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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with Kent Swig

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-05-05

Had the reporter so wished, he could have engaged Kent Swig, an owner and co-chairman of Terra Holdings, in a conversation about Chinese history. Mr. Swig, after all, studied the subject at Brown University. A conversation about the Middle East would have been just as possible; Mr. Swig knows that region well, and is a recipient of Israel's coveted Peace Medal.

The reporter could have also chatted with Mr. Swig about running: the realtor sweats through four or five miles every morning. There could have been a colloquy about weight-lifting: Mr. Swig lifts weights every day. The reporter could have discussed surfing: Mr. Swig regularly takes on 14-foot waves in the Pacific. He could have talked about law: Mr. Swig studied at Hastings Law School in San Francisco, where made the law review. He could have brought up meditation: Mr. Swig has his own mind-calming mantras.

But at the outset of the conversation, the 44-year-old Mr. Swig said something that shaped much of the meeting: "Business has to have other values than just making money. My belief is that the best asset I could create is the people I work with. Truly."


"Yes, truly," Mr. Swig said.

It was a belief to which he fastened very early in life, as he watched his grandfather, Benjamin Swig, develop the family's real-estate business on the West Coast. It was a belief also inculcated in him by his parents, Melvin and Marcia, as he grew up in bucolic Lucas Valley, some 24 miles away from San Francisco, surrounded by horses and chickens and dogs, an upbringing that he characterizes as "sheltered but wonderful."

His belief in the importance of people-as-assets was reinforced when he worked with the man who would become his father-in-law, Harry Macklowe. Mr. Macklowe, who founded Macklowe Properties in the mid 1960s, has had a reputation for aggressive acquisitions; they include the General Motors Building on Fifth Avenue, which he bought for $1.4 billion in 2003, the largest amount ever spent on an office building in America. But Mr. Swig gained a special insight from him.

That insight had to do with reading people and sizing up situations very quickly.

"No matter how smart you may be, how good a negotiator, everything ultimately depends on how you approach people," Mr. Swig said. "I always say that I'm not really an owner of buildings and properties. I'm really in the tenant-service business. And in such a business, you've got to think of it as a school. I learn from everybody I've worked with, everybody with whom I come in contact."

That statement, the reporter suggested, could very well be the nub of a book. Indeed, Mr. Swig may well write such a book one day.

If he does, he'll surely need to cast aside at least some of his intrinsic modesty. Consider this: Two of his companies, Brown Harris Stevens, and Halstead Property, together sold more than $6 billion in apartments and townhouses last year. Terra Holdings' management divisions run more than 300 buildings, with some 21,000 residential units. In New York, a city whose anthem seems to be big-is-better, Mr. Swig's company is the biggest realtor, after Prudential Douglas Elliman.

If he writes his book, Mr. Swig would certainly need to include a line that struck the reporter: "I know every one of my tenants."

He would certainly include his admiration of Walter H. Shorenstein, the legendary founder of the Shorenstein Company, which became the largest owner and operator of Class A office buildings in San Francisco, and created lasting relationships with major institutional partners such as IBM, Bechtel, MetLife and Bank of America.

Mr. Swig would also include his admiration of another legendary real-estate figure, Harry Helmsley; one of his companies, Brown Harris Stevens, once belonged to Helmsley.

"Shorenstein and Helmsley were enormously entrepreneurial, they created organizations that had a strong human base - which in turn enhanced the organization's capacity to do better business," Mr. Swig said. "In my view, they created a working atmosphere of fairness, humanism, of partnership with people."

"That's the core of how I do business," Mr. Swig added. "I always do a deal in anticipation that there will be a second time of doing business with that person. I have a high level of respect for the people I deal with. I always try to be fair. A good business deal should be one from which everyone comes away with something good."

"What bothers me is the attitude that some people have: 'Who cares?'" he said. "That's a dismissive attitude in doing business. Real estate, in particular, is a people-oriented business. One can't be cavalier or arrogant."

Mr. Swig has done splendidly by not being cavalier or arrogant. In addition to his prime role at Terra Holdings - whose companies operate in New York City, the Hamptons and Palm Beach - he also serves as chairman of The Swig Company, a family-owned real estate and hotel company based in San Francisco and New York. The company's investment portfolio includes more than 11 million square feet of prime commercial office space throughout America. Its holdings also include two properties in Chicago and San Jose that are part of the prestigious Fairmont Hotels chain.

There's more: Mr. Swig is also a principal in Swig Burris Equities, LLC, which focuses on the acquisition and development of real estate in New York City and California. Since 2001, Swig Burris Equities has purchased - or is in the process of developing - more than $1.3 billion million of properties.

These properties have classy addresses, including 110 William Street, 80 Broad Street, 5 Hanover Square, 44 Wall Street, 48 Wall Street, 770 Lexington Avenue, and 450 Sansome Street in San Francisco.

Not long ago, Mr. Swig announced a joint venture of Swig Burris Equities, YL Real Estate Developers, and S&H Equities. The group bought The Sheffield, a 50-story building where Columbus Circle meets the Upper West Side. At a capitalization of almost $545 million, the deal represents the largest sale of a single residential building in America.

So why do people approach him with enticing real-estate possibilities?

"People come to me because I'm a good listener," Mr. Swig said. "I have a clear vision that's creative and entrepreneurial. People are attracted to other people who have a good vision. I have a good name, a great wife, great children, I have a great portfolio, and I have drive. I treat people the way I want to be treated by others."

But surely life couldn't be all warmth and goodness?

"Do I get upset? Of course I do," Mr. Swig said. "But you have to have the ability to apologize if you're in the wrong. Do I get frustrated at times during negotiations? Of course I do. But I've learned the importance of patience. I am very demanding, and I am very tough. I'm always looking at the next thing that I could do, the next deal. But I also have the ability to stay focused on the task at hand."

He also has the ability of picking good people to work with him. His colleagues privately speak of his consistent interest in their welfare. When his CFO, Sandy Pupera, seemed overstressed, Mr. Swig bought her a ticket to Mexico.

"I believe that the way you achieve success is by getting people to work together harmoniously," Mr. Swig said. "How did I become successful? I would synthesize my record down to one thing - the ability to work well with people, the ability to motivate people to do good things. Truly."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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