Simon Ziff is a classic example of the small-town boy done good in the big city.
Born in Philipsburgh, Pa., near Penn State University, the Ackman-Ziff Real Estate Group president grew up around his grandfather’s clothing store. He studied finance at State College and everyone figured he’d stay in the area because everyone else did. Mr. Ziff, however, had bigger plans.
“Real estate was a way to get to either of the big cities—Pittsburgh and Philadelphia,” he said.
But after graduating college in 1987, he moved to the other big city, New York, knowing only one person in the area, to attend New York University’s graduate real estate program.
“We got an apartment together and he spent the entire next year trying to get me to join a cult,” said Mr. Ziff, 47. “That was my introduction to New York.” He managed to resist.
In 1989—while still attending NYU—he was hired as an analyst by Larry Ackman and in 1995 he became a full partner. During his tenure at the helm he’s expanded the firm nationally to Boston and Miami and new financing fields.
“The business plan required us to grow the firm from 5-10 professionals to 25-30 professionals in order to gain greater leverage with both the capital sources,” said Mr. Ziff, a 20-year member of REBNY. “This coupled with adding the joint venture equity business made us a unique firm in our industry. Most importantly, it was the level of this talent that we feel set us apart.” It seems to be working. He said the firm did $7.4 billion in financing in 2007, its best year so far.
He still swears by the NYU program that brought him to New York, where he occasionally lectures and scopes out top talent. “I’ve hired over 20 people from the program, including two partners,” he said.
Despite the frigid economy and less than sunny forecast, Mr. Ziff, perhaps more than others, is poised to start making deals again. Ackman-Ziff managed last year to expand into Miami, snatching some of the best Florida real estate talent out there. “We’ve been incredibly busy and active representing a number of major deals,” he said. Although he declined to discuss specific clients, he did say that the firm recently helped a client monetize a right-of-first-refusal on a $100 million-plus asset.
The winner of six Ingenious Deal of the Year Awards from REBNY in over 23 years in the real estate business, Mr. Ziff knows his way around a problem.
He’s this this year’s winner of the Louis Smadbeck Broker Recognition Award for a reason. Although he never got to meet Mr. Smadbeck, who brokered deals on some of Manhattan’s most exclusive residential real estate and who died in 1992, Mr. Ziff said he’s honored to be associated with him. “I understand that he was a very special person,” he said.
When he’s not making deals, Mr. Ziff likes to relax at his Westchester home in Armonk, N.Y., and care for his over 100 Japanese maples that he’s grown there. “My mother likes to garden, and that’s where I first got the interest. I love the colors throughout the year. Walking around my property pruning trees is very relaxing for me,” he said.
Mr. Ziff also holds an interest in genealogy. He’s traced his family roots back to Poland and Lithuania to the little town of Kovno. Five years ago he helped found the Ackman-Ziff Genealogy Institute at the Center for Jewish History.
In addition, Mr. Ziff is a huge college football fan and still roots for Penn State’s Nittany Lions. “I think there is only one Penn State and it will quickly get back to where it was before the unfortunate incident,” he said.
He’s married with three children, two girls 7 and 16 and 14-year-old son.
“REBNY has always been the top organization in real estate. It’s always been important to our firm. That’s why I continue to be involved with it,” he said.