As President of Swig Equities and Owner and Co-Chairman of Terra Holdings, Kent Swig is transforming New York City one block at a time.
By Dakota Smith
“My father sat down with me and said, ‘You like real estate, you have been interested in it, and you have thought about the possibility of going into the business. Now might be a better time than later since I’m not feeling well.'”
An experienced photographer, Kent Swig, President of Swig Equities, likes to compare photography to real estate. A photographer takes a photo of a familiar subject-and snap!-new details emerge on the final print. Likewise, a developer re-does a ho-hum building, one that people walk by every day, and suddenly the whole block takes notice.
“You develop a photo and people say, ‘Oh, I never saw that before,'” says Swig. “And with a building, you are really showing people something that is the manifestation of what you see there.”
Swig’s latest vision: Sheffield57, a 58-story conversion at 322 West 57th St. Once a rather ordinary 845-unit rental tower, the 1978 building has been transformed into a luxury 600-unit residence with private gardens, spacious homes, and five-star amenities suited to New York’s luxury market.
Given its sheer size, the building, which opened for sales in October, came with a hefty price tag: $545 million. Until the sale of New York’s Stuyvesant Town in October, the Sheffield deal qualified as the largest residential purchase in the history of the U.S.
But a big building and a big price tag go along with Swig’s equally big belief in the continued force of the luxury real estate market, one which he’s backed with more than half a billion dollars. “The strength of the New York market is truly incredible,” he says. “For it to maintain this level of demand at such a high pricing level is remarkable.”
And one can trust Swig, a 20-year veteran of the industry, to predict the ups and downs of the market. Swig Equities, his New York-based investment, development, and management firm, has developed $3 billion worth of residential, commercial and hotel properties throughout the country. In New York, his company’s portfolio includes some of the most coveted downtown commercial and residential properties in the city, including 80 Broad St., 44 Wall St., and 25 Broad St.
He’s also the owner and co-chairman of Terra Holdings, which he co-owns with Arthur and William Zeckendorf and David Burris, the parent of real estate firms including the highly-respected firm Brown Harris Stevens and Halstead Property. If you’ve ever looked into buying a luxury home in New York City, the Hamptons or Palm Beach, you’ve likely encountered a Brown Harris Stevens or Halstead Property agent.
Additionally, Terra Holdings owns the equally respected Halstead Property Company, a residential firm with more than 450 brokers and Halstead/Feathered Nest, the largest residential rental firm in Manhattan.
The resume doesn’t stop there: Swig is also a principal in and serves as chairman of the board of The Swig Company, the family-owned, San Francisco-based real estate and hotel company. Indeed, Swig is part of a real estate dynasty. His grandfather Benjamin purchased the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in 1946, while his father, Melvin, served as chairman of the Swig Weiler and Dinner Development Company, which was based in San Francisco and New York.
Despite the family lineage, Swig didn’t necessarily plan a career in real estate. After studying Chinese History at Brown University (while living in Providence, he took photography classes at RISD and had some of his photos published in the Boston Globe), he graduated from Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. Swig’s plan was to become a lawyer, specializing in international law, until his father become sick with cancer.
“My father sat down with me and said, ‘You like real estate, you have been interested in it, and you have thought about the possibility of going into the business. Now might be a better time than later since I’m not feeling well,'” he says. “So I ended up making the move at that time.”
He joined Swig Weiler in 1985, before making the move in 1987 to Macklowe Properties, the New York-based developer and property management company (at the time, Swig Weiler and Macklowe were partners in multiple buildings in New York and one in Los Angeles).
At Macklowe, Swig was in charge of a commercial and residential building portfolio worth more than $4 billion. “It was the greatest graduate program that I could have had,” says Swig of his seven and a half years at the company. Of his mentor Harry Macklowe, the company founder, he says: “As far as individuals in the marketplace, there are very few people that one can say are the best in terms of creativity and design.”
Working at Macklowe proved fortuitous, while knowing Harry Macklowe proved fortuitous in quite another way. Through his friendship with Macklowe, Swig met his wife, Harry Macklowe’s daugher–and in quite a remarkable fashion.
As Swig tells the story, the senior Macklowe wanted him to meet his daughter, so he set the pair up on a blind date. The night they were supposed to meet, both Swig and Elizabeth cancelled-each for their own reasons-only to meet that night while standing in line at a New York restaurant, the Saloon, on 64th and Broadway. They have been married since 1987 and have two sons.
Those who know Swig say that the range of his interests, be it art, sports, architecture, travel, or surfing (Montauk, Australia, and Hawaii are favorite spots to hit the waves) is enormous, while his commitment to charitable work is inspiring.
“He’s a student of his interests, but it’s not superficial,” says Steve Kirschenbaum, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Swig Equities, who has worked alongside Swig for the last decade. “It’s not like he just knows a little about lot.”
And following in the path of his grandfather and father-both highly respected for their philanthropy-Swig is on the board of numerous charities and volunteer groups. Notably, he is on the board of directors of Business Executives for National Security (BENS), a group of executives dedicated to using businesses practices to find ways to ensure national security.
Not surprisingly, many of Swig’s interests, notably art, become incorporated into his buildings. At 44 Wall Street, Swig with his wife Liz, commissioned an original piece by artist Robert Melee, while 5 Hanover Square-another Swig Equities property- has a work by St. Louis artist Jared Jeans and a video installation by South African artist Robin Rhode. And one of the most striking additions to Sheffield57’s landscaped garden is the whimsical sculpture by a yet to named artist.
“He has an imaginative design sense,” says Raul de Armas, principal of Manhattan-based architecture firm Moed de Armas & Shannon, who has worked with Swig on more than ten buildings, including Sheffield57. “He always encourages us never to lose sight of the history and personality of the building.”
At Sheffield57, de Armas and Swig worked to ensure that the lobby felt light and airy to counter the building’s location mid-street. The solution: Adding gold-colored Brazilian granite and travertine marble along the floors, and sycamore wood in the ceiling to create a warm, open space.
“The thing about Kent is that he gets very personally excited and involved from the beginning,” says de Armas. “There is a continuous banter back and forth about sketches and conversations, with Kent saying, ‘Oh, we should do it this way, or that way’ and then all of us coming to an agreement.”
“He’s a tireless worker,” agrees Kirschenbaum. When a deal closes, be it a financing package or an acquisition, according to Kirschenbaum, Swig makes phones calls, and sends emails to everyone who is involved in the deal to ensure that employees know they are valued.
Additionally, Swig often helps train his sales staff himself. During the week, one can find him at the Sheffield57 sales office, meeting prospective buyers and telling them about the building. Knowing everything about the real estate market, from what buyers are looking for in a luxury condominium to understanding a commercial tenants’ business is key, according to Swig. “Real estate is almost a business that’s purely a reflection of other people’s business,” he says.
Looking forward, Swig says there are more opportunities to grow and expand the Terra-owned real estate firms like Brown Harris Stevens. While some real estate watchers may gripe about the increased consolidation of firms as smaller companies are bought up by larger ones, Swig believes that a larger firm can offer better resources, like a stronger advertising or human resources department. “It all ends up helping the end user because it raises the level of efficiency,” says Swig. “The small independent brokers can’t have the same capabilities.”
“Of course, I would rather be the acquirer,” he adds, with a laugh.
As for Swig Equities, he says there are plans to acquire and develop high-rise residential and commercial projects in additional cities. “Dense urban” areas are next, he announced, listing Washington, D.C., Boston, San Francisco, and parts of Los Angeles as spots he’d like to enter. “I have been doing this for 20 years,” he says of his future plans. “I feel like I am just hitting my stride.”