The Underdog

After enduring a tough childhood, Colliers Vice Chairman and Mexico City native Leon Manoff bounces to top of game with deals for Marks Paneth & Shron and Macmillan Publishing -- ‘my ego is fed by the size of my bank account’

One of three siblings born in Mexico City, Mr. Manoff found himself in the United States at the age of 7 after his parents’ traumatic divorce led to what he described as an actual abduction.

“My parents divorced and my mother kidnapped me from Mexico,” recalled Mr. Manoff, 58, who relocated to Rego Park, Queens. “Today, you would find my picture on a milk carton for that.”

While barely surviving on food stamps in Queens, the young man struggled to learn English—even while his mother exchanged vows with the man whose surname he would eventually inherit.

But amid a series of sicknesses in his family—afflicting first his stepfather, who, after a mental illness, was institutionalized, and then his sister, who suffered from anorexia—Mr. Manoff flew to Mexico to reunite with his father and brother, whom he hadn’t seen in nearly a decade.

“We lived on welfare for a while and it was tough going,” he said of his youth in Queens. “But we really persevered.”

His time in Mexico, however, lasted two years at best. Back in New York, he juggled a handful of jobs, including as a window washer and an ice cream scooper at Baskin-Robbins. But it was while driving a taxi that he received a job lead that would transform his life.

His passenger, he learned one evening, was a broker at Sutton & Towne. And during a friendly chat, the real estate agent handed Mr. Manoff a telephone number for Bob Tunis, who wound up giving the taxi driver a shot at the real estate company’s Great Neck outpost.

It was while working at the firm that Mr. Manoff learned the fundamentals. Indeed, even while maintaining his job as a taxi driver, the 23-year-old agent kept his head down, canvassing local businesses like his life depended on it.

“I took to the prospects of the money,” said Mr. Manoff, who now works a few doors from Mr. Tunis, another vice chairman at Colliers. “I followed the money and, never having had it, I wanted it badly. It taught me that my only limitations were the ones I imposed upon myself.”

jsederstrom@observer.com