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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Faith Hope Consolo

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-10-20

Long before Faith Hope Consolo came to New York City from Beverly Hills in the 1980s, Fifth and Madison Avenues were already the world's most famous shopping streets.

But it could be argued that Ms. Consolo, chairman of the retail leasing and sales division of Prudential Douglas Elliman has not only given them enhanced elegance. She has also injected a contemporary sensibility that translates into brighter boulevards and increased commerce.

"My job is to fit the right piece to the puzzle," said Ms. Consolo. "I pride myself in finding needles in haystacks."

Translation: she scours New York City - and places in California, Florida, Massachusetts and Michigan, among others - for prime locations for luxury-brand purveyors.

"It's really about changing the urban landscape," Ms. Consolo said. "It's trying to bring the best of the best to our cities."

That means she walks a lot to scout for locations. It means she spends vast amounts of time on the telephone and e-mail with landlords who have retail space to lease. It means that she often represents both property owners and potential commercial customers. It means that Ms. Consolo must envision how retail space could relate to its neighborhood. It often means participating in the planning process.

"I ask myself, 'What are the missing uses of the property?'" she said. "I ask myself, 'How to breathe more life and vibrancy in a particular neighborhood through smarter use of commercial space? I ask, 'How can a troubled neighborhood be transformed into a sought-after shopping district?'"

Asking such questions - and answering them to the satisfaction of her clients as well as local citizenry - has made Ms. Consolo one of the most renowned retail brokers and consultants in America, according to her peers in the real-estate industry.

In the last two decades, she has brought many prominent retailers to Manhattan, including: Benetton, Versace, Bruno Magli, Paul Smith, Paloma Picasso, Godiva, Salvatore Ferragamo, Floris of London, Bally of Switzerland, Christofle, Creed, Manolo Blahnik, Wempe, Gant, Asprey, Fendi, Agatha, Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo, Calypso, Fresh, Zara, and Bare Escentuals.
Not long ago, she helped establish Barneys Co-Op on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

"I specialize in the difficult and the unusual," Ms. Consolo said. "Maybe my design background helps me, too."

Her love of design and art dates back to her early years in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Ms. Consolo, an orphan, was raised by her grandmother Jill Consolo, a child psychiatrist, and her grandfather John, who ran a real-estate business.

She studied art history at New York University, the Parsons School of Design, and later in Paris. In fact, Ms. Consolo Ms. Consolo has taught at her alma maters, and also the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania.

In those years, she also painted and wrote poems. She found herself enthralled with design.

That fascination took her to Beverley Hills, where Ms. Consolo she set up shop as a designer of homes and offices.

"Very soon, I was designing pretty rooms," she said. "I did offices at movie studios. I did homes of movie stars. I learned to deal with people of all kinds of temperaments. There were people who wanted to paint their rooms in order to repair their marriage."

Although she made good money in California, Ms. Consolo became disenchanted with professional designing.

"It was natural that I should head for New York," she said. "I felt that New York was a good place to start over. People who want to make it come to New York."

After the sunshine and casual lifestyle of California, she did not find New York particularly welcoming.

"In fact, I felt like a pariah," Ms. Consolo said. "I had a failed marriage behind me. I had been good in design, but not good enough to be in the top tier. I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do."

She articulated her frustrations to a lawyer friend.

"You should go out and get a real job," he told her.

"What kind of a job?" Ms. Consolo said.

"Why not real estate?" the lawyer said. "I'm sure you'll do well. There are a lot of women in that field, selling apartments especially."

The prospect of selling apartments did not exactly thrill Ms. Consolo. She had, after all, spent several years doing up other people's homes in California.

As it happened, she ran into a man named Lloyd Putter who ran a real-estate company called 2001 Real Estate.

"This was in 1985," Ms. Consolo said. "I thought that maybe he was fantasizing about Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001: A Space Odyssey."

Mr. Putter invited her to join his firm on a part-time basis. Her assignment was to make cold calls to landlords and retailers, and to match their needs and requirements.

"But from the first day, it wasn't a part-time job," Ms. Consolo said. "Lloyd gave me two telephone directories, a phone, a small black metal desk, a typewriter, and asked me to start making calls."

She called just about everyone in New York.

One recipient of her calls was an official of Godiva Chocolatier Inc. The company was planning to open new stores in Manhattan, including on Fifth Avenue.

Faith Hope Consolo had snagged her first client.

She developed a slogan: "To find the best in retail you need Faith."

Ms. Consolo chuckled.

"Sometimes people thought that I was some kind of a religious organization," she said.

She certainly pursued deals with religious fervor.

"You're only as good as your last deal," Ms. Consolo said. "One of my colleagues once said to me, 'Don't get fat.' I asked him what he meant by that."

"That means you should never rest on your laurels," he replied.

Her laurels and awards have been many, but Ms. Consolo continues to maintain a disciplined professional style - a style which she has imbued into her staff of 20. She brought many of her colleagues when she joined Prudential Douglas Elliman in January 2005, after nearly 20 years at Garrick-Aug Worldwide, Ltd. She was vice chairman at that company, and founded its international division in 1987.

"My style is total immersion," Ms. Consolo said. "I'm not just 24/7, I'm 24/24. I am always accessible to retailers and landlords."

Her style includes not only matchmaking, it involves assisting with clients' needs for public relations, event management and other details involved with launching a store. She said that her close friends, Prudential Douglas Elliman's CEO, Dottie Herman, and star residential broker Dolly Lenz, are generous with advice and assistance.

"It's brand development that I focus on," Ms. Consolo said. "very often retailers, particularly those from abroad, aren't familiar with what it takes to do business in New York."

For example, to those potential customers who might be intimidated by the average leasing cost of $1,500 per square foot on Fifth Avenue - particularly between 45th and 59th Streets - Ms. Consolo sometimes says that they might look at other areas.

One neighborhood that she's especially enthusiastic about is SoHo. Another is the waterfront area along both the East and Hudson Rivers.

"And do you want to know what I think are going to be the hottest spots for retailers now?" Ms. Consolo said.

Her own answers to her question: Union Square, moving from Fifth to Sixth Avenues; Lower Broadway, extending to the financial district; and TriBeCa.

"These neighborhoods need service shopping, not just shops offering jewelry and high-end goods," Ms. Consolo said.

What these neighborhoods don't need is more banks, she said.

"How boring to see so many banks cropping up," Ms. Consolo said. "Some of them simply buy up leases to prevent retail businesses from getting them. The competition today for local retailers is evident in negotiations with banks who occupy the space that would do better with shops."

As she completes her 20 years in New York's real-estate industry, is she surprised by her success?

"Surprised? I'm shocked, shocked, absolutely shocked," Ms. Consolo said, not entirely in jest.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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