Jim Wacht is something of an opportunist.
Growing up in New York City in the 60s and 70s, he remembers his fascination with the constantly changing city and its buildings, but a career in real estate was never on his radar.
“I never had this great plan that this is what I wanted to do,” he said. “What happens is certain opportunities would present themselves, and I’d say ‘wow, this is a great opportunity and I should take advantage of it.’”
The president of Lee and Associates NYC started his career as a lawyer with Bachner, Tally, Misher, Brinberg & Polevoy.
“Initially, when I was in law school I was thinking of getting into public service and government, but somehow when I graduated, I got a job at the law firm. They put me in the real estate department and I really liked it. I enjoyed it,” he said.
“I worked with some great clients at the time… seeing what they were able to create really got me excited about real estate.”
And then the opportunity came. Among Wacht’s real estate clients was Sierra Realty, a small management firm run by two cousins. “They were kind of the yelling, screaming old-school type real estate guys and I was the only attorney in the office who could actually get along with them, because they were yellers and screamers and I grew up with three sisters,” he said. “So I’m sort of used to yelling and screaming and it didn’t bother me.”
The Sierra principals had no succession plan, and invited Wacht to join the firm.
“I had to think about it because I knew I had a good future as a lawyer and I actually enjoyed being a lawyer,” he said. “But the opportunity to be a little more entrepreneurial and be my own boss was a little too compelling for me to turn down the opportunity.”
Wacht expanded the firm to encompass property and construction management as well as retail brokerage.
And then opportunity knocked again in the spring of 2011 when Joel Herskowitz approached Wacht with the opportunity to join Lee and Associates, a national brokerage company looking for a New York City presence.
Grubb and Ellis was struggling at the time, so Wacht knew there would be talent available to hire, and office leasing was the one thing Sierra wasn’t doing. “We saw this as a way really to expand what we were doing and to fill the one real gap in our lines of business,” Wacht said.
These days, Wacht’s eye for opportunity is focused outside of the Manhattan, in the growing real estate markets of the outer boroughs. Lee and Associates NYC recently opened a second office in Great Neck, Long Island to serve the Long Island and Queens markets. Brooklyn, a borough where Wacht is already invested in a number of properties, is also on the radar.
He said he admired the recent Jamestown Properties-led investment in Sunset Park’s Industry City. “I think that was a very interesting deal,” he said. “I think that is the sort of neighborhood that you need to be looking for. Brooklyn right now is going through this incredible transformation.”
Wacht encourages the senior brokers in his firm to join in investment pools and buy their own properties. In addition to helping then establish some security outside the boom / bust comission lifestyle, he said, it helps keep them loyal to the company.
“You would think that brokers who spend all day doing deals in real estate would actually buy real estate. It’s amazing how few of them actually do,” Wacht said.
Wacht lists a long roster of hobbies, from voracious reading to outdoor rock climbing, though he was recently forced to give up skydiving.
He lives on the Upper East Side with his wife of 26 years, the travel writer, publicist and food writer Meryl Pearlstiein. The couple has two sons. The younger is in college and interned with Lee and Associates NYC this summer, and the elder is studying to teach special education — to his father’s great pride.
Wacht is a member of the board of directors of the Community Housing Improvement Program, and the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, where he is involved in a program to restore music classes in disadvantaged schools where the programs have been cut due to budget restraints.
He studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Boston University School of Law.