David Sanzari (left), CEO and president of Alfred Sanzari Enterprises, and Ryan Sanzari, chief operating officer, stand outside the firm’s headquarters at Court Plaza in Hackensack. The father and son represent the second and third generations at the 75-year-old commercial real estate firm. — Photo by Aaron Houston for Real Estate NJ
By Joshua Burd
Alfred Sanzari Enterprises is marking its 75th anniversary at a time unlike any in its history.
Like other landlords, the company has spent months with its buildings mostly empty as businesses cope with the effects of the pandemic. But the family-owned firm has weathered the crisis and helped its tenants do the same thanks to its own financial strength and ability to act quickly, which stem from a patient, low-leverage approach that goes back decades.
“One thing that I’ve learned about my grandfather and now my father is that they treat tenants like partners and they understand that, in order for us to succeed as a landlord, we need our partners to succeed at their respective business and industry,” said Ryan Sanzari, the company’s chief operating officer and third-generation executive. “So if our tenants don’t survive and they don’t succeed, our partnership (is missing) one of two necessary halves.”
The Hackensack-based firm has shown its support by both agreeing to rent deferrals for some tenants and preparing its buildings for life after COVID-19. Sanzari never closed its properties throughout New Jersey’s coronavirus outbreak in March and its subsequent recovery, as some of its tenants are essential businesses that continued to operate. But the landlord has also taken steps so that businesses could come back at a moment’s notice, considering the uncertainty from agencies at different levels of government.
“Companies and tenants could return at any time, so we really made it a priority and we succeeded, I’m proud to say, of not shutting down and keeping our buildings open,” Ryan Sanzari said. “And in the event that a tenant walks in one week and decides that they’re going to even have one or two people there, that building will be operating as normal.”
Another point of pride for the Sanzari family has been the company’s financial stability and independence since its earliest days under the late Alfred N. Sanzari, its founder and namesake. As CEO and President David Sanzari recalls, his father in the mid-1960s turned down a $4 million mortgage for a 32,000-square-foot project in South Hackensack, one of its first industrial buildings, because it was double what he needed to cover the land and development costs.
Simply put, he “just wanted enough to get his money out of it” and move on to the next project.
“Ever since day one — right, wrong or indifferent — he always was a low-leverage guy and that followed through to me,” said David Sanzari, who joined the firm in 1972. “I’m still the same way.”
The approach has been crucial to having flexibility with rents, withstanding economic downturns and helping tenants in their own times of need.
“That’s really the main ingredient to staying strong in this business — because, typically, with a lot of folks in this business, they just leverage the hell out of the property and they take all of that tax-free money,” he added. “Which is great when you get it, but you’ve got to remember: You do have to pay it back, and when there’s a downturn you’re really up the creek because you need to pay that mortgage.”
Sanzari has stuck to its mantra of only borrowing what it needed, even as it embarked on what was perhaps its most ambitious period of growth. After delivering the 68,000-square-foot Elmwood Park Plaza in 1976, its first office project, the company went on to build nearly 1.2 million square feet of additional office space between 1982 and 1985, starting with Heights Plaza in Hasbrouck Heights and Court Plaza in Hackensack. That period also included the start of what is now its flagship Glenpointe campus, a 50-acre property in Teaneck that today includes 650,000 square feet of office space, 700 hotel rooms, retail and a spa and fitness center.
“Now that I’ve looked back at it, I don’t know how the hell we did it, to be honest with you,” David Sanzari said. He noted that the firm tripled its headcount at the time — adding personnel in construction, accounting, property management and elsewhere — for a total of about 50 employees.
“That really increased the size of the company both on real estate holdings and employees and manpower,” he added. “We had to add a lot of people to do that.”
The longtime developer, which has held on to virtually every property it has built, now has a portfolio that includes 5 million square feet of commercial space, 470 apartments and 700 hotel rooms. Its most recent additions include the Alfred N. Sanzari Medical Arts Building, an 84,000-square-foot building in Hackensack that serves as a tribute to its founder, and a 350-room dual-branded Hampton Inn & Suites and Homewood Suites at Glenpointe.
In recent months, when it might otherwise be celebrating its 75th anniversary, the firm has turned its attention to guiding its buildings and its tenants through the ongoing health and economic crisis. That has entailed not only responding to tenant needs, but adapting when it came to property management, operations and other facets of the business.
“Obviously this is not ideal for us,” said Ryan Sanzari, who joined the firm in 2011. “We are a company who relies on face-to-face interaction and personal touch and service when it comes to our tenants. And you just can’t recreate that, even over Zoom or any sort of video calls.
“So there’s that side of it, which, in my opinion, will never change, but I have to say I’m very proud of our whole team. Our management never stopped. They literally didn’t miss one day.”
The firm also “came up with plans to help all the tenants that needed help,” David Sanzari said. That meant providing rent deferrals to roughly 10 percent of its tenants, which he said was a natural step given the decades-old relationships with many of those businesses.
“I think they remember how good a landlord is to them all along,” he said, noting that it goes both ways. In other words, a smart landlord will look kindly upon and compromise with tenants that go decades “without missing a beat.” He pointed to a tenant such as The Print Group, which has occupied the firm’s building at 24 East Wesley St. in Hackensack since it was built in 1958.
“We’re very close,” Sanzari said. “It almost becomes like family, in a way.”
The Sanzari team has also taken steps to support its entire tenant roster, as it transitions its buildings to a post-COVID workplace. For instance, its operation and engineering teams have stepped up sanitization and cleaning protocols, applied self-sanitizing film on high-usage touch points and reoriented common areas to promote social distancing. It has also updated HVAC and mechanical protocols to exceed standards set by the Centers for Disease Control, while limiting elevator capacity and coaching on-site security on the new building procedures.
“We’re adapting to the market, to the environment, to what’s going on in the world,” Ryan Sanzari said, later adding: “A lot of areas are being addressed so that level of comfortability and that level of enjoyment does not fade away, (so that) our buildings don’t go from being this great place to be every day to this environment of unease and tension.”
A brief history
As the story goes, after serving in World War II, a young Alfred N. Sanzari returned to northern New Jersey in 1945 and started his own sheet metal subcontracting business with the help of a former boss. He would become a full-fledged homebuilder in the years that followed, starting with four Cape Cods in Dumont before transitioning to luxury homes, apartment complexes and ultimately commercial properties.
Alfred Sanzari Enterprises welcomed its second generation in 1967, when Ben Sanzari joined his father’s firm as a laborer in the construction department, overseeing development projects before eventually rising to vice president. David Sanzari, who had been working on job sites as a teenager, joined his father and brother some five years later, noting that “there was nothing to think about” when it came to entering the family business.
He also notes that his mother, Mary Sanzari, “played an extremely important role” in the early days as bookkeeper, secretary and “everything from A to Z” before stepping away to raise the three Sanzari boys. In the process, she hired her replacement, Mildred Cantrella, who would serve as Alfred Sanzari’s executive assistant for more than 55 years.
As the company’s third generation and future leader, Ryan Sanzari says his top priority is rather simple — adhering to the family’s legacy of being smart, adaptable and responsive to the market. Admittedly, he also hopes to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and father by creating something long-lasting, as they each have during their time at the helm.
“I don’t know what it’s going to be, I don’t know how long it’s going to take or at what point this will come,” he said. “But when the time comes, I would like to look back and know that I was part of creating something, leaving my mark in some form or another.”