Imagine leaving the business you had helped develop over the course of 25 years and choosing not to retire but, instead, to dive headfirst into the choppy and unfamiliar waters of commercial real estate–all at the ripe age of 52.
For Howard Rosenblum, a Queens native who until three years ago had only the garment center to thank for his livelihood, such a challenge arose mere months before the Great Recession, adding an extra layer to an already complicated career change.
Still, against long odds, Mr. Rosenblum has not only transitioned into the commercial real estate world since joining the Kaufman Organization as a leasing director in 2007, but has positively thrived, snatching the firm’s highest billing numbers for two years running.
“For the last 20 years or so I had a nice big office, with a couch, and when I came to Kaufman I was sitting in a cubicle, and I haven’t sat in a cubicle for 25 years,” said Mr. Rosenblum last week from his very own hard-earned office overlooking Seventh Avenue. “It was kind of strange, to be honest.”
After unloading his textile company Boomtex three years ago in the face of decreasing business, Mr. Rosenblum found success as a broker by building upon lasting relationships with former colleagues from the garment center, many of whom reacted to a shrinking industry by leasing ever smaller spaces. As a result of his connections, he quickly built a reputation among garment center insiders as a broker familiar with the trade, and promptly began racking up a significant number of midsize commercial transactions.
“It felt a little strange at the beginning because people didn’t look at me as the real estate guy–they looked at me as ‘Howie the Garment District Guy,'” said Mr. Rosenblum of his earliest meetings with his former cohorts.
“But having the support of Kaufman behind me, and the solid support of [Kaufman managing director] Grant Greenspan, it legitimized what I was doing,” he added. “And since I had a successful career and a big reputation, people knew I was doing this for real.”
By his own estimation, Mr. Rosenblum has dealt primarily in midsize deals ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 feet, with the sportswear wholesaler Deja Bleu and undergarment manufacturer Panties Plus among his earliest clients.
Earlier this summer, Mr. Rosenblum inked a 5,000-square-foot deal for Yvette Frye, a handbag distributor, at 39 West 37th Street. The small company paid under $30 a foot, Mr. Rosenblum said.
The same month, he said, the bedding company Perfect Fit Industries signed a 6,000-square-foot lease at 230 Fifth Avenue, a boutique building boasting glass showrooms and a rooftop bar. The company was previously leasing space nearby at 261 Fifth Avenue, but moved due to exorbitant rent.
“They were very happy with the space and they’ve since referred me to other tenants, which I’m very happy about,” said Mr. Rosenblum. “It’s the best type of referral you can ever really get.”
MR. ROSENBLUM WAS raised as an only child in Forest Hills, Queens. His father worked in the garment center, but the son attributes his own decision to join the fashion industry as something of a no-brainer during New York’s disco era.
“It was the years of the discotheque, everyone was making tons of money, there were parties all over the place,” recalled Mr. Rosenblum. “You could just walk in, and if you were a street kid who had any smarts, the sky was the limit. You had to know nothing other than how to sell and how to get people to like you. It was so easy.”
Mr. Rosenblum worked his way up the ladder, first in 1979 as a trainee for Concord Fabrics, where he was pulling in about $9,000 a year, he said. Within five years, however, he was sitting at the helm of his own textile company.
With a company name inspired by Mr. Rosenblum’s own childhood nom de guerre, Boomtex reaped success in the ’90s and throughout the past decade by representing garment factories that offered full textile packages. But as larger textile firms began to swallow up smaller companies and customers began to take their business overseas, “Boomer” looked elsewhere for work.
“I felt like many of the customers I was working with, they were all in the same position,” said Mr. Rosenblum, who considered a career in catering or buying a franchise before trying his hand in real estate. “I saw them all moving toward extinction in the next couple of years because they were going to get squeezed out. So I said, ‘Why stick around?’ I had good foresight. Everyone wanted to leave, but nobody had the financial backing.”
Mr. Rosenblum enrolled in classes at the New York Real Estate Institute, and, thanks to a relationship with Mann Publications president Jeff Mann, he quickly scored a meeting with Kaufman Organization president Steve Kaufman and Mr. Greenspan.
“I went up here having never been on an interview in the last 25 years,” recalled Mr. Rosenblum. “But the common ground for us was around here, in this area. Originally I thought I wanted to get as far away from the garment center as possible. But they said, ‘That’s great because this is where you’re going to make all your money.'”
And while he may have his garment center connections to thank for some of his initial deals, Mr. Rosenblum has slowly built a diverse portfolio of clients that now includes law firms, recording studios, a lighting technician and licensing companies.
And that diversity is only expected to grow as Mr. Rosenblum continues to perfect his trade and expand his reach.
“Am I a guy who’s just going to stay around here, or am I a guy who’s going to branch out and go to Third Avenue and Chelsea?” he asked himself aloud. “And little by little, I’ve branched out.
“Now it’s a mixed bag,” he continued. “And, slowly, I’m branching out into new industries, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do from the beginning.”