The Real Deal New York

Brokerages are on the prowl to snare Hamptons top talent

Getting and keeping key players is challenging on the competitive East End
By Judith Messina | July 01, 2016 09:00AM
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Compass, a newcomer on the Hamptons real estate scene, scored a coup last October when it hired veteran Ed Petrie away from Sotheby’s International Realty. By December, Petrie had brokered the biggest transaction of the year and the second largest in Hamptons history: the $110 million sale of three properties in East Hampton owned by hedge funder Scott Bommer.

Indeed, the three-year-old venture capital-backed agency, which opened offices in the Hamptons just nine months ago, managed to land at number seven among the top 10 local brokerages in The Real Deal’s ranking by volume of exclusive listings.

The fact that Compass has lured numerous brokers away from local agencies hasn’t exactly endeared it to the more established firms – it has been sued in the process – but it underscores the fierce competition to attract and keep talent in the high-flying world of Hamptons real estate.

“One of the reasons we came to create a brokerage is that we felt that agents as customers of a brokerage are not getting the experience they deserve, and that investment into the agent experience is very low in the brokerage world,” Compass CEO Robert Reffkin said of his hiring strategy. “We want it to be very high.”

Susan Breitenbach

Susan Breitenbach

Reffkin declined to comment on two recent lawsuits involving Compass — one brought by Brown Harris Stevens and another by Saunders & Associates — in connection with brokers who left those agencies to work at Compass in the Hamptons. BHS accused Compass of “unlawfully ‘poaching’ competitors’ employees.” In early 2015, the Corcoran Group made similar allegations against the firm in regards to its New York City operation. 

The spectacle of real estate agents seeking the proverbial greener pasture at another agency is nothing new. Yet some real estate veterans in the Hamptons said the competition for talent has become increasingly intense. “There’s more going on than I’ve seen in 30-plus years,” said Judi Desiderio, CEO of Town & Country Real Estate.

While Paul Brennan, Douglas Elliman’s executive manager for sales in the Hamptons, agreed that competition has intensified, he thinks the trend might be abating as the market slows. “A little bit of wind has gone out of the sails in terms of agents thinking about a new place to go,” he said.

As for what attracts top brokers — and keeps them loyal to a firm — some experts say that cutting-edge technology is an enticement, while others contend that a firm’s reputation and involvement in the community can be the deciding factor.

“People come to us because of who we are,” said Brennan, who ranked 13th in TRD’s survey of the top 15 Hamptons real estate agents based on exclusive listings. He said that Douglas Elliman has tried to create a family atmosphere, rather than focusing on which agents have scored the latest big deal.

Top firms, top agents

The Hamptons’ established brokerage firms – such as Corcoran, Douglas Elliman and Sotheby’s International Realty – all scored spots on TRD’s list of top 10 firms based on the total dollar value of their exclusive listings.

Corcoran was the top-ranking firm this year, with $2.91 billion in exclusive listings in the Hamptons. Douglas Elliman came in second, with $2.15 billion; Saunders ranked third, with $1.74 billion; and Sotheby’s finished just behind it, with $1.73 billion in listings.

As the success of real estate agents and their firms goes hand in glove, it’s no surprise that all of the agents on TRD’s list are affiliated with one of the top-ranking brokerages. And it is fair to say that much of the success of these firms is largely created by just a handful of high-earning agents, many of whom have been with the same brokerage for years.

As for the broker shuffle between firms, some realtors say the grass may not necessarily be greener elsewhere.

Enzo-morabito-quote“I’m a big believer in ‘make your own green grass,’” said longtime Corcoran broker Gary DePersia, who took fifth place in this year’s ranking of the region’s top real estate agents.

Many attribute their success, at least in part, to having a 24/7 work ethic.

“I live and breathe the business,” said Corcoran’s Susan Breitenbach, the top-ranking broker on our list this year, with nearly $713 million in exclusive listings — almost twice what she had about the same time last year.

Breitenbach credits her achievement to her focus on details that are important to clients. In mid-June she was planning to stock the refrigerator for a professional ballplayer who rented a house for two days for $25,000, and she also helped an elderly couple get out of a rental contract after the husband fell ill. Her listings at the time of TRD’s ranking included eight properties with selling prices above $25 million, among them a $55 million oceanfront residence in Montauk that is a co-exclusive with Douglas Elliman.

The real estate team of Zach and Cody Vichinsky — brothers who founded the two-year-old Bespoke Real Estate — placed second on TRD’s list of top agents, with nearly $646 million in listings. The brothers have targeted the Hamptons luxury market for homes selling at $10 million or above. “We consider ourselves to be a marketing company focusing on spectacular luxury real estate,” Cody Vichinsky said.

Among other things, the Vichinskys snagged the exclusive listing for the 28-room Villa Maria estate in Water Mill. Originally offered at $100 million in 2008, the nearly century-old property was removed from the market and has since come back on. Today, it’s listed at $72 million with 15 acres of land, or $42.5 million with half of that acreage.

For Tim Davis, the Corcoran agent who scored third place in TRD’s ranking — coming in a hair’s breadth behind the Vichinskys, with $641 million in exclusive listings — the key to his success has been responding to every client phone call or email. He says this is especially important in the Hamptons competitive real estate market, where there are “ever more voices.”

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“There are 50 or 100 people just waiting for you to forget to dot that ‘i’ or cross that ‘t,’” said Davis, who has more than 30 years of experience in the Hamptons.

His listings include 12 properties priced at over $25 million. One property that he said went to contract in mid-June, a co-exclusive with Douglas Elliman located in the Murray McDonald private community in Southampton, was listed at $33.5 million.

Sotheby International’s Harald Grant ranked fourth on TRD’s list, with $462 million in listings, including Angel View, a $49 million waterfront property in Sag Harbor. Grant said he has noticed a growing appetite for more modern homes, hypothesizing that it’s because “they give you more light.”

Corcoran’s Gary DePersia ranked fifth. He said that after a slow start to the spring, business started picking up in May. He had nearly $298 million in listings and was pitching four properties in Wainscott by home builder Joe Farrell. His advice to young agents: “Go with the biggest and best agency to see the best brokers in action.”

The rest of the list is dominated by agents from the top brokerage firms. Saunders & Associates — an agency that launched in 2008 and is still considered a relative newcomer by some of the more established firms — is the third-biggest brokerage on the list of top firms. It has three realtors on the ranking of top agents: Vincent Horcasitas, in sixth place; Robert Tramondo, in 10th place; and Diane Saatchi, in 14th.

Three Douglas Elliman brokers ranked in the top 10 this year: Michaela Keszler took seventh place, Erica Grossman was in eighth and Enzo Morabito came in ninth.

Morabito, a former school teacher and club owner, calls himself a “research freak.” He said that knowledge is the key to staying on top of the competitive field of Hamptons brokers.

“You could throw me out of a plane blindfolded on the East End,” Morabito said, “and I would know where I am.”