Alan Miller talks a mile a minute. One sentence barely has time to finish before his next thought comes tumbling out, accompanied by clarifying hand gestures.
His high-energy conversations fly through space, time, ideas — and every inch of Manhattan real estate.
“The key to real estate is knowledge. Hard work goes unsaid, but this business is about knowing information, retaining it, applying it,” he said. “I have a very good memory.”
Miller, a principal at Eastern Consolidated, started his real estate career in 1985 at the age of 22. Fresh out of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with a degree in economics, he and a friend had moved to the West Village apartment his older sister vacated after her marriage. It was the sort of maneuver, he noted, that would be almost impossible in today’s super-tight residential market.
He didn’t have a plan, but having grown up on Long Island with a mother from Brooklyn and a father from the Bronx, he knew where he wanted to be.
“New York was exciting,” he said. “It was the place to be. It’s not just me. I think everyone graduating today — If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Everyone wants to try New York.”
His first job, cold calling for a stock broker at Lehman Brothers, lasted just a few weeks. His next gig was at Chase Bank, where he stayed for six months. Then, one evening, he went with a dozen friends to watch the New York Knicks play a game of basketball. One 19-year-old guy came late to the game, a $29,000 commission check in hand. Three days later, Miller said, he joined his friend at Lee Odell Real Estate, a commercial brokerage firm where Miller stayed for ten years.
“I learned more in my first three days in real estate than I did in six months at Chase,” he said. “Real estate was exciting from the start.”
Odell, Miller said, emphasized the importance of honesty, integrity and accuracy in a broker’s work. He sent his young new hire to canvas potential sales in Harlem, where Miller made his first two deals: a vacant lot on west 118th Street, followed by a building on West 151st.
“Harlem was hot,” he said, even though it would be decades before development in the neighborhood would take off. “Nothing ever got built, but people would trade and flip.”
Unlike his previous jobs, Miller recalled, he found real estate dynamic and exciting. Living in Manhattan, “everything was real estate.”
“Real estate is tangible; you can touch it. Stocks are different,” he said.
Brokers today use technology that wasn’t even dreamed of in the 1980s. But, Miller said, the young new hires still start out much the same way he did almost 30 years ago.
“Cold calling, canvasing is the backbone of the business… it’s pounding the phones,” he said. “Sales is a tough job because you’re not successful 95 percent of the time, or even more.”
After his time with Lee Odell, Miller worked with Stonehenge Partners and then the Carlton Group before he joined Eastern Consolidated in 1999. Asked to recall his favorite deal, Miller didn’t pick his most lucrative transaction, nor the one with the biggest names or the most complicated ownership structure.
Instead, he told the story of his involvement in the 1989 sale of the 99-year lease on the Herald Square Building, then known as the Hotel Martinique. It was one of the city’s most notorious “welfare hotels,” and the first then-Mayor Ed Koch shut down to demonstrate the city’s commitment to ending the warehousing of the homeless in crowded SROs.
Miller was friends with the daughter of the owner, and as the city moved the more than 2,000 residents of the 591-room hotel into alternate accommodations, he mailed thick envelopes describing a 330,000 s/f redevelopment opportunity to potential investors, including the Long Island developer Harold Thurman, who eventually converted the historic structure into a Holliday Inn.
Touring the building, Miller said, they met residents, including a single mother who lived with six children in a single room, maybe as small as 100 s/f. At this point in the story, the broker’s expressive hands failed him, and he stood up from his chair and began pacing as he reflected on the size of the tiny accommodation.
“It was eye-opening,” he said.
Another significant deal got started in 1997 when Miller traveled to Atlantic City with a group of brokers to play some golf. Over a blackjack table in the Trump Plaza, he met his wife Janice, who works in public relations in the health industry.
“Lady luck walked into my life,” he said. “As much as gamblers never win, I could never be a loser… I met my family.” Today the couple and their two children, ages six and two, live in Times Square. It’s not a place for peace and quiet, he said, but Miller seems to relish counting the M&M store among his neighbors.
“I love walking from Grand Central [where Eastern Consolidated has its offices] to Times Square,” he said. “I still get exhilarated.”