When Roberta Benzilio moved to Brooklyn in 1978, her broker suggested that she consider a career in real estate. At the time, she was working for a travel company and would periodically give tours of brownstones in Park Slope for friends and relatives. She was fascinated by architecture but wasn’t yet interested in a career change. Then the market turned in the early 1980s and her clients’ travel budgets shrunk. Benzilio reconsidered and got her broker license.
In real estate, she found a lifelong career where she could not only flex her travel knowledge but also, surprisingly, her bachelor’s degree in psychology.
“You’re dealing with people on an emotional level,” she said. “You’re dealing with buyers who, for many of them, this is the biggest purchase of their life.”
Benzilio is second-in-command at Halstead Property Development Marketing, working alongside president Stephen Kliegerman to promote new development projects in New York City. It’s an interesting and uncertain time for a luxury real estate in the city. By some accounts, confidence in the market slid as sales dragged in the second half of 2017. According to CityRealty’s review of last year’s sales, new development deals were expected to hit $8.1 billion by the end of 2017. That represents a 13 percent drop from 2016 when sales totaled $9.3 billion.
Pricing growth in new development also cooled in the fourth quarter of 2017, according to Douglas Elliman’s latest market report. The median price for new development declined by 7 percent year-over-year in the fourth quarter of 2017, and the number of sales that closed dropped 19 percent year-over-year.
There have been other signs that the glut in luxury condominiums is taking a toll. In October, Elliman eliminated Roy Kim’s position as chief creative officer of new development. At the time, Kim cited the financial challenges facing new development.
Still, some remain confident that the high-end market is making a comeback. Compass president Leonard Steinberg recently told The Real Deal that a string of contracts signed on trophy properties at the end of 2017 showed a “renewed confidence amongst the ultra-wealthy.”
With market conditions in mind, TRD spoke with Benzilio, as well as the new development deputies at Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group and Elliman to discuss how they got into the business, how they adapt to the market and what it’s like to work on some of the city’s flashiest buildings — from early design concepts to project sellout. These right hands are charged with curating sales teams for each project and serving as the intermediaries between brokers and developers. Here’s a look at their roles in selling out some of the city’s most well-known condo projects:
Roberta Benzilio, executive vice president at Halstead Property Development Marketing
Benzilio began her real estate career as a sales agent at a small Brooklyn Heights company, Brooklyn Properties. When the company was purchased by William B. May Company in 1983, she became a sales manager and eventually worked her way up to president. She joined Halstead in 2006 as a director of sales and took on her current role in 2011.
As executive vice president, Benzilio oversees the sales team and is in charge of hiring and training the company’s agents. She said the teams for each project are selected based on their experience in the neighborhood and the product type. Though choosing a team isn’t a “personality contest,” Benzilio said she tries to keep the groups diverse in order to bring different skill sets and strengths together. Having variety also allows one broker to take over for another if the potential buyer and broker aren’t hitting it off.
Benzilio also sits in on weekly client meetings and works with developers to figure out pricing incentives and other sale strategies. Her favorite aspect of the job is the fact that she gets to be part of development projects from start to finish.
“It’s an idea in somebody’s head, and the next thing you know it’s a whole building,” she said.
In terms of dealing with a challenging luxury sales climate, Kliegerman noted that Halstead focuses on “the housing market, not the aspirational housing market,” meaning that many of the projects they market have units that fall closer to $10 million than $30 to $50 million. Some of the company’s recent projects include Asher Dardashtian’s 805 Ninth Avenue, ABN Realty’s 19 Park Place, Slate Property Group and Adam America Real Estate’s 51 Jay Street, Cadence Property Group’s the Sorting House, and Xin Development’s Oosten at 429 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg. In TRD’s August ranking of new development brokerages by closed sales, Halstead logged $1.11 billion in sales volume between June 1, 2014 and May 31, 2017, placing fourth in the city.
Like many of its competitors, Halstead relies heavily on data to shape their selling strategies. Though the sales teams check customer behavior on (at least) a weekly basis, it usually takes longer to determine whether or not a campaign is a dud. If after a month or two, for example, the two-bedroom units of a residential tower are far outpacing the three-bedroom units, it may be time to shift gears, she said.
“It takes a couple months before you start changing your strategy,” Benzilio said. “You have to give time for the message to sink in and have it hit their subconscious.”
Gordon Hoppe, executive vice president of Corcoran Sunshine
Gordon Hoppe joined Corcoran Sunshine in 2006, just one year after Corcoran Group Marketing and the Sunshine Group merged. He’d worked out of Corcoran Group’s East Hampton and Sag Harbor brokerage offices as senior managing director for two years and had worked in Douglas Elliman’s East Hampton Office before that. He was ready for a change.
“After living fulltime in East Hampton for four years, I was ready to move back to Manhattan, and knew I wanted to work on new developments,” he said.
Hoppe went into retail right out of college, working at Macy’s and various furniture stores before turning to real estate. (Though no longer working in retail, he still has a soft spot for appliances. The Gaggenau fridge ranks among his favorites: “It’s still the bomb.”)
He’s always had an interest in real estate. As a kid, he used to ride his bike around Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey to scout out houses that were under construction.
At Corcoran Sunshine, the city’s alpha dog in new development with over $9 billion in sales volume between June 1, 2014 and May 31, 2017, Hoppe now works alongside president Kelly Kennedy Mack and seven managing directors. Hoppe puts together the onsite sales team for each development and provides ongoing training to agents.
“I tell people to see and read everything they can — market knowledge is of utmost importance,” Hoppe said. “And most importantly in this industry, listen — listen to agents, listen to buyers. Understanding their motivation will go a long way in making a deal.”
Hoppe said in addition to selecting the sales team based on experience, agents are sometimes tapped to work on projects based on the developer. Clients will occasionally request certain team members based on their work for the developer on previous projects.
Because marketing companies are often tapped by developers well before breaking ground on a project, the game plan for selling out a building can change several times, Hoppe said, due to the whims of the market and those of the owner. And sometimes, the owner can elect to go in a completely different direction. For example, in 2009 Cocoran took over O’Connor Capital Partners’ Manhattan House from its rival Elliman.
Hoppe said the Upper East Side building was one of the most challenging projects he’s ever tackled. The 493-unit building at 200 East 66th Street went condo in 2015 and was occupied by rent-stabilized tenants. Corcoran had a short amount of time to reposition and begin marketing the massive project when they took over, and also grappled with “many, many floor plans and ever-evolving inventory,” Hoppe said.
The company’s current roster of projects also includes Vornado Realty Trust’s 220 Central Park South on Billionaires’ Row, JDS Development Group and Property Markets Group’s 111 West 57th Street, GID Development Group and Henley’s Waterline Square, Related’s 70 Vestry Street and the Hudson Yards condos, Silverstein Properties’ 30 Park Place, and dozens more.
Mack noted that while Corcoran is “well-known for representing the high-end,” the company has always had a diversified portfolio.
“While other firms are aggressively expanding and seeking outside markets, we remain focused on New York City and making sure our current clients are receiving total dedication and guidance to successfully navigate changing market conditions,” she said.
Leslie Wilson, senior executive vice president and managing director of Douglas Elliman Development Marketing
Wilson began her career on Wall Street, working for the now-defunct investment bank Drexel Burnham Lambert for 19 years as a proprietary options trader. She later worked for a private wealth management firm, SG Cowen Securities, and then at the Trump Organization.
“I can’t say enough good things about [Donald Trump] and his children. It was great working for them,” she said of her time at the company.
She stuck with development, working at Related for 10 years as senior vice president of sales. It was there that she met Susan de França, who left the development firm in 2011 to become president of Elliman’s new development division. Wilson likened working with de França to synchronized swimming, a practiced rhythm that they picked back up when she joined Elliman in 2015.
“As much I loved Related, it’s a significantly, large and established company,” she said, adding that while Elliman is more than 100 years old, its new development marketing division is much younger and provided an “exciting entrepreneurial” quality.
The firm placed second in TRD’s ranking of new development firms by closed sales, notching $5.9 billion in sales volume between June 1, 2014 and May 31, 2017. Its highest profile project is Macklowe Properties and CIM Group’s 432 Park Avenue, though it’s also selling 125 Greenwich Street, the Marquand, Madison Square Park Tower and 111 Murray Street, among many others.
Wilson said the sales and marketing teams work to stay ahead of trends in luxury residential — through market research and boots-on-the-ground (agents). She said developers are increasingly looking for more design input from marketing teams because the idea of luxury has become more sophisticated and competitive. This applies to marketing strategy as well. It used to be that if condo units had impressive kitchens, the marketing team would have model units for prospective tenants to peruse, Wilson said. Now, with Facebook Live, Instagram and the like ruling the ad game, firms have to take such an experience further by, for instance, hiring a top chef to cook in the kitchen during the tour.
“The bar continues to get raised,” she said. “We’re tasked more and more with designing lifestyles.”