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Power 75 (No. 10-1)

- Last modified: November 21, 2016 at 11:54 AM
#10. Jose Cruz (26)
#10. Jose Cruz (26)
HFF
Senior managing director

Here’s how one insider weighs whether Cruz belongs in the Top 10: by pounds. “This guy goes to closing dinners four times a week,” the insider said. “He eats out more than any other person. I don’t know how he doesn’t weigh 400 pounds.” Jokes aside, insiders were serious in their regard for Cruz and the roll he is on. “I’ve never seen a machine like this,” an insider said. “Jose is so on fire right now, it’s like legendary on fire. He’s the driving engine in the sale of residential real estate, and this guy is all over it.” Another felt his efforts deserves him a spot near the top — an unusually high perch on this list for his job. “He’s a broker, so the question is whether you put a broker in the Top 10,” the source said. “(Brokers) are not creating the deal, they are just selling the deal. But no one does it better. If you don’t subscribe to theories that brokers are just trading and not creating real estate, then Jose should be in the Top 10.” He’s in the right spot. “Right now, the hottest sector is multifamily real estate and Jose is by far the No. 1 residential broker in the state,” an insider said.
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HFF
Senior managing director

Here’s how one insider weighs whether Cruz belongs in the Top 10: by pounds. “This guy goes to closing dinners four times a week,” the insider said. “He eats out more than any other person. I don’t know how he doesn’t weigh 400 pounds.” Jokes aside, insiders were serious in their regard for Cruz and the roll he is on. “I’ve never seen a machine like this,” an insider said. “Jose is so on fire right now, it’s like legendary on fire. He’s the driving engine in the sale of residential real estate, and this guy is all over it.” Another felt his efforts deserves him a spot near the top — an unusually high perch on this list for his job. “He’s a broker, so the question is whether you put a broker in the Top 10,” the source said. “(Brokers) are not creating the deal, they are just selling the deal. But no one does it better. If you don’t subscribe to theories that brokers are just trading and not creating real estate, then Jose should be in the Top 10.” He’s in the right spot. “Right now, the hottest sector is multifamily real estate and Jose is by far the No. 1 residential broker in the state,” an insider said.
The Hampshire Cos.
Chairman

Of all the selections we make on this list, Jon Hanson is always the hardest. Simply put, he could be No. 1 every year and no one would argue. “He’s the oracle,” said one of his legion of admirers. “He’s the Warren Buffett of New Jersey for real estate. You want influence? Consider this. Top people, I mean the very top people, just come to his office to have time with Jon Hanson to talk about the state of the market.” Hanson is quick to deflect the credit. And we’re guessing he’ll be thrilled that his son, who has been running the day-to-day operations of Hampshire for a few years now, has surpassed him on this year’s rankings. For many, though, no one can truly top Hanson. “He continues to change the shape of New Jersey because of his strategies,” said another insider. “Jon attract deals just by who Jon Hanson is. If anybody has a big real estate deal, if anybody needs capital or if anyone just needs advice — even if they don’t need Hampshire to be involved — they go to Jon Hanson.” Said another: “Jon is the most influential, political non-appointed person in New Jersey.”
The Hampshire Cos.
CEO and president

This isn’t a typo. The top-ranked Hanson on the list is now Jimmy, not Jon. On a list that’s turning over this year, this selection may be the biggest. Many insiders say the time is right. “(The) Hampshire (Cos.) could be the first- or second-most-important company in New Jersey, and Jimmy’s running it now. “It’s all his vision. Everything that company does is Jimmy.” What it is doing, another said, is adjusting to the era behind Jimmy’s lead. “He’s switching the strategy to go with the times,” another insider said. “That’s the beautiful thing about jimmy. Hampshire is not an elephant. When the market changes and maybe the market is going away from the sponsored deals to more of the direct deals, Jimmy is leading that charge.” Hanson has long been known as a fundraiser. “Whether it’s private money or institutional money or foreign money, that’s his sweet spot,” the insider said. “But his sweet spot also is his strategic thinking. If you don’t react quickly enough, you get stuck. He wants to move before he has to.” Said another: “Jimmy certainly has put his imprint on the company and he’s made significant changes, which is certainly what you need to do when you are taking over and you have a big shadow.”
Kushner Real Estate Group
President

He’s not the Kushner who was deeply involved in the presidential election and now the transition, but his involvement and impact in New Jersey real estate is topped by few. “I think he moves up a lot,” one insider said. “He’s the guy now. (His father) Murray has moved up. What he’s doing in Jersey City and Journal Squared is transformative. He’s just the next generation real estate leader.” Kushner follows the theme of this year’s list, one where the next generation is becoming the movers and shakers. At least that’s how another admirer saw it. “A lot of times, you see the fortunate son not live up to the father,” the insider said. “This is a case where the son might surpass the father.” Another insider said Kushner’s efforts will be a barometer for the growth of Jersey City. “Journal Squared is going to be a deal that breaks or makes Jersey City. It’s bringing so many units into Jersey City that its significance cannot be overstated. If it comes on line and there’s a dip in the economy, I can see that project dropping rents like a rock throughout the city. If the economy doesn’t dip, (and) I don’t think it will, then Jersey City is officially an extension of Manhattan. That’s power.”
Woodmont Properties
CEO

Eric Witmondt certainly is a member of the next generation, but he’s hardly a newcomer to this list — or even the Top 10. He’s well-established in the state. And well-respected, too. One fan gave him high marks for his versatility. He’s hardly a one-trick pony. “He’s extremely smart and knows the business inside and out,” the insider said. “He started as a broker, knows residential, knows commercial, knows industrial — that’s an amazing skill set.” And it’s helping him thrive in the market. He is one of the most active developers in mixed use, multifamily, industrial and office. Some say he may pivot back to more industrial. Making such moves won’t be a problem, another insider said, because the team he has built around him is just as versatile. His group, another fan said, is a big asset. “Eric is fabulous — and he’s been great at building a great team,” the insider said. “He has a great organization that rivals anyone. He has some very smart people in his group; it’s probably the most underrated group I know.” Witmondt is clearly the team leader, though. “He is one of the hardest-working guys in our business,” the insider said. “He deserves everything that comes to him.”
Mack-Cali
CEO

There’s no doubt Mack-Cali deserves prominent spots on the list. “Their sheer size warrants it,” one insider said. “They occupy so much space that have great influence regardless of what they do. And they are doing a lot right, repositioning so many of the company’s assets.” The only question: Which of their powerful leaders gets the top spot from the group. This year, that honor goes to DeMarco. “He’s not afraid to tell everybody what his opinion is,” said one insider, in what everyone will consider an understatement. “By all measures, he’s certainly running the day-to-day of the business. It will be interested to see all the things they are going to do. They have some interesting projects in the pipeline.” What they also have is an overabundance of vacant office space. DeMarco has helped the company begun a process of either updating the facilities, or repositioning them as either mixed-use or multifamily. One of the first was Signature Place in Morris Plains, a 197-unit apartment community that will replace a 75,000-square-foot office building that stood on the property. It was one of a dozen underperforming properties that Mack-Cali is currently targeting in northern New Jersey and the surrounding area. Those projects are in different stages of discussions, planning or entitlements. The timing couldn’t be better. After years of opposition, more towns statewide are coming around to redevelopment. “Mack-Cali is the No. 1 commercial player in the state. But let’s face it, Mack-Cali needed to make some changes, not just in personnel, but in market approach. They are doing that and DeMarco is leading the charge.”
Prism Capital Partners
Principal

The accolades came early and often here: “He has to move way up,” the fan started. “He could be the most creative real estate guy in New Jersey. He has a combination of intelligence, an old school way of looking at real estate and his creativity. You couple that with an attitude where he never panics. His partners love him. He’s the new-wave real estate guy coupled with the qualities of the old real estate people. Just a really top-notch guy.” That all sounds good. And then consider this: We buried the lead. Diaz put together perhaps the biggest deal of the year, repurposing the old Roche site as the new home for the Hackensack Meridian-Seton Hall medical school, which will serve as the anchor tenant. “That was as big as any project in the state,” another insider said. “I think it’s ‘the project’ this year. It’s huge. It’s everything. It’s school, it’s research and development, it’s office, it’s mixed use, it’s retail, it’s everything.” And it wasn’t easy to pull off. Start with the fact the property not only spans two towns (Nutley and Clifton) but two counties (Essex and Passaic), add the public-private issues that come with dealing with a health system and a higher-ed facility, then throw into the mix the fact that the previous owner is based in Europe. “With all the pieces involved, that deal could have died a million times,” another insider said. “There’s a lot of credit to go around, not just Gene, but he was the guy sitting on top. He accomplished it. And he did it with sheer guts and will and the smarts needed to get it over the finish line.” Need more? Consider this: “That wasn’t the only thing he did,” another admirer said. “That was just one deal; he’s been very active.”
Russo Development
CEO

We can talk about how Russo is making another jump on the list and how he seemingly has the resume and the respect from insiders to one day reach the pinnacle. And we'll do that. But before we start, consider this endorsement from an insider in an industry that's not always the friendliest to rivals. “You want to talk about the nicest guy on the list? It's Ed Russo,” the person said. “He's the perfect balance of intelligence, friendship and family. God blessed him with just an understanding of life.” Then there's this: “I don't represent him, but he's one guy I wish I did. No matter how high he is on the list, you can knock him up a couple because there is an intangible quality that goes with him.” And then there's that seemingly innate ability when it comes to real estate. “What he's accomplished in his relatively short career is astounding,” another insider said. “He certainly got a running start, but there's no doubt he's running that show and has been for years. His project with Alex (Klatskin) on the Kingsland property is the most exciting industrial real estate project we've had in Jersey in two decades.” Deals, he's got deals. Someone mentioned Harrison. Another inside talked about the Hess deal in Woodbridge and the Merck deal in Union. “He's got a bunch going on,” said another. “He just continues to be active all over.” But make no mistake, no one thinks Russo substitutes quantity for quality. “He builds the best industrial buildings in the state,” another insider said. “And it's not just the quality and care of what he builds, it's how he treats his workers, too. I just can't say enough.”
New Brunswick Development Corp.
President

There’s no one better in the state when it comes to public-private partnerships. Perhaps throw in higher-ed building as well. The opening of The Yard as well as two new academic buildings at Rutgers amounted to a total transformation of the university. “How do you properly describe what he did at Rutgers?” one admirer stated. “He essentially created a campus, a beautiful campus, in an urban space where land was at a premium. Who is able to do that?” Paladino can. “He really cares about urban renewal,” another insider said. “This wasn’t just a job, it was a mission.” Said another: “Chris has unbelievable will and unbelievable vision. The facts speak for themselves. The bottom line is, year after year after year, he’s getting involved in projects that are gentrifying areas. And what’s interesting is that now that his little canvas of New Brunswick is almost full, he’s branching out. He was a local developer and now he is a statewide developer. He’s changing the state.” The next stop is Atlantic City, where Paladino is a huge part of AC Devco and its attempt to revitalize the area. Insiders say grand plans for the area will be released soon, perhaps by the end of the year. The next stop after that, said another insider, is the top spot on this list. “I think he’s got to be in the Top 1 or 2 now,” the source said. “One of these days, Chris is going to be No. 1. I think he’s right there. I don’t know anybody else that has done any more than that. He could have rested on New Brunswick, but he didn’t. I think you’ll see he’s going to have another triumph in A.C.”
Avalon Bay Communities Inc.
Senior vice president

How’s this for an opening statement: “(Ron Ladell) is one of those guys who does it all: Finds the land, works through the approval process, does the legal work, negotiates the deal,” one admirer said. “He’s an old school jack-of-all-trades. He’s a smart guy, tenacious and politically connected. He knows it all. He knows everybody and everybody knows him.” And those are just some of the reasons why Ladell is No. 1 on NJBIZ Power 75 Real Estate list for 2016. The top spot on the list often is the hardest to select. Is the person orchestrating the deals, developing them or just influencing them? Or is it the person who is most active in the industry? The Avalon Bay Communities senior vice president seems to be the answer to all of those questions. He has projects in Princeton, Maplewood and Boonton under construction. And he has three more getting ready to start construction in Teaneck, Piscataway and Edgewater. And if that’s not enough, more are coming. “These are huge deals,” one insider said. “He has agreements to do more than 1,000 units in three high-profile mixed-use projects, all of which will be announced early in the first quarter.” All of which figure to be top-end offerings. “Look at the product he puts out, it’s top quality,” another admirer said. “He gets $3,000 in rent, almost everywhere. Who gets that? In terms of pound for pound, his product is as good as any.” With all this work, you would think Ladell would be hard to get a hold of. He’s not. Just go to almost any real estate conference, check in with the Rutgers real estate school or one of the many higher-ed classes he teaches. He is one of the most sought-after speakers in the state. There’s a reason, said another fan. “He’s one of the thought leaders on affordable housing, urban planning, everything,” the insider said. “He’s a policy wonk, too.” Said another: “In residential real estate, there are plenty of players in the state, but Ladell and Avalon Bay transcend that. They are national players, and Ladell’s No. 1.” We agree.

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