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Lazer Sternhell, CEO, Cignature Realty

By Jason Turcotte

Always looking on the bright side, Sternhell goes it alone.

Keeping it simple has always spelled success for Lazer Sternhell, CEO of Cignature Realty. And that’s why he’s sticking to his bread and butter — class B and C multifamily properties in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx.

Sternhell closed close to $1 billion in transactions last year while other commercial brokers sat pretty much of it out. In 2008, he and his team capped off $885 million in deals, accounting for nearly 5% of all New York City commercial transactions.

After spending nearly five years at Capin & Associates he and partner, Peter Vanderpool (Cignature president), left to start their own firm this past summer. While the business is new, Sternhell’s approach remains the same.

“We believe in product and we believe in area,” Sternhell said. “We know our product and don’t try to be everything to everyone.”

The crux of Sternhell’s business lies in the multifamily sector. While office and retail markets took a nosedive last year, the multifamily market stayed strong for three reasons: it is well financed, vacancy is extremely low and demand hasn’t faded.

As a result of movement in the multifamily market, the overall economy and struggles of the commercial sector had little bearing on the timing of Cignature’s launch. He and Vanderpool opened their doors with two other brokers, and Sternhell plans to have six brokers by the end of next year.

But he’s hell-bent on limiting Cignature’s scope to a small, boutique operation.

“We have very good relationships with the communities. We’re client based; we don’t just peddle every deal,” Sternhell said. “There’s a lot of buildings in New York, a lot of bricks — and we can’t sell every one of them.”

While Sternhell learned other aspects of the real estate business long before brokerage, he’s always had a knack for sales, as evident from earning an exclusive listing (a six-family property in the Bronx) within his first week at Capin.

A native of Rockland County, N.Y., Sternhell’s fascination with the business began at an early age; he grew up in a family of property owners. He learned about the management, financial, accounting and other areas of real estate by working with his family in the mid-late 90s.

And though he’s embarked on other business ventures, Sternhell’s always carried on in real estate as owner/manager. When a robust market presented an opportunity to dive into deal-making five years ago, he couldn’t resist. And the transition proved to be a seamless one.

“I always enjoyed the sales side of things,” said Sternhell, who has handled more than $2 billion worth of sales in just five years.

While he said every deal has had its obstacles, hard-work, leveraged reputations and market/product knowledge continue to guide him. He has two deals (both residential properties) in contract now — exceeding even his own expectations for newly launched Cignature.

While the multifamily market remains strong, Sternhell said fewer funds are active on the sales side, and he’s seeing more traditional investors return to the market. He’s also seeing a new generation of investors — from younger players to families — indicating that though markets change, there are always deals to chase.

“A good broker makes money in any market,” Sternhell said. “There are a lot of buyers out there. There’s a lot of opportunity.”

But Sternhell is selective on which opportunities he pursues, preferring to stick with the products he knows best (for example, you won’t find him dabbling in the distressed market).

While others exude skepticism, he’s bullish about the market and said conditions in the commercial sector aren’t as bad as many people think. With sellers becoming more “sober” to the realities of the market, Sternhell thinks New York is poised for a good real estate year in 2010, particularly the residential sector. And he predicts a return to the boom days of 2003-07.

He also believes it’s just a matter of time before the credit squeeze loosens up and banks begin lending again. “Banks go out of business for two reasons: they don’t lend, or they make bad loans,” Sternhell said.

The father of four sons, Sternhell devotes his free time to family, and following the Jets and Yankees. He currently resides in Rockland County.

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