Dolly’s next act

The super-broker’s new company already has $384 million worth of listings, but can she maintain her success without the city’s largest firm behind her?

From left: 66 East 11th Street and Dolly Lenz
From left: 66 East 11th Street and Dolly Lenz

At the top of the residential brokerage food chain, where agents regularly do deals over $20 million, firm-hopping is rare. When a mega-broker does jump ship, it’s usually to another major company.

So the real estate industry was taken aback in June when Douglas Elliman’s Dolly Lenz — for years viewed as one of the most successful (if not the most successful) real estate brokers in the country — abruptly left New York City’s largest brokerage and went out on her own.

By July, the 56-year-old Lenz had formed Dolly Lenz Real Estate and staffed it with her husband and nine other people. The firm already has a number of high-profile listings, including an $80 million exclusive on a four-bedroom penthouse at the Plaza belonging to fashion magnate Tommy Hilfiger, and a $50 million apartment at the boutique condominium 66 East 11th Street. Lenz also hosts her own TV show, “Secret Lives of the Super Rich,” which in September was picked up by CNBC for eight half-hour episodes.

But Lenz’s star power and track record of deal-making don’t guarantee that she’ll be able to lead a successful brokerage firm — if that’s even her strategy. Rather than heading up a large major firm, Lenz may prefer to keep her new firm boutique, sources said.

Lenz’s firm does not yet have a website or an office, although sources said it is likely to secure office space in the coming months. For now, the company’s address is listed on the New York State Department of State’s website as 230 West 56th Street — Lenz’s home at the Park Imperial condominium. Her personal website still lists her title as vice chairman of Douglas Elliman, and gives her Elliman email address.

The new firm’s abrupt rollout has fueled rumors that Lenz’s departure from Elliman was not entirely amicable; that she was fired or quit after a falling-out with the company’s heads. Others disputed that account, saying Lenz had been considering the departure for some time before it was announced, and had been consulting with brand strategists to strengthen her image before the break from Elliman.

Lenz declined to be interviewed for this article, as did Elliman’s principals, chairman Howard Lorber and CEO Dottie Herman.

But Paul Purcell — a principal at brokerage Rutenberg Realty who worked with Lenz in his former capacity as president of Douglas Elliman — said the circumstances of Lenz’s departure suggest that “something happened.”

“This is not a woman that makes snap decisions,” he said, noting that he had no direct knowledge of those circumstances. “One day she’s there and the next she’s gone? That doesn’t smell right to me.”

The move has not come without consequences for Lenz. Before leaving Elliman, she snagged a co-exclusive on one of the city’s highest-priced listings: a $95 million penthouse at the Sherry Netherland owned by former Liberty Travel CEO Gilbert Haroche. When Lenz left the company eight months later, she lost that listing to Elliman’s Lisa Simonsen.

Still, Lenz isn’t hurting for business. Her firm currently has exclusives on some $384 million worth of real estate, according to the listings website StreetEasy. That’s more than some of the city’s largest residential firms, including Nest Seekers International, Rutenberg, and Coldwell Banker Bellmarc, according to TRD’s most recent ranking of the city’s largest firms.

Flying solo

Indeed, whether it was planned in advance or not, Lenz’s new firm seems to be off to a strong start.

In addition to Lenz, there are the 10 brokers’ licenses registered to the new firm, according to the DOS website. That’s up from just six in July, when she first launched the company.

The agents with licenses at Dolly Lenz Real Estate include the founder’s husband, Aaron Lenz, a former CPA who has assisted his wife on deals for years. The other agents at her firm are: Georgia Wood, Matthew Johnson, Tricia Johnson Reilly, Brett Forman, Deborah Chuk Jaroch, Adam Vanderbrook, Nicholas Polihros, Joe Wagner and Scott Musmanno. Sources said these agents are largely assistants to Lenz rather than brokers in their own right. According to StreetEasy, none of them currently have listings of their own, although a spokesperson for Lenz said they do sometimes have their own exclusives.

As for Lenz herself, in addition to 66 East 11th Street and Hilfiger’s Plaza listing, she is currently representing a $25 million maisonette at 817 Fifth Avenue and a co-op at 510 Park Avenue priced at $14.95 million. She’s also listing the $17.25 million Upper East Side penthouse once owned by confessed Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff. And last month, Lenz listed 40 units at the Trump Soho Hotel Condominium as a co-exclusive with Forman.

It’s unclear whether Lenz has plans to bring on more brokers and grow the firm. Sources said she approached the Prudential Real Estate and Relocation Services network to become its newest franchisee. (Elliman severed its relationship with Prudential last year, leaving Prudential without a New York City-based partner.) A Prudential Real Estate spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

But Lenz also has the option of keeping the firm as a boutique operation that revolves around her own exclusives.

Whatever her plans, some industry insiders were not at all surprised that Lenz — whose clients have included celebrities like Barbra Streisand, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Billy Joel and Mariah Carey — launched her own company rather than joining another firm. Despite her long tenure at Elliman, she has a reputation for operating largely independently, and for creating drama.

“Dolly has always been an entity unto herself,” said Elliman broker Leonard Steinberg, who characterized his relationship with Lenz as friendly but not close. “It was inevitable she’d go out on her own. It was long overdue.”

Lenz’s tendency to work alone dates back to the beginning of her brokerage career in the 1990s, sources said. That’s when she discovered that she didn’t fit it in with the Chanel-wearing crew of brokers who controlled the market for co-ops on the Upper East Side, industry veterans recalled.

Unlike some of the brokers who work in Manhattan’s multimillion sphere, Lenz did not grow up with a silver spoon in her mouth. The child of Spanish parents, she was raised Idaliz Dolly Camino in Washington Heights. She studied accounting at Baruch College and worked as a financial auditor before moving into real estate. She started out at L.B. Kaye, a small firm in Manhattan, before joining Sotheby’s International Realty — and eventually Elliman in 1999.

Unlike the high-society brokers who dominated the luxury market at the time, Lenz wore little makeup and did not fit then-widespread stereotypes about real estate brokers: moneyed, fur-coat-wearing divorcées.

“In a business where image is everything, she sort of bucked the trend,” Purcell recalled.

Lenz underwent an image transformation several years after joining Elliman — she reportedly slimmed down by running daily in Central Park, dyed her hair progressively blonder and started wearing designer clothes. (Still, her views on fashion have not entirely changed. “Am I the only woman who hates to shop?” Lenz Tweeted last month. “Who has the time anyway?”)

Lenz quickly found her niche in the burgeoning condo market, at a time when other brokers focused on co-ops, colleagues recalled. Soon she was also a top broker not just in New York City but in the Hamptons: In 2004, she set a record for the highest-price single-family home sale on the East End, when she sold an 18,000-square-foot estate in Wainscott to pharmaceutical mogul Stewart Rahr for $45 million. And in 2006, Lenz broke a building record at the famed Dakota on the Upper West Side, selling a $20.5 million unit to Philip Milstein, heir to the Milstein real estate fortune.

But she rarely socialized with other brokers at Elliman, and fellow brokers complained that she didn’t return their calls or seem willing to co-broke deals.

“People can be jealous of other people’s success,” Purcell said. “If you don’t dress the way the matrons do or play the way they play, it can breed resentment.”

That reputation has persisted to this day.

“She played everything very close to the chest,” said Elliman broker Frances Katzen, who has been at the firm for seven years but said she does not know Lenz well. “She didn’t play the same game as everyone else. She wasn’t social with the other brokers, but she knew everyone.”

Katzen recalled Lenz approaching her several years ago at Elliman’s annual awards ceremony. “’You’re the dancer,’” Lenz said, referring to Katzen’s previous career as a professional ballerina. When Katzen asked how she knew about her background, Lenz replied: “’It’s my job to know.’”

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Lenz did befriend fellow Elliman broker Michael Shvo (who has recently reemerged as a developer). The duo famously teamed up for a short time during Shvo’s tenure at Elliman. But the affiliation was short-lived. The two parted ways after Lenz reportedly accused Shvo of attempting to steal her clients, according to Stephen Gaines’ 2006 book “The Sky’s the Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan.” Lenz found crowbar marks on her office door, Gaines wrote, and claimed that Shvo had broken into her computer to download information on her clients. Shvo declined to comment for this story.

Tensions with Elliman

Lenz’s competitors have long griped about her behavior, and she has been dogged for years by rumors that she’s stolen clients from other brokers.

But a spokesperson for Lenz denied those allegations, calling them “false and malicious gossip coming from those who are clearly misinformed or merely spiteful.”

Meanwhile, as of last month, there was one pending complaint against Lenz filed with the Department of State, according to information released to The Real Deal in response to a Freedom of Information Law request. In response to the complaint, which alleged that Lenz conspired to “undermine a sale at a condominium project,” the DOS launched an investigation into whether she violated New York State Real Property Law.

The agency declined to provide further details about the complaint, the building or the identity of the accuser, or reveal if anyone else was involved in the matter. The agency told TRD that the investigation had, however, been temporarily suspended pending review by another governmental entity earlier this year, and will be opened again.

Lenz’s spokesperson said: “Ms. Lenz has never heard of, and has not been notified of, any alleged complaint. She knows nothing about it. Throughout her career, she has successfully handled multibillion-dollar condominium projects and has never managed a single project that failed.”

Meanwhile, Lenz’s star power dimmed somewhat during the downturn, when several large condos projects she was representing faced difficulty. In 2009, Lenz was fired from her position heading up sales at Manhattan House at 200 East 66th Street, when only 25 percent of the building’s 583 apartments had been sold. The next year, a dispute between Lenz and the managers of the high-profile Apthorp condo conversion at 2211 Broadway led to her departure and the hiring of Elliman rival Corcoran Sunshine.

In recent years, Lenz had also fallen out of favor with the Elliman leadership, sources said. The firm’s principals were displeased with Lenz’s close association with Delos, the Manhattan-based “wellness real estate” company developing 66 East 11th Street, sources said. In addition to marketing the property, Lenz is also on the company’s board of advisors alongside her former client, spiritual guru Deepak Chopra. Sources said Elliman higher-ups were unhappy that Lenz established the association with Delos without their knowledge or consent.

Delos’ founders — former financial executives Paul Scialla, Peter Scialla and Renato Termale, and real estate developer Morad Fareed, who previously worked for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide — declined to comment for this story. Other than designing the interiors of a private residence in the Meatpacking District, the 11th Street project is the company’s first in New York, according to its website.

Another possible motivation for Lenz to leave Elliman was her title. A DOS ruling earlier this year stipulated that brokers can now only use titles that correspond to their licenses — such as broker, associate broker or salesperson — and not the corporate titles that firms often bestow on their high-producing agents. That rule likely meant that Lenz’s rarified title of vice chairman was in jeopardy, industry sources said.

And while Lenz was a megawatt star for Elliman, sources said the firm was likely making little money off her, despite her big-ticket listings, because she had negotiated such a generous commission split.

Whatever the reasons for Lenz’s departure, the circumstances surrounding it suggest that the change was more abrupt than she would have liked, industry insiders said.

If Lenz had been planning to announce a new firm, “it wouldn’t have been done the way it was done,” said one firm head who wished to remain anonymous. “There would have been some kind of unveiling. It would have been on CNBC.”

Once it was decided that Lenz would leave Elliman, sources said, her lack of close ties with fellow brokers likely made it difficult for her to move to another major firm, leaving her with no option but to go out on her own.

A new model

That same reputation may also make it difficult for her to attract fellow top brokers to her fledgling firm.

Lenz’s strengths do not lie in working with other agents, said one Elliman executive, who noted that Lenz “is just not trusting of people.”

When asked why Lenz did not have a broker team at Elliman, Shvo was quoted in Gaines’ book as saying: “She has no group because Dolly cannot give out power. … She cannot just let go.”

But as she sets out to build her new firm, Lenz has a number of factors working in her favor.

First, there’s the power of the brand she’s cultivated for years, most recently as a celebrity spokesperson for the technology firm BlackBerry.

Lenz’s name is “synonymous with luxury residential real estate,” said industry veteran Barbara Fox, CEO of brokerage Fox Residential.

And Lenz may not want to build a huge company. Her mega-listings alone are lucrative enough to keep a boutique firm afloat, sources said. Longtime broker Laurence Kaiser, founder of the high-end boutique firm Key Ventures, said Lenz has the chops to attract high-profile properties without a big firm behind her, making the small-firm model ideal.

“Dolly’s not a novice,” he said. “She’s highly professional and she has wonderful clientele. She knows how to polish the silver without the help of a big firm.”

There are overhead costs associated with running a brokerage, of course, but Kaiser said those expenses will be minor compared with the commissions Lenz can rake in.

“There will certainly be costs she’ll have to assume, but by the same token, she’ll not have to give [Elliman] a percentage of her commission,” he said.

And keeping the firm small would help reduce those expenses, as well as the administrative tasks required to run a brokerage — tasks Lenz likely has little experience with, since she’s always focused on doing deals.

“She’ll have to be a manager of infrastructure,” Steinberg said. “That could be a distraction.”

Whatever she does, Steinberg said, Lenz would likely benefit from cooperating more with her fellow brokers.

“My message to Dolly,” he said, “would be [that] she could be as successful and happier if she did her business in just a slightly different way.”