The Real Deal New York

As Nest Seekers grows, a look at the firm’s enigmatic CEO

Firm founder Eddie Shapiro steps into spotlight
By Leigh Kamping-Carder | October 01, 2012 07:00AM

Eddie Shapiro


QUICK FACTS
COMPANY: Nest Seekers International
TITLE: Founder and CEO
AGE: 37
NUMBER OF AGENTS: Almost 400
NUMBER OF OFFICES: 11 (NYC and Hamptons)

Eddie Shapiro prefers to remain an enigma. On a recent summer afternoon, the founder of residential brokerage Nest Seekers International is clad in his own version of business casual: a slim-fitting white suit and black loafers, his longish brown hair slicked back, his goatee clipped, his burgundy tie dotted with tiny skulls.

“To an extent, I like to keep a lot of things in our [firm’s] business a mystery,” Shapiro said. Then he quoted a line from the 1997 film “The Devil’s Advocate”: “No matter how good you are, don’t ever let them see you coming.”

Despite his eye-catching style and his position as CEO of one of Manhattan’s fastest-growing residential brokerages, Shapiro is not well-known among his peers.

“The name of his firm really hasn’t crossed my desk,” said one industry executive. Another said she primarily associates Nest Seekers with its relentless e-mail blasts promoting properties.

Ryan Serhant

And unlike Town Residential’s Andrew Heiberger or Keller Williams NYC’s Ilan Bracha — two industry notables who remain closely linked with the rapidly expanding firms they founded — the face that most people associate with Nest Seekers is that of top broker Ryan Serhant, who appears on Bravo TV’s “Million Dollar Listing New York.”

But if Shapiro, 37, has remained under the industry’s radar, he has left an imprint on those who’ve done business with him, inspiring an intense level of loyalty from agents whose careers he launched and an equally virulent dislike from some former colleagues.

To his proponents, he has done the difficult work of building a brokerage that now competes for listings and agents with New York City’s most established firms. To his critics, however, Shapiro has failed to deliver on promises and exaggerated his firm’s productivity.

Either way, the company Shapiro founded in 2002 is at a turning point. In the last two years, Nest Seekers has more than doubled its number of agents to nearly 400; opened offices in Tribeca, Williamsburg and Lincoln Square; acquired two Hamptons firms; and gained a national profile with its positioning on the Bravo show.

And Shapiro is increasingly — and reluctantly — advancing into the spotlight.

Humble beginnings

Over the last few years, The Real Deal has charted Nest Seekers’ growth in Manhattan as it’s increased from 127 agents in 2009 to 308 agents in May of this year, making it the eighth-largest brokerage in the borough. (See “Manhattan’s Top Firms” in the June 2012 issue.)

Nest Seekers’ roughly 50 agents spread across four offices in the Hamptons also make it the seventh-biggest firm on the East End. That’s largely thanks to its 2011 acquisitions of Water Mill’s Perspective Properties and the local franchise of the German brokerage Engel & Völkers.

Nest Seekers had $252 million in Manhattan residential listings this past May, a 90 percent increase over the previous year.

The company is also winning new development contracts from developers such as TF Cornerstone, headed by Thomas and Frederick Elghanayan, and Mann Realty Associates, putting the firm into what one brokerage executive called the “league of legitimate sales companies.”

Maurice Mann

“Eddie Shapiro’s great,” said Maurice Mann, founder of Mann Realty, who hired Nest Seekers to market 36 Gramercy Park East, its 51-unit condo conversion on Gramercy Park. “We love him.”

Though Mann had never heard of the firm before signing it on for the project, Nest Seekers was flexible and gave him a better deal than its competitors, he said. “They make sales — that’s all we know,” added Mann, who is probably best known for being one of the original developers of the famed Apthorp on the Upper West Side.

Sofia Estevez, an executive vice president at TF Cornerstone, praised Shapiro for his work marketing 99 John Deco Lofts, a 442-unit Financial District condo that’s now 75 percent sold. He arranged the project’s appearance on “Million Dollar Listing” — a first for the “conservative” development firm — and tweaked the sales team members until they meshed with the developer’s staff, she said.

“When you’re selling condos, particularly in the current economy, you need someone that [knows] it’s not about ego, it’s about making the deal,” she said.

36 Gramercy Park East

Nest Seekers is also beginning to make a bigger mark on the industry on other fronts: Ravi Gulivindala, a managing director, joined the Real Estate Board of New York’s residential membership committee about two years ago, and Nest Seekers alumni have gone on to found two firms, Modern Spaces and Blu Realty.

Shapiro even appeared on two episodes of the Bravo show himself — as the hardnosed boss to Serhant’s playboy dealmaker — and in February the two of them rung the NASDAQ opening bell.

Like many residential firms, Nest Seekers had a humble beginning: a tiny office and only a handful of brokers, who used computers Shapiro bought on eBay for $200 each.

Wendy Jackson, who joined the firm in 2002 and is now senior vice president of international sales, remembers Shapiro “working with his first baby in one hand, and the phone in the other.”

Shapiro had a silent partner in Yudel Kahan, the vice president of Hawthorne, N.J.-based Churchill Furniture, one of the largest furniture rental suppliers in the tri-state area, sources say.

Although the exact financial ties between the companies are not public, Churchill Furniture is affiliated with Churchill Corporate Services, a corporate relocation firm where Shapiro worked in the early 2000s, which is now affiliated with Nest Seekers.

Kahan is also a cofounder of Shapiro’s development company, LEV Group, which has been involved in projects such as the 505 in Hell’s Kitchen and the Sage House in Queens.

Shapiro declined to discuss the financial structure of the company or to confirm that Churchill or Kahan had invested in Nest Seekers. Kahan did not immediately respond to e-mailed questions.

The big expansion

The 505 in Hell’s Kitchen

From the start, the relatively uncharted world of online networking was integral to Nest Seekers. Shapiro said his first recruit — and “secret weapon” — was a programmer, Chris Sattinger, who now works for Nest Seekers out of Berlin.

Along with others looking to cash in on the dot-com boom, Shapiro bought up dozens of real estate–related domain names, including Nestseekers.com.

Although he says the name lacked the “WASPy, Upper East Side feel” of brokerages named for their founders, Shapiro adopted it as the firm’s brand. And as the mid-2000s real estate boom took hold, the company began to grow.

“We found as we got better brokers and a better grasp of the marketplace, that even some of the Park Avenue [and] Fifth Avenue sellers said, ‘I’ve heard of this company, I’ll consider that,’” Shapiro said. In its first six years, Nest Seekers grew organically.

Shapiro plowed every spare dollar into driving traffic to the Nest Seekers website, forgoing retail storefronts and splashy print advertising, since he couldn’t compete with the big-time budgets of firms like the Corcoran Group and Prudential Douglas Elliman.

“For every dollar I was going to spend, Corcoran was going to spend $10,” Shapiro said.

But when the market collapsed in 2008 — and rivals cut commission splits, shuttered offices or simply closed shop — Shapiro made his move. “When Corcoran just stopped spending — now if I spend $2, it’s going to mean something,” he said.

Shapiro insists he did not rely on debt or outside investors to fund the expansion, instead using capital from a “very healthy business” that had, until then, pursued a conservative growth strategy.

99 John Deco Lofts

In late 2009, he moved the firm’s headquarters into 415 Madison Avenue after negotiating an “incredible deal” on a 10-year lease. (He declined to disclose the rent.) He invested in featured property booklets and paid about $850,000 to purchase a commercial condo for a Nest Seekers office in the Avery at 100 Riverside Boulevard, according to city records.

“All Eddie talked about every single day was expansion, expansion, expansion,” Serhant said.

A former actor, Serhant joined the firm in 2008, and is one of the many brokers who started their careers at Nest Seekers and credit Shapiro with a great deal of their success.

“I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for him, 1,000 percent,” said Serhant, who was one of a handful of agents Shapiro put forward to audition for “Million Dollar Listing” after the show’s production company contacted the firm.

Jackson added: “For me, working with Eddie and Nest Seekers is like working with my family and [being] home. … A big part of my success I owe to Eddie Shapiro and the Nest Seekers team of professionals.”

As Nest Seekers has grown, the firm has continued to bring in the same ratio of veteran and rookie agents, Gulivindala said. As one competitor put it admiringly, Shapiro does not simply lure top brokers with favorable splits; he trains newbies into successful agents.

Smoke and mirrors?

Shapiro, who is licensed under the name Amir Eddie Shapiro, lives on the Upper West Side with his wife, Lauren, and their three young children.

He grew up in a small suburb outside Tel Aviv, the eldest son of a homemaker and an airplane engineer. Higher education was prohibitively expensive — and “school was never my thing anyway” — so as an 18-year-old aspiring musician, Shapiro moved to New York City.

Soon after, Shapiro got his real estate license and began working at Dwelling Quest, a now-defunct firm that also served as a training ground for Ilan Bracha. He also worked at the listing service BrokersNYC and at Churchill Corporate Services.

“He’s very bright, he’s extremely focused, motivated [and] aggressive,” said Carol Friedman, whose career as a broker started at Nest Seekers nearly a decade ago. “I have a lot of respect for what he’s accomplished.”

Yet for all the brokers who praise Shapiro’s business savvy, there are seemingly just as many ex-colleagues and former business partners who point to what they see as misconduct and claim his success is merely “smoke and mirrors.” (Many would not speak on the record for fear of retribution.)

According to those sources, Shapiro is notorious for overstating his strengths and for ignoring the rules.

Back in 2005, BrokersNYC filed a lawsuit accusing Shapiro of hacking into more than two dozen client accounts after he left the firm, and passing out the information to Nest Seekers agents. Shapiro denied the claims in court documents, but later pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge as part of a plea bargain with the New York district Attorney, according to court records.

Shapiro declined to comment on the case.

Several years later, his participation in the construction and sales of the 505 — a 108-unit condo project at 505 West 47th Street that went on sale in 2007 — alienated Parkview Developers, the majority partner in the development, according to managing partner Ian Reisner.

Despite Shapiro’s involvement, Parkview brought in Halstead Property Development Marketing to help Nest Seekers with sales, and by the end, that firm had replaced Nest Seekers entirely. (Shapiro said Parkview hired Halstead to avoid a conflict of interest.)

Later, Shapiro sued the partnership, which Reisner said cost the group hundreds of thousands of dollars. Neither party would discuss the specifics of the suit, which has since been settled.

Nest Seekers’ expansion into the Hamptons also resulted in some bad blood.

Within months of taking over Engel & Völkers last year, Shapiro fired the two managers he had installed to run the offices — Barbara Feldman in East Hampton and Joseph DeCristofaro in Southampton — amidst complaints that he had stiffed contractors, defamed the managers in the press, and reneged on promises to lease ground-floor office facilities for them to help recruit agents.

DeCristofaro is suing Nest Seekers, claiming Shapiro effectively stole his clients after abruptly changing the locks on his office. “It was a mistake for me to do business with him, one of the biggest of my life,” DeCristofaro said, declining to comment further.

Feldman declined to comment.

Shapiro largely dismissed the accusations as the gripes of disgruntled former agents and said DeCristofaro “wasn’t a good fit.”

“Just like in any industry,” Gulivindala said, “if you interview anyone that is no longer with a firm, they’re not exactly going to paint that firm in the most positive light.”

Additionally, the firm is the subject of an ongoing New York State Department of State investigation that, sources say, is centered on an unlicensed Nest Seekers employee, Geoff Gifkins.

A DOS spokesman confirmed that Nest Seekers is under investigation, but declined to comment further.

Sources familiar with the probe said it concerns claims that Gifkins, the senior vice president of human resources and talent acquisition, listed and sold properties while he lacked a real estate license.

Gifkins came to Nest Seekers through Perspective Properties. He said he’s been a broker for eight years, but an adjustment to his immigration status currently precludes him from renewing his license. “There’s no smoke, there’s no screen, there’s nothing like that,” Gifkins said.

Shapiro said Gifkins never had any listings, and his job focuses exclusively on recruiting and training. “He’s absolutely not, under no circumstances, doing anything whatsoever underhanded,” Shapiro said.

It’s also worth noting that Nest Seekers is not the only firm to come under fire for licensing irregularities. Corcoran admitted in June 2010 that 79 of its agents were unlicensed or licensed improperly over a two-year span in the late 2000s, as TRD reported.

Another persistent allegation is that Nest Seekers agents have passed off other firms’ exclusive listings as their own.

In February 2011, REBNY levied a $5,000 fine against the firm after two brokers posted a competitor’s exclusives on their agents’ pages, as TRD reported. The trade group also took the unusual step of sending out a mass e-mail to its residential members to notify them of the infraction.

“We respect REBNY, we love REBNY, but we find it sometimes odd that the people that are there to regulate you and judge you are your direct competitors,” Shapiro said recently, referring to the brokers who sit on the ethics committee.

At the time, Nest Seekers allowed agents to post listings live to the website without review, Shapiro said. Now, managers vet every listing first.

A representative for REBNY said he could not disclose whether Nest Seekers was the subject of any pending or resolved ethics complaints.

Two steps forward

To Shapiro and other Nest Seekers brokers, these criticisms and complaints are symptoms of the firm’s growth — an inevitable part of operating a decade-old business with hundreds of agents.

“In 10 years, have we had a couple of incidents that had to be dealt with? We did, and we resolved them and moved on,” Shapiro said.

In fact, Gulivindala said he expects there will be more DOS complaints as the brokerage grows. One industry executive at a rival firm noted that Nest Seekers no longer needs to poach listings from other companies since it can compete with them.

Indeed, Nest Seekers is only set to expand in the coming months.

At its current rate, Nest Seekers will break the 500-agent mark in the first quarter of 2013, Shapiro said. Also, Mann Realty has hired the firm to market its 60-unit condo conversion at 478-480 Central Park West, at prices ranging from $1,000 to $1,700 per square foot, Mann said. He could not disclose additional details because the project has not yet been approved by the attorney general.

Nevertheless, Shapiro is not resting on his laurels: He believes the best CEOs are the most paranoid.

“We take two steps forward,” he said, “and then we look around — left, right — and make sure no one’s out there with a big knife trying to take us down. I know that now we’re probably a good target. A lot of people are pissed off. That’s just human nature.”