The Real Estate Dream Won’t Just Fall in Your Lap After One or Two Deals: Advice from David Amirian
By Yitzi Weiner and Casmin Wisner
“I urge entrepreneurs in real estate, or any industry for that matter, to be practical and to be willing to sacrifice a few years of famine for a long-term vision of bounty and success.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing David Amirian, founder and CEO of The Amirian Group, one of Manhattan’s premiere real estate development firms. The firm focuses on projects that are unique in design and location, such as 316 East 3rd St., a ground-up rental project in the Lower East Side and 540 West 49th St., which broke the record for the highest price per square foot ever achieved in Hell’s Kitchen. Currently, The Amirian Group is building The Twenty1, a 40,000-square-foot, nine-unit, boutique condominium on 21st Street in Chelsea and Thirteen East/West, a 26,000-square-foot project which spans over two mirror image six-story buildings on 13th Street in the East Village.
Thank you so much for doing this with us. What is your backstory?
I graduated from American University in 2001. In the fall of that year, I started working as a coffee boy, errand boy, and secretary for HRH construction, where I worked on projects such as The Gateway Plaza Mall in East New York, and The Marc at 900 8th Avenue, the Moinian Group’s first ground-up project in New York City. I worked my way up to assistant project manager in 2003, and later on I was promoted to project manager. From HRH I went to BRF Construction where I helped build the first condominium building in Harlem. After my employment with BRF, I was named Director of Construction and worked as an owner’s representative from 2006 to 2010 to build the Setai, a multi-million dollar mixed-used project in New York City.
I decided at that point that I wanted to start my own firm and partnered with Eric Brody to form Brody Amirian Group. Shortly thereafter, Eric and I partnered with Wonder Works Construction. Although we were successful partners together, my development vision lead me to start The Amirian Group, where I am now building The Twenty 1 in The Flatiron District and THIRTEEN EAST + WEST in the East Village.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
I’ve encountered many egos and attitudes while working in the real estate industry, and I have learned that if you can’t find humor in these encounters, then the industry can essentially break you. One of these moments for me was when I had to decide whether my boss’s ego could be humorous, or if I would let it take me down.
This happened when I worked with a certain developer as an owner’s representative in 2005 and we were building a 10,000 square-foot school. Towards the end of construction, I spent an entire week painting the space white for an upcoming showing with a broker. One Friday afternoon, the owner developer (and my boss at the time) came in for a walkthrough of the space and said, “Why did you paint it white? This should be black. Go start over!” That weekend I spent $10,000 painting the entire space black, and on Monday morning the broker arrived for the walkthrough. During the walkthrough, the broker suggested we paint the space white instead of black, and the owner developer immediately looked over to me with a sneer and exclaimed, “Yeah, why did you paint this space black? Go and paint it white right after this!”
Obviously, I was very embarrassed in front of the broker, even if it hadn’t been my brilliant idea to paint the space black. However, I bit my tongue and went on to do my job. Looking back, I can now laugh at my previous employers’ ego. From that day forward, I vowed to never let my ego get the best of me in this industry, to treat everyone with respect, and to take ownership of my mistakes.
Are you working on any meaningful nonprofit projects? How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My wife told me she knew she wanted to marry me one December night after we finished dinner and I decided to take a “doggy bag” from the restaurant to give to a homeless man—who I often ran into near Bryant Park. I am very lucky that I have been blessed with so much, and I am always trying to find ways—big and small—to help others. One of the best memories of giving back was from 2012 to 2015 when I was given the opportunity to volunteer my time to build three Chabad Preschool of the Arts schools in Manhattan. My parents have always stressed how important getting a good education is, and POTA offers such a beautiful, caring environment for young children to learn and grow at their own pace and in their own way.
My wife and I love the school’s mission so much that after helping build it, we even sent our son there. I also volunteer twice a year at American University, where I speak to the Kogod School of Business students about entrepreneurship and real estate. After my visits, I often mentor up to ten students from the school at a time. I find it is a nice way to give back to the school that taught me so much, and that helped me get to where I am today.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started,” and why?
- It’s going to take longer to get to your goals than you may anticipate. I think many of us see “big hitters” in real estate — those who are doing multiple development deals — and think to ourselves, “Well, I’ll just go into development and be like THAT guy.” We all want the real estate dream, but it will rarely fall in our laps after one or two deals. The learning curve is much steeper than expected. I still continue to learn every day.
- At first, you’re not going to make as much money as you expected. I often wish I was more prepared not to make money for the first few years of starting my business. I urge entrepreneurs in real estate, or any industry for that matter, to be practical and to be willing to sacrifice a few years of famine for a long-term vision of bounty and success.
- You will most likely have to reinvest most of your profits back into your business. Expounding on my previous statement, I wish someone told me that I was not going to make as much money as I thought at first. Even after working hard and seeing the fruits of your labor for a few years, a strong company will still need reinvestment in its early years. So, reinvesting your capital back into your company is very important.
- You have to be OK with failure — don’t let it discourage you. I have encountered many failures, and I will continue to fail in the future. Sometimes we recover from the failures, and sometimes we don’t fully recover, but we learn from them and move on, which is the important part. When running your own business, the buck stops with you and even the littlest failures can often feel catastrophic. It is important to just keep your head up and continue to put one foot in front of the other.
- Take time for the important things in life. Whether it is your family, children, health, or friends, it is important to take time for things that matter most to you in life. It’s easy to get caught up in this industry, and if I let myself, I could easily work seven days a week to get everything done. However, I find it extremely important to make time for friends and family who are the true epicenter of my world. One day, all of the money and buildings in the world could be gone, but those who truly love you will always stand by your side. So, be sure to make time for them and appreciate that part of your life.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I would LOVE to have a private breakfast with Michael Jordan. I am a basketball fanatic, and I grew up watching Jordan revolutionize the game. He is definitely someone I would love to dine with.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
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