Michael Shvo’s black Mercedes 500 limo is stuck in traffic, and he is not happy. “Let’s go, let’s go,” he urges the driver. “Shit, we are really late.” In this case, time really is money: Shvo, a 32-year-old nascent real-estate mogul who is habitually behind schedule, is meeting with a developer who has threatened to fine him a thousand dollars for every lost minute. Not that Shvo would have a problem paying. In 2003, he was the top-grossing broker at one of the city’s largest real-estate agencies, Douglas Elliman, netting over $300 million in sales.
Late last year, he founded the Shvo Group, which develops high-end residential properties like Bryant Park Tower on Sixth Avenue and 39th Street and the Lumiere on West 53rd Street near Ninth Avenue, and brokers apartment sales in gold-plated buildings like the Time Warner Center and Trump World Tower. Since starting his firm, Shvo and his staff have sold some 350 apartments, and the value of the new developments they have lined up, he says, exceeds a billion dollars.
The traffic is crawling, but Shvo remains as slick and polished as the marble finishes on one of his buildings: his dark hair impeccably swept back, his Brioni suit crisp, a mist of cologne enveloping him. On the seat next to him are two cell phones, which buzz and click like menacing bugs, an earpiece phone, and his omnipresent BlackBerry. “I keep it in bed at night,” he says, scanning his e-mail, which he claims can reach 1,200 a day. “I’m always available, I’m super-full-time. I’ve signed leases at one in the morning. Most real-estate brokers don’t work like I do; they’re all in the Hamptons.”
Shvo picks up the two cell phones and dials different numbers simultaneously with his thumbs. “It’s Michael,” he says into the first phone. “Let’s do it. We just have to make sure we can flip the property.”
He switches to the second phone. “Get me Charlie, please,” he says in a low voice.
Back to the first. “I hear you, I hear you,” he says. His leg jiggles. “Let’s do it. How much money do you need?”
Another switch. “Charlie, hang on.”
He finishes the conversations and calls Brooke, his secretary, for messages. “Yes, yes, I took care of that,” he says. “Next. Barry? I’ll call back. Who else? She’s a retard. Next.”
He cracks open a can of Diet Coke. Until a few years ago, he says, he guzzled 30 to 40 cans a day. Now he’s down to ten. After a quick meeting with the developer (light fixtures were decided upon, no fines were levied), the limo is racing to the site of Bryant Park Tower so that Shvo can check on its construction. Although it is 10 degrees out, Shvo doesn’t wear a coat over his suit. “Too many clothes,” he says. “I don’t feel comfortable.” Instead, he jabs up the heat in the back seat to 85 degrees.
The limo pulls up to the site, and Shvo jumps out and dons a hard hat. Bryant Park Tower’s first 35 floors will be a hotel, he explains. He’s already five steps ahead of me. The top ten floors will be “spectacular, spectacular” condos. He insists we see the view from the top.
On the 45th floor, an icy wind blasts through—the walls have yet to be built. “Look,” he says, facing the Statue of Liberty and spreading his arms wide. “This is my apartment. One penthouse will go to me.” Two large construction workers on a cigarette break are watching him.
“Hey, man, you’re not cold?” one calls to Shvo.
His burly friend smirks. “All that money,” he says, “makes his pockets hot.”
There are rules in New York real estate, and Michael Shvo is breaking all of them. To the outsider, the New York apartment-selling game might seem like a nasty, brutish blood sport, but in fact, the real-estate business is an industry of surprising comity. Partly, that’s a function of tradition; mostly, it’s a function of necessity. Unlike most every other city in the country, Manhattan doesn’t have a Multiple Listing Service through which brokers share their properties. Thus, in order to ensure equal opportunity, the Real Estate Board of New York, a trade association, requires brokers to share all listings within 72 hours of getting them, but that rule and others are fairly easy to sidestep. A broker can simply neglect to tell sellers that a buyer from another firm is interested, or let a week slide by before returning a competing broker’s request to show a property—at which point it’s gone. It’s only the decency of the people involved and their good-faith adherence to the rules that keep the system of mutually assured success from slipping into chaos. Michael Shvo’s crime, his critics say, is that he violates the brokers’ code: He’s not only brash, loud, and unapologetically ambitious, but, they claim, he cheats.