BHS names Bess Freedman as first CEO

Hall Willkie will remain president, overseeing NYC offices

Bess Freedman and Hall Willkie
Bess Freedman and Hall Willkie

Less than a year after being named co-president of Brown Harris Stevens, Bess Freedman has been tapped as the luxury brokerage’s first chief executive.

As CEO, Freedman will oversee operations in New York City, the Hamptons, Palm Beach and Miami — consolidating leadership of those regions for the first time. The promotion was announced Tuesday in a companywide email signed by Hall Willkie, who has been president of BHS since the 1990s. Willkie will continue to run brokerage operations in the firm’s eight New York City offices.

“This is a very important newly created position for our firm,” he wrote, noting that Freedman would focus on “big picture” issues such as marketing, technology and the integration of BHS’ regional offices.

Reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, Freedman said the change had been in the works for some time, as BHS’ owners recognized a need to better compete in the current market.

“We’re in such a crazy environment and it’s so competitive, you need to have somebody who can make decisions and get things done,” she said.

Founded in 1873, BHS has nearly 1,000 agents — including 500 agents in Manhattan who closed nearly $4 billion in sales in 2017, the firm said. BHS is owned by Terra Holdings, whose owners include Arthur and William Lie Zeckendorf, Kent Swig, David Burris and Eric Hadar. BHS was affiliated with Christie’s for 22 years until 2017, when the auction house opted to get into the brokerage game itself. Terra also owns Halstead Property.

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Previously, major decisions had to be run up the food chain, but that structure meant the firm wasn’t as nimble as it could be.

“It was frustrating not to have the ability and authority to get things done,” Freedman said. “It wasn’t a seamless process. When you have all these different people, not everyone always agrees.”

Trained as a lawyer, Freedman was an assistant district attorney in Maryland before turning to brokerage. Prior to BHS, she spent 10 years at the Corcoran Group, where she rose to senior managing director of the firm’s East Side headquarters. In 2013, she joined BHS as managing director of sales and business development. She was named co-president in December 2017 and in that role, she’s challenged BHS’ reputation as a stodgy firm that hasn’t kept up with the times.

This year, Freedman spearheaded a flashy rebranding and she’s been a cheerleader for tech innovation. When StreetEasy introduced a series of money-making initiatives in 2017, Freedman was a vocal proponent of the Real Estate Board of New York’s syndicated listings. “We think it’s the right thing to do for the industry,” she told The Real Deal last year.

Freedman said BHS would continue to redefine its marketing, which will include a focus on “lifestyle” in 2019. She declined to detail BHS’ plans to grow regionally (if at all), but she confirmed that BHS is looking to add offices where it makes sense. The firm is currently looking to open a small retail space on the Upper East Side.

Freedman also dismissed rumors that BHS is on the sale block, even as major firms like Berkshire Hathaway circle New York looking for acquisitions.

“It’s completely ridiculous,” she said. “The owners don’t need to sell. But they really want to make us No. 1.”