Balancing Real Estate With Charity
Rick Rakow splits his days between running Rakow Commercial Realty Group and volunteering with local nonprofits. The remaining hours are spent on the green.
Photos by Stefan Radtke
Rick Rakow can tell many stories about the Westchester real estate world — of properties bought and sold, of upturns and downturns, of market twists and trends. He’s been in the industry for more than three decades, and he currently runs one of the county’s major real estate firms, Rakow Commercial Realty Group.
Yet during a recent conversation, Rakow leapt at the chance to talk not about square footage but rather his involvement with March of Dimes.
“Here’s the long story…” he says, before diving deep into the details of his entry to volunteerism. Early in his career, Rakow was driving a prospective buyer to a property in Patterson, NY, but the two got hopelessly lost: “I did not map it out well,” he admits with a sigh. “But the buyer was very nice about it.”
While consulting a handy Hagstrom map (Remember those?), the conversation turned to charity. Rakow, then a new father, was eager to give back. “I just had a baby girl and was very blessed that she was healthy and happy,” he recalls. “I was looking for something good to do in the world.” Rakow’s passenger suggested March of Dimes, the White Plains-based nonprofit that supports mothers and newborns.
“The biggest change we are seeing today is definitely the push toward transit-oriented developments, both in the office-space and residential sectors.”
—Rick Rakow, President & CEO, Rakow Commercial Realty Group
The client didn’t end up purchasing the Patterson property, but Rakow says much good still came from their upstate trek: He soon began volunteering with March of Dimes.
“I continued to get more and more involved,” Rakow says of his work with nonprofits. He eventually became chairman of the Westchester Division and vice-chairman of the Northern Metro Chapter of March of Dimes, helping to raise millions of dollars. He also served on boards for the American Heart Association and Feeding Westchester (formerly known as Food Bank for Westchester). “It is what justifies our existence,” Rakow says of his service. “You get far more out of it than you can ever give.”
Maria Bronzi, a director at Altium Wealth Management in Purchase, has known Rakow for close to 10 years. The two met through a networking group, and soon began volunteering side-by-side at a number of local charities. “Rick is the single most passionate and compassionate person I have ever met when it comes to helping others in need,” Bronzi says.
In his professional life, charities are among Rakow’s favorite clients: “We represent many local nonprofits, and we love helping them,” he says. Recently, Rakow Commercial Realty helped Yonkers Partners in Education relocate to a new property. His firm also finished a relocation for (914) Cares, which helps local philanthropic organizations with fundraising and volunteering.
Overall, of course, Rakow’s client roster is much more diverse, including many law firms, accounting agencies, and manufacturing tenants. It also includes small companies, with just a handful of employees, while other clients employ hundreds. It’s a roster that Rakow has been growing since the mid-’90s, when he discovered his aptitude for representing tenants and struck out on his own.
“I got started in 1985 by working for the brokerage arm of a developer of commercial space,” Rakow recalls. “It was there that I was introduced to the art of tenant representation, which is all about representing the tenant’s interests in finding new space or the renegotiation of their existing lease.
“As that part of my business became more active,” he continues, “it became a bit of a disconnect working for a big landlord while representing tenants. So I went out on my own, about 23 years ago.” Today, the Rakow Group has around a dozen agents — the lion’s share salespeople.
“We always have a couple of hundred leases — both new and renewals — at varying stages of gestation in our pipeline at any given time,” Rakow says. He is currently shepherding deals across the county. In Larchmont, for example, the Rakow Group is selling one of the striking classic bank buildings downtown; in Harrison, the firm is selling a fully approved development site within walking distance of the Metro-North station.
Over the years, Rakow has witnessed a growing interest in the latter — properties that are a stone’s throw from mass transit. “The biggest change we are seeing today is definitely the push toward transit-oriented developments, both in the office-space and residential sectors,” he says. “We are also seeing a change in the way office users are designing their spaces. The move is away from lots of individual offices and toward more open and collaborative work spaces.”
Not surprisingly, running a firm that carries your name requires a versatile skillset. “I love being busy and do my best to keep all the plates spinning at any given time,” Rakow says. This means rising early, plowing through a couple of newspapers and then working his inbox. (Email “is my preferred mode of communicating,” Rakow notes.) On any given day, Rakow might be working with tenants or sellers. “It all depends,” he says. “Like an attorney: Whose case do you take?”
He also spends time developing his staff and hunting new business. “It’s my job not only to hire and train our salespeople,” Rakow says. “It’s also to provide them with an ongoing flow of qualified leads.”
One of Rakow’s favorite roles, he says, is in marketing. “It’s comfortable for me. That’s the world I come from, albeit 33 years ago.” Before breaking into the real estate realm, Rakow worked in the direct-marketing business (think mailing lists and reams of data). “I understand that space very well,” he says, noting that a pedigree in garnering and keeping customers’ attention “is good in any business.”
Wearing multiple hats has given Rakow a nuanced perspective of the local market. In Westchester today, he explains, the retail and healthcare spaces are the most bearish: “The office and industrial markets have definitely tightened up, thanks largely to the repurposing of buildings throughout the region. However, the retail market is soft, and the medical market is not what it used to be, so many doctors have left their smaller practices to become part of hospitals and large medical groups.”
“Rick is the single most passionate and compassionate person I have ever met when it comes to helping others in need.”
—Maria Bronzi, Director, Altium Wealth Management
When discussing corporate real estate these days, conversation inevitably turns to the saga everyone is talking about — where Amazon will locate its HQ2. “Naturally, a user of the size and scope of an Amazon is going to create a lot of buzz,” Rakow muses. But, he adds, “Most of the cities that threw their hats in the ring don’t stand a chance at attracting Amazon.” Still, he lauds Westchester’s attempt to lure the tech giant, which included a splashy press conference, complete with a drone. “I do believe we did the right thing to try for it and I also believe there was value in the effort,” Rakow says.
And what about Rakow’s own headquarters? Rakow Group has two brick-and-mortar offices — one in White Plains and the other in Stamford, CT — although Rakow jokes there’s another: Tamarack Country Club in Greenwich is less than a mile from the Westchester office, and Rakow spends considerable time on the green. “It’s almost a third office,” he says, noting business outings, lunches, and dinners at Tamarack are common. (“I’ll be there tonight,” he chuckles during our conversation.)
Rakow played golf intermittently earlier in his career — just a handful of times each year. But Rakow’s two children — Erin, 34, and Matt, 30 — are now grown and out of the house, so he became a Tamarack member a few years back. Today, Rakow can depart his White Plains headquarters and see the green in less than 10 minutes. “I play more often than my score would indicate,” he says with a modest laugh.
Between running his firm and relentless volunteering, Rakow can make it seem like there are more than 24 hours in his day. Says Leslie Gordon, president and CEO of Feeding Westchester: “The energy [Rick] puts in gives him more energy to keep going. There is the age-old adage — if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.”
Southern Westchester-based freelance journalist Kevin Zawacki is a frequent contributor to 914INC.