RESIDENTIAL FIRMS, FROM STAID TO SPLASHY
brokers offer behind-the-scenes look
at their office cultures
By Lauren Elkies
Anyone in the midst of a shop talk conversation knows that it's not
just what you do that makes you happy; it's where you do it. New York
real estate brokerages are as varied as the properties they represent,
though some differences are more obvious than others.
The Real Deal talked to residential brokers and their bosses
last month, conducting an unscientific survey that sought to explain
how corporate culture reflects each firm's work. Questions ranged
from dress codes to where they dine to how agents do business.
Our findings aren't set in stone, but the results helped The Real
Deal divide the brokers into five different categories: Upper
East Side boutique brokers that talk about how the rich - often
including the brokers themselves - are different from the rest
of us; the brokerage behemoths that dominate much of the market; the
ranks of young, energetic rental brokers who are sometimes looked
down on by their sales broker colleagues for their inexperience; mid-sized
firms, some of which are more corporate and maintain mass market appeal,
as well as others that are slightly more upscale; and Downtown boutique
brokers that mirror their hip clients in Chelsea and farther south.
For the most part, the cultures of the firms mimic the demographic
serve – Upper East Side brokers will dress and act like
their clients and the same thing is true Downtown. Most brokerage executives touted their comfortable
offices and low employee attrition rates. While the Uptown boutique
firms said that they only hire people they know, mid-size and large companies recruit to help fill
their ranks. Citi Habitats is the most aggressive recruiter, giving
weekly pitches to students at New York Real Estate Institute.
Differences between brokers and management, and the vibe in a firm's
offices, can affect the bottom line. A poisonous office culture can
drive brokers away and repel top talent. A supportive and dynamic
culture – mostly conveyed through the firm's leadership – motivates
agents to get deals done.
But it's probably better to let the brokers and executives speak for
themselves. We'll start at the top drawer:
Uptown boutique firms
It's clubby at the top. Uptown boutique firms rely on reputation,
their hold on a niche market and their sophisticated sales associates.
They get their employees the same way they do their clients – referral and reputation.
Kathy Braddock, co-founder of real estate consulting firm Braddock
+ Purcell and the New York City real estate company Charles Rutenberg
Realty, said that these small companies "are the last holdouts" in
a consolidating market where bigger is better.
In a climate where mergers and buyouts are shrinking the number of
brokerages doing business in Manhattan, some of these long-established
- and perhaps a little uptight boutique firms are discovering that
in order to survive, they need to modify the way they do business.
Upper East Side firms such as Alice F. Mason, Fox Residential Group
and Gumley Haft Kleier, for example, have expanded from their traditional
areas of focus to doing business in the Downtown market.
It's a business where customers are friends, and even potential employees.
Edward Lee Cave , owner of the brokerage that bears his name, lives
on Park Avenue and has a house in Connecticut where he retreats for
weekends. One of his 20 employees has an apartment on Sutton Place
and a second home in Connecticut. Another broker lives on Fifth Avenue
, has a place in Maine and visits her family frequently in London. "That goes right down the line with our people," Cave said. "We
live the life we sell."
Cave has been known to boast, "Our clients, we either know them socially,
we went to school with them, or we once were married to them."
Cave has roots in the art world, and maintains his own collection.
He was the first American to be offered a senior position at the real
estate arm of the storied British auction firm Sotheby's. He was the
senior vice president in charge of operations at the auction company
and became the founding chairman of their international realty company.
He started his real estate company in 1982, and soon broke some records.
He sold Dino de Laurentis' Beverly Hills mansion, which was the highest
price paid for a private residence in the country at the time.
Cave focuses on selling "superior" homes rather than just large units
or a simple studio or two-bedroom apartment.
"We're like the private banking division in a bank," Cave said.
In this niche, work often imitates life. Barbara Fox, president of
the 40-agent Fox Residential Group, said new employees tend to imitate
her style, wearing dark-colored jackets and pants, but there is no
dress code. Unlike some of the other Uptown boutique firms, Fox Residential
Group is a little more relaxed. Employees can wear jeans when they
don't have appointments, and they generally eat lunch in the office,
often getting the food from the restaurant EAT, a neighborhood diner
"They're very down-to-earth businesspeople. That's who I hire," Fox
Some Fox agents specialize in neighborhoods outside of the Silk Stocking
District, including Downtown and far Uptown. Her agents tend to live
in the areas they cover,
"I try to have a very well-rounded group, so there's someone for everyone.
There's a broker for every buyer," she said.
Fox lives on the Upper East Side and has a country house in Connecticut
; other employees have second homes in Connecticut , Westchester,
Columbia County and Long Island, including the Hamptons . Her agents
have vacationed recently in Mexico and the South of France.
"I'm the only one that doesn't take a vacation," she says.
Brokers range in age from their 20s to their 70s. Fox said, "again
something for everyone."
Michele Kleier's shop, Gumley Haft Kleier, is known for its high-end
Upper East Side business, but with her two young daughters on board
in addition to other family members, the company is a little more
At the 2005 Gumley Haft Kleier holiday party, held in Kleier's Park
Avenue apartment, "The parlor and living room were filled with chic-looking
middle-aged agents and their spouses. There were some younger brokers
looking like Junior Leaguers and some real estate reporters happily
munching food," according to an article in the New York Times.
Still, like at other Upper East Side boutiques, the brokers at Gumley
Haft Kleier reflect the client base.
There is no one working there that "I haven't known" in some way,
said Kleier, the company's president and chairman. "I don't like dealing
Kleier and her husband, Ian, run the 40-person company - she is a
broker, and he handles advertising and the business end. Kleier's
best friend and son-in-law work there. And daughter Sabrina Kleier
Morgenstern is executive vice president, and her sister Samantha Kleier
Forbes is vice president.
Upper East Side natives Morgenstern and Forbes graduated from the
prestigious Horace Mann School and the University of Pennsylvania. They both still live on the Upper East Side . Morgenstern started
her career at NBC's Access Hollywood before going into the family
Two other firms that are holding the old line are Phyliss Koch Real
Estate and Alice F. Mason.
Technology, for example, has not been a huge boon to these brokerages,
though it's transformed the business at mass market shops.
Alice Mason of Alice F. Mason and Phyliss Koch of Phyliss Koch Real
Estate do not rely on e-mail for communication. "I like to speak to
people," Koch said. "A lot gets lost in an e-mail."
Koch said that while Corcoran and some of the other big firms will
hire "anyone," she only hires people she knows who have a built-in
network and knowledge of the city's apartment buildings.
The youngest of her nine agents is in his 40s, Koch said. Koch depends
on referrals for customers and her husband and employees for technological
matters. She said the Web isn't the answer in real estate because
you need to see a property to buy it. "I believe in the personal touch."
Koch lives in the San Remo and vacations in tony Atlantic Beach on
Long Island. Known for her focus on the West Side, Koch also does
a fair number of deals on the East Side . It's not that Koch hasn't
broken any ground. "We've always been up at Columbia when no one would
go up there,"
She said all the big firms have approached her to buy her out, but
she has rebuffed their offers. "We do what we do and we do it fine,"
Koch said. Besides, she said, "people don't necessarily want to work
with a larger firm."
Mason has been in the business since 1953, a time when tony cooperative
apartments only sold to people in the Social Register, a directory
of the privileged class. At the time, shut out of the social elite,
Mason capitalized on Manhattan 's rental market. She even found Marilyn
Monroe a rental apartment at 2 Sutton Place in 1956 (see How
it feels... ).
Mason is known for having hosted celebrity-packed dinner parties with
guests including Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. She has
maintained a stronghold on the Upper East Side high-end market, but
as luxury real estate development has extended to Downtown Manhattan,
her company is following suit. She says her agents also will handle
deals below $1 million.
Times have changed, but Mason still relies solely on the telephone
to communicate with her office. She has stayed in her Upper East Side
rental apartment for 44 years, where she also works. While many companies
are hiring fresh, young talent, most of the 12 employees at Mason's
office are in their 50s. All came with built-in networks. Her daughter
and senior vice president, Dominique Richard, 45, has worked with
Mason for 23 years.
Manhattan's large rental firms are at the other end of the spectrum,
with their brokers working to house large numbers of people as fast
as they can be put into apartments.
Rental firms attract young employees that need a steady income and
are drawn to the promise of a quick paycheck. In contrast to the exclusive,
top-drawer mores of the boutiques and sales-oriented firms, turnover
is greater and payouts are smaller. Sales agents tend to dismiss rental
agents as professional novices.
At the top of the rental food chain is Citi Habitats, the biggest
rental company in the city.
Founded by Andrew Heiberger, Citi Habitats has grown from two agents
to 680 employees, spread out across 16 Manhattan offices, according
to Gary Malin, the chief operating officer since 1998. The company
is also the on-site leasing and sales company at 12 buildings in Manhattan
"Citi Habitats has evolved since its inception in 1993," Malin said.
"We're not the new kid on the block."
The company proved the value of its high market share in 2004, when
Heiberger sold it to NRT, a subsidiary of the public Realogy Corp.
The company, which owns the Corcoran Group, Sotheby's International
Realty and Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy, paid $49 million for a mix
of quantity and quality. Heiberger is now president and CEO of developer
Buttonwood Real Estate.
Citi Habitats has served as the breeding ground for many brokers that
later went on to start their own rental firms, including Bond New
York, Kurland Realty, A.C. Lawrence and Company, and the Real Estate
Group New York.
While some agents drew criticism for their business methods in the
early years of the firm, Malin's guiding hand improved Citi Habitat's
reputation, according to brokers.
Malin said he still hopes to maintain a family-like atmosphere. He
said he sends a congratulatory e-mail to agents when they make their
first sale and their commission cut increases.
Bond New York, co-founded six years ago by Bruno Ricciotti and Noah
Freedman, aims for widespread appeal, as reflected by its employees.
In the company's Greenwich Village office, there are artists, actors,
musicians, former Wall Street guys, real estate building managers
and even an art professor, said Shane Kramer, 36, the rental manager
in the office.
The sales associates dress in Downtown-chic clothing, Kramer said.
"We do have a dress code, but we allow the agents to have their individuality,"
Ricciotti said. "We're definitely not a robotic operation."
Most of its employees are between 28 and 37 years old, though they
range up to 69 years old.
Ricciotti and Freedman are in their early 30s. Freedman likes to surf.
"A lot of people that come here think we're very young and tech savvy,"
said Ricciotti. "We are super, super cool," he said, tongue-in-cheek.
Benjamin James Associates president Douglas Wagner said his firm "in
some ways is the anti-broker in that we've never established a corporate
culture. Instead we've always attracted the more sort of freelanced,
entrepreneurial, somewhat creative profile in our agent ranks."
Today, the 14-year-old, Downtown-oriented firm's business is 65 percent
rental and 35 percent sales. Because of its rental focus, the company
appeals to young people, some of whom have been with the company since its inception, Wagner
said. Its 80 agents are mostly in their mid-20s to mid-40s, though
some agents are in the 50s and 60s, Wagner said.
The company's founder and Wagner's partner, James Ferrari, helped
produce a film that debuted at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival, the
romantic comedy "Kettle of Fish," which starred Gina Gershon and Matthew
"That also influences the creative factor at Benjamin James," Wagner
The city's biggest firms have an advertising and marketing presence
so ubiquitous that casual observers might see them as indistinguishable
brands, along the lines, say, of the car rental companies Avis and
The Corcoran Group and Prudential Douglas Elliman continue to vie
for the top dog spot, said Braddock, a former general sales manager
for Douglas Elliman turned consultant.
She says the struggle for the No. 1 spot puts each at risk of losing
"For the broker they're all beginning to feel like they are a Bloomingdale's,"
Braddock said. "They're the place you can go to get a little bit of
everything. You're not going to be blown away by anything, but you
won't be lacking either."
But it's nearly impossible for apartment hunters to disregard Corcoran
and Elliman, which command huge total market share across a wide spectrum
of residential property types. In April 2006, together they accounted
for more than 60 percent of listings among the 10 biggest residential
firms – 2,658 out of 4,426, according to a survey by The
Elliman had the most agents of any firm in Manhattan – 1,337
at the time of the survey. Corcoran had the second-highest total,
with 877 agents. The other firms in the top 10 biggest list were (in
order of size) Citi Habitats, Halstead, Brown Harris Stevens, Bellmarc,
Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy, Stribling, Warburg and Sotheby's.
Even in a large organization, a dynamic leader can make a big company
feel a lot more like family. When Corcoran founder Barbara Corcoran
sold the company to NRT six years ago and Pamela Liebman became the
president and CEO, conventional wisdom – and employee chatter
- indicated that the company went from a family-run business to a
Under Barbara Corcoran, agents were offered in-house weekly massages,
manicures and shoeshines. The perks have disappeared and so has a
bit of the spirit, some brokers say.
"She was a leader that people followed. She appealed to many people,"
said an industry source who requested anonymity.
Corcoran herself described the company she ran: "It was very much
a family atmosphere because I knew every agent and we put every agent
first. The agent was the God we served, not the customer."
The insider added that Pamela Liebman is more businesslike and
But, the culture shift at Corcoran is not really about Liebman versus
Barbara Corcoran, Braddock said. It's about being a part of a public
conglomerate rather than a private entity.
But real estate pros still praise aspects of Corcoran's operations,
particularly the strength of the brand name and the company's comprehensive
Brokers that stayed at Corcoran or joined since the NRT sale have
benefited from Liebman's no-nonsense style, which is responsible for
expanding the firm significantly in the Hamptons and Florida . The
Corcoran Group declined to comment for the story.
In many ways, Corcoran's rival Elliman shares a similar atmosphere.
They are both large companies under the leadership of a strong woman.
CEO Dorothy "Dottie" Herman is seen by some as dynamic and similar
to Barbara Corcoran.
"Dottie Herman is like what Barbara Corcoran used to be," said Leonard
Steinberg, a Downtown broker who has been with Prudential Douglas
Elliman for five years.
But, unlike Corcoran, Steinberg added, there is the advantage that
Herman is a broker. "She's definitely a broker's broker."
Elliman also declined to comment for the story.
Esther Muller, who runs the Real Estate Academy for Continuing Education,
said Herman and chairman Howard Lorber run the company like a mom-and-pop
shop despite its size.
While some people thrive on just being with a large company, others
at big brokerages strive to create the boutique feeling by partnering
up with other sales associates.
"The teams are taking over," Braddock said, "I think much more so."
Like individual imprints at large publishers, the giants offer room
for branding and individual identities through these groups. At Elliman,
that's evident in the Bracha Group and the Jacky Teplitzky Team.
Others, including Michael Shvo and Shaun Osher, have ridden on the
coattails of their success at Elliman to start up their own firms.
Shvo headed the top producing group at Elliman in 2003, and Osher
did the same in 2004.
Osher left two years ago to start up Core Group Marketing.
"I created my firm to provide individual attention," Osher said. "The
larger these companies grow, the more they have to operate like a
corporation. And buying a piece of real estate is a very personal and not corporate decision."
At another large firm, Halstead, sister company to Brown Harris Stevens,
there are still some personal touches.
Richard Hamilton, a senior vice president in the Halstead Village
office, gets a five-figure ad budget – and access to a refrigerator
filled with cold drinks, he said. "They put Diet Dr. Pepper in there
Higher-end mid-sized firms
For agents who like the small-company feeling but find a boutique
firm to be too stifling and a large brokerage too impersonal, a mid-size
company is often a good option.
Mid-sized firms roughly divide into two categories in Manhattan –
the mostly independent, Upper East Side higher-end firms that are
cousins of the Uptown boutique brokerages, and middle-market firms
aimed at the bulk of the market.
At these mid-sized firms, management is still able to have an influence
on the day-to-day affairs of every broker.
Frederick Peters, president of Warburg Realty Partnership, does not
concern himself with providing free soda, juice and ice for agents.
"As far as I'm concerned, a lot of that stuff is gimmicky, and that's
not what we're about," Peters said.
Peters is more concerned with the preservation of his company's image.
"We certainly have high behavioral standards," he said. Keeping his
finger on the pulse of the company is important to Peters – he
manages 150 agents in the company's five Manhattan offices and interviews
job candidates personally. He also runs office meetings.
Similar to many other high-end brokers and managers interviewed at
large and small firms, Peters has a second home in northwestern Connecticut
"We are an intimate pick that is still a status pick," Peters said.
He said Stribling, a rival firm, is most like his own company.
Venturing a bit beyond the company's traditional areas of coverage,
Warburg established a luxury brokerage office in Harlem in 2004, and
has recently added Downtown offices as well. Peters has expanded the
company from 60 to 150 brokers, and from one to five locations since
acquiring and renaming the 95-year-old firm Albert B. Ashforth in
Elizabeth Stribling, owner and president of Stribling & Associates,
is as famous for her stylish suits - all made by French designer
Lacroix – as she is for the zip codes of the homes
she markets, including
the residences at the Plaza Hotel.
That concern for presentation filters down to her employees. A dress
code is strictly enforced in the 200-person company, whether agents
are hanging around the office or out showing property. "Jackets for
men and a suit or a dress for the ladies," Stribling said via telephone
from France . "I'm an old fashioned gal."
Like Cave, Stribling lives the life she sells and the business follows
suit. She owns a townhouse in the East 80s and retreats to her two
homes in France to escape. Likewise, Stribling & Associates has
a Manhattan and European presence. The company has three Manhattan
offices – on the Upper East Side and in Tribeca and Chelsea –
and conducts business in the West End of London and the South of France,
Of all the firms, Stribling said, Brown Harris Stevens most closely
matches her company. "I think Brown Harris puts a lot of emphasis
on professionalism, comportment, service."
More upscale and smaller than its sister brokerage Halstead Property,
both part of privately held Terra Holdings, whose owners include two
members of the Zeckendorf real estate family, Brown Harris Stevens
focuses on the high end of the market.
Brown Harris is the biggest of the white-shoe brokerages and among
the most respected. The firm had 264 agents at the time of The
Real Deal's biggest firms survey in April 2006.
"I think in most ways we try to be the luxury brand," said
Jim Gricar, an executive vice president and director of residential
sales for the West Side division of Brown Harris Stevens. "We tend
to have the most luxury, white-shoe image."
Of the department stores in the city, Bergdorf Goodman most closely
reflects the image of Brown Harris Stevens, Gricar said, "in terms
of size and presence."
Brown Harris Stevens' agents work in seven New York City offices on
the East Side, West Side, Downtown and in Brooklyn. The company also
has offices in the Hamptons .
Brown Harris Stevens has always been "considered a little bit more
buttoned-up," and Halstead is a bit cozier, said Braddock of Braddock
Sotheby's International is another high-end firm with a mid-sized
presence in Manhattan. It is different than Stribling, Warburg and
Brown Harris Stevens because it is part of the NRT national conglomerate,
which includes Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy, the Corcoran Group and
Citi Habitats – even if it is a high-end part of that chain.
Kathryn Korte, the new president and CEO of Sotheby's International
Realty, said the firm is known for its 200-year history as a luxury
brand name and its art auction business, which often refers collectors
to buy multimillion dollar homes from the brokerage.
"The Sotheby's auction client is the Sotheby's real estate client,"
said Korte, who has spent her 22 years in real estate at the firm.
Like Manhattan 's boutique firms, Sotheby's hires through word of
mouth, and its employees tend to live the lifestyle they sell, said
Sotheby's Manhattan brokers live on the East and West sides and Downtown,
except for one agent who resides in Locust Valley on Long Island,
Korte said, and many have second homes in the Hamptons ; Litchfield
, Connecticut ; and Millbrook , NY .
Elliman's Steinberg described the Sotheby's Downtown office as friendly,
but "Uptown it's cold, it's like the temperature is on 40 degrees."
Middle-market, mid-sized firms
In a rapidly consolidating market, the future looks grim for middle-market,
mid-sized firms, some observers say. Buyouts may soon swallow firms
of this size until the market is split between behemoth brokerages
and boutiques. Managers at these firms disagree, though it seems that
mid-market prosperity comes with affiliation with a larger company.
One mid-sized firm backed by national real estate conglomerate Century
21 is trying to grow into a larger firm by assembling pieces of smaller
The marriage of two distinctly different brokerages, Dwelling Quest
and Century 21 Kevin B. Brown, resulted in the 140-person Century
21 NY Metro, which is split between two Manhattan offices, one on
East 57th Street and the other in Harlem . The franchise, which does
not specialize in the high end of the market, includes Dwelling Quest's
hip, tech-savvy brokers and Century 21 Kevin B. Brown's more seasoned
and mature brokers.
"The young, upstart side of the business has really carried us," said
Michael Simon, president of Century 21 NY Metro.
But the two sides have found a common ground, with Dwelling Quest
employees turning to their older colleagues for experience and training,
and the Kevin B. Brown folks looking to their younger colleagues for
their Internet know-how, Simon said.
Also part of a franchise with worldwide connections, Coldwell Banker
Hunt Kennedy has more than 275 agents in the New York City division,
at the company's three Manhattan offices.
Like Century 21, Coldwell Banker is not necessarily a super-luxury
market specialist, but JoAnne Kennedy, COO of Coldwell Banker, said
that agents at the brokerage will make money and get stock options.
About 20 percent of the New York City business is rentals, Kennedy
said. The downtown office is the most laid-back, young and fun of
the three Manhattan offices, Kennedy said.
Kennedy lives on Riverside Drive and has a house in Dutchess County
. If she had to |pick a department store that best represented Coldwell
Banker, "we're probably Saks," she said.
Not every middle-market firm is part of a conglomerate. Bellmarc,
which has 250 agents in six Manhattan offices, has been going strong
for 27 years. Janice Silver, executive vice president and sales manager
of Bellmarc's East Side office, said that only about 5 percent of
the company's business is rentals.
Neil Binder and Marc Broxmeyer established the Bellmarc Companies
While Broxmeyer focuses on the company's real estate investment acquisitions
and management, Binder guides the direction of the company, develops
the new agent training curriculum and leads many of the seminars.
Muller, of the Academy for Continuing Education, said that Binder
is a "born teacher," and likes to hire new agents so he can train
them himself. Muller said that Binder's emphasis on education is evident
in that agents cannot take a buyer out to see a property unless they
have memorized the contract of sale.
Just as Uptown has its boutique brokerages, so does Downtown. Like
with other firms, their companies' cultures tend to line up with the
types of clients they serve. In this case, it's the more artsy Downtown
Among the many boutique brokerages Downtown, DG Neary Realty and
30 or so agents (according to the firm's Web site) have had a
hold on the Chelsea market for 20 years. In addition to the company's
sales and rental business, it's also one of the only residential
real estate companies that explicitly caters to the gay community
and helps run the Gay Roommate Information Network.
"Pretty much everybody lives in the neighborhood and works in the
neighborhood," said managing partner Gil Neary. "We're kind of neighborhood
people. I rarely leave the neighborhood."
Neary and his partner Dan Gerstein run a mom-and-pop shop, sitting
just an arm's length away from the agents.
The agents can dress very casually; even Neary wears jeans and sneakers
when he has no appointments with clients.
Another firm with a big Downtown presence, JC DeNiro & Associates,
12 agents n its Chelsea office, where Christopher Mathieson, partner
co-owner, is based; 11 in the West Village; and six on the Upper West Side. The other
three agents work from home.
Mathieson, who co-founded the four-year-old company with Florida-based
82-year-old Jack DeNiro (who is also Robert De Niro's uncle), puts
an emphasis on the appearance of the storefront offices and the appearance
of the block.
He is involved in street beautification and designs and buys the furniture
for the offices himself. Each desk and chair is unique.
"People think it's a gallery or a furniture store," Mathieson said.
The agents range in age from 24 to the mid-40s and hail from the neighborhoods
where they work. Part of the company's business model, Mathieson said,
is "where we have offices is where we hire agents. They're part of
the fabric of the community."