Get to know the resale gurus of Manhattan’s top-selling brokerages

Five execs describe how they help agents strategize, stage and check egos

New York /
Apr.April 05, 2018 07:00 AM

From left: Gordon Golub, Ken Scheff, Marissa Ghesquiere, Bill Cunningham and Steven James

To a developer, selling a condominium unit is a matter of ensuring an investment ultimately pays off. To a homeowner, the process can be more emotionally complicated: The sale price of an apartment is a critique of their taste, a statement on how well they cared for their home.

“The seller is someone who considers the property as a home or a personal investment, so they have some sort of ego involved,” said Ken Scheff, manager of Stribling & Associates’ Uptown office. “We deal with some very successful people. They seem confused when we tell them their home needs work.”

A resale broker must be well-versed in the art of persuasion, to talk a seller down from a lofty price; and in transfiguration, in order to help buyers envision the possibilities of a space. They speak a different language than new development brokers, one where “floor-to-ceiling windows” and “world class amenities” is largely absent from their vocabulary.

With this in mind, The Real Deal spoke to the resale heads of the top five residential brokerages by closed sales in 2017.

Here’s a look at some of the city’s top resale coaches:

The roving coach

Compass’ head of agent development doesn’t have his own office. He doesn’t even have a desk. Instead, Gordon Golub spends workdays walking the agent floors of the company’s Union Square headquarters, a Tumi backpack bearing his initials in tow.

Golub kicked off his career in real estate in 1992, working at a small now-defunct brokerage founded by one of his college friends. He decided early on that he didn’t want to keep working as an agent, feeling that he’d have a more lasting impact helping agents build their careers. He worked at Citi Habitats for 18 years, helping grow the brokerage from 30 to more than 600 agents. He joined Compass in 2015, becoming the company’s fifth employee.

He now oversees 77 agents and seven sales managers, serving as something akin to a coach by offering support and helping agents strategize. By not being tied to a desk, he assures that he’s interacting with agents all day long.

“It can be a lonely world,” he said, “You are operating on your own out there, and working with buyers and sellers is not easy.”

He added, “You don’t come home with a paycheck unless you are doing a transaction. The biggest piece of my role is to help agents make more money in less time.”

One strategy that proves crucial is staging a space to help prospective buyers visualize how their furniture and possessions will fill out the home. Golub said some agents have found that staging a property can increase sales prices by as much as 10 percent.

“It’s risk and reward,” he said. “A lot of sellers don’t want to spend $15,000 to $30,000 to stage a property.”

The ego wrangler

Stribling’s Scheff agreed that staging the property can make or break a deal, though pricing can range from $5,000 to $100,000, depending on the size of the home and the level of work done (a nine-room estate, where the entire house is repainted and the floors are refinished, could result in a six-figure bill).

At Stribling, Scheff oversees 150 agents. He joined the firm in 2003, after working as a broker and manager at Bellmarc Realty for more than 15 years. He was tapped to oversee Stribling’s Uptown office in 2008 after serving as the firm’s director of sales for the Chelsea and Tribeca offices.

Sellers usually don’t pay for room renovations in high-end properties, Scheff said, because it’s too expensive and risky. Instead, brokers will try to bring owners down to a lower price to reflect the reality of an outdated kitchen or bathroom. He’s seen properties that sat on the market for extended periods of time rapidly attract dozens of bids after dropping the price by just 5 percent. The trick, he said, is to know how to handle sellers’ egos. Brokers need to make clear that any price drops or comments about the appearance of an apartment are in the seller’s best interest.

“Somebody could feel that they give dinner parties for the most elite people on the planet, and we say, ‘your bathroom needs tumbled marble, your fixtures are nickel and should be bronze,’” he said. “The sellers don’t understand why those things matter.”

The attorney and the therapist

Marissa Ghesquiere, brokerage manager for Sotheby’s International Realty’s East Side Manhattan office, said taking a seller on a tour of comparable homes is an effective strategy for getting clients to better understand what their property is up against.

Ghesquiere joined Sotheby’s in 2007, and up until two years ago, served as the brokerage’s corporate counsel. Prior to that, she worked as a real estate attorney at Johnson & Borenstein outside of Boston and Reed Smith in New York. As corporate counsel, she worked one-on-one with agents on contract negotiations, so transitioning to the firm’s operations side — where she’d help brokers strategize — seemed like a natural move. She oversees 150 agents and splits the responsibility of managing Sotheby’s Manhattan offices with Diane Levine.

Levine oversees 135 agents at Sotheby’s Downtown and West Side offices. She also worked as an attorney before joining Sotheby’s in 1999, and prior to that, served as an occupational therapist in New Jersey. She said her background as a therapist enables her to aid agents unpack how deals “get stuck” in the negotiation or under-contract stage of a deal. Her law experience kicks in to help agents figure out a solution to these obstacles, she said.

Often, Levine finds herself advising agents to “pare down” their clients’ homes before placing the properties on the market. This can be as simple as taking down family photos and overly showy furnishings.

“I walk in, and I get caught up in the furnishings, and I see a beautiful ashtray, and I can’t remember anything else,” she said.

The actor turned agent whisperer

Steven James spent four years at North Texas University studying drama. When he graduated in 1972, he moved to New York and planned to pursue a career in acting. But he gave himself a deadline.

“If I didn’t reach some level of success by the time I turned 30, I’d do something else,” he said. “Sure enough, 1979 rolled around.”

Though he abandoned acting, the story of how he got into real estate still sounds like a movie plot. He scoured the New York Times classified ads, found a real estate firm in Scarsdale and called the number listed. He took a train to a town he’d never heard of before to meet with the head of the Christopher Heady Agency. He was hired on the spot.

After deciding that a reverse commute from Manhattan to Scarsdale wasn’t for him, James went on to work for LBK Associates and then Stribling. He joined Elliman in 1990 and now serves as the firm’s CEO of brokerage in New York and director of sales for its East Side office.

When dealing with sellers, James said agents have to tiptoe around discussing outdated decor or downright ugly design choices that may turn off buyers.

“You have to be very sensitive. It’s so easy to insult someone,” he said. “They put their money into it.”

It’s with buyers that agents can get real: “You can say, ‘Look, you don’t have to live with these fixtures and replacing them is not as expensive as you think,’” James said. Savvy agents will have prices of alternative, more modern fixtures and appliances at the ready for prospective buyers, he said.

The property flipper

As a flight attendant for American Airlines in Dallas, Bill Cunningham found himself with a lot of down time between flights.

While grounded, he started flipping properties in Dallas and Miami, but realized that licensed real estate agents had the edge in spotting listings first since they had access to the multiple listing service. He decided to become an agent and to move to New York, joining Corcoran in 2001. He rose the ranks to become sales manager in Corcoran’s East Side office in 2007 and then had a nine-month stint as president of Trump International Realty. He returned to Corcoran in January 2015 as executive vice president and general sales manager, his current role.

Cunningham said the most important part of his job is listening to brokers, who serve as the “eyes and ears” of the company. They see first-hand how new developments in the market — like the new tax law or rising interest rates — are impacting the attitudes of buyers. He also plays surgeon when issues arise in a deal.

“A lot of the higher end transactions, there’s a lot of players involved, and a lot of the times things are lost in translation,” he said. “What I have to do a lot of the time, is go through the maze of the transaction and figure out what’s going on.”

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