REBNY’s Rookies of the Year: Where are they now?

Sarah Williams and Alyssa Soto
Sarah Williams and Alyssa Soto

When 23-year-old real estate broker Sarah Williams was awarded the title of Rookie of the Year by the Real Estate Board of New York in 2011, it set off a series of events which led to her departure from Halstead Property — the firm where she cut her teeth as an agent — and to her joining Douglas Elliman, where she teamed up as a twosome with former legal intern Alyssa Soto and became a part of the firm’s Alexander Group, led by Oren Alexander.

Without winning the rookie award, the opportunities to team up with Soto and join the Alexander team might never have arisen, Williams said in an interview with The Real Deal last month.

“What propelled my career was teaming up with Alyssa and the Alexander Group,” she said. “Without the Rookie of the Year award, that may never have happened.”

The Residential Most Promising Rookie Sales Person of the Year honor is given out annually at REBNY’s annual awards gala and recognizes an agent with less than two years experience who has shown to be a promising deal maker and demonstrated “moral” and “ethical” behavior.

While most of the top residential real estate firms often name their own annual rookies, the REBNY title can be awarded to a broker from any firm that nominates an agent, provided that the agent is a member of the trade group. While sources told The Real Deal that having the title means little to prospective clients, it sparks interest from the industry, which anoints you as a broker to watch — and hire, they said.

While the award certainly does not guarantee success, it can kick start brokers’ careers by giving them opportunities to advance. Former Rookies of the Year include mega-brokers such as Brown Harris Stevens star John Burger, as well as top executives such as Paul Purcell, a co-founder of Rutenberg Realty and the former President of Elliman.

“It’s probably better internally than it is externally,” Purcell said. “It’s a personal feather in the cap. More than anything, it causes your fellow agents to see that you’re off and running.”

The Real Deal took a look at four former Rookies of the Year to determine how they got off to a fast start, the impact the award has had on their careers and what they’re up to now.

Elise Ehrlich (2012)

Elise Ehrlich

Elise Ehrlich served as chief marketing officer for a $140 million direct marketing company named Media Solutions Services before joining Halstead Property in 2010 to work more independently. She also has an MBA from Fordham University.

“Part of me thought I was too young to be a rookie,” Ehrlich said, referring to winning the award. “I do always explain to people that I had a prior career. I ran a $140 million company. There’s nothing rookie-ish about that.”

Ehrlich got off to a quick start after joining Halstead and soon secured a relationship with a sponsor looking to offload 20 to 30 units over several years. Despite having little experience, Ehrlich convinced the broker-wary sponsor to list with her, following a meeting with her manager and a more experienced broker she had asked to help out.

Ehrlich was solicited by at least two other companies following the award ceremony last year. She was also awarded the company’s in-house award for most promising agent. When The Real Deal spoke with the broker last week, she had been offered a position with another firm the day before. She has chosen to remain with Halstead. She currently has five active listings, according to her agent’s page, ranging in price from $349,000 to $1.2 million.

While Ehrlich said the dollar volume of her deals has gone up since the award, she said she could not necessarily attribute the uptick to the award.

“I don’t know if I could say that I got a particular deal because I got Rookie of the Year,” she said.

Roger Gillen (2010)

Roger Gillen

Irish-born Brown Harris Stevens broker and former musician Roger Gillen transitioned into real estate from being a full-time artist in 2008 in order to give his family some stability. Despite the economic crash, he began making a name for himself in the industry in his second year as an agent.

“For close to 12 months I didn’t generate anything or close to it, but I had been working with a lot of people and I was positioned to make some great sales once some movement came back into the market,” he said.

In some ways, being a rookie had its advantages in a down market, Gillen explained. Experienced agents, spoiled by the boom years, had little patience for dawdling house-hunters.

“You could walk around town for a year with somebody,” he said. “A lot of brokers who had experienced [the boom years] weren’t willing to do that. I was all about developing relationships and that down market was an opportunity for me.”

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In 2010, Gillen was awarded the REBNY award as well as Brown Harris Stevens’ most promising sales person award. Despite the attention garnered for him by those honors, he said there was never a question of his staying with Brown Harris Stevens, where he’s partnered with a more experienced broker named Gregory Roache. The pair is listing a $1.55 million condominium at 250 East 53rd Street and a $1.49 million apartment at 239 East 79th Street among others, according to his agent’s page. Since 2008, Gillen has seen a 30 percent gain each year in his sales commission, he said.

Gillen said the award served merely as “wind on [his] back.”

“In this business, you get out of bed in the morning and you don’t get a pay check unless you make something happen,” he said. “The award helps you through those days when there’s a lot of rejection. It was an acknowledgement from my peers and the industry that I had a future in this.”

Renee Fishman (2009)

Renee Fishman

When Renee Fishman decided to ditch her law career — first as an attorney at Weil Gotschal & Manges and then as in-house counsel at a start-up — to become a real estate broker in 2007, her colleagues in the legal profession questioned her move.

“Lawyers by their nature are very conservative and certainty-driven,” Fishman said, “and so a lot of people said I was brave to leave a steady pay check and go into real estate.”

Upon joining Halstead, Fishman looked to leverage her social media savvy and existing connections to make deals. Instead of cold-calling prospective sellers and working open houses as rookies tend to do, she bulked up her social media presence and set about reminding people within her social and professional networks that she was now a broker.

“I felt I had to do something consistently to remind the people in my network that this is what I do now,” she said. “I could do that through old fashioned direct mail, but it was more natural for me to reach people through social media.”

Winning the REBNY and in-house Halstead award validated Fishman’s career move to former colleagues, she said, and heightened her profile in the industry. She has since been asked to conduct classes on social media by REBNY and serves on the organization’s education committee.

Still, being a former Rookie of the Year does not necessarily guarantee deals, Fishman said.

“I would never walk in [to meet a client] and assume they’re going to give me the business because I won Rookie of the Year, just like I never would assume they they’d give me the business because I have two Ivy League degrees or because I’ve practiced at a top [law] firm,” she said.

Nevertheless, the dollar value of Fishman’s deals has been on the uptick. She recently closed a $3 million deal at Metropolitan Tower at 146 West 57th Street, her highest-priced transaction thus far.

“[The client] asked me if I’d ever sold a $3 million listing before,” she explained. “I didn’t lie. I said, ‘No, but the skill set involved in selling your home is no different than the skill set required to sell a $1.5 million home, and I’ve done plenty of those.’ He liked my moxie.”

Sarah Williams (2011)

Sarah Williams

Following the award ceremony in 2011, the Florida-born Williams was approached by Oren Alexander, who had been in the running for an award that same evening. He invited her to join his nine-person team. While Williams wasn’t originally sold on the idea, she revisited it several weeks later after attending a congratulatory rookie party held in her honor by the law firm of Katz & Matz.

At the party, she met Soto, a young legal intern at Katz & Matz who had been considering a career in brokerage. The duo hit it off and ultimately decided to team up and join Elliman together.

Prior to joining Elliman, Williams had brokered the sale of a Williamsburg townhouse, purchased for $2.03 million by NY1 newscaster Pat Kiernan alongside fellow Halstead broker Kris Sylvester. Soto, an attorney, had no experience in brokerage but was equally hungry for success.

“I’ve always been pretty proactive and ambitious,” Williams said, “and I saw those qualities right away in Alyssa.”

Williams, the youngest rookie for the last five years, said she was approached by several firms including Brown Harris Stevens, the Corcoran Group and Sotheby’s International Realty before opting to move to Elliman for the opportunity to work as part of a top-producing team.

In the last four months, she and Soto have brokered more than $12 million in sales, they said, working under the name SOTOWILLIAMS. Recent deals include a $5.15 million sale at the Richard Meier-designed building at 173 Perry Street, the duo’s largest transaction yet, and a $1.88 million deal for the last remaining one-bedroom apartment at 345Meatpacking on West 14th Street.

Williams said she could not easily determine whether an uptick in her deal volume was the result of the award or a natural progression in her career.