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Real Estate's New Power Brokers

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“I am a big person who focuses on going from good to great!” Herman likes to say. Part of getting great is winning the city’s No. 1 slot, hotly contested by Corcoran. Each firm accuses the other of being unethical, particularly of padding sales numbers and luring star brokers with lucrative commission cuts and perks. In the past eighteen months, Corcoran has poached 50 Elliman brokers, bringing Corcoran’s Manhattan head count to 638. Last month, Herman started evening the score, wining and dining three Corcoran brokers, whom she persuaded to jump ship. She also poached Corcoran’s publicist. “I’m the most competitive person you ever want to meet,” says Herman, who carries a photocopy of Jack Welch’s golden rules in her wallet. “We have our own business plan, and we don’t need to take people from Corcoran just to take people from Corcoran. We want really good people.”

There is probably no cattier industry on this island than residential real estate. For one thing, Manhattan is the only city in the country that doesn’t have a Multiple Listing Service (MLS) that forces brokers to share their listings, a situation most brokers blame on the city’s exclusive and secretive co-ops. As of January, the Real Estate Board made it mandatory to share listings within 72 hours of getting them, and as of April 1, brokers had to share them electronically. “Yeah, go and enforce it,” says an executive. “In 72 hours, you can call every client before the public sees it. People are able to manipulate this rule to their own benefit.”

No one name conjures nearly as much gossip as Dolly Lenz—the industry’s most legendarily aggressive player—and her relationship with Herman is being scrutinized as closely as, say, Sam Waksal and Martha Stewart’s. The prospect of an alliance between the two tough operators, “Dolly and Dottie,” immediately had the industry buzzing. Elliman brokers were wary that Lenz, who says she takes home about $4 million in commissions a year and has sold more than $3 billion in real estate in her twenty-year career, might get special treatment. Routinely selling $15 million apartments to people like Calvin Klein and Bruce Willis has made Lenz a target of resentment, exacerbated by her high-profile deals often ending up in the newspapers.

Not only has Lenz taken off the white gloves, but she is utterly no-nonsense in her presentation: She wears no makeup and little jewelry, and pulls her brown hair into a girlish ponytail with a scrunchie. But she also speaks five languages and loves real estate so much she’s moved ten times in eight years. And she never, ever stops working. She’s so tough that her client Dennis Kozlowski, Tyco’s toppled titan, sometimes calls her Jaws. Her rivals swear she uses dirty tactics, like stealing clients. A Corcoran executive says Lenz tried to jump ship to Corcoran when she heard Elliman was sold. “She said she would like to get everyone in a room who doesn’t like her and make nice and then join the firm,” says the executive. “We said no way.”

Lenz says she lunched with Liebman, who came armed with complaints from Corcoran brokers who claim Lenz has stolen their clients. “I said, ‘Name me one client; I compel you to bring me one!’ ” says Lenz. “First of all, the word steal. What does that mean? Sharon Baum sold an apartment to a client of mine. They chose to work with her. They’re allowed to, that’s their choice, and she made a $10 million deal that I did all the work for. And did I ever say she stole the client?” Lenz also loves to mention that when she began her career, not even Barbara Corcoran would hire her. “She says it was the only mistake she ever made,” says Lenz.

Herman has been hearing plenty of stories like this, but she insists that Lenz’s earning power is the only thing making her a VIP. “A lot of stuff about Dolly, that I was going to give her more—which is absolutely untrue—was said by the competition to scare people,” says Herman. “I met Dolly not even a year and a half ago.”

Lenz and Herman are both New Guard success stories. While Lenz’s rivals gossip about her déclassé decorum (“She chews gum with her mouth open in the lobby of the San Remo!”), Herman’s competitors play up her “up-island” background.

“I think there’s native snobbery everywhere,” says Herman, who shares her various homes—Syosset, Southampton, and Manhattan—with her attorney husband, Jay, and their three dogs. Jay Herman sounds warmly supportive of the wife he sees only once or twice a week, though he doesn’t have a business card that reads SPOUSE, like the ones Barbara Corcoran’s househusband used to hand out. “From day one, I knew she would be successful,” he says. “She was always driven. It’s pretty much 24 hours a day. I can come in and go to the answering machine and there are 40 calls for her. She loves this company more than anybody can love a company. It’s a major reason for her success. People know she’s doing this from her heart.”

Herman traces that relentless ambition back to a childhood tragedy. When she was 10 years old, her father was driving the family home from a ski vacation in Vermont in a snowstorm. He skidded on the ice, and Herman and her mother were thrown out of the car. Her mother was killed. After the accident, she took care of her two younger siblings and her father, who almost lost his hand in the crash. “He just wasn’t ever right,” she says. “What I understood at an early age is, life isn’t forever. In having no one to nurture me, I pretty much did it for myself. I was always an achiever. I was willing to do whatever it takes to be successful.”

No one could say that Herman isn’t successful. Whether she will fit into the rarefied upscale real-estate market is another question. Whether it matters is a much more important one. However, since she bought the company, she’s slowly morphing into a modern New Yorker. She’s started wearing more black and shopping at Chanel. She cruises around the city in a big, black, chauffeured Ford SUV—more Puffy than broker Patricia Burnham, who bought Mercedeses to chauffeur around her clients.

“Now I do what everyone else in New York does—go to the Hamptons on the weekend,” says Herman. “Except I work.”

“You know what I want to be in my next life?” she asks, sinking into the leather seat a bit. “A weatherman. You don’t have to always be right. People expect you to be wrong.” And that’s the only comment she’s made that’s anything but bullish. Now she probably wishes she’d never said it.


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