Winning friends and influencing brokers: How mentors can make or break a real estate career

Mentoring is fostering a collaborative environment in the hyper-aggressive world of NYC real estate

May.May 23, 2017 11:30 AM

In fall 2014, Jordan Caruso and four other aspiring brokers joined Douglas Elliman’s new agent training program at the West 17th Street office. Two-and-a-half years later, Caruso said he and just one other agent remain in the business. “It was like someone put me in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with a paddle and no map and said, ‘Get to New York,’” he said of his first few months on the job. “My growth was slow, and a lot of times I’d sit there and be like, ‘What’s next?’”

But 18 months after starting, Caruso joined Vickey Barron’s team, and things began to change. There were the obvious benefits of working with others and tapping an established client base. But the real difference was Barron’s willingness to break down deals, explain the nuances of client relationships and negotiations, and also offer career counsel. She took a mentoring role, Caruso said, that helped him get an early footing that was out of reach for many his peers.

New York City’s residential real estate industry is often characterized as ruthless, replete with sharks who’ll do anything to come out on top in a deal. But industry players told The Real Deal that, increasingly, agents are willing to spend time mentoring and supporting their peers — in order to foster a collaborative environment in an aggressive, inherently competitive field.

“Agents are really hungry for a helping hand,” said Barron, who believes increased transparency, and the fact the industry is becoming more professional, means brokers are now more likely to help each other out. “It’s a tough business and if you approach it the opposite way, it not only gives the industry a bad name — getting up every day is going to be a little more difficult.”

Insiders pointed to formal mentoring programs at brokerages, industry associations and continuing education programs as ways to seek out support. Others said the best type of mentoring is informal, and comes from developing close relationships with peers. But there was also consensus that in an industry like real estate, spending time mentoring and supporting others would not be universally embraced. “[Some people think] ‘weIl, if I make you great, today you are my apprentice. But tomorrow — you’re my competition,” said Elizabeth Kee, who mentors members of her team at CORE. “If you do a good job mentoring somebody, then they are going to take everything good out of you … and try to make it a little bit better.”

Still, many brokers said, mentoring is a way to “pay it forward,” and even those with several decades in the business clearly remember people who showed them guidance or support. The industry is not actually as merciless as people believe, some brokers claimed, and the “trust no one” mentality is fast receding. Others said because inexperienced agents without guidance can cause major problems — namely by overpricing apartments and undercutting commissions — guiding them is worthwhile for everyone.

Most experienced brokers said the early days in residential real estate are grueling, and often those who get licensed are woefully underprepared. “A lot of people think, ‘I can just get into the business and two minutes later be selling,’” said Tony Sargent, also of CORE, who took eight months to actually close a deal when he first started as a broker in 1999. “We look at all the TV shows … where you walk into Balthazar, you talk to the owner for four minutes, you come up with a deal, you’re paid $300,000 and everything is great.” Sargent mentored two agents on his team last year, and said most of his energy was spent motivating them, helping them recover from the crushing feeling when deals go south or sellers go cold. “You wake up every single day with no salary, and you have to be willing to deal with that,” he said.

Even those who had lengthy careers before entering real estate said the mentoring they received was invaluable. “I learnt the right way to do business in a very unprofessional environment,” said Brown Harris Stevens’ Bess Freedman, a former attorney who still consults her mentor and colleague Hall Wilkie. “It’s so competitive and you see agents treating each other very poorly,” she said, adding that successful mentoring programs can improve industry standards overall. “You see how much better it is when you are honest, you can communicate and you have good relationships. … It opens doors for everyone,” she said.

Some said mentors are mostly needed when brokers are a few years into their career, and are trying to step up into doing bigger and more frequent deals.

“There are people who make $35,000 in a year,” said Elliman’s Barron, who also teaches classes at the Real Estate Board of New York. “They show up every day and they go in. They need a mentor or they need to get out of the business.”

Others said having formal structures in place to support mid-career agents continues to be a major challenge for brokerages. “What a lot of firms struggle with is how to take a new agent and help them grow,” said Zach Ehrlich, CEO of Mdrn. It’s down to the broker to seek out a team, according to Ehrlich, but many team leaders are cautious. “Often the team leaders will train them for a year or two, the agent will absorb all that knowledge and then leave, sometimes to compete against them. … There isn’t an example of a large firm that’s been able to make sure that everyone gets the same experience.”

The level of formal mentoring varies from firm to firm. At Douglas Elliman, for example, new agents start with a six-week training intensive that includes some mentoring and coaching. The Corcoran Group matches brand new agents with no contacts with senior agents to act as a “sounding board.” The brokerage’s formal mentoring program is reserved for people who already have listings, and has junior and senior agents working together on between three and five deals. At Citi Habitats, there’s no set mentoring program, only training. And while Stribling & Associates is considering rolling out a program, it’s still in the “exploratory” phase.

At Brown Harris Stevens, the mentoring program is only open to new agents who are coming into real estate from previous careers, and places baby brokers with experienced agents for a period of six months. They work on all deals, but only financially benefit from the ones they’ve brought to the table. The mentor, in return, gets access to untapped pool of clients, extra help and potentially a strong relationship with the junior broker for the future. “A senior broker won’t take on a mentor unless they think they can bring contacts,” said Hall Willkie. “Some people would never want to do it, they’re not interested in teaching somebody the business … [but] there’s nothing more satisfying than bringing someone along.”

Tim Schneider of BHS first started working with Brian Manning as an apprentice, before the relationship developed into a formal partnership. “You could jump into the business and start grinding away, start trying to make a name for yourself. But you’d be off on your own a lot,” said Schneider, who added that he had to prove himself before Manning would bring him on as a full-fledged team member.

But not everyone is so lucky. “Certain friends of mine, they went to different firms, and they say ‘all this agent wants from me is to do showings – and they don’t even teach me how the deal works,’” said Andrea Wells, who is mentored by Elizabeth Kee and works on Kee’s team at CORE, receiving 1 percent of profits on all deals, like the rest of the team, even if she’s not directly involved.

Many agents are promised mentoring and handholding by some firms, according to Wells, only to be used as a glorified assistant, stuck doing open houses on Sundays and never able to learn or advance. Wells considers herself fortunate to be working with Kee, because she knows “sometimes certain agents keep knowledge close to their chest, [thinking] why create another them.” That was the case for Francesco Pignataro, who worked for Douglas Elliman for several months in 2015. Pignataro said that while the company training was helpful, he received little support when he went on to join a team. “They didn’t guide me at all,” he said. “They were just telling me to make cold calls…. basically I worked for free for eight months.”

Rick Lechtman, a Marcus & Millichap broker and a New York University Schack Institute alumnus who has mentored NYU and Tulane Business School graduates through industry associations, said mentoring is a way to expand a “sphere of influence.” Regardless of whether you are a “broker, an owner, a developer, a finance person — it’s a big world and you need others,” he said. According to Lechtman, the “senior statesmen” of the commercial world give their time mentoring and coaching younger players, not just for altruistic reasons, but because its helps them stay relevant. “Talent sees others who have talent, and they kind of let them rise,” he said, referring specifically to examples like SL Green Realty’s Stephen Green handing the reins to Marc Holliday and Related Companies’ Stephen Ross selecting Jeff Blau to succeed him as CEO in 2012.“People aren’t killing everybody every day, trying to take them down. People are generally trying to help them move up because it helps everybody.”

The business is about the successful management of relationships, experienced brokers agreed. And while there are still many in the industry who try hold their cards close to their chest, hoard information and refuse to help others — most realize there’s no reason to cut others down. “If we move people from a fear-based mentality, looking over your shoulder, how does that not benefit all of us?” said CORE’s Sargent. “Because in the end, if you’re smart and you know what you’re doing, there’s enough business to go around.”

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