If you’ve ever gone shopping in New York City, you’ve likely been an unwitting guest of Jeff Sutton. He is a discreet host, but an expansive one.
Among other properties, he controls: the 33,000-square-foot American Eagle at the corner of Broadway and Houston Street; the 40,000-square-foot Armani flagship in 717 Fifth, soon to house an 18,400-square-foot Dolce & Gabbana; the 20,000-square-foot Abercrombie & Fitch store up the street at 720 Fifth; the 46,000-square-foot American Girl Place down the street at 609 Fifth; 1551 Broadway in Times Square, which includes the four-floor American Eagle Outfitters flagship; the Aeropostale lease at 1515 Broadway; 141 Fifth in the Flatiron, where Cole Haan supplanted a Bath & Body Works; the Polo Ralph Lauren space at 379 West Broadway in Soho; several spots in and around Herald Square, including the Foot Locker House of Hoops, Aeropostale, Aldo, Geox, American Eagle and Esprit; and 747 Madison Avenue, the location of the Valentino flagship. Just last week, he teamed with SL Green, the city’s biggest commercial landlord, on the $136 million purchase of 1552 Broadway, which contains the Times Square TGI Friday’s.
That is just a sampling. He owns much more in Manhattan, the boroughs and surrounding areas—an empire of 115 buildings carefully, yet aggressively, amassed since the early 1990s. At times he has worked with partners like SL Green, but often Mr. Sutton relies entirely on his own capital, which he built up from early hustling in the scrappier, crappier New York of Dinkins and Koch. It is an empire that helped change the cityscape, particularly Herald and Times squares, and has redefined the way deals for high-end retail can be done. Today, from his home in the tight-knit Syrian-Jewish community in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn, he maintains his holdings with a canny reticence.
You would think the man would want to brag. Or to put it in journalistic parlance: You would think Jeff Sutton would be an easy quote. The Observer discovered otherwise. We found him to be among the most elusive titans in New York real estate, certainly so in its retail sector.
In point of fact, he first reached out to us. It was the late winter, and The Observer was putting together our annual Power 100 list of the most significant people in New York real estate. Mr. Sutton, 51, called out of the blue—unlike every other entrant who called, there was no publicist nor executive assistant acting as a buffer—to gently remind us of his domains should we be considering putting him on the list (we were, and he ended up ranked No. 58, higher than the 72nd spot he earned the year before). We made arrangements to get together for coffee one day soon. That day never came.
Months later, as we began calling around, talking to people who have either worked with him or know him through his work, a theme emerged.
“He’s a very tenacious guy; he’s very charming; and I think the best attribute is that he knows his business better than anybody,” said Andrew Mathias, the president of SL Green, which first partnered with Mr. Sutton in the early part of the last decade on a financing deal at 609 Fifth. “Ultimately, his retail intelligence sets him apart from everyone else in the real estate business who’s just leasing space; Jeff understands the mentality of his customer.”
Aaron Birnbaum, a top executive with financing concern Meridian Capital, has worked extensively with Mr. Sutton over the past 15 years. “He’s got a very keen understanding of risk,” Mr. Birnbaum said. “He’s a very hands-on guy, especially as the deals got bigger. He reads all of the long documents very carefully. He reads the important pieces 100 percent.”
Faith Hope Consolo, of Douglas Elliman, is one of the city’s top retail brokers. “The thing about Jeff is that he will do whatever he has to do to do a deal. What does that mean? Client needs a rendering; they need to be flown somewhere; he’s got to go to the other side of the world for a meeting? He’s going to do it.”
Indeed, Mr. Sutton flew to California to wrest American Girl into 609 Fifth at a time when executives there were considering Tishman Speyer’s Rockefeller Center. He also jetted to Milan to see Domenico Dolce to convince him and Stefano Gabbana to take the 717 Fifth space. And he went to Columbus, Ohio, to pitch the chairman of Abercrombie & Fitch. In every case, he showed up with video presentations, imagining for the retailer the would-be foot traffic and physical surroundings.
Mr. Sutton himself eventually called us after someone we had called, called him. He wanted to know more about this profile of ours, and why he had not been contacted first. We made plans to sit down for an interview once he was back from vacation, but Mr. Sutton ultimately declined to comment for this story.
We called some more people, and dug into clips, our own and those of Lois Weiss, the longtime New York Post columnist who has broken some of Mr. Sutton’s biggest deals in New York with SL Green.
MR. SUTTON’S MARCH TO masterminding the highest-end retail in New York begins with a humble—dare we say, Al Bundy-like—avocation: discount shoes. It was the late 1980s, and Mr. Sutton, the son of a retail importer, had graduated from the Wharton School (in 1981) and was trying to break into New York real estate with no money and no reputation to speak of.
Looking back, it seems he picked a fortuitous time. Not only was there a recession on, but the industry was a different animal: less formal, more bare-knuckled, button cuffs rather than French. The old first- and second-generation guard, who still commanded the industry, held court more often at construction sites than in corner offices. With the right idea, an unconnected parvenu could score a stake.