More than 35 years into his career, Joe Szabo describes two metaphorical buses motoring around New York City.
The first is the Joe Szabo fan club. He hopes it’s a double-decker of his cheerleaders who have had his back throughout his career as a managing director of operations for numerous real estate firms.
The second bus, he explains, is full of menacing characters like the Baseball Furies from 1979’s New York cult classic movie The Warriors, wielding baseball bats and looking to catch Szabo alone in a dark alley somewhere.
“You’re always going to have two camps when you put yourself out there,” Szabo says with a laugh. “I just hope one group is bigger than the other. I take great pride in building property managers up.”
During his interview with American Builders Quarterly, there’s no sign of the Szabo that would elicit cause for a violent showdown of any sort. He is ready to get into the minutia of HVAC and operations at the drop of a hat, and his passion for the field is a certainty. The man loves what he does, without question.
“Finding the perfect relationship balance between the service provider and the client is the number one key to a mutual success,” says Gal Yaniv, CEO of Professional Security Consultants/ATS Security Inc. “Joe Szabo’s ability to create such connections is in a class by itself. Joe’s positivity and dynamic personality create a wonderful work environment around him. Joe is a top-notch professional, while at the same time a true friend and mentor. These elements make one willing to go the extra mile for him.”
In coming to Paramount Group in 2021 as senior vice president and head of property management, Szabo has been able to put decades of global experience—and an intimate knowledge of the Big Apple—into direct action.
Local Law 97
Szabo oversees Paramount’s properties in its two core markets: New York and San Francisco. Each city is unique and has its own laws and ordinances that must be closely monitored and followed. For instance, in accordance with New York City’s ambitious Local Law 97, buildings over 25,000 square feet will be required to meet new energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emission limits by 2024, with stricter limits on the way in 2030.
Along with Paramount’s SVP of sustainability, director of engineering, property managers, and chief engineers, Szabo was able to ensure Paramount’s buildings were penalty-free for the first mandated period of reporting in 2024. The timing is amazing, but so are the solutions.
“We were able to accomplish that purely on maintenance without spending any capital dollars,” he explains.
But Szabo has been in the game far too long to see the project as a one-and-done accomplishment. “When I take a look at a building, I’m not looking at how it’s operating at the moment,” he explains. “I look at the building as how it could be operating in the future.”
The Paramount team is intent on finding creative solutions to not just hit the 2030 goals but also actively benefit from New York City’s sustainability goals. For example, 46 stories up at 1301 6th Avenue, a perfect rooftop view—the Empire State Building, Freedom Tower, and Rockefeller Center—is currently impeded by a 3.5-story, 4,000-ton Foster Wheeler cooling tower that was finished the same year the Beatles released “Can’t Buy Me Love” in 1964.
“It’s a 4,000-ton monstrosity, and the view is completely lost,” Szabo says. “How can we use those Local Law 97 capital dollars we have to spend not just to make our building more compliant and meet our carbon reductions, but also create something better for the building?”
The key lies on relocating equipment to the 11th floor mechanical room. By converting from steam drive refrigeration equipment to electric drive, creating a closed condenser water loop for tenants (and a whole host of mechanical innovations that Szabo can list verbatim), it leaves the roof open to several amenity opportunities for decades to come.
It’s a win-win for all involved and is just one novel solution to meeting Local Law 97 protocols that also provides a significant upside to Paramount’s long-view approach.
Szabo has seen a shift in those taking on property manager roles when it comes to amenities. Whereas those like him who came up in the 80s rose from engine room jobs to more senior positions, many getting property manager roles today are coming out of the hotel industry where the primary focus is on amenities.
That approach fits when trying to be more service-minded, particularly when creating more amenity centers, but it’s forgetting a great deal of the rest of building operation expenses.
“I think a lot of people coming into the space can operate with blinders on focused on the concierge amenity services,” Szabo says. “It’s my role to teach and mentor them on the other half of operating a building: facades, roofs, HVAC, plumbing, electrical, and maintenance costs.”
Teaching can take time, but Szabo says that his three children have helped him develop more patience than he might have shown back in his younger years.
Szabo’s early years include joining the Operating Engineers Union in 1983, a niche union that handled HVAC and maintenance for New York City. The young Szabo was a motivated and natural leader. He volunteered for any project he could get his hands on. He was a chief engineer by 26 and a director of plant operations at Rockefeller Center by 32.
By the time Szabo left Tishman Speyer after 26 years in 2014, he was responsible for 88 million square feet of real estate space globally, including China and Brazil. While it may be a decade later, Szabo seems as passionate as ever about the skill set he’s brought to Paramount Group.
Szabo knows that the work he does now will keep some of New York City’s most impressive office buildings ready to handle whatever the future holds.
How to Enhance Property Efficiency and Value
When Joe Szabo took on his role at Paramount, he and his team went through every building in his portfolio to develop a game plan. The goal was to identify areas where the company could take strategic actions to enhance each property’s efficiency and long-term value—all while maintaining compliance with city ordinances. Part of this process included finding ways to build upon Paramount’s industry leading commitment to sustainability.
“Analyzing a portfolio is a nuanced and comprehensive process that must consider a number of different factors to inform the best decisions,” Szabo explains. “Those with less experience making these assessments might focus too heavily on one particular area, which could produce a short-term benefit at the expense of a long-term one. It’s important to take a holistic and broad view, and one that considers what tenants deem important and valuable.”
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