The $40 million buyer: They’re often not bold-faced names, but understated billionaires in obscure fields

The Real DealJanuary 01, 2014
Forget fame and glamour: The buyers of Manhattan’s most costly real estate are often not the boldfaced names that appear in the gossip pages.

Those spending $40 million or more on a home are seldom bankers, starlets, tech billionaires or Russian oligarchs and their children, brokers say. Instead, these big spenders often tend to have roots in the working classes, making their fortunes from manufacturing, inventions and sales.

“Everyone expects buyers at this price point to be extremely glamorous, but really they are the minority,” said Leonard Steinberg, who leads the luxury brokerage team at Douglas Elliman. “Ninety percent of buyers in the $40 million-plus range are just extremely clever people that have invested wisely, or invented something extraordinary.”

Steinberg is currently marketing a 7,250-square-foot condo penthouse at the Elad Group’s 250 West Street, for $39.5 million. And despite the apartment’s hefty price tag so far, the potential buyers coming to view the property have been largely under-the-radar players with unrecognizable names.

And while Steinberg stressed the growing influence of highly cosmopolitan foreign billionaires on the New York market —from places like China, Russia and Western Europe, as well as new wealth emerging in countries like Nigeria, South Africa and Mexico — he said Americans are still the primary buyers of this type of home.

For example, one potential buyer who recently viewed the property was a towel manufacturer. But the buyer’s fortune was not built on a recognizable name brand of bath or beach towel, nor through sales at big retail chains. Instead, she produced towels distributed exclusively at wholesale centers — hardly haute couture.

“You have to think, who invented the technology in your keyboard? Who manufactured the screws and hinges in the products all around you? Who innovated the latest medical device?” Steinberg asked.

“Buyers in this market usually aren’t people who got rich raping the system. They tend to be either ingenious or rather lucky.”

While Wall Streeters, technology millionaires, heirs and TV, movie and sports stars obviously have millions to spend, brokers say those buyers usually top out below the $40 million price point. There are, of course, exceptions — like Leslie Alexander, the billionaire owner of Houston Rockets, who snapped up a $42 million unit at 18 Gramercy Park South last year (see “A drop at the top”).

But more often than not, the $40 million-plus buyers work in obscure fields. Indeed, while senior executives at the big global banks often earn total compensation packages that come in around $20 million, in many cases much of that headline number isn’t in cash. Typically, half or even two-thirds of their total will come from restricted stock awards or options that vest over time, making their fortunes less liquid.

There are, of course, exceptions — hedger funder Bill Ackman and a group of investors are reportedly in contract for a $90 million unit at Extell Development’s One57 — but there are also more than a few New York City trophy homes listed above $40 million. In fact, approximately 30 homes in the city are currently on the market for $40 million or more, according to real estate listings website StreetEasy.

Sotheby’s International Realty’s Elizabeth Sample, who along with partner Brenda Powers has four properties listed at $50 million or above, added that there are currently at least another five off-market “whisper” listings in the same price range.

But don’t expect Hollywood glitterati or high-visibility TV and music personalities to chase those properties. Stars typically buy at lower price points.

Case in point: Judy Sheindlin, better known as “Judge Judy,” is the highest-paid TV personality in any genre, grossing $47 million a year, according to TV Guide magazine. Yet, as The Real Deal previously reported, the no-nonsense justice spent $8.5 million on her four-bedroom co-op at 14 Sutton Place South in 2013.

Other notables such as Yoko Ono, Lance Bass and Norah Jones all sold Manhattan apartments in 2013 with asking prices ranging from $2.14 million to $8.9 million. And this fall, actress Rosie O’Donnell spent $6.4 million on a Saddle River, N.J., estate.

Another misconception is that the titans of Silicon Valley are spending their hundreds of millions on urban domiciles. But think again: Steinberg says that while older tech billionaires do on occasion buy at this level, many prefer to live more organically, in smaller and more sustainable luxury homes.

As for heirs and heiresses, brokers agreed that there is often a sense of humility that keeps richly bequeathed children from spending too much all at once. Yes, there are twentysomethings like Ekaterina Rybolovleva who settled on an $88 million apartment in the exclusive 15 Central Park West.
(Her father, fertilizer magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev, reportedly bought it for her.) But many of those who inherit their fortunes tend to be more modest — and guilt-ridden about spending too much money.

“[Overall,] the common thread with buyers at this level is that they are often extremely humble,” said
Vickey Barron, associate broker at Douglas Elliman and director of sales at JDS Development and Property Markets Group’s Walker Tower in Chelsea, which is currently listing a full-floor penthouse for $47 million. “These buyers are not wound up. They tend to be gentle souls that just happen to be very successful entrepreneurs, which is refreshing and lovely to see.”

Barron said a more accurate portrait of the apartment hunter with more than $40 million to spend is a salt-of-the-earth businessperson. Sample added that in many cases, the broker is better dressed than the client, sometimes leading to embarrassing mix-ups with owners.

“If you just saw them in a coffee shop, you wouldn’t know they were rich.” Barron said. “These people care about quality, not glitz. They want to fly under the radar; they can even be a little artsy.”

Barron recounted one recent case at Walker Tower involving a T-shirt-and-jeans-wearing apartment hunter interested in one of the building’s lavish penthouse units. When she learned the origins of her client’s fortune, Barron said she was embarrassed to have never heard of the company or the product it sold.

“Their business is crazy successful, but I had no idea what in the world it was,” Barron said. “Later, I learned that it was an expensive product that you wear from a brand that does absolutely no marketing, yet sells over a million dollars worth of product each month.”

The common denominator uniting this demographic of high-end buyer is that they are self-made, according to Emily Beare, a broker at CORE.

“These buyers aren’t Harvard Business School graduates with millionaire parents. They are very savvy and very street smart,” said Beare, who listed 15 Central Park West’s first combination unit for $70 million and represented the same seller, steel magnate Leroy Schecter, in his purchase of the Rothschild Mansion on the Upper East Side for $25 million in 2012. “They like to stay low-key and they don’t want to flaunt their wealth.”

Beare even remembered one client who made a fortune manufacturing machines like the ones used to cook hot dogs in baseball parks and street carts.