Bill Leopold remembers when Connecticut was a mecca of corporate headquarters in the 1980s and prices were a relief compared with neighboring Westchester County.
After Mutual of New York closed its real estate division, Leopold started WFL Real Estate Services LLC in 1998 in Stamford, which then, he said, was much cheaper than Westchester. One client followed him and the business grew from there, with some of his clients working with WFL since the beginning.
Now based in Norwalk, WFL provides property management, brokerage services and build-outs in Fairfield and Westchester counties’ office and retail markets. Business grew during the recession when the lack of deals hurt most brokerage firms, Leopold said. Still, he said the industry has not improved enough and the office market is weak.
“It’s been a struggle,” Leopold said of the past five years.
He said there is no job growth in Connecticut and the state is a very expensive place to do business.
WFL continues to build its portfolio by making creative deals on office space, offering hands-on services and working in the strong retail market, Leopold said.
Leopold’s firm manages about 35 properties totaling about 2 million square feet, a value of more than $800 million. Recently, WFL took over management at 411 W. Putnam Ave. and 66 Field Point Road in Greenwich as well as a retail building in South Norwalk.
Leopold said the keys to his company’s longevity are his team of 18 employees’ ability to be hands on, entrepreneurial and focused on the clients. During the recession, he said building owners realized it was better to work with WFL to manage their properties than to do it on their own.
“This way they’re not getting the calls at 2 a.m. for an emergency,” Leopold said. “We’re taking them.”
WFL’s buying power enables the firm to get discounts on utilities and labor supplies that are beneficial to the owner, Leopold said. In 2006, Leopold opened a cleaning subsidiary of WFL, Advantage Maintenance.
Offering an array of services helped WFL during the recession, he said.
“When one was down, the other was up,” Leopold said.
To continue to gain clients, he said WFL is willing to take a one-year lease or offer incentives such as moving services or a month of free rent. Suites and single offices are also popular for startups or individuals moving out of home offices, he said.
“You have to be very creative with your deals,” he said.
Buildings that have been renovated attract tenants much faster than older offices, Leopold said. Companies are willing to spend the extra $2 per square foot to work in a nicer building, he said. Buildings with amenities especially appeal to millennials who want a modern space to work and socialize with co-workers, Leopold said.
He has seen leasing activity from professional services such as insurance and accounting, financial services and medical offices. One of WFL’s new corporate clients is Hospital for Special Surgery in Stamford. Most of his deals are under 5,000 square feet.
Leopold said retail is a strong market now, especially restaurants. WFL worked as the broker with Westport-based H K Group Inc. to bring Off the Hook Bar and Grill, which has locations throughout the state, including Fairfield, to South Norwalk. Off the Hook Bar and Grill will take over Barcelona Restaurant and Wine Bar’s location on North Main Street when Barcelona moves in January to Norwalk’s Waypointe, a mixed-use development.
To Leopold, South Norwalk is a promising area, with technology businesses like etouches, an event management software company. He said in Stamford, developer Building and Land Technology did a great job transitioning the city within five to seven years into an attractive place to live and work.
“I think Stamford and Norwalk are holding the state of Connecticut together right now,” Leopold said.
He said the state government needs to do a better job controlling its money and keeping companies in the state. Because taxes and insurance make Connecticut an expensive place to do business, “companies get to the point where they say, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Leopold said.
Connecticut’s advantages are its beautiful residential areas, transportation options and cheap office rent compared with New York City, Leopold said. Still, not as many Manhattan-based companies have moved north as Leopold would like. Some businesses have satellite offices in the state, but he said there are not enough headquarters.
“That’s what we’re missing,” Leopold said, adding he is concerned that GE might leave the state.
He remains optimistic about growing his Norwalk business, but Leopold is also looking out of state for the future of WFL. He is considering opening an arm in Palm Beach, Florida, which he said could use his services. He said the market is robust in Florida, as well as Tennessee and Texas.
“There are cranes all over the place,” Leopold said. “[Connecticut’s] not there.”