At the tender age of eight, Sanford D. “Sandy” Sigal was already on the fast track. However, it was trouble – not success – that seemed his most probable destination. Fortunately, a fork in the road – in the form of Camp Max Straus – offered a detour that sent him on a decidedly more productive path.
Today, as founder, president, and CEO of NewMark Merrill, a commercial real estate company based in Woodland Hills, Sigal oversees properties with a collective value in excess of $1.5B. The Southern California native has parlayed his prodigious work ethic into lucrative success while keeping his philanthropic endeavors close to his heart as well.
Sigal’s natural entrepreneurial instincts were revealed early on; whether hawking day-old donuts or “liberating” candy from the local drugstore and reselling it to classmates, his business acumen was industrious, if not completely on the “up-and-up.” In the aftermath of his parents’ divorce, Sigal’s mother had gone to work full-time as a paralegal, so parental oversight for the Sigal boys was not as thorough as it may have otherwise been. When Sandy’s mother heard about the boy’s underhanded yet enterprising ways, however, she acted swiftly. She contacted the Jewish Federation asking for help.
Being sent to Camp Max Straus for four weeks fundamentally changed his life. Not only did he learn to swim, he discovered how his natural leadership skills could help others. He recalls going on a hike during which a severe thunderstorm took place. As everyone hunkered down, Sigal calmed his campmates despite his own fear. It was then that he realized he wanted to follow in the footsteps of the counselors, whom he respected as mentors. “What it really instilled in me is the power of mentorship,” he recalls. “These counselors changed your life. They talked to you in a certain way and changed your perspective. I realized that I could apply my energy a little differently, and it could really change outcomes.”
At the age of 12, Sigal discovered an aptitude for computer programming. He started writing computer programs, which he sold through his first business, Two S Enterprises. At age 17, Sigal stopped all but the consulting business when he realize he preferred dating to fulfilling programming orders. While attending UCLA, his professional allegiance transitioned to real estate.
A two-week temp assignment to computerize the accounting department for West Venture Homes turned into a 13-year relationship, with Sigal eventually becoming CEO. A primary reason he decided to stay was Bob Miller, a larger-than-life character and one of his mentors. “Shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest, smoking a cigar in his office when you could do such things, big gold chain – he was just a fantastic person,” recalls Sigal.
At 21, Sigal developed his first real estate deal – a shopping center in Sylmar – and never looked back. He eventually ran the home-building, mortgage, and shopping-center business of what soon became West Venture Companies.
“The single best thing that ever happened was that we bought a shopping center we couldn’t sell,” he recalls. Until that point, everything he had built, he had built to sell. The challenge of spending three days a week in the City of Norwalk, where the shopping center was located, gave him insight into the details that make or break a center’s profitability. Paying attention to the details forced him to get down into the roots of the community while also gaining an understanding of the needs of the tenants. The experience gave him new perspective. Promoting their properties with events such as fashion shows, tightrope walking—even having Santa parachute into a shopping center during the holidays—became the norm.
Sigal left West Venture to start his current firm, NewMark Merrill, in 1997. He realized that he wanted to have an experiential impact, to be very hands-on and be part of the experience he created. “I want to touch and feel my real estate. I want to be part of my real estate. I want to make it work,” he explains. His primary goal was to succeed by promoting his tenants’ success, a philosophy that has proven beneficial for everyone involved. NewMark Merrill has experienced significant growth since its inception by creating a competitive advantage through fundamentally changing the landlord-tenant relationship.
“Believe it or not, programming and development are very similar. You start with a blank slate, then you have to decide what it’s going to look like, then you have to write meaningful code and build a foundation,” Sigal says. “A lot of little details add up to a very successful opportunity, and that’s what distinguishes you.” He understands the struggle and desperation that can face his tenants, engaging those he encounters with an empathetic attitude that clearly contributes to his continued success.
At NewMark Merrill, clients and colleagues alike benefit from Sigal’s hands-on philosophy. Sigal’s leadership style focuses on facilitating smooth communication, both with tenants and colleagues. “A lot of my job is making sure people talk to each other,” he says. Every day, he asks himself what the five things are that he wants to accomplish by the time he leaves the office. Among his priorities, his desire to mentor his employees is number one. “We have a saying: ‘You take care of the company, we take care of you,’” he emphasizes.
Sigal’s latest endeavor, founded with brother Mark in 2013, is BrightStreet Ventures. With a mission of building the bridge from “clicks to bricks,” the company is developing new technology platforms that leverage shopping-center owners’ and managers’ competitive advantage. Recognizing that mobile and online options are transforming the way that consumers shop and interact with merchants, Sigal sees BrightStreet as a valuable tool in fortifying the traditional retail experience.
Giving back is an evergreen priority for Sigal. He is on the board of Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters, the nonprofit organization that sponsors Camp Max Straus, which “owns my heart.” He also mentors several young people and is involved in the Young Leadership Development Institute. In addition, he has long been a strong supporter of Young Presidents Organization (YPO), though he notes his recent promotion to WPO (World Presidents Organization), having turned 50 in 2013.
Though he has conquered many challenges over the years, Sigal recalls one recent journey with pride and astonishment. Booked for a trip to Istanbul in 2013 with several fellow YPO members to accept a business award, a colleague suggested the group scale the world’s tallest free-standing mountain, Mt. Kilimanjaro, enroute to their destination. “Now, you’d think if I’m in real estate, I’d look at a globe,” Segil says. Freely admitting that he’s “more Ritz-Carlton” than John Muir, the feat nonetheless presented an opportunity “to try something new after turning 50.” So defying logistics, the group, which included Sigal’s eldest son, successfully scaled the African peak, which is situated more than 3,000 miles from Istanbul. (For proper context, New York is 2,448 miles from Los Angeles.)
The prevailing mantra in real estate may be “location, location, location,” but in life it’s no match for one formidable adversary: determination.