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The Reinvention of Real Estate Brokerage with Bob Knakal

Bob Knakal in the famed Map Room (Photo by Ezekiel Jeremiah)

After 40-plus years of a real estate career that has seen some 2,300 transactions totaling over $21 billion in New York City, and stints with some of the largest brokerages in the world, Bob Knakal has realized one major thing.

He’s an entrepreneur at heart. And he wants to pioneer a new path using the latest technology that shows others can be, too.

“The world is changing,” Knakal said. “The real estate world has al- ways been way behind in terms of new technologies. It’s an analog business in a digital world.”

That’s why Knakal, just weeks after an unceremonious departure from JLL in February, formed BK Real Estate Advisors (BKREA). The new firm, which provides capital markets transaction and con- sulting services to property owners, utilizes technology such as AI to better serve the team and clients, Knakal said. The result could even marginalize the need for large brokerages.

“This can change the business in two very profound ways. One is in the prospecting and executing of business,” Knakal said. “The other is the interpretation of data. Even a single-person shop can do what a big company used to do in the past.”

From his early childhood, running his own business has been in his blood. A child who had to be dragged out of bed to go to school was the first one up to shovel neighborhood driveways on snow days, he recalled.

Later on, Knakal’s career began with a bit of serendipity. The Maywood, New Jersey native had planned to be an investment banker after attending the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. On spring break during his freshman year, he sent a resume to Coldwell Banker (later CB Richard Ellis, then CBRE), thinking he was applying to a bank, for a summer job. Instead, he landed in and fell in love with real estate. After three college summers at CB, he decided to work for the company full-time after college in Manhattan. On his first day, he met Paul Massey Jr., who guided him to the office’s coffee machine and became his partner, building a business based on deep market expertise. In 1988, the two formed Massey Knakal Realty Services, growing the firm over the next two-plus decades.

“Although Paul and I were at CB for four years, we really wanted to leave after two — we didn’t think we could easily get a bank loan,” Knakal recalled. “We had that entrepreneurial spirit.”

In 2014, the pair sold Massey Knakal to Cushman & Wakefield for $100 million, and Knakal rejoined the world of big brokerages. He served as chairman of New York investment sales until 2018, then joined JLL in a similar role until this year.

The pandemic had given him an opportunity to push the business in a different way. With the city shut down, Knakal and his team walked the empty streets and created detailed maps of every build- ing in Manhattan south of 96th Street. Stored in one secret location, the “Knakal Map Room” has become real estate lore, and something of a pilgrimage site for select real estate professionals.

And then came social media. Knakal said that he has always believed that business comes through networking, attending events almost daily throughout his career. Pressured by his peers, Knakal quickly saw that social media could provide another entrée to deals.

Starting in January 2023, Knakal and his social media team began posting about business, his own history and bits of advice, and rapidly grew a national following.

“I wanted to go beyond posting the price and the size of the building. I wanted to be different from what everyone else was doing,” he said. “I enjoyed motivating the troops at Massey Knakal, so that became Motivational Monday. We have Testimonial Tuesday. I have boxes of photos and material from the old days, so that became Throwback Thursday. It’s very different from ‘I just listed this’ or ‘I just sold that.’”

Today, he has more than 40,000 followers on LinkedIn, 32,000 followers on X (formerly Twitter) and 8,000 followers on Instagram, achieving more than 23.5 million impressions and views in 2023. In March, he was named the No. 1 commercial real estate influencer on LinkedIn by CREiSummit, a group of real estate professionals focused on expanding the use of digital marketing in the industry.

That higher visibility came at a price. Within days of a February 11 “New York Times” profile on Knakal and the Knakal Map Room that mentioned JLL just once, the company parted ways with the veteran broker. Speculation was rife online about Knakal’s next move — joining another big firm, partnering with another superstar broker or going out on his own.

They didn’t have long to wait. On X, Knakal announced BKREA, a firm that will utilize the data he has compiled and applying AI and other technologies to find trends and patterns to serve his clients.

“The time at Cushman & Wakefield was expected because anyone who would buy us would expect us to be on service contracts,” he said. “The time at JLL was not at all what was expected. It’s great to be an entrepreneur again.”

With 40 years of relationships and deals under his belt, joining another large firm wouldn’t have given him much more in terms of client access, he said. Instead, he sought the opportunity to once again build a firm his own way, while exploring what artificial intelligence can offer.

With a Midtown office (and a secure location for the Knakal Map Room), Knakal’s first hire was Sam Samowitz, a data scientist who is creating proprietary algorithms that can reveal market trends, as well as perform the support tasks that had been one of the benefits of working with a larger firm.

“Most data sets in the real estate business are not very good,” Knakal said. “These data sets from third-party aggregators are collected by people who are not participants in the transactions, so they can’t give, or obtain, inside details.”

Absolute numbers, he continued, don’t mean all that much — what matters is the relationship between the numbers and where they’re going. Even definitions can vary. Is the Empire State Building, which has some retail at the base, considered a mixed-use project? How will a shift in public policy affect a market? BKREA’s mission is to put data into context in order to maximize the potential value to investors.

“For example, in 2019, there was $23.6 billion in investment sales activity in Manhattan for deals over $10 billion,” he observed. “But in 2015 there was $54.7 billion. When it comes to information, it’s the interpretation of the information that matters.”

Prior to forming BKREA, Knakal had been working with two data scientists for about a year, applying AI models to see what factors or combinations of factors will be predictive of changes in the market. The first result will be the Knakal Land Index, focused on Manhattan south of 96th Street, with other indices to come. Other models will focus on the multifamily market, where Knakal has 40 years of data, and office rents. But even with all this information, the goal is the same.

“The more clients are informed, the better decisions they can make,” he said. “The best time is to have that information is now, particularly if the AI algorithms can do what they think they can.”

BKREA has also formed the Knakal Affiliate Program, or KAP, a group that will facilitate referrals and collaborations between brokers and firms.

“The real estate business is the information business and the relationship business,” Knakal said. “We’re not a tech company. We’re a real estate brokerage business that uses the technologies that are available. You can have the greatest model in the world, but if people don’t like you or want to work with you, you can’t succeed.”

Just weeks into BKREA’s life, it has a nine-person team and several deals already under way, Knakal said. And life is freeing as an entrepreneur.

“There’s a new vivaciousness to every aspect of every deal you’re doing,” he said.

That noted, he doesn’t plan to expand BKREA into another megacompany.

“A firm of 15 to 20 people can do what 100 people could do in the past,” he said.

And just as important is his legacy of encouraging others to start their own businesses or run their own departments.

“What I’m most proud of is that today, there are 30 companies or divisions of companies being run by former Massey Knakal brokers,” he said. “We ran that business with a true servant leadership philosophy. We told them how proud we were of them. We believed in building up folks, training intensely and getting them to realize they could do even better. That produced some of the best investment sales brokers in the city. History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it always rhymes.”