The Closing: Scott Durkin

The Douglas Elliman president talks office politics, the future of residential brokerage and his childhood as a country boy

New York Issue /
May.May 21, 2021 07:30 AM

Scott Durkin (Photo by Axel Dupeux)

Scott Durkin doesn’t mind playing second (or third) fiddle.

The president and COO of one of New York’s largest brokerages doesn’t bask in his title. Instead, he operates with a light touch, favoring delegation and deference. Durkin credits his outlook to his upbringing in rural upstate New York. “I always think, ‘Thank God I’m a country boy,’ because look at what we’re doing,” he said from the perch of a plush white sofa in a $44 million listing overlooking Central Park on Manhattan’s Billionaires’ Row.

Durkin chooses his words carefully and deftly avoids conflict and controversy — it’s bad for business, he explained. (When asked about the Newsday investigation that found evidence of systemic racial bias in Long Island’s housing market after testers worked with agents at a dozen firms, including Elliman, he declined to comment directly.)

Durkin worked at the Pierre Hotel before joining the Corcoran Group as an agent in the early ’90s, before moving into management to work alongside Barbara Corcoran. He briefly became COO after Realogy bought the company. In 2016, he joined Elliman to lead the firm’s national expansion. Within a year, he was named president, a new position at the firm that prompted speculation he was being groomed to replace Elliman CEO Dottie Herman (Durkin denied that then, as he does now, though he reports directly to Elliman executive chairman Howard Lorber).

At Elliman, Durkin has overseen the acquisition of Los Angeles-based Teles Properties, expansion into Texas and other national markets and an overhaul of the firm’s digital (and physical) presence. He’s also begun to dabble in New York politics, launching a coalition with two rival firms to persuade lawmakers to forgo additional taxes on luxury homes.

Born: April 6, 1962
Lives: London Terrace Gardens, Chelsea
Hometown: Salem, New York
Family: Married

What was your childhood like?

I was the sheriff’s son — [both my] parents were police officers. We lived in a house that was hooked onto the local county jail. We had a dairy farm across the street that I worked at to pay for boarding for my horse. At the time, hay was 40 cents a bale.

You owned a horse as a kid?

I broke my arm into the second year of having a horse. He threw me off down a hillside. I was 14. I never got on a horse again until I was 45.

You compete in dressage. What appeals to you about the sport?

It’s like doing figure skating. If you can get a 1,200-pound animal to do something, without anyone seeing what you’re doing — I can communicate with the horse with just a little pull of the finger — the discipline of that is so incredible. It makes you pull back on how you would deal with a human being. The subtleties and the nuances of that and not having to scream and shout.

You moved to Long Island for college when you were 17.

It was a shock coming from an area that had a complete lack of diversity. I didn’t see anything until I came down here. I never flew on an airplane till I was 19. It was truly a suitcase on a bus.

You came to the city on a modern dance scholarship.

In 1980, not a lot of men were going into dance. So if you were a male and you could dance, you could get a scholarship. I mean, I wasn’t Baryshnikov. It was more like, you know, Mickey Rooney.

I auditioned for the theater department at Adelphi University, and I didn’t get in. So I just walked into the dance department saying, “Can I audition to be a dancer? I didn’t get into the acting program.” And they said, “Sure.” It was just based on this — a need that I took advantage of immediately. I would have done anything to leave my country life, because I was ready to go.

How would you describe the past year?

We were able to get things done that we normally wouldn’t have been able to do, because we were forced to run our businesses differently. I have to say it’s paid off. We digitized our whole industry. We had a captive audience. For a lot of the time, the agents were home and they couldn’t show, or they couldn’t go anywhere.

How do you keep up with 7,000-plus agents?

All of our regions have regional CEOs. They’re the most important to me and to the running of the company. You’ve got to have a great leader that’s local for it to be successful. I could not at 30,000 feet tell them what to do. When you find them, they’re like gold.

How do you find them?

I always try to find people that I think could replace me. I always learned that as if they’re as good as you or better, your chances of success are much better.

You’re hiring for a New York City CEO. What are you looking for?

One would normally say, “We would love someone with 20 years’ experience in real estate,” but it’s a different landscape now. A lot of people coming into our industry are right out of college. Now [being an agent] is a first career — it’s not a backup. So I think that leadership now comes in a different form. I think you have to be right in the mix of it and be in the mosh pit. You have to be mobile, and you have to have a big personality.

In 2017, you partnered with StreetEasy to build an agent portal, which was a shocking move months after the portal began charging fees for rental listings. The partnership later unraveled.

It didn’t work because we each had different expectations. They needed something to deliver to the real estate community much faster than we did, so what we thought we were getting was not what they were delivering, and that’s where it fell apart. They were throwing out all of the bathwater and keeping, you know, maybe the bar of soap, and that just didn’t work for us. The product they delivered was not what we expected. It was just a very pared-down version of what we were used to. There were no big fights or anything. They were just moving in a much faster way than we were. In hindsight, I get it because post-Covid we’ve seen how everyone can be retrained. When you tell people how you have to do something and there’s no choice, they do it. We’re all in a better place now. I think even StreetEasy, not that I care, but they seem to have their act together now. [Though] I don’t think we should be charged for rental listings — I think that’s horrific and just egregious.

Do you think it’s important for New York to have a transparent MLS?

Twenty years ago, I would have said I was all for it. Now I think the listing aggregators and our own company websites are where everyone goes. I just don’t think it’s holding back anything.

What does the future of brokerage look like for Elliman?

Technology will drive everything we do. But the relationship about being the adviser and the specialist will be much more important. You have to make the assumption that the consumer now has more technology than the agent. They will be informed in their head of what they want, what they’ve seen, but they still need an adviser there. Today’s real estate agent, and we’re proud to have a lot of them, advises the family office on where their New York home will be; where their Palm Beach home will be; their Aspen ski house; their Hamptons beach house. It’s a much different role now. It’s not transactional, like it was. It’s a much more elevated position.

Has there been any conversation about succession planning at the firm?

That’s probably the most difficult conversation for any company to have. We haven’t had any conversation.

Does the real estate industry have an obligation to do more when it comes to eliminating housing discrimination?

I think people have had enough. Douglas Elliman has given to all of these organizations — Black Lives Matter, the anti-Asian hate groups. It’s important because we have such a diverse agent pool. It’s important for us to support it and be right behind it. We are definitely from the housing-for-all mantra. I mean, I was a victim of being discriminated against. My boyfriend and I wanted to look at an apartment on Riverside Drive. It was no board approval, it was a sponsor apartment, and the agent wouldn’t sell it to us. This is 1991. They were like, “Well, the sponsor doesn’t want a gay couple in the building.” So when it happens to you, it’s pretty powerful.

You’re one of the few openly gay executives leading a national brokerage. Is it something you think about?

It is significant because it’s not something that’s standing in the way. It’s just reminding me of something that happened. I’ve been discriminated against by my own [then-]company — that stuck with me. I was up for Crain’s “40 Under 40,” and of the two people who were being considered, my nomination was not put forward. They said, “Well, why don’t you just wait for the gay one?” Times have changed. [Durkin declined to specify the date of the incident or where he worked at the time.]

What’s your favorite food?

Cherry pie. I’ll eat the whole pie. It was made in the jail kitchen where we lived. The cook would make me a cherry pie, and back then they made [it] with Crisco. It’s super flaky.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“The rearview mirror is small for a reason.” If you screw up, just let it go.


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