Ken Himmel ’70 meets with Cornell real estate students.
By Jeannie Griffith
Thirty-eight of the 40 junior associates working at Boston’s Cabot, Cabot and Forbes Land Trust in 1973 were Harvard graduates. Ken Himmel ’70 was not among them. More importantly, he was the only junior associate at the firm who knew anything about the hospitality industry—and between his SHA education and his work experience, he knew a lot. That background, coupled with unstoppable drive and remarkable acuity, put him on the express elevator to the top in mixed-use development.
One very difficult turnaround was so successful that Himmel was invited to present his results to CC&F’s board of directors. On the flight home from the meeting, he maneuvered his way into the seat next to the company chairman and talked his way onto the Ritz-Carlton project. “That project took me to the top of a mountain,” he said, “and in some ways I feel like I never came down.”
Himmel didn’t tell the chairman that he was only 26, and his maturity belied his youth. He had already been employed for half his life, scrubbing floors at a country club at age 13 and then working his way up through foodservice positions throughout his years in school. At Cornell he “couldn’t get enough” of the diverse course offerings, but he also made sure to learn as much as he could about hospitality operations. “I was smart enough to know that was probably going to be the one window where I wanted to get as much exposure as possible,” he said.
Himmel’s knowledge of operations has informed every project of his career, helping him envision, from high-level concepts to special touches, the elements that make for transcendent shopping, dining, entertainment, and lifestyle experiences. His ability to create places that draw many millions of visitors per year, generate unimagined revenues for tenants and investors, and change the fortunes of entire neighborhoods has placed him, as his son Chris ’01 expressed it, “in the stratosphere of mixed-use development.”
Himmel’s first love was the restaurant business, and that love has only grown over time. His son Chris helps him run the Himmel Hospitality Group, which owns and operates several popular Boston restaurants, including the iconic Grill 23 & Bar, and they have plans for more restaurants. Ken Himmel also has major interests in restaurants at Columbus Circle and at Hudson Yards, where food and beverage concepts including joint ventures with Danny Meyer, Thomas Keller, and Costas Spiliadis are expected to yield $250 million in annual business.
While visiting SHA in early 2016 to speak to students in the Minor in Real Estate and the Baker Program in Real Estate, Himmel put out a call for young talent with the potential to become top operating management professionals and to advance from there into real estate development. “It’s a fact that you can make more money up front by going into investment banking,” he told the Baker students. “But if you show us that you’re committed to the operating side of the business, if you become truly respected, then in the long run you’ll make a lot more money in real estate.” As Himmel could have told those 39 other guys at Cabot, Cabot and Forbes, you have to build on the right foundation if you want to reach the stratosphere.