She may be an expert at driving in reverse, but her plans are all about the future. Leslie Harwood, managing director of Newmark Knight Frank (NKF), has spent a lifetime in real estate, and through deal-making and developing will be part of rebuilding her home town. And after more than 35 years in the business, she continues to build her industry’s future by mentoring young women in real estate.
A past chairman of the Young Men’s/Women’s Real Estate Association (YM/WREA), she recently was awarded the 2017 Senior Professional of the Year Award in honor of her contributions to the industry, a rare bookend in that she was also the association’s Young Real Estate Person of the year in 1993.
“The friends we make and the colleagues we call family are what the business is about,” Harwood said, echoing her 2017 YM/WREA speech. “It’s about the people.”
That focus on people has led to tremendous success as a dealmaker at NKF, working with numerous clients from blue-chip financial service firms to finding permanent homes for philanthropic organizations such as Young People’s Chorus, creating new environments that allow them to flourish. Known for putting the clients first, she always negotiates the best terms for them and their businesses. Guiding these diverse clients through acquisitions, leasing, and other transactions, Harwood has come to be both liked and respected in the commercial real estate industry.
But Harwood wears two hats—she has been involved with more than 2 million square feet of residential and retail space in the metro area, with ambitious plans to convert part of her family legacy in Jersey City into a mixed-use complex that will continue her hometown’s renaissance.
“Being a broker makes me a better developer, and being a developer makes me a better broker,” she said. “And that knowledge and relationship helps me on both ends.”
Harwood was born into the real estate business. The owners of Harwood Properties, a 100-year-old private real estate developer and manager based in Jersey City, her grandfather and father through Square Parking (a separate entity) purchased and operated parking garages. The family now owns properties throughout the Tri-State area, Boston, and Philadelphia.
“My father would assemble the properties around the garage, put it together, get it developed, and then sell it or work with a joint venture partner,” Harwood said. “Both of my parents gave me a voice and a vision, and taught me to have the confidence in myself to do what I wanted to do.”
And she had hands-on training.
“Like all college kids, I had to get a summer job. When I didn’t get one on my own, one day at six a.m. my dad knocked on my door. That morning I learned how to drive a stick shift by practicing on the roof of one of our New Jersey properties,” she laughed. “After that I parked cars at the site of 520 Madison Avenue. And I can drive a car backwards better than anyone in this town. I made fabulous tips, and to this day, some of the guys still remember me and my dad. It’s a great skill to have in New York City.”
After college, however, she opted against working for her family parking company, becoming a broker with small boutique firms such as G.W. Michaels. Her knowledge of development, however, informed her deal-making, she says. She moved over to Newmark Knight Frank in 1993.
“When someone understands the value a broker brings to the table, it’s an invaluable strength to bring to a developer,” Harwood says. “On the other side, when a broker understands what the developer is looking for in terms of costs and other aspects, it’s an invaluable strength to bring to a broker. Seeing both sides has really helped me stand out both as an individual and as a real estate professional.”
Meanwhile, she continued to work with her brother, Craig Harwood, and her cousins on Harwood Properties. Now the family is developing 808 Pavonia, a 1.2 million-square-foot mixed-use complex to be located across the street from the Journal Square transportation complex and adjacent to the historic Loews’ Theater, property the Harwood family has owned for 80 years. The project calls for the redevelopment of a 2.5-acre parking garage into two residential towers of 980 units, a theater, museum, and retail, connected by a High Line-style park, continuing Jersey City’s striking transformation.
“I grew up in Jersey City, and it’s unbelievable that now I’m a developer in Jersey City. I was the cheerleading captain at Snyder High School,” she recalled. “How many cheerleader captains get to meet with the city leaders and say, ‘This is my town.’ This project means so much to me because it meant so much to my father to change Journal Square, and to bring it the vitality it once had again.”
Equally important is her mentoring of women in the industry. Harwood was the second woman chairman of YM/WREA in 1991, and has created NOW, a program at NKF that brings together women from Newmark, BGC Partners, and Cantor Fitzgerald to give them a voice and the opportunity to network and support each other as business executives. She hosts monthly dinners at her home for women in the company to discuss business opportunities and how they can succeed together.
“We already have the power of listening to clients. Now we must bring that to each other,” she said. “It’s important for women to be respected, and mutual respect is really key for women in our industry moving forward. There are a lot of challenges women will face, but there also will be a lot of opportunity as people realize the great value women bring to our teams. As I go into the next chapter of my career, I feel it’s important to mentor young people, and not just women.”
She serves on the Commercial Brokerage Midtown committee of the Real Estate Board of New York and is a member of Women Executives in Real Estate (WX).
Harwood also supports a number of causes, many focusing on education. Her father, Lowell Harwood, was passionate about inner-city education, and the family endowed the Harwood Arena at Kean University in New Jersey. Her sons Jonathan and David Ehrlich, and daughter Laura Ehrlich also are involved in their own philanthropies.
“My father was passionate about education, about making education available, and that it was the path to make a difference in the world,” she said. “And my family has continued his legacy at Kean. He taught not only me and my brother, but our entire family the power of giving back. I have three amazing kids, whom I’m very proud of.”
The personal touch is how Harwood conducts her business. She notes that many of her colleagues have become close friends—and she fully expects to invite many of her high school friends to the grand opening of 808 Pavonia. The result has been a full career in both brokerage and ownership, as Harwood continues her journey through every aspect of real estate.
“My dad gave me a voice and always taught me to be proud of what I do,” she said. “I’m blessed to be able to do this.”
Managing Director, Newmark Knight Frank
125 Park Ave
New York, NY 10017