At the Desk of: Donna Olshan
The trendsetting broker on her days as a cub sports reporter, on witnessing a plane crash and on NYC’s antiquated high-society Social Registers
Donna Olshan is purging all the paper in her office, from condo prospectuses to typewritten listing sheets. She says real estate needs to digitize. All this paper on the chopping block stems from work at Olshan Realty over the past 35 years. Olshan graduated from George Washington University in 1976 as a journalism and political science major and worked as a sports reporter at Newsday for a few years. In 1979, her father, Marvin Olshan, a prominent NYC lawyer, suggested that she get licensed as a salesperson and try to sell a studio in her building. She sold it in three days. The next year she founded her eponymous company and, as she tells it, went on to become the first in NYC to do corporate relocation. Her eight-person brokerage firm has represented every major corporate relocation company, along with a slew of Fortune 500 companies, including General Electric, Citicorp, Exxon and Mercedes-Benz. She has worked out of her office on the 22nd floor of 641 Lexington Avenue since 1992. “I never went back to journalism, although I did marry a journalist,” she said.
Olshan wears a Tiffany key necklace that her stepmother gave her. “It’s appropriate for what I do,” she said. It also speaks to how she got into corporate relocation in the early ‘80s. Agents would hand doormen five dollars for the key to an apartment they were hoping to show. That’s how Olshan connected with Homequity, the largest relocation company in the country at the time and now PHH Homequity, as a client. She sold an apartment it owned in 10 days and then became the firm’s go-to corporate relocation broker.
Original photos taken by legendary photographer Neil Leifer hang behind Olshan’s desk, including a portrait of Muhammad Ali and a shot of President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson during an opening day baseball game in 1961. Olshan and her husband, Peter Bonventre, are close friends with Leifer. Bonventre is a journalist who once worked at Newsweek and Life magazine, where he knew many classic photographers.
Olshan is a big proponent of the digital cloud and said she wants everything accessible to her on her iPhone. She counts the device among her four “instruments,” the other three being her iPad, computer and landline phone. She recently took a trip to Sicily and said no matter where she went she was able to access anything she needed for work on Google Drive. “I think as brokerage firms become more efficient they’re going to get out of the brick-and-mortar business,” she said.
Gift from landlord
The Rudin family, which owns the building that Olshan’s office is in, gave her this clock in 2012 for being in the building for 20 years. “What landlord does that? That is classy,” she said. She regularly walks the 35 minutes from the office to her co-op on 85th Street between Park and Madison avenues. She splits her time between her Upper East Side perch and her 1924 Tudor-style house in Bronxville, a Lewis Bowman-designed home “that looks like it was plucked out of the Cotswolds.” Her real estate practice covers both NYC and Westchester. “I’ve got my foot in both doors,” she said.
UES plane crash article
Olshan was showing a penthouse at 524 East 72nd Street on October 11, 2006, when a plane careened into an apartment five floors below her. Cory Lidle, a pitcher for the Yankees, had accidentally crashed his single-engine plane into the building. He and a flight instructor onboard were killed. “It was front page New York Times. It was front page everything,” she said. Olshan — who was quoted about the chaotic scene in many articles, including this one in the London-based Mirror — said she was probably one of the last people in NYC to find out the full story because she kept working after she left the burning building. “What can I say? You just have to roll with it,” she said in the Mirror article.
Friday lunch date
Olshan usually eats lunch in her office but often goes out on Fridays with a group from Stribling & Associates. The group has been meeting for lunch since 1999. Lately they’ve been going to Atlantic Grill on Third Avenue. The lunches allow everyone to share information and hear what colleagues are doing. Olshan said she sees her fellow brokers as clients, not competition. “I view myself as Switzerland neutral,” she said.
Olshan has a 1998 Social Register. The volume is a throwback to old NYC, when building boards were far more selective about the buyers they let in. The registers include facts about families: the yachts they own, the clubs they belong to and the schools they attend. Olshan said social registers mean “zero” today, when money trumps social pedigree. “This is a riot, a real collector’s item,” she said. “They still make it, but most people don’t even know it exists. ”
Olshan keeps her father’s golf scorecard by her desk. He’s a retired partner at Olshan Frome Wolosky, a New York law firm. Two years ago, when he was 85, he shot a 75 at the legendary Old Oaks Country Club in Westchester. When he was younger, he once got to the round of 16 at the prestigious U.S. Amateur tournament. “He’s a great golfer and he has been my mentor for many, many years,” she said. Olshan’s love of sports can be seen in her weekly Luxury Market Report, which includes a box score.