This piece in the Wall Street Journal last week about successful young realtors demonstrates how the ability to sell can level the obstacles to advancement which exist elsewhere in business.
A lot of them come into the business with family connections or useful social relationships. But what they appear to bring is a new mode of selling real estate. They are hungry, tech savvy, financially literate as well as driven.
Real estate is a good example of how technology is affecting the sales process. Realtors no longer control the flow of information to buyers and sellers the way they once did. Anyone can go online and compare prices and scour inventory. Younger realtors grasp this new transparency.
They also appear to be hungrier and much more energetic than their older rivals, which matches the competitive instincts and demands of high-end buyers. The piece quotes a New York trial lawyer, Jim Ferraro, on his realtor, the 25-year-old Oren Alexander of Prudential Douglas Elliman. In 2009, Mr. Alexander brokered Mr. Ferraro’s purchase of an $8.2 million penthouse. In 2012, he helped him buy the next-door penthouse for another $7.8 million.
“Older brokers are often pretty set in their ways and don’t want to change their style, while Oren was really opening to listening to me and to doing different kinds of deals,” says Mr. Ferraro. “I knew I was taking a risk with a younger agent, but I also knew that Oren was young, hungry, and had the energy and intelligence to do a great job.”
The article notes that the median age of realtors is 56, up from 52 a few years ago, as many of them come into it as a second profession. Their median annual income is $37,390.
But it seems to be the younger realtors making the running in hot markets like New York, Los Angeles and Miami.
“Last year, broker Kyle Blackmon, 34,sold former Citigroup Chairman Sanford Weill’s penthouse on Central Park to 20-something Russian heiress Ekaterina Rybolovleva for $88 million—the largest residential transactions on record in Manhattan. Also in New York, 29-year-old Caroline Bass found fashion personality Tim Gunn a penthouse duplex on Upper West Side. In 2010, Soly Halabi, a 29-year-old agent who is a junior-college dropout, brokered a deal for Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim to buy a 20,000-square-foot mansion across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $44 million. And this month, Josh Flagg, a 27-year-old broker in Los Angeles who stars on Bravo’s reality show “Million Dollar Listing,” got the listing for Hollywood producer Gavin Polone’s $15.9 million house in Beverly Hills, having just sold a house a few doors down for $6.3 million.”
For The Art of the Sale, I interviewed Carolyn Klemm, the leading realtor in Litchfield County in Connecticut, who buys and sells country houses for many wealthy and famous New Yorkers. There are Carolyn Klemms in every real estate market, those few brokers who make their markets move, and keep doing so over many years. Only a small portion of the interview made it into the book, but below is my original write-up of our discussion.
It contains some important points about selling real estate at the high end, which it seems these younger realtors really get. Success in this field is about energy, immersing yourself in the world of your buyers and sellers, having peerless market knowledge, being creative to make a sale and remaining relentlessly positive despite all the sniping, gossip and obstacles which are thrown your way.
Klemm also has certain great salesperson traits. She started selling at a young age, she’s completely un-squeamish talking about money, and her work and her life are a seamless blend. Her perception of her role, the single biggest predictor of success in sales, is consistent with who she is.
How Carolyn Klemm shrinks the world
On the first day of 1982, Carolyn Klemm’s fortunes as a realtor were transformed. She was driving in the lead car of a long convoy carrying the friends and retinue of Henry Kissinger on a house-hunting expedition to Kent, Connecticut. The former Secretary of State had been looking for a house for years, one which provided him with space and rural privacy within a couple of hours of New York. Every realtor in the area had been on the case, but nothing met Kissinger’s strict criteria.
Finally, Klemm believed she had found the perfect place. An old blueberry farm buried in the bucolic Kent hills. She had visited the previous August pretending to be a member of the public coming to pick blueberries. She had noted the long, long driveway and the classic features of the home and duly approached the owner, a man who had started and run a division of Reader’s Digest. Coincidentally, Klemm had once sold Cadillacs to the founder of Reader’s Digest, Lila Wallace, from a dealership called Marty’s Motors in Mount Kisco. The man gave her a six month exclusive to sell the property.
Several months before that, she had sat next to Kissinger at a dinner party at the home of Ruth and Skitch Henderson, a band leader on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Kissinger was renting in Litchfield County at the time. Klemm recalls talking to Kissinger throughout dinner but never telling him he was a realtor. The next morning, her host called her up and asked if she was going to be Kissinger’s realtor. “We never spoke about real estate,” she said. “My that’s chic,” said her host, and later that day, Kissinger called Klemm and asked her to find him a house. She wasn’t the first, but she would be the last realtor he would use in the area.
With her six month exclusive on the blueberry farm ticking away, she begged the Kissingers to come and see the property. The first day they had free was New Year’s Day.
So that morning, the convoy crawled along the driveway. Klemm was driving the Kissingers. Half a mile down the mile long driveway, she heard a familiar gravelly voice saying from the back seat: “Mrs Klemm. Stop the car. How far have we come?” Half a mile she told him. “I’m going to buy this property,” said Kissinger.
“That sale launched me as someone who was real,” says Klemm. “It was like getting a large part in a movie. It launched my career.”
From that moment on, any New Yorker looking for property in Litchfield County would inevitably find their paths crossing with Carolyn Klemm and the firm she would build. What appears to be a series of fortunate events, however, is anything but. For Carolyn Klemm, selling is about shrinking the world, about making the strange familiar. “People talk about six degrees of separation, I think there are two. At most.”
The headquarters of Klemm Real Estate are in a pretty green house beside Washington Depot, a quiet Connecticut village an hour and a half north of New York City. A couple of high-end black Mercedes and a Range Rover are parked at an angle outside. The dogwoods are blooming, the sun shining and when Carolyn Klemm, 66, breezes in from her home up the hill, declaring everyone and everything in sight “so darling”, the sap rises and life surges with possibility. Her sheer pep gives no hint of the fact that a few weeks earlier her husband died from cancer. “It’s a blessing,” she says, waving off my condolences. “He suffered a long time and we had time to prepare for it.”
She will be in New York next week for three days. “I’m booked solid, morning, noon and night. People have been so kind to me and they want to see how I am.”
We step over a large, chocolate Labrador called Teddy who loafs around the office and into her office in the rear, a low-ceilinged room dominated by a huge desk, a checkered sofa and flooded with sunlight from French windows. It is cluttered and cottage-y. Klemm plunks herself down into a high-backed swivel chair and begins to talk and talk, barely pausing for breath as she gives me the broad brushstrokes of what she calls her “fabulous life”.
Her grandfather was an Italian immigrant to the United Kingdom who ran a successful hairdressing salon on Dover Street in Mayfair. Among his clients was the then Queen. He invested his earnings in property and over his lifetime built a portfolio of properties from London to an estate just outside Rome. Every summer, he would drive his Bugatti down through Europe to Italy always stopping in Vienne, south-east of Lyon in France for lunch at La Pyramide, for many years regarded as the greatest restaurant in the world. “He believed it was important to lead the good life.”
Then came the war. With Italy on the enemy side, Klemm’s grandfather found his London business dwindle and some of his property appropriated. In 1948, he and Klemm’s father and and mother boarded a ship for Canada. But it sank en route and while Klemm’s parents survived, her grandfather died. Her parents lived in Montreal for four years, but loathed the deep winters which froze her father’s lush mustache. So in 1953, they prepared to return to England.
But on a farewell visit to friends in New York, her father stopped in Scarsdale, just north of the city. A friend told him there was a house down the road for sale and he would be a fool not to buy it. So he did, for $27,000, and lived there for the next 40 years.
At her new school, the 9-year-old Carolyn was teased for her English accent. Her mother duly went to see her teacher to invite her daughter’s entire class over for tea and cucumber sandwiches to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2nd 1953. “After that, I was much more popular,” she says.
Carolyn grew up surrounded by businesspeople who commuted each day to make their very considerable livings in Manhattan. “One of our neighbors was a buyer at Macy’s and another managed buildings for Douglas Elliman, very, very top-end buildings, and it seemed to me like they both had fabulous lives.” Her parents, however, were quite strict about money. They did not pay their children an allowance for doing chores – those were simply expected of family members. “My parents said it was quite natural to want material things, and told me that all I had to do was make the money to buy them.” So she went to work.
Her first regular gig was as a baby-sitter. Dependable, prompt and good-natured, she was quickly a hit among local families and had more work than she could handle. So she began farming out work to friends, taking 25 cents on every dollar they earned. At her peak, she had 15 girls working as part of her network. She also took a job in a local women’s clothing store called The Casual Lady, ticketing merchandise in the basement at first but soon working her way onto the shop floor. When she was 16, she bought her first car, a VW with a canvas top brought back from Europe by a neighbor who worked for General Electric. She paid for it with a bank loan which her mother co-signed.
Ever summer, her parents would send her off for a few weeks to stay with relatives in England. She would spend the flights in the bar in the belly of the old BOAC aircraft. “I started doing this when I was 12, and even at that age, I’d finish the flight knowing half the people on board.”
After college in Boston, she got a job as a buyer at Lord and Taylor, a department store in New York City. “I was the youngest one ever,” she says. She commuted from Scarsdale at the time, where her mother charged her rent for her room at home. “Thankfully, when I got married, I found she had been putting the rent into an account for me and she gave it all back.” From Lord and Taylor she moved on to Saks and Bergdorf Goodman, and even began manufacturing her own line of hair clips and accessories, “anything above the neck”, backed financially by one of the families for whom she had babysat as a teenager. By her late 20s, she was making $100,000 a year, double the wages of department store buyers twice her age.
She met her husband, David Klemm, a radio station owner and consultant and they moved up to a farm in Westchester. That was when she worked at Marty’s Motors in Mt. Kisco and met Lila Wallace. “I very quickly became the top dealer and the men would sabotage me. They were very jealous of me, they’d stop calls coming through to me and block clients. I really learned to hate that business.” Her happiest day in that job was December 22nd, 1976, her birthday, when her husband came to the dealership and pointed to a new, brown Cadillac Seville which she thought looked like a Rolls Royce and told her it was hers. “Anything you want to say to the manager?” he asked her. “Yes,” she said, in front of the men who had made her life a misery. “I quit.” And off she drove in her boat of a car.
Her boys were now 3 and 5 years old and the family wanted to escape New York suburbia. So they went north to Litchfield County, in the north-west corner of Connecticut. They had found an area of farms and large estates, white clapboard houses on emerald swards, gentle hills cradling pretty towns, often encircling a village green and a soaring, Congregational church. It was Yankee country. And for someone of Klemm’s ambition, a gloriously blank canvas.
After spending three years raising her children, in 1979, she obtained her real estate license and started working for a sleepy local firm. She initially refused to work weekends, a serious problem for a country realtor, as that was the only time she got to see her itinerant husband. So she had to find a way to do the job on her own terms.
She found her market among friends from New York. She would invite them up from the city to stay, serve them an elaborate French dinner on Saturday night – she had trained a the Cordon Bleu school in Paris – and then once they were softened up and besotted with upscale rural living, she would take them house-hunting on Sunday morning. “Who doesn’t like looking at houses?” she asks. In her first year as a realtor, she sold nine houses to nine friends.
Then, four years after the Kissinger sale put her on the map, she and her husband struck out on their own. Having sold his radio interests, David Klemm had the money to invest in a business close to home, where he could run the operations and his wife could do the front-of-house razzle-dazzle. “My husband had run a large broadcasting company for many years, so he insisted that we behave as a large company even when we weren’t. Everything was done meticulously. We owned our own office, we developed questionnaires for our customers, and we came to realize that the relationship really starts the day after the sale. Your customers, handled properly, become your biggest champions.”
She found a couple of important patrons in Robert Mnuchin, who once worked as the head trader at Goldman Sachs, and Arthur Carter, another wealthy New York financier, who bough huge properties in Litchfield County and encouraged their friends to do the same, using Carolyn Klemm as their broker. Later, when Carter started a local newspaper, the Litchfield County Times, Klemm became its biggest advertiser. Over time, she sold houses to business titans and politicians, athletes and actors, turning the once sleepy county into a rural hitching post for wealthy New Yorkers and selling nearly $2 billion of real estate along the way.
“In any given field, there are a limited number of experts. Among orthopedic surgeons in New York, I guarantee you there are a few everyone knows and wants to use. It’s the same with lawyers or plumbers. There are 85 real estate companies that service Litchfield County, but we have an unusually large share of the market.” This fact is emblazoned across almost every piece of Klemm’s signature green and white literature. Record Breaking Sales! Who’s Doing the Business? #1 For Selling Fine Country Properties! Period. Despite the rural setting, there is nothing genteel about Klemm’s promotional methods. Within the community she operates, there are many who regard her as too sharp-elbowed, too pushy, too sly. But it’s something she has grown used to in a life in sales. Whether it was the older salespeople at Lord & Taylor, the car dealership guys, or those in the social whirl of Litchfield County, being relentlessly commercial carries a price in jealousy and resentment.
“As a realtor, you are constantly abused by people. I’ve had my share of people who don’t show up, who are rude. It’s just a part of it.” And when you are as social as she is, there is no line between friends and clients. Her trick is to push for everyone’s business, but not to mind if she doesn’t get it. “You can’t be everybody’s broker. If friends don’t care to come to you with their business, you can’t let that get in the way. You communicate so much you get to know people very well. But some people only want you to be their broker. They don’t want you as a friend. They want only to deal with a professional. That’s fine.”
A typical Carolyn Klemm story goes like this. It is delivered circuitously, breathlessly and with the relentless dropping of names. “So I received a call the other day from an Englishman in New York looking for a summer rental. ‘Hellooo, I’m looking for a rental”,” she says in a mock English accent, as if holding a phone to her ear. They get to talking, because that is what you do on the phone with Carolyn Klemm. “Most people have no idea how to answer the phone,” she says. “I’m able to form a very quick connection.”
It turned out the man was the creative head at a major retail chain and gay – more than enough for Klemm to begin her trick of shrinking the world for him. “Well do you know Richard Lambertson and John Truex?” she asked, mentioning two handbag designers who share a country house in Litchfield County. “Or Calhoun Sumrall (a senior executive at Ralph Lauren?” The man said he didn’t, but naturally knew all about them. “Well, listen,” she told him. “Rent a house up here and I’ll make sure you meet all these people.”
The Friday after this conversation, she went to cocktail party a couple of towns over from Washington and met an old friend who works for Brooks Brothers. She discovered one of his employees was the Englishman’s partner. The circle was closed and the following Monday, Klemm’s Englishman signed up to rent in Litchfield County over the summer and she would be hosting a dinner party for him in early June.
“Most people can’t remember their broker long after a sale goes through,” she says. “Hopefully no one forgets me.”
When she hires other realtors, she says she looks for clones. “There’s an attrition rate in this business that’s unbelievable. You’d think they’re handing out real estate licenses with birth certificates, there are so many of them. But only a very small number are successful. The ones who do it part time for some extra money should be banned. No buyers should deal with them. I’m look a London cab driver with the city streets, I know all the inventory in my market thoroughly.” Her knowledge gathering begins in bed each morning as she scours the births, marriages and deaths columns of the local newspapers.
Her first criterion when hiring is a proven track record. There is no training program at Klemm – even her two sons who now work with her cut there teeth elsewhere first.
“Then I look for a fabulous personality. It could be someone very low key. Not everyone wants someone very outgoing or vivacious. But they must have a good record and sound reputation. It takes forever to get one of those. It helps if they are pillars of their community and if they’re the kind of person I like and want to spend time with.”
Aside from that, she looks for a fair degree of intelligence, a nice appearance, clean, trimmed fingernails, a good dress sense and a clean car. “Your car is your office. I’m amazed at how many realtors have disgusting cars. A clean car says a lot about someone, whether they’re organized and they follow through. Purchasing real estate is the largest purchase many people make, so we like to make sure we seem professional. We’re not that friend of a friend who just got their license but may be a complete amateur. It’s not just meeting someone, driving them around, picking a property and setting a price. There’s the networking, the research, the building a brand.”
And then, of course, the sale itself. “The one thing you don’t do is push. If you push, you push them away. You have to be very cool, you have to educate the customer with examples of comparable properties and their prices, and slowly you build up to the buy. Some people take a long time, and maybe you throw a little something in, some furniture perhaps to sweeten the pot. But these are mostly high net worth individuals who want service and respect and to be handled with kid gloves.”
The gossip which swirls around her and anyone else who succeeds in this profession, she says she can handle because she feels that whatever comes her way, she has a happy life. “My husband and I were married for 41 years and I don’t think we ever had a bad day. We lived an amazing life. And the other thing is that I’m very real. I don’t fake it,” which makes the foundation of her business life all but unshakable. There is no image to unpick, no mask to rip off. “The English side of my family changed their name from the Italian Vaccari to Vickery to seem more English. I was always Carolyn Vaccari. You are are who you are.”