The Real Deal New York

Binder’s bind

After eviction, legal woes and agent exodus, Bellmarc left licking its wounds

March 13, 2015 01:37PM
By Claire Moses

Neil Binder

Neil Binder

TRD Friday Feature:
November 2012: Neil Binder’s Bellmarc Realty, one of Manhattan’s top residential sales brokerages, announced it was absorbing rental powerhouse AC Lawrence Real Estate. The hope was that the consolidated firm, known as the Bellmarc Group, would be a major player in both rentals and sales.

June 2013: Coldwell Banker entered into an agreement with Bellmarc to take another shot at New York City. The real estate franchise giant subsequently invested a big chunk of money into Bellmarc, and the number of agents ballooned to about 550.

Now: Binder has broken up with his AC Lawrence partners Anthony DeGrotta and Larry Friedman. Coldwell Banker has terminated its franchise agreement with Bellmarc and is suing Binder over unpaid franchise fees. In a matter of months, Bellmarc has lost at least 200 agents and, in the words of Binder, is “struggling.”

Despite the Bellmarc Group’s seemingly endless headaches, Neil Binder isn’t ready to walk away. In an exclusive interview with The Real Deal, he said he is looking for a new partner and is focused on rebuilding his brand.

“The events that took place had a serious adverse effect on the company,” Binder said, describing the split between the companies as “an earthquake.” But, he added, “I believe that there are a tremendous number of people in this company who believe in me, and I believe in them.”

Bellmarc has five offices left in New York. Mirador Real Estate now occupies its former Greenwich Village location at 16 East 12th Street. Its former Times Square office is also shuttered, in addition to the 56th Street and Lexington location that they were evicted from.

And, perhaps most significantly, it’s hemorrhaging sales agents, who were once the backbone of the brokerage.

“I’m mending,” Binder said. “Today I’m not Hercules. Maybe next year.”

Bellmarc Binder Friedman DeGrotta

From left: Anthony DeGrotta, Neil Binder, Larry Friedman

Clash of cultures
When Bellmarc and AC Lawrence first merged, the plan was for them to maintain their separate identities and cultures, while pooling together their resources and management experience. The merger gave Bellmarc some much-needed clout in the rental market, while it allowed AC Lawrence the brand recognition and backing of one of the city’s most-respected residential firms.

Friedman and DeGrotta started AC Lawrence in 2005 after leaving now-defunct rental brokerage Manhattan Apartments. Initially, Binder had planned to hand over Bellmarc’s day-to-day operations to his two new partners. Entering his early 60s, Binder wanted to focus on writing books and blog posts as well as being the face of the company.

“They were going to run the shop,” Binder said. “The company had more than doubled in a year, we were doing very well.”

Trouble, however, started brewing rather swiftly due to a lack of trust on both sides. Rather than stepping back and letting DeGrotta and Friedman run the show as he had promised, Binder said he felt it necessary to stay involved in all decisions after he felt that the two men had an agenda of their own. He disagreed with AC Lawrence’s growth trajectory, thinking it too aggressive, and was worried that incoming rental brokers weren’t being adequately trained.

What followed was an “undercurrent of frustration,” Binder said. “I didn’t agree with their culture.”

Tensions boiled over in August, when DeGrotta and Friedman sued Binder for allegedly embezzling money from the firm and using it as his personal “piggy bank.”

DeGrotta and Friedman both declined to comment for this article.

The suit has since been settled. As part of the agreement, DeGrotta and Friedman relinquished interest in the company. The two also paid Binder $25,000 as part of the agreement. While Binder called it an “apology” payment, sources said the money allowed DeGrotta and Friedman to get out of their noncompete agreements. The two are now at Keller Williams.

Binder categorically denied all DeGrotta and Friedman’s allegations, and sent TRD an analysis he commissioned from an outside accountant.

“I do not believe there was any action on Mr. Binder’s part that was not in compliance with the operating agreement,” the accountant, Jeffrey Shapira, said in the analysis.

Coldwell pulls the plug
Binder’s legal battle with DeGrotta and Friedman is just one of many. Bellmarc is still knee-deep in a dispute with Coldwell Banker, which sued the firm for alleged nonpayment of franchise firms and moved to cut all ties.

“Coldwell Banker Real Estate has terminated its franchise agreement with the Bellmarc Group due to the brokerage’s continued failure to meet its contractual obligations,” said David Siroty, a spokesperson for Coldwell Banker. He declined to comment further.

Binder claims he only stopped paying the franchise fees because Coldwell Banker didn’t provide referrals and leads as promised.

“My beef with them is substantial,” he said, “and I’m going to bring them to court.”

In a letter sent about the lawsuit to Bellmarc employees in December, Binder wrote that “Bellmarc’s position is that these fees are not appropriate and are offset by far larger amounts owed by Coldwell Banker to Bellmarc.”

These troubles, unsurprisingly, have led agents to flee the firm en masse. One former Bellmarc broker claimed that Binder still owes him thousands of dollars, and said he wasn’t hopeful that he’d ever receive the money.

“(Binder) just laughs in your face,” he said. “With a guy like this, you can’t win.”

The broker also spoke of things getting ugly at the end of the AC Lawrence partnership, describing shouting matches, inappropriate behavior and fighting over the course of “two months of war.”

“It almost came to a fist fight,” he added.

Binder sees it differently. Saying that while there was “passionate speaking” involved, there were certainly no screaming matches. “I do have a tendency to speak loudly,” he said.

He admitted a few people are waiting on checks, but said they had broken their “fiduciary responsibility” to the company, allegedly bad mouthing Bellmarc to landlords.

And there are other woes. In February, Broadview Networks Inc. — Bellmarc’s former phone service provider — sued Bellmarc, alleging that the brokerage owes close to $1 million in unpaid cancellation fees, phone bills and other fines.

For now, Bellmarc is licking its wounds. But, Binder promised, he’s not going anywhere.

“I’ve had people telling me I’m going under for 35 years,” he said. He wants to resurrect the firm with the help of a new partner.

“I don’t like to run the shop alone,” he continued. “It’s lonely. I’m not that kind of guy.”

  • Gerome freeman
  • william Korn
  • Nina Scerbo

    It’s regrettable that Claire Moses chose once again to fill her story with only the facts that align with her predetermined narrative rather than give a full and fair depiction of the activities at Bellmarc. She continues to dredge up a pernicious array of information designed to paint Neil Binder as feckless and irresponsible, while summarily ignoring the far more egregious actions of his former partners Anthony DeGrotta and Larry Friedman. Where is the coverage of their secret accounting ledgers? their surreptitious removal of Neil from bank accounts? their covert rental of office space for a new company? their conscious failure to pay Bellmarc’s vendors in favor of their own? their flagrant overspending? their illicit diversion of rental and sales exclusives to their own team? their direct undermining of Neil’s authority among agents? their duplicitous effort to curry favor with Coldwell Banker at Neil’s expense? As someone with both personal and professional ties to Bellmarc, I observed at close range Mr. DeGrotta’s and Mr. Friedman’s dubious leadership, consisting of strutting and posturing, infrequent appearances in the offices, financial mismanagement and alienation of personnel. By contrast, Neil labored in 18 hour days to make the business viable, help managers, advise agents, teach classes, film videos, write manuals, oversee finances, and merge the cultures. In previous business alliances, DeGrotta and Friedman never had accountability because they relied on a backer to bankroll their misadventures. In Neil, they thought they’d found a dupe they could steamroll over. If they’d had even a shred of respect for Neil’s business acumen and had acted in a spirit of teamwork, they would have built a powerhouse firm rather then decimate a fine company. They’re gone. Good. Bellmarc lives on.

    • Board Approved

      Spoken like an obedient publicist. Nice try, Jo-Ann Sinnott. It still won’t save you from ending up on the chopping block like before.

  • Sleazy_Dealings

    Nina Scerbo (and I don’t know her personally) I completely agree.

    It is quite apparent that Claire Moses has her own agenda or she would have expounded on the numerous prior potentiallym shady dealings of Degrotta & Friedman which have been referenced in other The Real Deal articles

    Moses writes, “Friedman & Degrotta started AC Lawrence in 2005 after leaving the now defunct rental brokerage Manhattan Apartments”. Umm, defunct ..wonder how that happened?… that’s a bit vague considering what’s been alleged & exposed in many lawsuits.

    How about a little background on Friedman & Degrotta based on other article from The Real Deal itself??

    http://therealdeal.com/blog/2011/10/12/manhattan-apartments-sues-a-c-lawrence/

    http://therealdeal.com/blog/2013/01/04/a-c-lawrence-under-fire-for-handling-of-manhattan-apartments-union/

    http://therealdeal.com/blog/2013/01/02/bond-nabs-nine-agents-from-defunct-manhattan-apartments-while-a-c-lawrence-gets-46/

    One has to wonder why Claire Moses didn’t attempt to connect any of the oh so obvious dots when it came to A.C.Lawrence & Degrotta & Friedman.

    I was at Bellmarc in the late 80’s through the early 90’s..I still know realtors who have been there going on 30 years…while Neil Binder had his quirks & idiosyncrasies, he was always available & more than fair. I know many that are still there and some that have left and there is not a single one of them that ever said Neil Binder ever withheld ANY of their commissions..to the contrary, of the realtors I know that chose to leave, I have been told that he has paid their commissions even AFTER they departed the firm on deals that were done while they were at Bellmarc. On the other hand, Degrotta and Friedman are reference in other The Real Deal articles for possible non payment of rental agents commissions with regard to their association with Manhattan Apartments & Centruy 21 Metro.

    Looks like 2 scam artists,DeGrotta & Friedman’s, history of suing the companies they partner up with then the next thing you know…Poof..they’ve either destroyed the company, screwed the agents out of much of their pending commissions and in one case they open a new company, a few blocks away, and the guy they just sued is now a PARTNER in the new entity!! What a SCAM..

    Just check out the older archived articles on The Real Deal about Degrotta & Friedman and what happened with Manhattan Apartments & Century21 Metro..it’s like reading a ‘HOW TO SCREW, SUE & RENEW’ instruction guide!!…What a pair of scheisters rising like phoenixes from the ashes!

    It seems every where those 2 go they leave a path of lawsuits & destruction in their wake..Good luck to Keller Williams with those 2 fraudsters lurking and even more good luck to any agents that are snow jobbed into leaving another company to join them in a new Scamarama.

    It’s hard to believe Keller Williams would even go within 100 miles of those 2 guys. DeGrotta & Friedman’s reputations, or should I say, lack thereof, precedes them.

    Say what you will about Neil Binder but he hasn’t crashed and burned everything he touches or destroyed other companies..on the contrary, In an industry as competitive and, often times corrupt, as real estate, he’s rolled with the ups and downs of the business and held on tight to a company he’s built…those 2 vultures thought they could freeze Binder out of his own establishment but they underestimated him..looks like he bit back & held his ground..he took a big hit but those other 2 were the ones who admitted to having PAID HIM BACK $$ & HAVING TO TRANSFER THEIR SHARES TO A 3RD PARTY & PAYING HIM $25,000 EACH supposedly for breaking their non-compete clause..

    Good luck to Binder… Good riddance to DeGrotta & Friedman..

    • Board Approved

      More publicity babble from Jo-Ann Sinnott, aka Nina Scerbo. Writing under two different pseudo names doesn’t add weight here, just suspicion. You might need to reapply your lipstick after all that tush kissing.

  • Claire Moses

    Dear Sleazy_Dealings and Nina Scerbo,

    Thank you for taking the time to read my story and craft a response.

    With this story, I aimed to provide you with some insight into the future of Neil Binder’s Bellmarc. A significant event took place — in this case the split between Mr. Binder and AC Lawrence’s Anthony DeGrotta and Larry Friedman — that deserved more in-depth coverage than what had previously been published.
    Before publication of this story, Mr. Binder agreed to sit down for an interview that spanned more than an hour, during which he was open and frank. Furthermore, Mr. Binder had never told his side of this story to a news outlet before.

    Neither party is on trial here. The facts presented are not meant to put Mr. Binder, or his former partners, in any particular light.

    Once again, thank you for reading. If you have additional questions, please feel free to reach out.

    Best,

    Claire

  • Peter wiener

    Binder is a thief who stole millions from banks and coldwell banker and hides behind over 20 phoney LLCS and is judgement proof and Nina is married to him. These games started long before ac Lawrence and he continues to get away with it.

    • Board Approved

      Absolutely. As a former agent, I can testify that Neil and his minions screwed a lot of people. Bellmarc stole from me personally by imposing ‘new’ fees on a final commission check that took over a month to receive. No one returns calls or emails to explain these made up fees. These dishonest tactics are proof positive of the severe financial crisis that they are in – desperate times apparently call for desperate measures. Current agents tell me they still have their checks bounce on a regular basis due to a lack of funds – an issue that has always been the case. Neil and his managers also tried to hide the fact that office doors were locked and shut down due to lack of payment. I take comfort in knowing these liars and thieves are getting the exposure they deserve. Why any seller or agent would trust a company that is well known for shady practices is beyond me. Why hasn’t the IRS or REBNY looked into their business practices?

  • Noel Rifkin

    Money taken out of Bellmarc bank accounts used for personal expenses by Binder

    https://iapps.courts.state.ny.us/nyscef/ViewDocument?docIndex=t1cDmzSYOP5EurN5IWoDBg==

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