For Brooklyn-born Brian Leary, home is where the business is.
“Brooklyn is 80 square miles and a few million people in population,” he said. “It’s the densest urban market in the U.S.”
Leary, a managing partner at CPEX Realty, was born in Park Slope, grew up in East Flatbush and studied at Bishop Ford High School.
These days, he lives with his wife and their daughter in Manhattan, but he commutes to work at the CPEX offices on Willoughby Street, where the firm he co-founded is at the forefront of King’s County’s burgeoning commercial property market.
“The market is becoming more mature, it’s also being recognized nationally as a very opportunistic place to live and to work,” he said.
Leary’s path into real estate was unexpected. He was a college student at St Mary of the Plains on Kansas on a full basketball scholarship when an injury prevented him from returning to school for the start of his junior year.
By the time he had healed, he had also decided that, at 5 ft. 8 ins., basketball might not be as solid a long-term plan as the landscaping business he had started with the owners of Shannon Florists and Nursery, a Brooklyn shop where he had worked since high school.
He spent the next five years doing landscaping, hardscaping and development infills all over Brooklyn. He also got his first taste of real estate, working on the properties owned by the family that owned the nursery.
Then, he happened to take on a job building a deck for Jim Lang, who was in charge of real estate at Bear Stearns. By the time the project was finished, he had the opportunity to follow a whole new career path, go back to school to get his degree and travel the world with a major international company.
“It was a hard decision to give up something I was successful with and had a passion for, but I knew it was the smart thing to do,” he said. He comes from a family of teachers, and finishing college was important.
But he might have questioned his decision during his first weeks at Bear Stearns, where he remembers spending 12-hour days following the cleaning and engineering staff around the firm’s 40-floor headquarters at 245 Park Avenue.
The idea was that he needed to get to know every department and every service line in the company before he could start making the real estate decisions. Eventually, however, he was part of the team part that acquired 383 Madison when it became the new headquarters for the firm, and worked on the acquisition and development of the company’s campus in Whippany, N.J.
He was at the investment firm for eight years before he started looking for other opportunities.
“It was again, just a time in my life when I wanted to make a change,” he said. “I wanted to get back into the middle market, I wanted to be more in the New York market, I wanted to do less traveling.”
In 2002, he went to work in the Brooklyn office of Massey Knakal, which was making a push into the borough.
And then, in 2008, a few months after the collapse of Bear Stearns and on the very day that it was announced that Lehman Brothers had failed, Leary, Lang and Timothy King (who had been Leary’s supervisor at Massey Knakal) launched CPEX.
The way Leary tells it now, the trio felt they had talents that extended beyond Massey Knakal’s focus on investment sales, and the borough was ready for a full-service real estate firm of its own.
What’s more, the timing seemed right.
“We decided it was going to be a challenging time, but maybe the perfect time to be building a model and a platform where we could service the outer boroughs with a full-service product,” Leary said.
In 2008, they did a handful of leases, most under 1,000 s/f. 2009 brought more leases, and two investment sales deals. Things picked up from there. So far the firm has sold 1.64 million buildable square feet, almost all of it in Brooklyn, and it has listings for another 1.7 million.
CPEX employs 25 licensed sales people and 14 staff, and this summer they worked with 24 interns. Leary said they hope to bring on another dozen people in the next 12-18 months.
The economic downturn slowed development in investment, Leary said, but he thinks the momentum that was behind Brooklyn’s real estate market in the early 2000’s has never really gone away.
“I think 2004 through now, it hasn’t really slowed down the demand,” he said.