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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Robert Futterman

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-10-27

Robert Futterman, by his own admission, is a driven man - driven to the point of obsession.

"I am relentless," said the founder and CEO of the national retail-sales firm of Robert K. Futterman & Associates. "I've always had high energy. I don't mind acknowledging that I'm obsessed by real estate. I'm very driven because the thrill of the transaction is absolutely incredible."

In barely two decades after a college sojourn that was more devoted to organizing rock concerts than his major of psychology, it's not hard to grasp why Mr. Futterman would harbor such sentiments. As an entrepreneur, he's been successful from the get-go. Even those rock concerts yielded tidy sums for a native of Jericho, Long Island, still in his teens.

"I've worked for it," Mr. Futterman said of his entrepreneurship. "As far back as I can remember, I've always had the desire to succeed."

His success in real estate has gone well beyond the accomplishments of his student days. Mr. Futterman has done more than $3 billion worth of deals with some of the best known retailers, including Gap, Old Navy, Circuit City, Allen-Edmonds, Ann Taylor, L'Oreal, Montblanc, John Varvatos, Club Monaco, Starbucks, Apple Computer, Forever 21, Virgin Megastores, Banana Republic, Barnes & Noble, Polo Ralph Lauren, Bed Bath & Beyond, Adidas, Bally's Total Fitness, World Wrestling Entertainment Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and J.Crew.

He has represented developers, landlords and institutions, such as The Related Companies, L.P.; Milstein Properties; Cohen Brothers; Vornado Realty Trust; RFR Realty, Inc.; Forest City Ratner; Citibank; Credit Suisse; The Lefrak Organization; Millennium Partners, and The Trump Organization.

"And to think that I almost went into the music business," Mr. Futterman said.
The prospect of a career in music was prompted not only because he had started playing the guitar during high school (he still plays the instrument with his young sons Jesse and Kevin). Mr. Futterman, who had negotiated on behalf of the University of Maryland's student body with some hard-nosed music promoters, was befriended by two in particular, Bill Graham and Ron Delsener.

They felt there was a quiescent impresario in him.

"The music business was going through some upheavals in those days, and I wasn't quite sure that there would be opportunities for me," he said.

So Mr. Futterman flew off to California - not to join the music industry but to sell ice-cream at the two-mile-long, 100-yard-wide Zuma Beach, north of Los Angeles. Because it was the widest beach in the area known as Malibu Beach, he thought that there'd be plenty of customers for his ice-cream.

Ice-cream? Really?

"Yes," Mr. Futterman said. "I just felt like getting away from the East Coast. My parents weren't happy about it."

His father Louis, was a businessman and manufacturer in Jericho, and his mother Rosalie, was a painter. Their displeasure may have had something to do with the fact that their son kept requesting them for financial assistance.

"How much ice-cream can you sell, anyway?" Mr. Futterman said.

He dealt with that question by returning to New York to join the august real-estate firm of Garrick-Aug Associates. He started off as a canvasser - making cold calls to landlords who had property they wished to lease to retailers.

"I was on fire," Mr. Futterman said. "I just wouldn't stop."

In less than three months, he'd obtained 200 listings. He was then made a salesman, and in his first year Mr. Futterman closed 18 deals, representing some of New York's most prestigious retail tenants and landlords. For the next 15 years, he was the firm's top producer.

"I was goal-driven, a perfectionist," Mr. Futterman said. "I never forgot that I once sold ice-cream on Zuma Beach."

He also never forgot an ambition that was sparked while he was in high school.

"I always had a vision - I knew that one day I would have my own business in New York, with my name on the company's masthead," Mr. Futterman said. "I always liked to be in charge. I liked motivating people to work with me. I had built up people skills through life's experiences."

That's when he founded Robert K. Futterman & Associates.

It was a canny move. According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), national retail industry sales - excluding automobiles, gas stations and restaurants - had risen beyond $2.1 trillion. Few, if any, real-estate firms in America devoted themselves exclusively to landlord and tenant representation, new construction, leasing, sales and market analysis.

Not long after starting his eponymous company in 1998, Mr. Futterman was invited to lease 400,000 square feet of retail space at the new Time Warner Center. He accomplished that task in record time.

"Retail is all about expansion," Mr. Futterman said. "I want my company to be the only call that a landlord or a retailer needs to make. And that means developing long-term relationships. Real estate is a people business. And no matter how successful one becomes, it's important that you never lose your hunger."

That is why Mr. Futterman still makes cold calls. He still rambles through the streets of New York scouting for available properties.

"If you are a good broker, you are always fearful of deals collapsing," Mr. Futterman said. "It's been said many times, but it's true - in real estate, you are only as good as your last deal. You can never be cocky, or arrogant. You cannot let yourself think that you know everything. A deal is not a deal until the last document has been signed and the check has cleared."

His deal-making has been extended to several cities across America, including Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Mr. Futterman this week held talks with developers in Shanghai and Seoul.

"Asia is where the action is," he said. "And I love action."

And who will carry on that tradition of action?

That question would have irritated a man still on the right side of 50. But Mr. Futterman smiled again.

"My sons are still very young - 13 and 10," he said. "But I can already see the marquee in my mind's eye - Robert K. Futterman & Sons."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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