5Qs for Esther Bukai on post-pandemic New York

Al Urbanski
Real Estate Editor & Manager
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Esther Bukai
Esther Bukai

When Esther Bukai joined Fillmore Real Estate in New York City 25 years ago, Brooklyn wasn’t cool. She had the good fortune to be mentored by Tim King—a legendary commercial real estate broker still leasing space in Brooklyn with SVN CPEX Real Estate—and helped bring national retailers to the boroughs outside of Manhattan.

“I got the Rite-Aid account and did about 30 to 35 deals. I was fortunate,” said Bukai who joined the Ripco brokerage in New York in 1998, opened its first Brooklyn office in 2017, and was recently named the company’s vice chair. With offices, shops, and restaurants now starting to fill up again in The Big Apple, we asked Esther what kind of recovery it’s making from COVID-19.

Esther, you’ve spent 25 years leasing urban space to leading retailers. What was your world like in the summer of 2020, and what’s it like now? Is urban retail reviving?
I was surprised, but I was fairly busy. I was working on deals in sectors not inversely impacted by COVID-19. I was doing dealerships for Volvo and Porsche. I got Polestar—the new electric car brand that hasn’t started selling yet—its first showroom on the Upper East Side. I’ve been doing this a long time and have weathered the downturns—like during the Great Recession in 2008. You do your canvassing and wait for the opportunities to appear. Now the city is buzzing again. My colleagues are all busy.

In what ways might urban retail be different post-pandemic?  Will “marketing statement” stores in New York diminish? Will new brands—perhaps DTC brands—begin snapping up prime spaces?|
A lot of exciting things are happening. Two colleagues in my office signed 15 leases with a grocery delivery company. Consumers relied on delivery during the pandemic and it keeps growing. I don’t think marketing statement stores will diminish, because we’re now seeing more experiential retail—interactive events, music, art. And DTC retailers understand that stores are fantastic for brand growth and are looking for locations. Nothing beats physical interaction.

“New York is the greatest city in the world. If you want your brand and product to be seen, this is the one place where you have to have a store.”

When a retail chain exec asks you, “Why should I pay that kind of money just to have one store in New York City?” what’s your response?
New York is the greatest city in the world. If you want your brand and product to be seen, this is the one place where you have to have a store.

You were just named Vice Chair of Ripco. Are career opportunities widening for women in retail real estate?
I was always one of few in the early years. There were just a handful of women doing national retail rollouts. Today, I’m floored by the female talent in the real estate industry. I’ve never seen my gender as a detriment to making money in this space, but I do now see more women in power positions.

Your boss Peter Ripka says you’re fantastic at closing out a deal.  Share one or two of your closing secrets with us.
In this business, it’s clear that time kills all deals. It’s very easy to become complacent while working on a deal, but you can’t take your foot off the gas. When you’re dealing with national companies and institutional owners, the approval process can take a year—permits, ground-up construction, zoning changes. When I started, I was super tenacious and hungry. I refused to slow down. As you get older you kind of get used to the timing. But if you become complacent, a lot of the time your deals die. You have to keep your clients at the forefront of your mind.