yet.

“When companies are early in their business cycle, what they tend to do is they bootstrap.”

That bootstrapping includes startup tenants opting to trade in comfort, flash and size, for practicality. Tech tenants still waiting for bigger piggy banks “cram people in” to tertiary locations and sustain low square foot per employee ratios.

But as Black points out, the enthusiasm for such stark conditions begins to wane as tech entities (and other startups) begin to scale. As success inflates the company’s value, the ability to retain homegrown talent as well as attract new superstars begins loom larger than the gung-ho mentality that welcomed discounted space.

“They want to live in a certain way. The rub is that early on in the life cycle of these companies they will accept very low sf per employee ratios.”

“What a company tends to be willing to pay for real estate really is a function of whether they are a low cost provider of services or not and to what extent they can pass on that incremental increase in cost to whoever is buying their service or product,” said Black who sees Tech tenants eventually filling prime office spaces on a regular basis. “That’s why hedge funds will pay whatever.”

“It’s like anything else is,” said Black. “Time progresses and the lines between things begin to blur. What’s a tech company today? Why is Uber a tech company? Why is Airbnb a tech company? Airbnb brokers real estate deals.

Uber, they provide car services. They hire a bunch of programmers to come in and program for them. I think in a few years we’re going to have a different conversation,” said Black, saying that the concept of a tech tenant is beginning to extend beyond the startup world.

According to Black, as tech further ingrains into New York’s economy, a new wave of office tenants will continue to generate a demand that stays a step ahead of supply.

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