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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Woody Heller

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-06-23

Woody Heller, executive managing director at Studley, is an authentic hotshot in the real-estate business, a still youthful star who's done billions of dollars worth of transactions.

But Mr. Heller sees himself a teacher as much as a sales agent. Besides his reputation for clinching big deals, he's known in the industry for mentoring his associates, displaying the sort of patience one wouldn't expect of a hard driving executive in a highly competitive industry.

"Teaching is gratifying," Mr. Heller said. "I always tell my associates, 'It's one thing having information, but it's how you handle it that matters. The way we deal with our clients is extremely important. It's not just the quality of the product, but our style and conduct. As much as closing transactions, it's the experience of dealing with us that I consider important."

For example?

"I tell my associates to never use the word 'contract,'" Mr. Heller said. "It can seem intimidating to a lot of people. A more acceptable word is 'agreement,' I constantly emphasize the importance of developing people skills, of acquiring a pleasing style. I'm very focused on how I train my staff."

That training involves asking his staff to observe him in action. It means reviewing drafts of the documents they've prepared. It means paying attention to how they express themselves so that "ideas can resonate."

"I want my staff to speak well," Mr. Heller said. "That's why I also ask grammatical questions. Language is a means of influence. That's part of my brand."

His brand is on display at myriad industry events where he's often asked to speak. It's on display at philanthropic occasions, such as the Harlem Educational Activities Fund; Mr. Heller recently emceed the organization's benefit dinner at the Rainbow Room. It's on display when he meets potential customers from major financial institutions, pension funds, private investors and offshore owners.

His own style is such that when it comes to showing a property, Mr. Heller works from the perspective of the buyer.

"I always start with points of concern," he said. "I say to a buyer, 'Here are the problems, here's how we'll solve the challenges. By relaxing their concerns, prospective buyers are able to better focus on the positives of the transaction."

So how did he learn this style?

When he was an undergraduate at Stanford University, Mr. Heller considered being a composer. But he switched his major from music to social sciences because "I was afraid I'd starve in music."

He went through the traditional campus job interviews, particularly with banks. Then he came across an old friend while playing squash. The friend persuaded him to enter the real-estate industry.

"I didn't know anything about real estate," Mr. Heller said. "My expectation was that I'd stay in the field for a few years and then move on. But it's now 24 years later, and I'm still here."

When he started in the business, computers were a rarity. While real-estate people may not have used the abacus, slide rules and calculators were ubiquitous. Mr. Heller quickly learned the fundamentals of computers and just as quickly became indispensable to his firm. He was asked to travel around America to provide technical assistance at his company's national offices.

At the same time, Mr. Heller acquired a couple of mentors - Peter Sharp Jr., and Paul Pariser, the founder of Taconic Investments and before that the CEO of Balfour Holdings.

"From them I learned selling and marketing, I learned about style and people skills," Mr. Heller said. "I also learned that people tend to come to you once the word gets around that you provide real and thorough answers. When I'm asked to value a property, anybody can estimate a price. But it's how you explain and justify the valuation that counts. In addition, in this highly competitive market place where buyers often feel bruised by the acquisition process, it's in the client's interest to have a user-friendly agent."

As he honed his skills, his deal-making grew. For example, in April 2001, Mr. Heller brokered the sale of the 1.6 million sq. ft. Citigroup Center in Manhattan for $725 million. By that time, he had already closed asset and note transactions worth more than $5 billion, involving 28 million square feet of property - a stellar record by any standards.

His work caught the eye of Studley CEO Mitchell Steir. According to its literature, 50-year-old Studley is the leading national commercial real-estate firm focused primarily on tenant representation and advisory services. It conducts business in every major market in America, through offices in Atlanta; Chicago; Dallas; Denver; Florida; Houston; Los Angeles; New Jersey; New York City; Orange County, CA; Philadelphia; San Francisco; Silicon Valley; Suburban Washington, and Washington, D.C. Studley also maintains offices in London.

"Woody adds a dynamic expertise as well as exciting new business frontier for our company," Mr. Steir said as he welcomed Mr. Heller - who was by then at the top of his game -- to Studley.

His confidence in Mr. Heller has been more than justified.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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