The Closing: Susan de França

Douglas Elliman’s new dev chief on creating dreams, being Teflon, and whether New York opportunities are getting slimmer

Susan De França (Photos by Sasha Maslov)
Susan De França (Photos by Sasha Maslov)

Conversions are all the rage in New York’s housing debates these days. Susan de França was in on them from day one.

Born in Yorkville’s Doctors Hospital years before it would become a 96-unit condo building, de França had an interest in design (and getting a look at the rent rolls) early on. She grew up on the Upper East Side, with her father in real estate management and her mother a residential real estate agent, before taking the official plunge into the industry before she finished college.

Today, de França is president and CEO of Douglas Elliman Development Marketing. During her 12 years working with developers and bringing on brokers to turn out new residential projects and new spins on existing properties, the new development arm of one of the city’s top brokerages has sold some of the most significant additions to the city’s skyline, like 432 Park Avenue, and new bets on New York’s magic, like the Waldorf Astoria, while expanding into California, Florida and Texas.

The executive, whom one public relations person called “the developer whisperer,” came to Elliman from Related, where she spent 10 years as president of residential sales overseeing the developer’s condo portfolios across New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, including record-setting properties like the Chatham and Superior Ink.

You won’t see de França alongside other executives who keep their Instagrams full and fresh or jump at the chance to comment on every little market move, but she has a critical seat as developers face big challenges in the Big Apple and look to build in new regions. 

Elliman has established itself at the top of New York City’s new development market, but high interest rates and low deal volumes pose a new challenge for the homegrown brokerage honchos. 

The Real Deal sat down with de França to discuss how the born-and-bred New Yorker built her career through some of the city’s toughest moments and opened frontiers for new development.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Born: March 13, 1959
Hometown: New York City
Lives: New York City
Family: One Daughter

What were you like as a kid?

I always had extraordinary responsibility placed on me. My father was born in Portugal. So part of me is first generation, and when you’re the oldest in the family, you carry a lot of pride. And [I had] and confidence instilled by my parents. But, back then, [I had] enormous responsibility. I was told that every move I made, my sisters could potentially follow. That’s a hard thing to carry. But I think it turned out okay.

With both parents involved in the industry, it seems inevitable you landed in real estate.

I was always fascinated with real estate and design. Growing up in New York City, I had the opportunity to see a lot of different people’s apartments, whether I was selling Avon, walking dogs or babysitting. 

In high school, I worked for the owner of my building during the summer, collecting the rents. So I saw the rent rolls, and I saw the impressive caliber of people that were living in the building [at 201 East 66th Street], like Muriel Siebert, the first woman on the stock exchange, futurist Faith Popcorn and Ralph Lauren. 

“I could be Teflon, I got the job done and didn’t let egos get in the way.”

Did that stick with you, seeing how the sausage was made?

I grew up through the ranks, if you will, and it’s given me the perspective to understand people and be more patient and tolerant of them than I think most people would like to be. I believe I have patience and empathy that many people don’t, who perhaps maybe just kind of got in it and went in it big.

When did that turn into a professional path?

The building that I lived in was undergoing a conversion from a rental to a co-op when I was finishing college. In my last two years, I went to school in the morning and in the afternoons I worked with Salzburger Rolf, the company behind the conversion. And I just became very intrigued.

Did you have any mentors who were instrumental early on?

[Late finance executive] Pat Goldstein was my boss at [developer] M.J. Raynes. She was a very no-nonsense kind of person. No tolerance for anybody being late. If it was 9 a.m., and that door was shut, you did not show up at 9:01 and make it into the meeting.

She had a reputation for being strong, successful and on point, but I also got to know her as a mother, and on the weekends we would exercise in Amagansett. I got to know that you can be a woman who’s successful in business, but also have a compassionate personal life and be a parent and be a partner. 

Pat and [Sunshine Group founder] Louise Sunshine were friends who also influenced a great deal of my career. Both of them are mothers. Both of them grew very successful in male-dominated industries. They paved the way for me to see what you can do when you’re determined and work hard. 

Louise Sunshine was also the bridge to your time at the top of Related.

I was working with Bruce Eichner, where I did the Richmond and the Manhattan Club. Then Louise Sunshine got Related as a client in 1998. My sister Joanne was still working for Louise, who needed more woman power, and I joined to work on the Related account. 

I worked with Louise for a couple of years doing the Chatham, which was back in 1999. We achieved almost $1,000 a foot, which was virtually unheard of, and the building realized the first $10 million sale on the Third Avenue corridor.

Then it was 2001. Summer of 2001. 

Steve Ross called me, just like that on my cell phone, “de França. Are you ready to talk?”

Then Time Warner was on your plate.

He knew that I defused a lot of personalities. I could be Teflon, I got the job done and didn’t let egos get in the way. And there was a little bit of static going on. 

I said, “I feel very proud and privileged that you asked me to work here for you and with you. Under one condition: that the Sunshine Group stays as the marketing and sales team [at Time Warner].” She was my former employer. I was not going to come in and dismiss a woman who established her own business.

What is a standout moment as you were growing more established?

Sign Up for the undefined Newsletter

Thinking about my career, I’ve worked with extraordinary architects, developers and visionaries. My staff and my team have always been the most important. But Time Warner is one of those projects that I would say really goes down as the big win.

We were pricing two towers, almost 200 units at almost $2,000 per square foot, on top of the vertical mall. That was a feat in itself. I always call it Morris the cat, nine lives, because we went through so many machinations. 

Not to mention unforeseeable historical events.

We had received offering-plan approval in August of 2001 for the South Tower and October 2001 for the North Tower, which today is called the Mandarin. So, right in the middle, the horrific events of 9/11 take place. 

Richard and I had to deflect or meet with the press and explain that [the towers] eerily resemble the Twin Towers. We said, “No, these are actually based on one podium, they’re not separate towers, they’re anchored on a podium.” 

What was that like? It taught us how you have to be resilient, how you have to pivot when things change. 

You have a knack for changing posts at critical moments, whether unprecedented outside conditions or a firm on the ledge of a major project.

The opportunity that I’ve had in my career is to kind of start at the first floor, and ride the wave. 

I’ve been able to do that because I’ve had mentors and bosses that are visionaries, and that work really, really hard. It’s not management by intimidation, it’s management by inspiration and by imitation that drives me. 

And I believe that as a mentor to others in the younger generation. It’s practice what you preach.

Post-pandemic markets drew comparisons to the fallout from some of the city’s toughest times, like 9/11 or the 2008 financial crisis. How does that stack up to you? 

We’re going through another challenging time. We definitely need to clean up our city. And I believe that there’s enough of us like me, who are passionate about it, and we’re not going to give up, evidenced by people building these gorgeous new Park Avenue buildings. 

Part of the concerns over the market has been the boogeyman of elevated interest rates. Has that concerned you?

When I started selling in summer of 1981, interest rates were over 18 percent. My first project was 60 Pineapple Street in Brooklyn Heights, and we were doing 5 point buydowns with Citibank. I had 100 people on a Saturday and a Sunday because we said, “What tools do we have to sort of mitigate and overcome some of these objections?”

Now people are saying, “Oh my god, they’re so high.” Yeah, they’re higher than what they’ve been over the past five, six years, which has been historically low, and it’s created some paralysis in the market. And perhaps we’re entering a more stable environment. But I think that we have some clients asking about offering buydowns, and we’re suggesting them on a selective basis. 

“Many of our clients also saw that New York City new development opportunities were getting slimmer and slimmer.”

What makes you think “this is gold” when someone brings you a project?

It is a lot of gut. Plus when you do it for a long time, you have the experience, and you’ve learned from some mistakes. 

A few months ago, I walked into a [development] site in Tribeca. I was with the owner and my mouth dropped.  I said, “Wow.” I haven’t been that excited in a really long time. It had beams, it was all glass, all three corners, somewhere on Church Street. He didn’t get it, by the way. But I could see it was the blank canvas to create the dream and magic. 

Marketing to buyers is all about how a project is an above-and-beyond luxurious experience. How do you define luxury?

Something that enhances your experience. It’s, you know, how a cashmere blanket feels when you touch it. Feeling taken care of, feeling noticed. Feeling good.

It takes foresight to be good at what you do. New markets are now all the rage for the business of brokerage, but how early did you start thinking about expansion?

Very early. 

Many of our clients also saw that New York City new development opportunities were getting slimmer and slimmer because costs were going up and land was becoming more scarce. 

[In my first years at Elliman] that jump-started by going into Florida, going into Texas. We’re in California, and have done some vertical high-rises. That market is still a very challenging market to break through in terms of vertical living. There are a couple of successes there. But it’s Los Angeles, it’s the backyards, the culture is different. 

Besides New York, do you have another city or market that you would prefer for a night out?

Miami.

That’s fair.

Miami continues to obviously develop in terms of the culture, the restaurants, the scene, the clubs, like Faena Rose. There’s just such a sophistication that is being amplified. That’s very exciting to see.

What do you think is still coming in new development?

Texas. I would say stay tuned for that. 

So hot right now!

People will ask me, Is it Houston, Dallas or Austin? Frankly, I don’t know enough yet to be able to get that. Everyone has their different opinions. But I would rather get up, get in there, roll up my sleeves and learn a little bit more

Recommended For You