But here’s what really makes competing brokers fume: Most agents play nice with others because the real-estate game is such an interdependent industry, but Shvo seizes business in the balls-out manner of a bounty hunter, boldly grabbing clients or properties that he believes are, shall we say, underrepresented. Shvo proudly tells the story of a woman who came to him for a rental until her broker could find her an apartment to buy. Shvo, of course, swooped in. “Since then, I’ve sold her and her family $35 million worth of apartments,” he says. “I know all the board rules,” he insists. “I know what you’re allowed to do, what you’re not allowed to do, and where the thin line is between them.”
Rival brokers say Shvo crosses that line. In April 2004, Corcoran filed a complaint against him to REBNY, and he left Elliman later that year under a cloud of suspicion (more on that below). Shvo dismisses the criticism as simple jealousy. “I’m young, I’m very successful, and I don’t know one successful person who isn’t controversial,” he says. “Look at Donald Trump. Or Clinton. Or Bush.”
Michael Shvo joined Douglas Elliman in 1998. “I started by doing rentals, showing 40 apartments a day,” he says. “I used to come to the office before anybody else and take all the calls from clients, because nobody else was there.” Within a year, Shvo was speaking at training seminars for new Elliman recruits as a shining example of what was possible from a person who had come to real estate with no experience and zero contacts (he had moved to New York from Israel in 1996 with one suitcase, $3,000, and no idea what he wanted to do; he managed a fleet of taxis, leasing medallions from the owners “like a kind of sublet,” until his own search for an apartment gave him the idea that real estate could be extremely lucrative). Pacing the floor and downing Diet Cokes, he would ask, “Who is doing this as a part-time job?” “Whoever raised their hand,” Shvo says, “I asked—very nicely, without being an ass—for them to leave the room, because they were wasting their time and my time.”
“He drove me crazy,” says Paul Purcell, the former president of Douglas Elliman who now runs his own consulting firm, Braddock and Purcell. “If you gave an inch, he wanted a yard. There’s a psychology behind this, almost a psychosis.” He laughs. “He was constantly in my office. You know, ‘I want more and more and more. I want to be vice-president, senior vice-president, executive vice-president. I want this split, I want that split.’ I really prided myself in never losing my temper, but he took me from zero to 90 in two seconds.”
Shvo was soon earning so much for Elliman that he created his own group within the company, managing a staff of 27. He also formed a tight bond with Dolly Lenz, Elliman’s top-selling superagent who, in more than two decades, has sold a total of more than $3 billion in real estate to boldface names including Nicole Kidman and Calvin Klein. As Shvo and Lenz partnered up (“They ran around Elliman like Bonnie and Clyde,” says one broker), amused co-workers put an expiration date on their friendship. Sure enough, it eventually imploded.
Shvo is not only brash, loud, and unapologetically ambitious, his critics say, but, they claim, he cheats.
The details of what precipitated their falling-out are murky, but “when someone gets a little bigger than Dolly, I don’t think she can handle it,” says an insider. The pair promptly put multiple locks on the doors to their adjacent offices, presumably so that neither would be privy to the other’s business. “Dolly has never been able to keep a partner in her life, and I say that on the record,” says Purcell, who had left the company by then. “I’ve known Dolly for over twenty years, and systematically, whatever friendship she has, it dissolves. People told me it was the Berlin Wall over there. They said, ‘It’s hysterical, now they’re not speaking, and if one gets one thing, the other one wants it.’ Like brother and sister. Or Cain and Abel or something.”
“It’s a sad subject for me,” says Shvo, during dinner at Daniel. In a first-strike charm offensive, he had arranged for us to meet here after I told his PR person that I come from a family of chefs. We’re sitting in Boulud’s glassed-in private dining room, the Skybox, which has a view of the bustling kitchen and costs a thousand bucks and up to reserve. Before the night is over, I will be plied with a five-course meal with corresponding wines, a personally inscribed cookbook that Shvo asked Boulud to leave for me, a tour of the underground kitchen and bakery, and an apologetic phone call from Boulud, who is in Boston (“I am so sorry that I can’t be there to cook for you and Michael,” he says).
“I’ll tell you about Dolly,” Shvo says. “Dolly was really family. We spent holidays together. And Dolly just literally lost it when I made more money than her, and we parted ways.” He is referring to his award from Elliman in 2003 for having the No. 1 group and being the top producer, with sales above $300 million. Lenz, meanwhile, was deemed the No. 1 agent, but Shvo says that he out-earned her. “I broke Elliman’s all-time record for gross commissions in one year. Obviously, if I broke the record, then that means I made more money, right?” he asks. (Lenz declined several offers to comment.)
Many industry insiders take issue with the way Shvo broke Elliman’s record, alleging that he would routinely poach clients and do customer mailings to buildings that were represented by another broker. Further, he and his staff were said to be uncooperative when it came to co-brokering, the practice of sharing listings with competing brokers (which typically results in a 50-50 split of a 6 percent commission). “It was very difficult for people to get into his properties,” says Susan Renfrew, former executive director of career development at Elliman, now managing director at Corcoran. “First of all, he didn’t return phone calls. Some agents in his group would return phone calls, but then they were never available to show. It’s against our fiduciary responsibility to our clients to not show property—the whole point is to give property broad exposure. So he wouldn’t make it very easy for brokers to get in, which basically angered the entire real-estate community and ruined his reputation.”
Shvo fervently denies that. “On projects that we represent, we co-broker everything,” he says. “I always tell developers that it’s important that we involve the brokerage community.” Still, the perception stuck, and brokers began whispering that Shvo wasn’t playing by the rules.