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The Kleban Effect

Al Kleban and Ken Kleban a Generation of Moving Fairfield Forward

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Residential properties are relatively new to the Klebans’ portfolio. The landlords first experimented with apartments over commercial property in Fairfield when they developed the Brick Walk in 2009.

“We really felt that Fairfield was ready for the whole ‘live, work, play’ concept,” Ken Kleban says, describing “lifestyle centers” in which apartments are surrounded by service providers, such as banks and dry cleaners and dentists, as well as restaurants and recreational facilities. The Brick Walk includes nine apartments, most with balconies and full amenities over places like JoS. A. Bank clothing store and Vintage Garden on the Post Road. The Klebans expected empty nesters to move in, but their tenants have ranged in age and situation. The apartments “send a signal that downtown is a good place to live, and that signal can be contagious,” Ken Kleban says. Today, there’s a waiting list for the apartments.

Ken recounts the story from his Jeep one morning during the “property touch,” which is how he starts each day, swinging behind Gap and Old Navy, driving by Dumpsters to check on trash pickup, detecting rust spots on parking posts, noting missing lanterns and chipped paint and, with his Bluetooth headset on his ear, calling them all in to be fixed, immediately. Every couple of blocks he jumps out to inspect new construction—the firewalls inside a former jewelry store turned video-game shop, the grease basin system in a former swimming pool showroom turned Mexican restaurant, the wiring in a former bridal salon turned dog groomer—all as he ignores the oil warning light flashing on his dashboard. “Anything that’s trouble?” he asks construction crews, building supervisors, tenants, again and again. The Klebans preside over some 200 tenants in town, all of whom have at least one Kleban’s cell phone number. The landlords are known for their hands-on attention to detail. In half an hour, Ken answers questions about the paving in a parking lot, a vacancy anticipated in 2017, what the Klebans are doing to draw customers in to a high-end boutique, even the brick patterns on a new building.

Technically, Ken Kleban is a relative newcomer to the real property business, as it’s called. While he did the books and watched over a construction project or two for his dad during college, after Ken graduated he worked in international trade, setting up manufacturing operations in Third World countries. Then he started an export finance business, which he sold in 2001. Then he ran a digital art franchise in Westport for a couple of years. But this left him professionally unsatisfied and he searched for the next interesting opportunity. In the meantime, his father was thinking up ways to lure Ken into the business. All of Al’s properties were tied up in partnerships, though, and partners aren’t often eager to invite somebody’s whippersnapper into the fold. So Al waited, and Ken searched, and then Starwood Ceruzzi put up for sale 93,000 square feet of property in Fairfield center. The parcel included Victoria’s Secret, Borders Bookstore and others.

“My father started talking about it. He knew it was the appropriate time, and I knew it was the appropriate time. It was meant to be,” Ken recalls. “Real estate was always in my blood whether I realized it or not. Sitting at the dinner table, we were always talking about real estate or tenants or construction.”

Al and Ken bought the property together in 2004 for nearly $22 million and the experience proved eye-opening for each of them. “I’d never seen my father in action,” Ken says. “When you put together a group of people related to a real estate transaction, you’ve got a lot of specialists there, whether it’s legal, accounting, construction or whatever. It takes a very special person to be able to listen to these specialists and to synthesize what they are all saying and bring it down to its base argument and its base understanding. And to me that represents the smartest guy in the room. What I thought was cool about my father was his ability to bring it down and synthesize it. He was the smartest guy in the room.”

As for Al, he knew his son was smart but he didn’t realize what a keen business sense Ken would bring to the table. “Of all the partners I’ve had, Ken is the best businessman, by far. There’s nobody in his league,” Al says. “He’s got entrepreneurial vision and sees things that have never occurred to other people, including me.”

Take Fairfield Center, for example. After the Klebans’ purchased the property they found ways to add to the gross leasable areas, which means they transformed alleyways into retail spots and built an entire lower level of offices, fitness centers and more where before was a storage basement. A residential level on top of the development could be in the Fairfield Center Building’s future. “We’re value-added guys. That’s what we pride ourselves on,” says Ken, who was also the architect behind Fairfield’s small business incubator, which is headquartered downtown over the bookstore.

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