Back in 1993, Richard S. Ziman went to Wall Street in search of financing for a number of Southern California office-building acquisitions. He scheduled a series of appointments with the Street’s top investment banks and made his pitches.

The meetings did not go well.

“People laughed at us,” Ziman recalled. “You talked about real estate and they laughed. You talked about Southern California and they howled. And then when you talked about office buildings, they thought you were stark raving mad.”

The last laugh, however, clearly belonged to Ziman.

On October 4, 1996, he stood amid the mayhem on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and watched the initial public offering of his company, Beverly Hills-based Arden Realty Inc., become one of the most successful real estate IPOs in history. Hungry investors gobbled up 21 million shares and the real estate investment trust raised almost $400 million to finance further acquisitions.

Since then, Arden has doubled its portfolio to 8.7 million square feet, mostly in L.A. and Orange counties. The company is now the largest non-governmental commercial landlord in Southern California. Its stock last week was trading at about $26.75 a share, up 20 percent from its opening seven months ago.

This isn’t the first time Ziman has hit it big by bucking the conventional wisdom. In fact, the 54-year-old real estate investor has made a career of it.

In 1989, at the apex of L.A.’s real estate boom, Ziman shocked his peers by selling his entire portfolio. Then, seated comfortably atop a pile of cash, he watched his colleagues scramble as the market went into a dizzying downward spiral.

Five years later, at the depths of L.A.’s recession, Ziman started buying again. He found financing and began acquiring Westside office properties at bargain basement prices.

“He has superb timing. He’s always at the right place at the right time,” said John Cushman III, president and CEO of the downtown brokerage Cushman Realty Corp., who has known Ziman for 25 years.

Despite Cushman’s admiration for Ziman, the two have occasionally bumped heads, as they did at the Business Journal’s real estate brokers’ awards banquet last February.

On that evening, Ziman stood before an audience of more than 300 of L.A.’s top real estate pros and dropped a bombshell.

One day very soon, he said, most of them would be employed by people like him.

“Look to your left and look to your right,” the silver-haired, deeply tanned Ziman said. “If you are a tenant representative, one of those guys or you will, within the next two years, be working for a REIT.”

A murmur rumbled through the crowd. These were, after all, some of L.A.’s most ambitious deal-makers. The idea that they would lose their independence not to mention their lucrative commissions and become salary men for guys like Ziman was all but unthinkable.

After Ziman finished, Cushman took the microphone. “I completely disagree with those comments,” he said. “Don’t count us out yet, Dick.”

“Two-thirds of all REITs do not need to exist,” Cushman said later, in an interview. The trusts, he argued, are a flavor-of-the-month phenomenon that will experience a major shakeup as soon as the real estate market goes through an inevitable downturn.

When that does happen, however, Cushman predicted that Ziman is likely to end up on top.

“He will be a survivor big time,” Cushman said. “Two years from now, his company is going to be gigantic.”

Ziman, who lives in Beverly Hills with his wife and two small children, actually stumbled into real estate.

The son of Lithuanian immigrants, the Williamsport, Penn.-native came to Los Angeles at the age of 15, when his father relocated the family’s furniture business here.

Ziman attended USC as a pre-dental student and went to dental school for a day-and-a-half before dropping out. Unsure of what to do with himself, he enrolled in USC’s law school, eventually landing a job at the downtown law firm, Loeb and Loeb.

Ziman soon became as disenchanted with law as he had been with dentistry until he discovered real estate. He took over Loeb and Loeb’s small real estate unit and over the next decade built it into the firm’s largest division.

In 1979, he set out on his own. Along with three partners, he formed Pacific Financial Group and began investing in the local real estate market.

The timing, characteristically, was impeccable.

By the early 1980s, Southern California’s office market was on fire. Money was everywhere, and the deals came fast and furious. Ziman and his partners were right at the center, building a 4.5-million-square-foot portfolio, which included office, residential and even some luxury hotel properties.

But by the late-’80s, Ziman noticed some troubling signals. Prices were too high, and deals no longer made sense. What’s more, aerospace, the region’s dominant industry, was beginning to experience wrenching cutbacks the effects of which, he believed, would soon begin rippling through the economy.

“There were millions and millions of square feet (in new development) coming on stream,” Ziman recalled. “But I couldn’t understand where the tenants were going to come from.”

So beginning in 1989, he sold, unloading his entire portfolio over a 19-month period. He dissolved Pacific Financial and formed Arden Realty with his partner Victor Coleman.

The new company started slowly, buying and selling some mobile-home parks and office buildings. But mostly what they did was wait.

Ziman “has a great touch for knowing when to buy real estate,” said John Long, managing partner of Highridge Partners in El Segundo.

“You’ve got to watch your marketplace, and you’ve got to watch it closely,” said Ziman. “Real estate has always been peaks and valleys. What goes up inevitably is going to come down. But it will go up again.”

He got an indication of just such an upward trend in late 1993, when the government reported that Southern California led the nation in small business formations. The worst days of the recession, he sensed, were over. And there were commercial properties on the market which could be purchased at 40-60 percent of their replacement costs.

So he began to buy, snatching up properties on the Westside as well as in Burbank and Glendale, areas where he anticipated future growth. Over the next two years, Arden had accumulated a lucrative portfolio as well as the attention of Wall Street.

“We’re in a for a long run,” he said. “Our portfolio is 93 percent leased and there isn’t a crane in the sky. What does that mean? It means rents are going to go up. How long will it last? Peaks and valleys. But I think this is going to be a longer ride than we’ve seen historically.”

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