When Joan Swift was 20, she made the first of many abrupt career changes. She’d just secured a spot in a Ph.D. program for psychoanalysis at Manhattan’s Postgraduate Center for Mental Health when she headed to California for a vacation. At a friend’s beach club in Carmel, the petite, charismatic brunette met legendary actor Clint Eastwood. She abruptly decided to stay in California, taking a job working in Eastwood’s office.
Swift’s parents were horrified that she had abandoned her Ph.D. plans, but Swift (née Schorrman) was enticed by the beauty of the area and the glamour of Hollywood.
“I met all of Clint’s friends,” Swift recalled. “I hung out with him and Merv Griffin — the crème de la crème of the Hollywood set who used to come to Carmel.”
The about-face was the first of many changes of heart for Swift, who bounced around from one career to another before trying her hand at Manhattan real estate in 2005. But this may be the one that sticks: Now Douglas Elliman’s top-ranked residential broker, Swift has surprised industry insiders with her rapid rise to prominence.
“I was searching for a field that I would love,” Swift told The Real Deal. “This is it.”
Swift was awarded the title of Elliman’s top individual broker by commission for 2011, after quietly selling a slew of multimillion-dollar properties together worth over $70 million, including financier David Matlin’s $25 million Park Avenue apartment.
Her selling streak continued in 2012: In September, Swift represented the buyer of actor Kiefer Sutherland’s $17.5 million townhouse at 763 Greenwich Street in the West Village. And just a few months ago, Swift sold an apartment at 965 Fifth Avenue where powerbroker Linda Stein was murdered in 2007. Her client sold that unit along with two other apartments at the Fifth Avenue tower for a total of $17.9 million, according to public records.
Elliman President Dottie Herman said when her firm, which is Manhattan’s largest brokerage, announces its top 2012 agents at an awards ceremony in February, Swift is likely to be ranked among the top 10.
Colleagues said the same taste for glamour and adventure that attracted Swift to Carmel has helped her do deals with some of the city’s wealthiest New York executives.
“I remember trying to get her started with small properties,” said Alfred Renna, Swift’s manager at Elliman. “From the beginning, she said, ‘No, I’m not working with studio buyers. I’m going for the big stuff.’ That’s what she set her mind to doing, and that’s what she did.”
The big leagues
Swift, the daughter of an attorney, was born and raised in Forest Hills, Queens. She moved into Manhattan when she was 18 to study psychiatric social work, but her interest in the field had already begun to wane by the time she was accepted into the Ph.D. program at the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health.
Working for Eastwood was something new and exciting, she said. But after two and a half years, she got restless again. She moved back to New York and took a job at British Airways, organizing itineraries for travelers making long trips. She made sure to take advantage of employee benefits: Swift took 17 trips to Paris in one year. She also traveled extensively around Europe, discovering a love for Italy and France. That love of travel continues today: Swift spends time at her home in Florida, as well as in the Hamptons and St. Barts. (note: correction appended)
Still, her stint at British Airways was also brief: Swift’s attention shifted again when she married prominent investment banker Richard Swift. The couple settled into an apartment at the exclusive co-op 1155 Park Avenue, and their two children, now 18 and 22, attended the exclusive Dalton school. (The couple are now divorced, and Swift declined to talk about her ex-husband.)
Swift got her first taste of real estate in the early 1990s, after the death of her parents, when she took over managing her father’s small portfolio of residential rental units in Manhattan. Then, in 2005, she began her career as a broker at the Corcoran Group, where she was mentored by Daniella Schlisser, a top producer and associate broker. Swift’s first Corcoran deal was a $425,000 transaction at 345 East 91st Street.
“There was a lot of client chasing, and it was disheartening at times,” said Schlisser, who is now a good friend of Swift’s. But the newbie broker reacted to disappointment with a sense of humor that reminded Schlisser of the famously wacky comedian Lucille Ball.
Swift has “very much a Lucille Ball attitude and posture,” Schlisser said. “She’s the most entertaining, most colorful person I know.”
Two years later, Swift moved on to Elliman, working out of the 575 Madison Avenue office. By that time, she was tired of the low end of the market.
“I wanted to get into the big leagues,” she said. “Who wouldn’t want to work on the big listings?”
At the time, Renna was skeptical of that approach.
“I thought it was a mistake for her not to take small referrals, because she had no business at first,” he said. “She was the only person I ever worked with who said, ‘no thank you. I’m not working with that level of business.’ ”
Instead, Swift offered to run open houses for other agents, on the condition that she could represent any house-hunters who arrived without brokers.
It was slow going at first, but Swift did indeed start doing deals with high-end buyers. Then she began to acquire her own listings, as friends in her Upper East Side social circle began to recommend her to others.
“I needed to prove myself,” Swift said, noting that she’s gotten several clients through Dalton. She’s also sold units in her building, 1155 Park Avenue.
Herman noted that Swift’s longtime Manhattan connections — including charity work with high-profile organizations like the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center — have helped her establish herself in real estate.
“Her kids went to school here,” Herman said. “She knows a lot of people.”
Swift’s first big break came in 2010, when she represented the seller of a 25-foot-wide limestone carriage house at 178 East 73rd Street, following a referral from a friend. The home sold for $13 million.
While Swift declined to discuss the identities of any of her clients for this story, public records show the sellers of the property were clinical psychologist Valerie Rozen and her husband, attorney Michael Rozen. In early 2011, Swift represented Valerie Rozen purchase of a $14.25 million townhouse at 14 East 95th Street.
That deal was followed in June 2010 by a $7.1 million transaction for a penthouse at 62 Beach Street in Tribeca.
In the fall of 2011, financier David Matlin, co-founder of private equity firm MatlinPatterson Global Advisers, was referred to Swift. At the time, he was trying to sell his full fourth-floor pad at 625 Park Avenue and was on the hunt for a Downtown apartment. She found him a penthouse at 419 Broome Street, which he bought for $17.8 million. He then sold his 7,500-square-foot private Park Avenue residence, which Swift listed as a co-exclusive with Warburg Realty’s Robert Schulman, for $25 million. Swift is now listing the Broome Street apartment, which is currently unrenovated “raw space,” as a co-exclusive with the Corcoran Group for $19.5 million.
Under the radar
Despite her successes, Swift has operated somewhat under the radar.
When she was named Elliman’s top broker of the year, a number of top residential brokers were caught by surprise, though they knew Swift had completed some large closings during the year.
“Everyone was like, ‘who’s she? Where did she come from?” Renna remembered. “She was quietly doing these multi-million-dollar deals, one after the other, and knocking them out of the park. Boom, the awards came, and she was number one.”
Unlike some star brokers, Swift maintains a purposefully low profile, sources said. That can be an advantage in the world of pricey co-ops, where Swift does many of her deals.
“She doesn’t try to make headlines, she just does the work,” said Herman. “In the co-op world, people know who’s good and who’s not. A lot of times they don’t want someone whose name is all over the press.”
In person, however, Swift isn’t so quiet; brokers pointed to her Lucille Ball–esque charisma as a reason for her success in real estate.
Elliman agent Fredrik Eklund, who also stars on the reality show “Million Dollar Listing New York,” said Swift is “like a magnet,” he said. “Everyone gets smitten with her. That goes a long way.”
Core’s Michael Graves agreed.
“Sometimes you negotiate with someone and it just gets very stiff,” said Graves, who recently co-brokered a deal with Swift at 166 Duane Street. “Joan’s a blast. She would always laugh at all of my bad jokes. The whole time we were just having fun.”
Swift herself attributed some of her success to interpersonal skills she developed while studying psychology. For example, she recalls telling a drug-addicted mother that she couldn’t take her child home.
The woman “started coming at me when I told her,” Swift said. “I thought she was going to kill me. She started screaming. Instead of screaming back, I spoke very quietly. I did the opposite of what she did. I actually calmed her down.”
These negotiation skills, Renna said, may indeed be part of the reason for Swift’s success.
“She understands people and human behavior really well,” he said. “Before she commences a negotiation or responds to an offer, she thinks it through strategically.”
In her personal life, Swift said she loves to frequent Downtown hotspots, like Morandi on Waverly Place, where she can regularly be found sipping on a glass of red wine.
The exercise fiend — Swift does spinning and attends Barry’s Bootcamp — and self-confessed sun-worshipper said she is currently single.
Finding a great guy can be as difficult as finding a great apartment, she said.
“I’m so picky. I’m the pickiest person around,” she said. “I’ll admit to being shallow. I need handsome, brains, wit and kindness. That combination is difficult to find.”
When it comes to real estate, however, Swift seems to have found the right combination of elements to secure her place among the city’s top brokers. “She made her way right into that club,” Renna said, “and she’s staying.”
CORRECTION: In the January issue story “A ‘Swift’ takeover,” The Real Deal incorrectly stated that Douglas Elliman broker Joan Swift owns homes in St. Barts and in the Hamptons. She vacations in those places but does not in fact own homes there. In addition, The Real Deal incorrectly reported that Swift had represented the buyer in a deal for three units at 965 Fifth Avenue. In fact, she represented the seller.