The Real Deal New York

All guts, no glory: What it’s like to be a foot soldier on a “top agent” team

Playing gatekeeper or assistant can be a stepping stone for aspiring brokers, but it's grueling work
By E.B. Solomont | October 09, 2017 07:00AM

Star brokers such as Ryan Serhant and Fredrik Eklund employ an army of foot soldiers

“I call Jordan our flight control tower. He is the oil in our machine. On top of that, he mans the calendars, phones, emails and, yes, he will be the one you meet if you knock on the door to my office,” Douglas Elliman’s Fredrik Eklund wrote in his 2016 book “The Sell.” Referring to longtime assistant Jordan Shea, the reality TV star added: “Your goal is to get on his good side, and therefore mine.”

But as of last month, Eklund and business partner John Gomes are out a gatekeeper. Shea has transitioned from assistant to full-time resales broker on the Eklund-Gomes team, which claims to have sold $721 million worth of real estate last year.

For Shea, the shift is emblematic of every aspiring agent’s dream: parlaying long hours and grunt work into a lucrative real estate career of their own.

While lead agents may get all the glory, many employ armies of agents, marketing pros and assistants behind the scenes to manage demanding, 24/7 businesses. These foot soldiers play the role of deputy, sidekick and receptionist — or anything else the lead agent asks of them. “It’s about efficiency, because time is money,” Eklund wrote in “The Sell.”

Today is a very, very big day in my life. As of this morning, I’ve switched from being in management/administration to being a broker full-time. I couldn’t be happier or more at peace with this choice, and have known that it was the right one for my life ever since Fredrik and John suggested it to me earlier this summer. ‍♂️ It’s been a long journey to get to this point, but it’s been rewarding. I’ve had oversight on approx five billion in the last four years alone, have seen & done more than I ever thought possible when I moved to New York in 2010, and have had a blast the whole time. I haven’t gotten here alone, though, so I want to take this brief moment to thank some people that are very special to me. Fredrik Eklund – I’ll never forget the first time I heard your voice on the other end of the line. It’s as special to me today as it was to me then. Working for you has been a treasure. I hope to embody your finest qualities and make you proud. I love you and Derek with all my heart, and I cannot wait to meet your children. ❤️ John Gomes – Knowing you and watching you and learning from you has brought me so much mirth and joy, I can barely stand it. You’re a gentleman and a genius and a giant in my life, and most often, yours is the approval that means most. I love you and respect you more every day, Madea. The Vessel and The Butterfly forever. ⛵️ Chris Peters – You’re the best manager in real estate. Period. Thank you for always supporting and pushing us further. You’re terrific and bring a smile to my face every time I see you. Let your light shine, because it’s beautiful. Nan Mar Elia – You hired me into the business when I was 23, weighed 130 lbs, and had a buzz cut. I wasn’t even fresh off the boat — I was still on it. I’ll never forget the words of advice you gave me in that interview: Make sure you get paid. You will forever hold a special place in my heart. Gilad Azaria – Thank you for teaching me the fundamentals, treating me like a brother, being a friend and a mentor. Love you, Gilly. You’re a great man. ‍ Howard & Dottie – Thank you for making this the greatest company on earth to work for. I love it.

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Richard Phan, a longtime assistant to the Corcoran Group’s Carrie Chiang, for example, is known as a savant of addresses, prices and dates, while Katja Shamburger McLean and Angie Thompson serve as point people for Corcoran’s Sharon Baum. Maggie Leigh Marshall is a top lieutenant for Elliman’s Raphael De Niro — ranked as the No. 1 team by The Real Deal this spring with $721.4 million in sell-side deals — and has acted as a “stand in and voice” for him on occasion.

“As long as I am awake, I am available,” she said.

For Sotheby’s International Realty’s Nikki Field — whose team is 15 strong — Helen Marcos acts as COO, “running our machine on and off for 12 years and is the keeper of all the secrets,” Field said. Meanwhile, Nest Seekers International’s Ryan Serhant — whose team of 62 may be the biggest in the industry — described agents who work under him as “strong tentacles to my octopus.” Unlike firms that limit team sizes (Elliman caps teams at 10 members), Nest Seekers has given Serhant free rein. The “Million Dollar Listing New York” star has offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and team members in Los Angeles. “It enables me to run a company within a company,” he said.

How lead agents run their fiefdoms varies widely.

The Leonard Steinberg Team — headed by Compass’ president and Hervé Senequier, a senior managing director at the firm — has four core members plus six agents who work under the team umbrella. The setup requires everyone to multitask, though unofficial roles are “a bit specialized,” said Senequier, who handles logistics and finances, while Steinberg oversees marketing and negotiation. Amy Mendizabal handles a lot of deal flow while Calli Sarkesh pitches in with showings, follow-up work with buyers and sellers and logistics.

“As long as I am awake, I am available.”

“Not everyone is working on all the exclusives,” added Steinberg. “You don’t have a seller get a call from 10, 12 or 15 people. It has to be carefully assigned.”

Amy Mendizabal

Compass’ Eugene Litvak, the self-described CEO of a “micro-brokerage within a brokerage,” has designated heads of marketing, design, rentals and client care. He recently hired a COO to run day-to-day operations, letting him focus on relationship-building.

“When we’re talking to bigger developers,” Litvak said, “they want to talk to me.”

For Corcoran’s Meris and Kenny Blumstein, whose team includes their children Sydney and Cole, tasks are divvied up between the family members and five teammates based on property type and location. “My parents really have their own business, of which we all are a branch of,” said Sydney Blumstein, who launched a rentals business during the 2008 financial crisis. For the most part, Meris gravitates toward the luxury market and Kenny handles commercial deals.

No matter how tasks are divided, top agent teams require round-the-clock communication. In addition to email, phone and text messaging, Compass’ Debra Bondy communicates via Slack while Corcoran’s Deanna Kory and her assistant use a cloud-based app called Wunderlist to manage their to-do list. Jessica Chestler, who works for CORE’s Emily Beare, said the flurry of emails and text messages starts at 4:30 a.m. and doesn’t end until midnight. “I speak to Emily more than anyone else in my life,” she said. “At the end of the day, I’m there to make sure that no ball is dropped in any sense of the word.”

That means lots of grunt work — like cold calls, creating mailers and working open houses. “It’s a lot of rental business, and then so many Sunday open houses,” said Sydney Blumstein, who added that any new broker who doesn’t shadow the lead broker is “squandering an opportunity to learn.”

Serhant said he goes on almost every initial client pitch, but has agents stand in for him other times. His team also staffs new development sales offices, since he can’t be there 24/7. “A lot of my value is face time,” he said. “It’s more of an apprenticeship than a mentorship. The apprentice is put to work.”

Jessica Chestler

The work is tough, and few see big bucks early on. The average agent assistant takes home just $31,887 a year, according to the online jobs marketplace Glassdoor (New York numbers are likely to be higher.) Meanwhile, the worker bee agents who toil away on top teams generally work for a slice of the commission, depending on their experience and involvement. (Agents who bring in their own client, however, earn more.) A current job posting on Glassdoor, seeking an agent to join a top Douglas Elliman team, said the ideal candidate is exceptionally well organized, “coachable” and available on weekends. “Qualified agents will earn six figures!” promised the ad.

If the money is there, top agents still generally receive credit for listings and deals, even if their underlings are doing the heavy lifting. On the marketing side, too, it’s often the lead agent who gets credit for listings and deals. “Because of our marketing efforts, a lot of our clients come through Deanna,” said Dee Dee Tiller, Kory’s marketing director. Tiller said Kory farms out listings to agents but stays involved in negotiations, pricing and closings. “If she gets all the glory,” Tiller said, “I’m doing my job effectively.”

Some relationships between team players and the star brokers end very poorly — and very publicly.

“I speak to Emily more than anyone else in my life.”

Last year, Joe Aquino — who for years was retail broker Faith Hope Consolo’s right-hand man — sued Elliman for allegedly withholding $1 million in commissions to pay for his boss’ spa treatments, cashmere sweaters and $100-a-day makeup sessions. Elliman said the allegations were a “manufactured attempt” to get more money from the company, and in October 2016 a judge dismissed the claims. Aquino later joined Swiss retail brokerage the Location Group as head of North American operations.

In May, a former assistant to Elliman’s Jared Seligman filed an explosive lawsuit alleging the broker forced her to support his drug habit and witness his sexual exploits. “To act as a Personal Assistant to a wealthy real estate broker, especially in New York City, means putting up with indignities that most people never have to experience,” Amy Gagnon claimed in the suit. (Seligman vowed to discredit her “scurrilous accusations” in court.)

Colby Billhardt

But often, team members parlay the glamour-free gig into their a career of their own.

Serhant suffered a blow in August when four longtime team members — Danny Nassimi, Brian Atienza, Peggy Zabakolas and Colby Billhardt — struck out on their own. “I just felt ready to take a page out of his book and create my own brand,” said Billhardt, who moved to Brown Harris Stevens.

Clayton Orrigo

Another Eklund-Gomes success story, Clayton Orrigo, spent several years on the team before jumping to Compass and forming the Hudson Advisory Team with former Town Residential broker Stephen Ferrara.

Though he handled his share of last-minute Friday night showings, Orrigo said he relished experiences like flying to Asia with Eklund and Gomes to meet with a developer client. “How many brokers get to do this type of thing?” he said.