Hal Stein

Episode 13: Hal Stein: Lessons Learned About Selling Company Culture in Commercial Real Estate with Hal Stein

Who is Hal Stein and what are the key takeaways in this episode?

Today’s episode is not just any ordinary episode. I had the great opportunity to speak with the award-winning commercial real estate guru, Hal Stein, who is a recipient of the CoStar Power Broker in 2012 and 2013. Hal is the current Executive Vice President and Managing Director of Newmark Grubb Knight Frank. In this brief 20 minute interview we’ve discussed:

  • How Hal started with real estate business
  • How family and being an only child shaped him
  • What he thinks about culture
  • How he felt being recognized as a writing star in Real State Weekly’s 50th anniversary issue
  • Hal’s advice to young and budding brokers

The Questions

[2:19] What shaped you in that environment?
Answer: I think a lot of that had to do with my parents and my friends. I had parents who trusted me and I was one of those kids who never had a curfew. They trusted me and if you’re out and drank too much, just call us and we will come pick you up, so I had a really close relationship with my family.

[5:48] When you first started out, what was your first big deal and how did you do it?
Answer: So my first big deal, it’s one of these funny questions because my first big deal was one of those mammoth deals. It was 550,000.00 foot, 10 rep deal with a healthcare company.

[16:06] What advice would you give a young broker starting out?
Answer: A lot of it has to do with hard work; a lot of it has to do with luck. I don’t think one can succeed in anything without a heck of a lot luck also, but I always took it upon myself to know everything there was to know about the downtown market in Manhattan. I took it upon myself to know every tenant, every landlord, every lease expiration, every owner, every broker, every whatever and just really tried to own it.

Culture According to Hal:

I think there’s two ways. I think there’s a culture. I think the boss works today in collaboration and open landscape and all that stuff, but I think first and foremost a culture is driven by management.

What Hal Wants His Company to BE:

  • BE Collaborative
  • BE Successful
  • BE Fun

Where to Find Hal:

Connect with John on


Hal: Hey, how are you?

John: Good, I’m real good. Thanks for coming on the show today. I just want to start with a little background on you, and if you could tell us a little about yourself, our listeners would really appreciate it.

Hal: Sure. From a personal standpoint or a business standpoint?

John: Tell us a little about your story, about you as a person.

Hal: About me as a person, okay, I’m 39 years old. I grew up in Long Island in Hewitt Woodmere area in Parktown. I went to University of Maryland, graduated there in 1997. And that’s when I took up real estate and I was at a company called GVA Williams and then came over to Newmark about seven years ago now.

I head up the downtown office for Newmark; I have always focused on lower Manhattan. I have a wife, Andrea, and two kids, a five year old son, Aiden and an 18 month old daughter, Ella.

John: Excellent, children. They don’t come with directions on the bottom, and I kept turning mine upside down and never saw them. So you’re a Turp. Tell us a little about your experience in Maryland, you enjoyed the college? Had a great experience?

Hal: Yeah, I had a fantastic experience at college. In fact, I am going back down there in February 28th to go see the Maryland-Michigan game that’s a different story all together but yeah, I had a great experience at Maryland. I was a psych major which probably prepared me for the real estate world and the real world in general.

What I took from college more than anything else was friendships and relationships, being on your own for the first time and I still have these everlasting relationships with friends. I still have probably 40 friends that live in and around Roslyn, where I live now. I still stay in very close touch with all the guys there. The last credit I had at Maryland was a golf class and that’s probably the most influential class I took while in Maryland was my golf because now I am an avid golfer and that was the start of it for me.

John: A game we all love to hate.

Hal: Exactly.

John: Tell me a little bit, but before you went to college, your younger years, what shaped you?

Hal: I’m sorry.

John: When you were growing up in Long Island, what shaped you? It sounds like you had a really cool – growing up in that environment, it sounds like from your voice, you really enjoyed it. What shaped you in that environment?

Hal: I think a lot of that had to do with my parents and my friends, I had parents who trusted me and I was one of those kids who never had a curfew. They trusted me and if you’re ever out and drank too much, just call us and we will come pick you up. So I had a really close relationship with my family.

I am an only child, but I always had friends around. I was an athlete; I was in my high school basketball, soccer and baseball. So it’s sort of a well-rounded thing. I still have those friends to this day from Maryland.

John: That’s excellent. So before you were doing real estate, what did you do? To hone your entrepreneurial spirit and get you into real estate?

Hal: So realty was my first job out of college. I haven’t done anything else from a real business standpoint. In my sophomore year at Maryland, my cousin was engaged to a broker, and I interned one summer and I got to see a little bit of how they operated, but every day was different.

They were out entertaining all the time with clients, playing golf with clients, doing this and doing that and they were making real money so I thought maybe this is something I could do and when I first graduated, I had a conversation with my parents and said I think this is what I want to do, but the problem of getting into real estate is that you don’t make a dollar literally for the first 12 months, 18 months or two years.

So my dad said, “Listen, if this is the route you want to go, I believe you will be successful in it, I will help you out financially but you have to live at home. I will support you every once in a while if you want to go to dinner, you want to go on a date, you want to do this, you want to do that, but you’re living at home and there’s no extra money for you to spend.”

So it was a real learning experience for me, living at home when all my friends were living in the city, so I was living on people’s couches and it was extremely frustrating that I was not even making a dollar, I was taking the 6:54 train in and the 7 something train out and not making any money. So it was a pretty frustrating time, but it served its purpose and worked out for me, because I was able to get through those times and slowly improve year by year in this industry.

John: You certainly made a name for yourself, in 2002, you were named Real Estate Weekly Rising Star in its 50th Anniversary issue. How did you feel about that?

Hal: It was exciting. It’s always nice to be recognized by your peers, by the competition and whoever voted on it, but it’s always nice just to be voted for. At the GVA, I was Associate Broker of the Year. I forgot what year that was.

It was one of those things where you try to make a name for yourself, you always try to do right by everybody. Good things come to people who treat others the way they want to be treated and I have always followed that because it’s a pretty cut throat business, but it’s one of those things where it’s really important what your reputation is through the other brokers, through the tenant community, through anybody that you come across because it’s a small world. It’s always great to be honored by your peers and this and that, for sure.

John: You certainly have a great reputation. Hal, tell me something. When you first started out, what was your first big deal? How did you do it? Tell us a little bit about that.

Hal: So my first big deal, it’s one of these funny questions because my first big deal was one of those mammoth deals. It was a 555,000 foot 10 rep deal with a healthcare company, hip at the time and it was in April 2003 when we signed that deal. We started working on it probably 18 months prior but the real reason that that deal happened was because of all the incentives that were still being offered, because of 9/11, to tenants in the downtown market.

So it took a long time, it had a lot of ups and downs, but ultimately when it happened, it was a very large commission and it adds to the credibility that you have in the marketplace that you were able to do a deal like that.

You can put it on your resume and all those types of things, but the nice thing is, still to this day, I do a lot of work with. They’re now called [inaudible] Health but I do a majority of their work from a leasing standpoint, [inaudible 0:06:55] as well.

John: That’s quite a big company and it sound like you have done some pretty interesting things. I noticed that in 2012 and 2013, Co-star named you the power broker. And you didn’t just wake up in the morning and become a power broker, so perhaps you could share with us some of the things that helped you get there and some of the things you perhaps wish you had never done.

Hal: Yeah. I think, the way it goes with the power brokers has to do with the total square footage, so that’s just the accumulation of all the deals that we were lucky enough to work on in those years in 2012 and 2013. I might even get it for 2014 but I’m not 100% sure, but it’s one of those things where they put you up against the rest of the company and the rest of the brokerage houses and say “Hey, these were the people who reached the most amount of square footage.” So it’s a tribute to all the people I work with, it’s a tribute to Newmark and the organization that I am with, and I know it’s a power broker, but it’s a team thing, like when the quarterback gets all the accolades but it’s the whole team that won the Super Bowl or closed a deal, or whatever it is.

John: I see 6,000,000 square feet, Hal in your 17 years, that’s phenomenal. What advice would you give a young broker starting out, because as you and I both know, young professionals, young entrepreneurs, we all start out, we all have these ideas and we all know it’s going to be tough, but maybe you could share some real life story with these people and say, here’s reality, here’s where the rubber meets the road, so to speak.

Hal: Yeah. So a lot of it has to do with hard work; a lot of it has to do with luck. I don’t think one can succeed in anything without a heck of a lot of luck also, but I always took it upon myself to know everything there was to know about the downtown market in Manhattan. I took it upon myself to know every tenant, every landlord, every lease expiration, every owner, every broker, every whatever and just really tried to own it so that when, it actually happened – it was in 1999, or something, whatever it was – one of the senior brokers at my firm at that time just picked a building downtown and I had never spoken a word to him before he called me into his office and just basically gave me a pop quiz right then and there asked me seven questions that only somebody that really understood downtown Manhattan would know the answer to and I knew every answer. It was just like, “Who has moved over here from this building?” And I said “It was [inaudible 0:09:31].”

We went back and forth and I answered every question and it was from that point on that I was on that building with him, and then I was on another building, then I started picking up buildings of my own. So, you have to be knowledgeable, you have to start making a name for yourself, but then also you have to be lucky. You have to have some situations come about where some others bring you opportunities or you unearth an opportunity that just happens due to either your hard work making a call or because you’re talking to somebody or your contact moves to another company, so there’s a lot of luck involved but I do recall always trying to keep my head down and work hard but then also play hard. You want to get along with everybody, you want to hang out with everybody and you really want to enjoy your job, which I would say is lucky also because I have to say not too many people truly enjoy their job. You have to say, “Damn, I have to go to work tomorrow in my 17 years.” I’m not being hungover of course, but that’s a different story.

John: That leads to my next question. I want to shift gears a little bit. I want to talk about company culture, office design if I could. You’ve seen hundreds of thousands of offices and probably hundreds and thousands of millions of square feet, and can you tell me what you think the definition of company culture is from your perspective, from a real state perspective?

Hal: Yeah, I think there’s two ways. I think there’s a culture. I think the buzz words today are collaboration and open landscape and all that stuff, but I think first and foremost a culture is driven by management and I think using Newmark as an example, the management of that [inaudible 0:11:00] Jeff Farrell has always had an entrepreneurial culture and environment. So in and around that, you have people that are like you and like the same things and they enjoy hanging out with each other and have a collegiate environment within the office environment.

So you sit there, you could ask people their opinions on stuff and say, “Hey, do you have the COM for the ADC? What happened in that GN building?” and they’ll share it with you or they’ll go, “Hey, how can we go after this piece of business together? How can we do this? How could we do that?” And that’s all set up by management.

From a real office standpoint, not just brokerage, I think having an open space plan and having meeting rooms and team rooms and lounges and things like that, promotes this culture that I’m referring to. So it makes easier to do these things rather than everybody sitting their offices and locking the doors and going back and you walk in whatever time you walk in, you walk out and every time you walk out, you don’t speak with them. That’s not culture; you’re basically working with your company but you’re on your own island.

John: Hal, let me ask you this question. You’ve seen a lot of companies, you’ve seen of lot of space, can you tell me and share a story with our listeners about people that say, “I want culture X.” Can you walk in and you look at culture Y? How do you bridge that gap? What do you say?

Hal: I think the people and I think all management wants to have a better culture and you want that from a recruiting standpoint, you want that from a retention standpoint, but I think you also want that from people who are collaborative, who tend to be more successful. The story has a major shift in that as it relates to the office environment or the layout environment because there are some people who have always worked in offices and now they’re being asked to work out in the bull pens and I think the only way that you can truly succeed in that concept is if management does it also.

I think it’s very easy for the management to say, “Hey, you and you, you’re out of an office, but I’m sitting in my office with that big – I don’t think it’s necessary. Offices are getting smaller, the workstations and open collaborative environments are getting larger, and not the physical work stations but the areas are getting larger. If someone could make that change and everyone could buy it from top and bottom and the CEOs are going to sit down in the bull pems, work and say for the guy who’s been in the office for 16 years, but just this regular mid-level guy, “Why shouldn’t he if the CEO’s going to do it?”

So I think it’s very important to have the culture – the new culture from top to bottom and also, I think to have culture and for someone to change the type of culture, I think there’s got to be some sort of skin in the game for the rest of the employees to make everything work, whether it’s having your assistants be on a very small part of the deals or have partnerships within the office to make sure that “Hey, if I’ll ask Joe Smith to work on something, that, doesn’t mean I cut out John Smith because Joe and John are partners. They’re each getting a piece of it anyway. I think this all promotes collaboration; all promotes just a better work environment.

John: Hal, I’ve been in the interior business about 30 years myself. I’ve always been amazed when I walk into an environment, and I refer to them as a dead environment.

Hal: Yes.

John: I hear people tell me, “Oh, John, we’re going to do this; were going to do that and I look across at the individuals there and I look at the building itself and the amenities it has, and the people.” I’m like, “Really? How are you going to get there? Because I’m not sure I can help you because you can’t help yourself.” Have you ever been experienced that?

Hal: Yeah. I think it goes back to my earlier point. If you’re not helping yourself, it’s going to be very difficult for an architect to help make layouts to make you more collaborative and more efficient. If you guys can do it, you’re not offering anything and you’re still not – you don’t have a lounge or you don’t have an area where people can collaborate or have a TV or something for people to just huddle around, watch and hang out a little bit. They’re going to go back to their office and they’re going to do their work and they’re going to go home and that’s the way it’s going to be. If that’s the culture you want, then you’re kidding yourselves to lay it out any differently because that’s not going to change anything.

John: We all have our favorite clients, our favorite spaces. I do, personally. We just finished one with SFX Entertainment in the city which is a really cool collaborative space. Hal, do you have a favorite client? And I know from our [inaudible 0:15:30] program, maybe at least all the spaces are my favorite, but from my cultural standpoint, when you look at it, you walk away saying, “They get it.” That is really cool and the people that worked there have all bought in and they’re really productive. Do you have a client like that?

Hal: Yeah. Without mentioning names, yes. I do see it, but I think the nice thing is to see it more and more and it’s happening more and more and people are putting them where their mouth is. They’re attacking these things the way they say they’re going to do it and I think it’s consistently and constantly changing.

Each day if you see something that has been done more nicely, if you see something that was done more efficiently but I think architecturally right now, it’s as important as it has ever been or to have an architect, to have the right team, to have the right furniture. It promotes your culture, it makes it more efficient, but to answer your question, yeah. As each week goes by, I see something else new that says, “Hey, that really makes sense also,” and just because there’s so much movement, especially in the downtown market, there are so many new tenants coming into the market. It’s not financial services anymore, its tech, its fashion. We’re seeing a lot more of those “cool tenants”. We see it more and more every day now.

John: Hal, do you have a mentor in the business or a mentor in life?

Hal: Yeah. I had a mentor in the business. Bob Brennan was the first person who hired me and the thing that I admired most was he was a relationship person, but what he did for me was he never held me back from working with other people, whether other executives, Spectrum, and AGV Williams at the time, and that allowed me to formulate my own style. There were certain things that Bob that were perfect and I emulated them. There were certain things that yeah, maybe someone else does it different.

So now, if you have the ability to work with 10-15 other executives, you’ve figured out what you like and don’t like and you’re forming your own style. I start working with another team while AGV still involved in there and Bob was just in last few weeks in contact; we are very close friends. We just recently went out to a dinner in Florida together. My parents have always been in debt to him because of how he helped jump start my career and he’s a great friend to this day.

John: I’ve got three questions for you, Hal. I know you’ve got to go. First, what’s your favorite book and why?

Hal: For me, I don’t want to persuade anyone. I’m not a reader. I don’t think I’ve read a book since Cujo in eighth grade. I don’t like reading. It’s not my thing. I probably have something to do with every day. I know it’s a sort of a password, but I got to assume I had that. I just can’t pay attention to it, but I’m certainly not a reader, so, that’s not the best question for me.

John: Okay. What’s your favorite quote?

Hal: Favorite quote, huh. I guess it’s one of those things, I don’t live by any quote, I can’t even recite any quote for you honestly.

John: That’s okay. If someone asks about your company culture and your office to be, in three words, what would you say it would be?

Hal: In three words, I would say, collaborative, successful and fun.

John: Be collaborative, be successful, be fun. I really want to thank you for taking the time to talk to us today and I want to thank Mark for allowing us opportunity to speak to you as well. Any time you want to come back on our show, we’ll be glad to have you.

Folks, you can email your questions and we’ll them to Hal to answer you.

Hal: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

John: Thanks Hal.

Hal: Bye. Take care.

John: Bye.