December 20, 2021
Joe Fairless

JF2666: Investing in Office Space During the Work From Home Era with Andrea Himmel


Andrea Himmel’s mother went from nothing to a multibillion dollar portfolio of office buildings and warehouses in New York City. Inspired by her mother, Andrea joined the family firm and now acts as Chief Investment Officer, hunting down great opportunities in Manhattan and the boroughs. In this episode, Andrea breaks down why she’s investing in office spaces during the work from home era, and how she’s able to close on these high-profit deals.  

Andrea B. Himmel  | Real Estate Background 

  • Career: Principal and Chief Investment Officer at Himmel + Meringoff Properties
  • Founded in 1978, they own a multibillion dollar portfolio of office buildings in Manhattan and last mile warehouses in the boroughs of NYC. They do not syndicate equity. They own their entire portfolio with their own equity.
  • Portfolio: Multi billion dollar portfolio of ~20 properties in NYC. Over the past 40 years, they have bought and sold over 5MM SF.
  • Based in: NYC, NY.
  • Say hi to her at: http://linkedin.com/in/ah-ny
  • Best Ever Book: A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

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TRANSCRIPTION

Ash Patel: Hello Best Ever listeners. Welcome to The Best Real Estate Investing Advice Ever Show. I’m Ash Patel and I’m with today’s guest, Andrea Himmel. Andrea is joining us from New York City. She is the principal and chief investment officer at Himmel and Meringoff Properties, which was founded in 1978. It owns a multibillion-dollar portfolio of office buildings in Manhattan and last-mile warehouses in the boroughs of New York. Andrea has 14 years of real estate experience. Andrea, thank you so much for joining us in how are you today?

Andrea Himmel: I’m great. Thank you for having me. I’m honored to be here with you.

Ash Patel: The pleasure is ours. Andrea, before we get started, can you tell the Best Ever listeners a little bit more about your background and what you’re focused on now?

Andrea Himmel: Sure. I studied real estate undergrad at Wharton and knew I wanted to work in it, because my mother was actually in the industry. She had co-founded the firm I currently work at in 1978, and was really a pioneer in becoming a first-generation owner of a significant portfolio, coming from really not much. So I was very inspired by my mother. During college, I had multiple internships, one at Lubert-Adler, where I was working on real estate from a private equity angle, a lot of Opco/Propco kind of retail investing. I worked in CMBS at Morgan Stanley, and ultimately landed at Brookfield in 2008. I was a little underutilized, so I started interviewing around about two years later, because it had been a slow market, as you recall, that was with the recession.

So I interviewed and my mom said, “You know what? Get out of real estate. Get into a more sophisticated form of investing, so you can differentiate yourself. Because a lot of real estate owners are street smart, but not really financially sophisticated.” So I took a job for a hedge fund and I spent eight years there. I ended up managing their oil and gas portfolio that was about 10% of their 60 billion of assets under management; it was a long-term value fund. I learned how to value cash flow. Basically, businesses should be like lemonade stands – money in, money out, some form of capitalizing the business, and some way to distribute the proceeds. The skills I gained there, focusing on valuation, were 100% applicable to those that I use now today in real estate evaluation work.

Ash Patel: Well, you make all of that sound easy.

Andrea Himmel: I ended up starting a private equity fund. We hit a home run and raised 300 million dollars from Elliott Management, which is Paul Singer’s fund, and had a 96% return on our first fund, and a 3X multiple. Then at the time, since I was a startup, I was working out of one of my mom’s buildings. She had always told me “You can never work for me.” But I had earned her respect over the years, so she invited me to work for the company.

Ash Patel: Amazing. A lot to cover here. Your mom started this business in 1978 – was it investing in real estate in New York City?

Andrea Himmel: It was. A lot of it, however, because she didn’t have the cash to buy much, she was acquiring ground leases in the boroughs, and in emerging neighborhoods, such as Fourth Avenue, which is now Park Avenue South, or Harlem in 1979. They did a lot of ground leases because there’s no major initial upfront capital payment. She went on and purchased options, and ultimately [unintelligible [04:09] She got started doing that. She actually met her business partner at a lecture that Larry Silverstein was giving at NYU, and his guest was Harry Helmsley. Harry said, “Does the audience have any questions?” My mom’s hand went up and she said, “What’s your greatest accomplishment?” Harry Helmsley said, “What are you doing tonight?” Of course, that’s unacceptable today, I think, but it grabbed the attention of Stephen Meringoff, who later approached my mother and said we should team up and be owners together. So they borrowed recourse, which obviously we don’t do anymore, but they borrowed recourse up to 90%, because financing back then was totally different from the RTC days, and built a portfolio over a few decades.

Ash Patel: And Harry Helmsley, the owner of the Empire State Building, and from his wife, Leona Helmsley.

Andrea Himmel: Yeah, we were all family friends, and he became a mentor to my mom. My mom actually very confidently broke her way into real estate by sneaking into REBNY galas, which is the Real Estate Board of New York. She had gone to HBS and she said to many prolific developers at…

Ash Patel: HBS is Harvard Business School?

Andrea Himmel: Yes, it is.

Ash Patel: Got it.

Andrea Himmel: She said, “You know what? I’m putting together a real estate panel for Harvard Business School. Larry Silverstein, do you think you qualify for this? Harry Helmsley, do you qualify? Seymour Durst, do you qualify for my panel?” Instead, what that did was it turned them into her mentors over the years, and ultimately peers. She became a well-respected name, following in the footsteps of giants.

Ash Patel: Incredible. And your mom was a pioneer because in 1978, and even through most of the ’80s, New York was not what it is today. It was a rough place.

Andrea Himmel: But as Harry Helmsley told her, Grand Central is not going to get on rollerblades and go anywhere. There are still certain districts, certain neighborhoods, and we still feel the same today, that are emerging, even though they may be Grand Central, or Penn Station. But we think location, location, location, as well as leaseability and all sorts of things.

Ash Patel: Andrea, I don’t want to make this podcast about your mom, but one last question. You mentioned she did ground leases and then got financing. How does that work?

Andrea Himmel: So she did a lot of ground leases where…

Ash Patel: With no money?

Andrea Himmel: [unintelligible [06:50] back then it may have been a few 100,000 or 100,000 a year in your ground rents. There may be upfront key money, but usually, there wasn’t.

Ash Patel: Also, she was the lessor.

Andrea Himmel: Yes, she was…

Ash Patel: Not the owner.

Andrea Himmel: Not the owner of the fee. So she had run the property, operate it, bear all the CapEx, all that. And through refinancing and stabilizations of properties, she was able to amass a portfolio.

Ash Patel: Alright, so then you had a career in private equity. You were underutilized… Tell me about that.

Andrea Himmel: I just out of college was so overly zealous to have my brain pecked and my energy leveraged.

Ash Patel: And you wanted to rule the world, right?

Andrea Himmel: I wanted to grow, I wanted to make my world larger, and my brain larger… I was at Brookfield, which at the time — right now, they’re an incredibly dynamic and prolific company that’s very nimble. Back then it was a bigger public company, and I think I needed a more nimble environment, so I preferred to find somewhere where I would really be challenged intellectually.

Ash Patel: Yeah, a lot of us have first jobs where we’re under-utilized. Good for you for making the move. You then went to a hedge fund in the oil and gas space – was it a real estate play? Or was it a pure oil and gas business?

Andrea Himmel: At the time, I started with three and a half billion dollars of cash and to manage, and it ultimately is now 60 billion. We were investing in equities, so publicly traded companies such as Schlumberger, or Hess, or Exxon. At the time, it was less environmentally conscious, so we didn’t have a philosophical lean in any direction. But we sought undervalued companies for long-term holds, and based on true distress in the market, or anxiety among investors. I did that on the equity side. Then when oil prices in 2016 collapsed to $26 a barrel, from $125, I saw an arbitrage in the private market to buy assets that were priced as if oil were $26, whereas equities were trading as though oil were at $70. So I moved to the private side, raised a fund, it was rejected by 2000 investors, it took 2001 meetings to actually get a commitment… And our first one we tripled, our second fund is still being deployed. It’s a fascinating industry, it’s also a real asset, as far as it can be 1031’d. I think of it as real estate below grade… So it was applicable.

Ash Patel: Right now, you focus on warehouses and office buildings?

Andrea Himmel: Correct. We’ve been in the industrial space since 1986. We’ve been in the office space even longer than that. And we feel that there’s a tremendous amount of capital froth in the industrial space right now, so we’re focusing our efforts on growing our office portfolio. We like to zig one another’s zag. We’re contrarian investors, and we can do that because we can arbitrage time, because we have a balance sheet. So if we can be long-term holders and buy something that’s in distress, we’re a fortunate buyer. Not to mention we’re very nimble in structuring. So if the seller needs some sort of tax-efficient structure or some legal structure that an institutional buyer wouldn’t be able to accommodate, we’re able to do those sorts of things.

For example, there’s a warehouse in the Bronx that we loved, we bid on it… The owner’s problem was he couldn’t monetize the real estate without monetizing his plastic business first. So we made a bid with a private equity fund to buy both the business and the real estate, and do an Opco/Propco separation of the two, so that we can ultimately get to the real estate.

Ash Patel: And you ended up selling the plastics company?

Andrea Himmel: That did not execute that deal.

Break: [00:11:10][00:12:50]

Ash Patel: So you have the money of a hedge fund, but you have the nimbleness of a small company.

Andrea Himmel: We do always partner on deals with equity partners. So while we’ve done a few deals on our own, for example, we paid 25 million for a 120,000 square foot building in Long Island City, the noodle factory in 2017… We focus on really anything within office and industrial. I can get into like how we approached that.

Ash Patel: Let’s do it.

Andrea Himmel: So because I was trained in research at the hedge fund I worked at, we said that in the industrial space, we wanted a macro supply-demand thesis. We said we don’t even know what supply is in industrial. In New York City in 2003, when Mayor Bloomberg was in charge, 200 square blocks were rezoned from industrial to residential. A lot of factories converted to loft/resi or whatever. So supply, we know, was on the decline. Demand was rising, because the reason that the pandemic has accelerated, people want delivered items, and they want them delivered to them more quickly, so warehouses need to be located more central to the urban core, or to their end customer. That’s called last-mile delivery. We saw demand rising, we saw supply falling, and then set out to decide what are our parameters. Any site that’s between two and 20 acres, let’s call that M zone – we want to know about.

It turned out there were 1,500 of them. 500 of them were owned by government agencies from whom we would not be able to buy. 500 were owned by real estate investors, who are too sophisticated for us to buy from. The final third or 500 sites that remain are owner-occupied. Take the plastic frisbee guy, or a packaging company, someone who actually uses their space, recognizes at some point that the real estate is worth more than business, and decides whether they want to monetize on the real estate. We wanted to focus on that stock of folks, because they seem to be the least able to add value from a real estate perspective, and the most willing to transact. We entrenched ourselves in the world of owner-occupied stock. Whether that’s knowing the tool company really well, spending time with the principals who own the building, and understanding the tax issues they may face having owned it for 40 years under a trust, with six kids, or… We can get down into the gritty details and be pretty nimble with them. So that’s our industrial approach.

Ash Patel: Do these principles continue to operate that location?

Andrea Himmel: Yeah, they operate really because their business cash flow is dependent upon their labor, and their labor would quit if they announced that they were looking to sell the real estate or shut down the company; so they would immediately lose cash. What we’ve seen with a bunch of the owners is the fear that they lose their labor, and these are 3% of all warehouses in the US are actually at all robotized, so everything is a lot of labor.

Ash Patel: I don’t understand how that works. Do you buy the building, or do you get an option on it?

Andrea Himmel: You can structure it however you want, but it’s up to the seller. What does the seller want to do? Do they want a lease back for two years, while they figure out where their company can go and relocate? And then you own it free and clear, in which case you’re buying the fee. We’re not interested in the simple sale-leaseback, because that’s kind of like a poor return. We’re really focused on doubling our money on a deal at least, so we work with the owner and solve for whatever their problems are. So if they want something that’s tax-efficient because of low basis, we can say if it’s 100-million-dollar deal, we’ll give you 50 million as an option payment to buy it in 10 years at 100 million, and the 50 million option payment is nontaxable. So we do structures like that.

Ash Patel: Got it, okay. They can continue to operate their business for years to come, but you have the option to buy the building.

Andrea Himmel: Or we buy the building and they lease it back at some below-market rent for a few years while they try to find their new location, or shrink, or sell, or do whatever they’re going to do their business. Then we have been an empty property that we have to lease.

Ash Patel: Got it. With office buildings, what are you seeing today in New York?

Andrea Himmel: Distress on a vacancy level… But wow, is leasing activity up. The vacancy is about 6% higher than normal, it’s about 18%, and the average is about 12%. So we still have a fair amount of available space, and a large amount of that is sub-leased space. But anecdotally, just from within our firm, we just signed a 100,000 square foot lease with NYPD at 525 West 57th Street, a 70,000 square foot lease with NYU downtown at 411 Lafayette, in addition to maybe 13 to 15 leases in Chelsea, Noma, and Flat Iron area. That compares to zero activity last year at this time, so we’re seeing the market really pick up.

Ash Patel: What is MIPD?

Andrea Himmel: NYPD.

Ash Patel: Oh, NYPD. New York Police Department. Got it. Are you buying these at distressed prices?

Andrea Himmel: We only are willing to buy at distressed prices. We don’t value assets based on IRR or some return metric like that. We always measure return on invested capital as a multiple; we’re really basis-buyers who try to make money on the buy.

Ash Patel: You mentioned when you were with the hedge fund in the oil and gas industry, you learned a lot about cash flow. And I was going to ask the question, do you buy value-add properties if you’re so focused on cash flow?

Andrea Himmel: We’re not focused on cash flow. As an investor, I like to invest in companies that are profitable. That’s why I don’t know how to value venture capital from that angle; I don’t know how to value a company that has negative profits, I just don’t. But my perspective – ordinary income, the current yield, we don’t care about that. We can actually forego that if there’s a path to a reasonable yield. And if that means that it’s an unleased property, whether it’s office or industrial, we have the confidence that being a vertically integrated company, we can lease it up. We’re willing to take that risk, because that’s a business we’re in, and we have 40 years of experience doing the management, too.

Ash Patel: Andrea, when did the company go all-in on office?

Andrea Himmel: It’s a great question. I know that we had a property on 125th and I think Lexar Park, and it’s a major –now fully-developed site. But we were there in the ’70s, we’ve been in all the neighborhoods, we’re in Queens as industrial in 1986, and then office at least around 1986 or 1984.

Ash Patel: So in 2020, you suffered a bit of a hit.

Andrea Himmel: Yeah. We saw our buildings, just like the market, really hit 10% occupancy level. We had a lot of blend and extends, or at least conversations. But our arrearages have caught up; we’ve actually extended tenants to our accretion, to our benefit. We have a building that is highly leased to the entertainment industry and nonprofit for entertainment industry tenants, because it’s in Times Square. That building, I’d say, might have had more tenant requests to get rent abatements and such. But we worked with our tenants, we were very generous and we continue to try to be.

Ash Patel: Blend and extend is when you re-up somebody lease for maybe a discount in rent for a period of time.

Andrea Himmel: Yeah, and you just get more term. It’s great if you want to borrow against the asset, because having term allows you to borrow to a greater percentage of the capital stack. We’re conservative when it comes to debt, but it’s hard, for example, to finance month-to-month leases on one extreme, and it’s easy to finance a 50 or 30-year lease on the other.

Ash Patel: Andrea, was your office vacancy caused by defaults? Or was it caused by tenants just not renewing their lease?

Andrea Himmel: There are a few categories. Upon renewal, a few tenants just did not renew. But honestly, we’ve [unintelligible [21:32] spaces. Then there are tenants who tried to get out of their lease and we said no, and we have big security deposits, so they’re kind of stuck in that position. Then there are tenants who agreed to have a conversation and negotiate some form of an amendment to the lease, where we can both be mutually beneficial.

Ash Patel: And with your research background, what research went into your decision to double down on office?

Andrea Himmel: Great question. I think of our firm and what we’re looking at – it is above normal levels of vacancy. We’re in a cycle where we’re somewhere near a low, although there really has yet to be seen some distress. But we’re looking out to office — we could say, if we were really negative, “Wow, I have a building that’s 30% vacant, or 10% vacant, and it has 30% rollover, and five years of leasing risk, because who knows when people come back to work… And I have to carry the building, its taxes, its insurance, and everything else, the mortgage, for five more years… Screw it, I’m just going to Florida.” And that’s what we’re seeing.

I made a database – going back to database making – of private owners who are similar in size to us… Similar or smaller, like between 10 and 20 properties. So it started as a list of 2000 properties and 65 owners that we focused on, and then narrowed it down to a list of 15 owners each with an average of 10 properties or 150 properties. We are focused on certain neighborhoods, and we are focused on certain asset types. We think there’s great re-use potential in the garment district, which is totally distressed, from the life science perspective. We think that certain neighborhoods that are unsexy will emerge again.

Break: [00:23:38][00:26:36]

Ash Patel: Where do you get your data from?

Andrea Himmel: I use a few subscription apps or softwares. Like I use Reonomy, PropertyShark, and Costar. I also look at public tax records; ACRIS, in New York, is what you use. I sometimes follow court litigation to see if there’s a partnership in trouble. I track weekly transactions of properties to say “Oh, hey. Actually, so and so who we thought was never a seller is starting to sell assets. Maybe that’s a good data point.”

I track a lot of indicators. Obviously, the interest rates, the inversion of the 30-year coming below the 20-year a week ago or two weeks ago was a big trigger for me. Then obviously, all these data points we have on inflation… It changes the cap rates we’ll use to underwrite and discount rates to value.

Ash Patel: So with projected inflation on the horizon, you’re not using the norm for cap rates, you’re actually using a higher cap rate?

Andrea Himmel: Yeah. We’re conservative, but not conservative to the point that we’ll price ourselves out of the deal. For example, if something were today to trade on a four cap or let’s say a five cap, I’m talking 6% then; or five and a half percent. Nothing like on an exit, nothing crazy. If there’s an assumption that there should be cap rate compression, for example, the stabilization of the building offset by the growth in it.

Ash Patel: Andrea, you mentioned that you know the garment district is going to come back. Why?

Andrea Himmel: It’s M-zoned, meaning it’s manufacturing zoned. The buildings – not all of them, but some of them are built structurally so robustly, with [unintelligible [00:28:22].17] to HVAC systems, to ceiling heights, that they can accommodate life sciences clusters. New York City was the number one in the country last year for venture capital funding of life science startups.

Ash Patel: What is life science?

Andrea Himmel: Life sciences, anything from biotech to anything working with living organisms, basically. It’s research, its R&D. We have a building, 525 West 57th Street, it’s a life science-oriented building. It has the premier MS researcher, Dr. Sadiq, and he has a vivarium, which is where living organisms are studied, and requires certain very technical features on a lab level. We also have Genzyme LabCorp, and — I forget who it became later on. But we had a 200,000 square foot vacancy in that property, because CBS left after decades of paying very low rents. We leased half of that already to the NYPD, as I mentioned, and then we have another 100,000 to lease, but we think we’re close on leasing that, too.

Ash Patel: Do you just use leasing brokers?

Andrea Himmel: We have an internal leasing team, because we’re vertically integrated with a management company that’s dedicated just to our buildings. But we will always work with outside brokers if someone brings us a tenant. We aspire to integrity in the brokerage community, because I think brokers are the lifeblood of the industry, and are really undervalued and underappreciated. So we make sure that if someone brings us a deal or a contact, that we reciprocate in kind.

Ash Patel: What does your leasing team do that’s creative to try to get these tenants in?

Andrea Himmel: It’s a great question. We’re amenitizing buildings. Our buildings aren’t that large, they’re not million square foot buildings; they’re small, they’re 200,000 square feet, so we don’t have a great deal of space to dedicate as an amenity. The rooftop isn’t that large, or [unintelligible [00:30:27].01] So for us, it’s more about — we foresaw a strong location, a good building, meaning it has good ceiling heights, good light, good air, good infrastructure, and we’ve been proactively investing in its maintenance and capital over the years.

Ash Patel: Andrea, I read an article this morning that said, “Companies that offer a four-day workweek will have a huge competitive advantage in the future.” So all of this pressure to work from home, work less, what is that going to do to office space?

Andrea Himmel: It’s called a six-billion-dollar question with inflation. But we don’t know yet. We can’t quantify, and I’d be arrogant to say I could, the impact that work from home will have long-term on office demand. It will no doubt take away from office demand. However, there are countervailing forces that may cause some net positive effects, such as the de densification of office places. People want corners, they want windows, they want light, they want to be in their own offices; they don’t necessarily want to be sharing spaces or hoteling like some companies are doing, or hot-desking. We’re seeing a lot of it leasing in our portfolio, because our buildings are such that the windows are operable, which is rare, they often can walk to their floor, because these aren’t 80-foot towers, they’re 12 to 15 story buildings. Maybe not in the 15-story are they walking, but for the most part, tenants like these factors. Also, the floor plates are about 15,000 square feet in general for us, so that allows for one to two tenants per floor, which is good from the perspective of the tenant thinking “I don’t know the COVID policies of my neighbor.”

Ash Patel: Yeah. So my opinion is the work from home will not last because of the lack of collaboration, and at some point, lack of productivity.

Andrea Himmel: I’m most productive at my office. We’re closed down right now because we had a COVID case, but it was resolved and everyone else in the company is negative. But it’s amazing to me that… All week I’ve been out and about at conferences and meetings. You have to see people, this is a tangible business. We would never buy a building that we didn’t kick the tires on.

Ash Patel: Yeah. You’re like me, you think at some point, people are returning to the office and the work from home is going to be short-lived.

Andrea Himmel: Certain industries, it will be more work from home. Like, I foresee law, for example, doing that. Although I think it’s really hard for them to find talent, promote, and create upward mobility. Software, maybe they work from home. But the people that we see remaining working from the office actually require more square feet per person than when we included the ones that are now departing from the office.

Ash Patel: So no more cubicle farms.

Andrea Himmel: Correct. I hope.

Ash Patel: Andrea, what is your best real estate investing advice ever?

Andrea Himmel: Be over prepared. If it doesn’t work on the back of an envelope, using Excel to go get into the weeds too much is just going to create too much margin for error.

Ash Patel: Andrea, are you ready for the Best Ever lightning round?

Andrea Himmel: I’m ready.

Ash Patel: Let’s do it! What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned?

Andrea Himmel: It’s a great question. The hardest lesson is, because I worked for my mother and her business partner, in the beginning years, I didn’t push back often. We had so many properties off-market that today are worth multiples of what they were. I knew, from analysis paralysis, as well as good analysis and gut, that these were deals we should have pursued. I should have pushed harder against their opinion. I’m at the point now where they take it more seriously when I have recommendations, and they often manifest in strategies… But at the time, I wish I had the confidence to push back more.

Ash Patel: Andrea, what’s the Best Ever book you recently read?

Andrea Himmel: A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle; it’s similar to A Power of Now.

Ash Patel: What was your big takeaway from that book?

Andrea Himmel: Be present.

Ash Patel: Andrea, what’s the Best Ever way you like to give back?

Andrea Himmel: I serve on the board of directors of Habitat for Humanity, as well as the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. I mentor a lot of students, I’m a big sister to a little sister for 18 years now. I also support 10 women in Uganda in Sierra Leone through Child Fund, which is a nonprofit. I plan on starting a village savings and loans association. I really think philanthropy, giving is receiving.

Ash Patel: Andrea, how could the Best Ever listeners reach out to you?

Andrea Himmel: You can email me. My email is ahimmel@hmprop.com.

Ash Patel: Awesome. Andrea, thank you so much for sharing your story, with your mom being a pioneer in the ’70s, to you going a couple of different routes and coming back to real estate, and just dominating New York City real estate. It was a pleasure to have you on the show today.

Andrea Himmel: Thank you. It was my honor.

Ash Patel: Best Ever listeners. Thank you for joining us and have a Best Ever day.

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