Chinese lamps, leather chairs and carpeting reminiscent of the orient set the mood of subtle elegance in the lobby of Douglas Elliman’s executive offices. Company publications, Treasury of Fine Homes and Folio of Fine Homes, are set out for visitors to peruse as they wait to be admitted past this luxurious, hushed anteroom. An entirely different aura presents itself in the interior space of this brokerage space at 575 Madison Avenue.
The subdued tone of the lobby has fused into an area swirling with the activity of brokers at their desks, accessorized with prerequisite computers and ringing telephones. This is only one of Douglas Elliman’s 11 Manhattan offices and is headquarters for the firm. The company also maintains six additional branch offices in the New York Tri-State area and has affiliated offices throughout the world. Over 800 agents work for Douglas Ellilman, brokering $2.2 billion in sales during 1999. The company anticipates that number to be dwarfed by the year 2000’s real estate sales. Although the exterior may seem quiet, a company doing these numbers could not possibly be anything but explosive.
Chairman and chief executive officer Alan J. Rogers, an Englishman, initially became involved with real estate in London during the 1970s when he did commercial leasing for a firm called Knight Frank & Rutley. In 1979, he headed for Brussels to head the company’s office and in 1982, went to Hong Kong for the firm to set up a joint venture. On Thanksgiving of 1984, Rogers landed in New York to set up an office for Knight Frank, affiliated with Douglas Elliman. When the company wanted him back in London after three months, Rogers decided to remain in New York and joined the developer Milstein Properties. "What we were building was so diverse," he recalls. "And it was a fascinating time." Instead of managing an office, as he had done for so many years, Rogers had a new experience and headed the marketing department for the Milsteins. In 1989, the Milsteins bought Douglas Elliman, a firm which had been founded in 1911 in a basement store at 421 Madison Avenue by seven men and one woman.
Intent on becoming experts in any one given area in Manhattan, the firm originally concentrated on the "silk stocking" district, the region between Broadway and the East River from 32nd Street to Central Park, and east of the Park to 98th Street. The original creators were zealous in their study of the area, its people, businesses, strengths, weaknesses, and complexities. The firm became experts and began providing information and guidance. According to Douglas Elliman literature, "During the ensuing decades, the scope of our services grew in response to the city’s ever-changing real estate market. By adapting to our clients’ changing needs, Douglas Elliman evolved into the city’s original full-service real estate firm."
Years later, under the Millstein’s ownership, Rogers took over the brokerage side of the business and built it up utilizing all of the marketing, management and advertising skills he had amassed in two decades of work within the industry.
Douglas Elliman had always focused on the Upper East Side as its primary base for sales. By the late 1980s, the firm had an Upper West Side office, but downtown was an unexplored area for the company. "We set out on expanding our Manhattan territory," says Rogers. "One of my main missions was that I wanted a firm as diverse as New York City was." Rogers not only wanted to be working with apartments all over the city, but he wanted the brokers "to reflect a total cross-section of New Yorkers." Without letting go of any of the brokers who had been with the company prior to the change in ownership (in Roger’s words, "They’re a part of the fabric of the company") he expanded the number of offices, brokers and, exponentially, the number of sales.
Rogers feels that Douglas Elliman offers more than other agencies for buyers and sellers. "We promote and spend substantially on traditional, print media and our own publications as well as our great website. Our brokers get budgets to advertise, as our focus is to promote properties. Additionally," Rogers continues, "we have great managers."
Brokers are educated in both the real estate market and in new technology; classes are offered on such topics as negotiating in this market, servicing exclusives, board packages and getting listings in a palm pilot.
"My other mission," Rogers says, "is my ‘cradle to grave’ philosophy." That is, developing relationships with young buyers and maintaining their connection to the firm over the years. Rogers started a rental division for Douglas Elliman because he "wanted to be able to rent to young people arriving in New York their first apartment. If they do well, they’ll rent another apartment fairly quickly or buy one. In their first ten years in the city, perhaps they’ll have five transactions or relocate to a suburb. That’s why we now have six satellite offices in Connecticut, the North Shore of Long Island and in New Jersey."
Behind the Scenes
It’s not all about numbers, though. "We have a lot of fun here," says Rogers, who feels that humor is a necessary ingredient for a work atmosphere. Rogers, well-dressed on this rainy dress-down Friday, sits in front of a flat screen computer which displays the company’s website (douglaselliman.com).
Alfred Renna, an executive vice-president and director of new media, and Paul Purcell, managing director and chief officer of operations, wander into Rogers’ office, each telling their own news of the day to Rogers. What is on Purcell’s mind is a new hire, a broker he is sure will be fantastic.
Renna’s main interest this morning, and one gets the feeling every morning, is news about the firm’s website. At Douglas Elliman for under two years, Renna has redesigned the website and launched a new and exciting version a mere seven months ago. Traffic on the site is over 5,000 daily hits, which is exciting for the firm.
Douglas Elliman’s New Century
As one of the oldest residential real estate firms in the city, Douglas Elliman is prepared to enter the future. With a 30 percent share of the sales market and 40 percent of the rental market, Rogers and his cohorts at Douglas Elliman are pleased with their positioning and are gung-ho to transition forcefully into the future. "Our goal is evolution," states Renna, who will continue renovating and expanding the firm’s website. "We want to continuously deliver what the customer wants by morphing technology with creativity and the business of real estate."
Ms. Wagner is a freelance writer living in Manhattan.