Elizabeth Stribling in her Brooklyn Heights apartment
On a Thursday morning, Elizabeth Stribling is leafing through an array of photos spread out on her kitchen counter.
The pictures show Stribling, founder of the eponymous high-end residential brokerage, posing in a white Valentino cocktail dress at New York’s French Consulate on Fifth Avenue. At an event the night before, the self-described Francophile had been honored for her work as chairman of the French Heritage Society.
“I searched all over Paris and all over New York for that dress,” Stribling beams as her daughter, Elizabeth Ann Kivlan, looks on.
The scene — which takes place in an oversize kitchen with imported wooden floors and 18th-century French doors — could easily be occurring on the Upper East Side.
But in fact, Stribling lives in Brooklyn Heights, in the 12th-floor unit at One Brooklyn Bridge Park she bought in 2009. Her $6.32 million purchase in the waterfront condo conversion — which her firm was marketing at the time — provided much fodder for the real estate press.
“No one could believe I was moving to Brooklyn,” recalled Stribling, a member of the Junior League and the Central Park Conservancy who lived for years on East 84th Street.
Stribling’s departure from the cloistered Upper East Side has, perhaps not surprisingly, coincided with her firm’s recent efforts to revamp its buttoned-up image and target clients outside its traditional base of well-heeled Manhattanites.
A few months ago, Stribling & Associates completed the sellout of the residences at the storied Plaza Hotel — a project that also seems to mirror the founder’s goals for her firm.
The Plaza’s developer, the Elad Group, “succeeded in doing what Stribling is trying to do: keeping the best of the Plaza image, but bringing it right up to date,” she said. “They introduced new infrastructure that put the beauty of a former era into modern perspective.”
From left: Elizabeth Stribling with her daughter, Elizabeth Ann Kivlan
In February, Stribling & Associates launched a branding overhaul aimed at modernizing the 32-year-old firm’s somewhat “stuffy” image, according to Christopher Wilson, the company’s director of operations.
The company has already unveiled a new website designed by CO-OP Branding and built by Canvas, a New York–based digital agency that’s worked for companies like Credit Suisse and Estée Lauder. The sleek design prominently features the company’s new logo — which is based on Stribling’s signature — and emphasizes listing photos rather than text.
The company is also working on new stationery, business cards and signage, as well as redesigning the firm’s offices.
The changes haven’t gone unnoticed: Stribling was nominated last month for Best Real Estate Website in the 16th-Annual Webby Awards, one of the Internet’s mainstays of celebrated web design. The winners will be selected this month.
Clients appear to be responding to the new design: The average amount of time visitors spend on the Stribling website has shot up 44 percent since the new version debuted, Wilson said, and time spent on listing pages has more than tripled. Traffic from mobile devices, meanwhile, has doubled.
The firm also said it has been getting more exclusive listings. In the first quarter of 2012, the firm had 57 percent more sales listings than during the same period of last year, Wilson said, while total new listings, including rentals, were up by 33 percent.
That jump is likely due, at least partially, to economic fluctuations, which influence when sellers decide to put their homes on the market. Still, Wilson said, “I have to wonder if this uptick in new exclusives could be a function, at least in part, of our new corporate identity, brand campaign and website.”
Stribling is not the only brokerage to rethink its online image; rival Brown Harris Stevens rolled out its own new website design last year. But the Stribling redesign is part of a larger image overhaul.
The revamp is partially the brainchild of Stribling’s daughter, who joined the firm in the early aughts as a broker and has gradually amassed more influence over the direction the company is taking.
Kivlan, now the firm’s director of marketing and business development, said she and her mother make a good team when it comes to business.
“One of the reasons it works so well,” Kivlan said, “is we have very different perspectives on things. I want to make sure that we can be well-connected and as web-sticky as possible.”
The “connected class”
Elizabeth Stribling was born in Georgia, but her father, a textile consultant, moved the family to New York when she was a young child. She spent summers visiting her grandmother in Atlanta, where she had plenty of time to polish her Southern charm.
“I learned the Southern ways,” said the impeccably dressed Stribling, who rarely seems to have a hair out of place. “You’d always have people come calling, so I’d always have to look perfect to serve the cheese straws and the Coca-Cola.”
Known as “Libba” to friends, Stribling attended the Hewitt School, an elite girls school on East 75th Street, then studied English literature at Vassar College and Cambridge University in England. She got her start in real estate at the now-defunct brokerage Whitbread-Nolan, where she worked for 14 years.
She founded her own brokerage on the Upper East Side in 1980, with just eight brokers.
Back then, “listings were still on little cards, systems of co-brokering didn’t exist, and the residential division of the Real Estate Board of New York had not yet been founded,” she recalled.
Today, her firm has more than 250 agents and offices in Chelsea and Tribeca, in addition to the Madison Avenue flagship. And the firm is considering another office, Stribling said, though she declined to provide further details until plans are finalized.
Due in part to its Upper East Side origins, the company has long had a reputation for catering primarily to well-heeled, Park Avenue types.
For much of the firm’s existence, one employee joked, “People thought all we did was sit around with white gloves on pouring tea.”
“In spite of the fact they’ve done work in a lot of other parts of the city, their perception is as an Upper East Side company,” said Frederick Peters, president of Warburg Realty Partnership. “I can definitely see why they would want to refresh the brand to be younger and hipper.”
In recent years, however, the brokerage has made strides toward expanding its client base and shedding its elitist image, without sacrificing its high-end cachet. The current rebranding is more a reflection of an evolution that has already occurred than changes the firm is hoping to make, Wilson said.
“If you’ve got an excellent reputation for quality,” Stribling said, “you don’t want to tamper with that. You do, however, want to reach out to a broader constituency called ‘the connected class’ — successful, young professionals in industries like communications and media who are the tastemakers of today. They may be more at home in an open-necked shirt than in a three-piece suit.”
Changes in the city’s moneyed class have, indeed, played a key role in the firm’s new focus on expanding its client base.
“The brokerage world used to be much more compartmentalized,” said Alexa Lambert, one of Stribling’s top-producing brokers. “Now, someone who lives on Park Avenue could much more easily want to [move to] Tribeca. Brooklyn has also become much more attached to Manhattan. People think of it now the same way they would have thought about moving to the Village or the West Side a few years ago.”
As the demographics and economy of the city have changed, wealth is no longer confined to a narrow slice of New York high society, Wilson noted, adding: “It’s quite possible that the 24-year-old kid who comes into your office on a skateboard has a high net worth.”
The firm’s new development projects also reflect its efforts at diversification.
In the 1990s, Stribling started marketing new-construction developments — mostly in Tribeca and Soho — in addition to resales and rentals. Steven Rutter now heads the division, called Stribling Marketing & Associates.
Stribling Marketing recently signed on to sell a 45-unit condo developed by the Wilf family at 200 East 79th Street — one of the biggest projects coming to the Upper East Side. The firm is also marketing a new 24-unit condo at 20 Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights. The development, which hit the market in February, is now 50 percent sold at prices of roughly around $1,000 per square foot, Rutter said.
While Manhattan projects still make up the majority of the firm’s new development listings — about 85 percent — Stribling is gaining more of a foothold in Brooklyn, Rutter said, and the new development arm has more of a “downtown feel” than the rest of the company.
But despite the changes its making, Stribling does not seem to have lost ground on its traditional bread-and-butter: high-end co-ops. Stribling brokers Kirk Henckels and Margaret Furniss sold the late Brooke Astor’s apartment at 778 Park Avenue for $21 million last year, for example.
In 2010, Stribling formed a relationship with London-based residential firm Savills in order to capitalize on European interest in U.S. properties. That relationship has helped yield plenty of international clientele, brokers said.
Hall Willkie, president of Brown Harris Stevens, said melding the old and the new is crucial for traditional firms.
“Many years ago, the high-end was really the Upper East Side, but the city has changed,” he said. “It’s good [for firms] to change in line with the city.”
A new guard
While Elizabeth Stribling is still the heart and soul of the company, her daughter has been a driving force behind the rebranding, introducing more technology into the company’s day-to-day operations, Wilson said.
Kivlan has pushed Stribling brokers to use Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools to reach younger, web-savvy clients. Some have embraced the new tools of the trade, Rutter said, while others are saying, “I don’t know about all of this.”
Kivlan — whose father was Stribling’s late husband William Kivlan — was less than a year old when her mother cut the ribbon on her first office in 1980, and grew up listening to real estate stories at the dinner table.
“My mother sold an apartment on the way to have me,” Kivlan said, recounting a famous family story, “and we spent Saturdays at open houses. I always thought I’d do something different.”
But she fell into the profession to make money while attending culinary school in San Francisco, and almost immediately, “I knew it was for me,” said Kivlan. “You’re putting a person together with a home.”
She worked for two years at the California real estate brokerage Pacific Union before returning to New York to work for her mother’s firm in 2003.
Stribling remains a hands-on owner-operator, but “it’s certainly interesting to watch her allow her daughter an increasing amount of responsibility,” Wilson said. “She really listens to Elizabeth Ann.”
The two women are very different — Kivlan is never far from her smart phone, and prefers slacks to her mother’s Chanel suits.
“She’s very at home on any handheld device,” Stribling said of her daughter, noting that the younger woman is comfortable with technology “that I have never heard of.”
Still, the two have more in common than you might think. When it comes to finding new Brooklyn restaurants and stores, for example, Stribling is “like a kid in a candy shop,” Kivlan said. “My mom took me to Marlow & Sons in Williamsburg recently. She has a way of finding all the hipster spots.”
Stribling, who regularly checks out Brooklyn blogs to find the best restaurants and activities, said she’s somewhat misunderstood.
“When the public looks at me, they see an Upper East Side member of the Junior League,” she said. “But anyone who knows me well has seen me with a hard-hat, on a roof, going across pipes and scaffolding with the best of the blue-jean set.”
Still, some things don’t change.
“I still shop on the Upper East Side,” Stribling admitted. “I put my groceries in the trunk of the car, and then drive right back.”