Many years ago, when I first started out in the real estate business, I landed a job as a leasing representative for a major Wall Street company based in Manhattan. One of my first assignments was to find office space for one of our downtown retail branches.

In those days, a stock brokerage office was very different from what we see today. One of the key features was a big lobby where cigar smoking retirees could come to sit around and watch the big ticker. In those days, the only way to watch the ticker was to “watch the ticker”, a large moving tape of just recorded stock market transactions, almost in real time. This was before financial networks were able to broadcast the tape on cable TV let alone a computer laptop. Stockbrokers had a primitive computer terminal that enabled them to look up the trading data of any company and get a picture of the current price and a little background information. In those days folks relied on their brokers to keep an eye on the market for them and they would expect to get a call from their brokers within minutes of any major event.

The office was set up with the image of money in mind. The managers and the high selling brokers were housed in private offices and the newer brokers were in the open bullpen. Trades were conducted by the operations managers team in a secured gilded cage at the center of the office which looked a lot like a bank teller with metal pass windows. The ambiance of the office was dark walnut desks and paneling everywhere. It was designed to look like a place where old money resided.

There I was at age 26 preparing to survey office space in downtown Manhattan for the retail branch manager. To accomplish this, I was invited to meet several top Landlords and their leasing agents for the various properties I was instructed to visit and to report on the available space options.

It happened right in the middle of this tour where I was to have one of the strangest experiences in my business career. It was a subtle and yet unexpected life changing event, an “aha” moment that I remember to this day like it happened just yesterday.

I had first visited a brand-new office tower on lower Broadway, a new contemporary office building with all the latest lobbies, windows, and HVAC systems. The elevators were polished brass and there was an army of polite doormen to assist all the visitors in getting to the right elevator to find their floors. It was simply breathtaking, and anyone would want to work there.

My next prospect was located across the street. This building was a dingy white gothic office tower that was constructed around 1907 that looked like it had a collection of soot on the exterior that hadn’t been cleaned in fifty years. The lobby was very noisy as the sound of footsteps and conversations echoed across the floor. There I met the owner of this tower who escorted me to his office.

He looked me right in the eye and inquired what I thought of the building. I was too naïve to hide my true feelings and told him I thought the place looked like it could use some upgrades and improvements. He smiled and asked me, what did I think of the building across the street? I told him how the place was amazing!

He smiled again and said , “young man, I am going to tell you something that I want you to never forget”. As he looked straight at me he said, “that building across the street costs hundreds of millions of dollars to build and has a tremendous mortgage that the owners will never be able pay off and they won’t be able to make a profit for decades. They have to charge double the rent I can, and the building is not even thirty percent occupied.” He said, “that is an ugly building.” “This building”, he said, “is 100 percent debt free with no mortgage, is almost fully occupied, and makes me more than $40 million dollars profit each year. This is a beautiful building.”

Do you know the fable that beauty is in the eye of the beholder? This is a lesson that I never forgot!

Lawrence Dickstein

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