Norman Bobrow, Big on Family, Cacti, and a Fun Workplace
NEW YORK—Norman Bobrow can read a book upside down, but not the other way around. He was one of the first children to be diagnosed with dyslexia and had a harder time than others making his way through high school and college.
In 2012, Bobrow and his company negotiated leases and sales totaling more than $580 million.
Norman Bobrow & Co. is the largest tenant-oriented commercial real estate brokerage firm in New York City. He has represented clients such as BBC Worldwide International, Reuters Television, Elie Tahari, Jordache, AIPAC, Hyatt Hotels, and many more.
Bobrow has four children and nine grandchildren. Despite a busy schedule and a big family he tries to find time to spend with his collection of over 2,000 cacti housed in a greenhouse in his mother’s home in Queens.
Below, Bobrow talks about running a commercial brokerage firm, caring for his clients and his brokers, rescuing cacti and more. The interview has been edited for space.
Tell me a little about yourself.
I grew up in Queens. I’m one of four siblings; two brothers are physicians; my sister was a computer programmer. I’ve always had an interest in real estate. Besides all my hobbies, I had a passion for real estate because my family was the Muss family. They’re all in real estate and all very successful.
I spent the first six years working for Centex Corporation where I learned the business working under my cousin, Joshua Muss, who was president. After that experience, I worked for IEC Properties and built two buildings in upstate New York. At that point in my life I wanted to go into a commission business where I’d be compensated for my successes. From there I joined R.B. Schlesinger and within the third year I was the number one broker in the office.
After 6 years, I opened up my own shop and started to specialize as a tenant broker in New York City. My strategy was always to look forward. Never look to the left or to the right. Don’t look back. Just try to find people and try to help them do their real estate project.
What’s your life like outside of real estate?
When I grew up everybody had a hobby. My hobby is horticulture. I am the treasurer of the Cactus and Succulent Society of New York, which I was a member of since the age of 8 years old. My outlet is my two greenhouses and my 2,000 cactuses and succulents. I host our meetings in our offices on a monthly basis.
I’ll give you a great little story. I get a call from a guy who’s 95 years old, his wife is 90. He sent an email to the Cactus and Succulent society saying: “We need someone to rescue this barrel cactus. We can’t move it anymore. We’re getting too old to take care of it. Someone come out here.” I get to the house and this thing is 150 pounds. I can’t carry it. I get my son and he gets a wagon from the garage. We drag it through his living room. The thing is a perfect specimen. It has to be 50-60 years old, it’s simply huge.
I also sit on the board of four different charities, where I feel good about myself that I’m giving back to society. The charities that I’m involved with mostly help children.
I feel that everybody should have a part of their life that is not dedicated to them but to some other cause out there. Whether it’s people or the arts or whatever your interests are, you should give back to society because we’re all lucky enough to be here. If you’re lucky enough to be on the planet long enough and be healthy, you should just try to do good things.
What about your life in real estate?
Real estate has been in my blood for three generations. My grandfather was the largest developer in Queens. Unfortunately he lost all of his properties during the Great Depression. My cousin, Joshua Muss (not the one I worked for), is one of the largest developers in Queens.
Besides my brokerage business I try and buy about ten properties a year and bring family and friends into the deals. My strategy is to have a decent enough return, so 99 percent of my properties are outside of New York City.
After I left R.B. Schlesinger, instead of becoming the biggest broker in the city, I dedicated myself to train people how to become good brokers. I have a firm of 30 brokers. Day and night I work with brokers to try and help them complete their deals. I have two training classes a week. Our firm works on making deals for tenants that make sense. And that’s how we survive. We would rather pass on a deal than steer a tenant down the road on the wrong terms.
We do about 150 leases a year and about ten sales transactions a year. We don’t publicize our deals. We try to have a family environment here. You have to have personality. You can’t be in a firm where people aren’t laughing. We just try to lighten it up a little bit and try to keep it a clean office.
What are your plans for the future?
We expanded by 10 brokers in the past 12 months. We’ve never had, in our history, so many people approaching us as we do today.
What are you proud of?
My goal in my life is to help my brokers to make a living, to be able to have a family, and pay their own bills. My goal is to make everybody a success in the business. I think it came from my being dyslexic and having to fight to make my way through school. I think that’s why I am so giving, because I didn’t have an easy life.