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New York's leading ladies

Women hold the top real estate positions in New York and clearly dominate the city's multibillion dollar business.
/ Source: Financial Times

New York city is fertile ground for power brokers. But they do not all dress in pinstripe suits and work on Wall Street; their ranks include the women who dominate the city's multi-billion-dollar residential real estate business.

The best-known face in property is Barbara Corcoran, founder of The Corcoran Group. But she is in the company of women such as Pamela Liebman, Corcoran's chief executive, Dorothy Herman, co-owner and chief executive of Prudential Douglas Elliman, and Louise Sunshine, chief executive of The Sunshine Group.

"New York women have done exceedingly well," says Sunshine, now a marketing consultant for luxury condominium developments. "New York women are sophisticated and respected, have emerged as leaders in this field and can hold their own in a room full of men."

Sunshine, whose father was in the real-estate business, was Donald Trump's business partner for 15 years before forming The Sunshine Group in 1986. In 2002 she sold the company, which represents the developers of the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, to NRT, Cendant Corporation's residential real estate brokerage.

Real estate is an attractive career for women because of its flexible hours and income potential. Corcoran says four of her five top brokers are women - all earning in excess of $2 million a year. She believes there are many reasons why women have succeeded in this city.

"New York is open to the newcomer, and women are newcomers in the workforce," she says. "New York values what you can do, not your background. It doesn't give a damn about who you are or where you are from."

Great multi-taskers
Age may also have something to do with it. Corcoran says many women enter the real estate business later in life, after taking time off from corporate careers to raise children. "[These women] are focused with an enormous sense of urgency as they are making up for lost time," Corcoran says. "They are hyper-focused, and because they are accustomed to juggling tasks they are multi-taskers."

Intuition also contributes to their prowess. "Women are better at reading between lines," Corcoran says. "Real estate has nothing to do with real estate; it is to do with people."

Corcoran, who grew up in New Jersey, started out as a receptionist, but needed money and took on a weekend job in real estate. She made more in one weekend than she did all week. She formed a real estate company in 1973 with $1,000 from her boyfriend. In 1980 she founded The Corcoran Group with eight brokers. Today they have more than 1,000 brokers and two offices. Last year the company had sales in excess of $5 billion. In 2001 Corcoran sold her company to NRT for about $70 million.

More women at the top
Corcoran's status as the grande dame of New York real estate is being challenged by Dorothy "Dottie" Herman of Prudential Douglas Elliman. Earlier this year she made her debut on the Manhattan scene when Prudential Long Island Realty, which she headed, bought Manhattan-based Douglas Elliman for more than $70 million.

Herman now oversees a $6.5 billion empire, with 2,000 brokers working in 55 offices, and carries a photocopy of Jack Welch's "six rules" in her wallet. "I like his philosophy and his style," she says. "It's about communication and having the best people."

Herman has been in the business for 20 years, starting out at a small real estate firm by day while she studied financial planning and real estate appraisal at night. "Women are great at building businesses," she says. "They are nurturing, know how to build teams and have lots of patience - and in this business, you need to have patience."

Women also run several of New York's smaller firms. JoAnne Kennedy, part owner and chief operating officer of Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy, is one. She turned to real estate in 1978 when she needed to earn money for her children's private school tuition.

"I had been looking for apartments for my own family and the agents were a pretty sorry lot. If they could make a nickel, I could make a dollar," she says.

After working as a broker, Kennedy teamed-up with fellow agent William Hunt in 1988 to found Hunt Kennedy. In 1996, they joined David Michonski to launch the exclusive Coldwell Banker franchise. The company now has 260 brokers and four offices in Manhattan.

Barbara Fox, owner and president of Fox Residential Group, a boutique firm specializing in upscale properties in Manhattan, said residential real estate is a female-oriented business as it deals with homes and families. "There is a nurturing aspect of life that comes to light through the purchase and sale of homes," she says.

Fox chose real estate as a career because of the earning potential. "There were lots of glass ceilings for women in many businesses," she said. "I wanted something where no one could limit how much I could make. The commission business is about who you are, not about anything else."