What It Takes to Be a Star

    Take a look at real estate ads and you will notice that the names of certain brokers keep cropping up on the ultra high-priced listings: Gary DePersia, Harald Grant, Tim Davis, the mother-and-son team Susan and Matthew Breitenbach. . . .

This week’s column is devoted to exploring the secrets of success of some of these top producers while also checking in with others who are hoping that there’s room for them at the top.

    Robert Lohman, an agent who works out of Corcoran’s Southampton office, calls the superstar agents “whales,” a term used in Vegas for high rollers who wager more than $500,000 an hour at the tables. “The rest of us,” he said, “are second tier.” He also mentioned a third tier of those agents who drop out of the game as the going gets tough.

     Mr. Lohman began his real estate career in 1985. It was a natural segue from his work as an interior architect, in which he was often asked to prescreen houses for clients. A glance at his pages on the Sotheby’s site shows that he currently lists several properties, from a First Neck Lane estate for $4,999,999 to a waterfront parcel of land in Quogue for $245,000. His listings total about $16 million, nothing to sneeze at, but nowhere near the juggernaut of someone such as Mr. DePersia, whose site claims his current listings at $400 million.

    “Everyone has something they bring to the table,” said Mr. Lohman. In his case, it is an eye for seeing “design potential.”

    “Some come from Wall Street,” he said, and bring a client base, while others “come from marketing and know how to get the property out there.” When it comes to the whales, he said, “Each had a hook and were able to keep it going.”

    Mr. Grant credits his big break to his former mother-in-law, Pat Patterson, who was an agent at Sotheby’s. Ms. Patterson got the former Ford model an interview at the firm in 1987 and then sent him referrals, including the client who put him in the “big leagues,” David Koch, who purchased the most expensive house in the Hamptons at the time, 1990, for $7.2 million.

    Still at the Sotheby’s Southampton office, Mr. Grant claims on his Web site that The Wall Street Journal cited him as the “Hamptons’ number one agent for individual sales volume.” It also reads that he has “ranked among the top 10 nationwide for several years,” boasting more than $1 billion in sales so far.

    Norwegian by birth — he moved to Bay Ridge in Brooklyn when he was 7 — he currently maintains well over $200 million in listings. Up until a couple of weeks ago that included Bridgehampton’s Two Trees Farm for $55 million. However, the owner took it off market to “develop it into private homes sites,” according to Mr. Grant. His current listings include Linden, a 10-acre Southampton estate, for $45 million, a Norman Jaffe oceanfront for $24 million, and a $36 million bayfront estate on North Haven.

    But he maintains that he’s not opposed to working with properties under $1 million. “I’m taking a nice lady out now,” he said, “showing her condos up to $750,000.” When asked what he has sold so far this year, he rattled off a few properties off the top of his head: “an oceanfront asking 28, another for 26, one for 14, a Mecox Bay for 19. . . .”

    Like Mr. Grant’s site, Mr. DePersia’s also claims that his real estate transactions total more than $1 billion. “His inventory is currently more than $400 million including Bridgehampton’s incredible Sandcastle residence, Shelter Island’s 36-acre waterview horse farm known as Paard Hill, Water Mill’s Mecox Bay estate Rose Hill Point, as well as over a dozen new construction projects,” it reads. The Paard Hill estate was recently sold.

    Mr. DePersia, whose early career was in the “rag trade,” credits many factors to his success. Joining Allan M. Schneider Associates (now the Corcoran Group) at the outset is one, he believes. “If I’d started at a small firm, I wouldn’t have gotten where I am.” At Schneider he met Peter Hallock, a legendary broker “who was instrumental in my early success.”

    He also recalls a couple of “aha” moments that kept him on track. One was his realization that, though he found himself based in East Hampton, many clients didn’t want to make the trek that far east. So, “I learned all the other markets,” he said. “Seventeen years ago, that wasn’t the case; you mostly sold in your area.”

    His next “epiphany” came when he started spending big money on advertising. He was surprised that his fellow agents used “mundane” images and descriptions in their ads. He hired an ad guy full time, John Lasurdo, who now has his own design firm but still counts Mr. DePersia as a client. “As I made money, I put it back into the business,” in the form of advertising. Mr. DePersia wouldn’t speculate on the size of his current ad budget, but he did say that his operation is so large he leases his own printer. “I think I’m the only broker to print an 8 to 12-page booklet, monthly.” In this brochure he features a selection of his current listings and distributes them from here to Aspen, Colo. “I probably have 40 listings at any time.”

    Mr. DePersia also has a team of agents who work with him, his “machine,” according to Mr. Lohman. Each shows houses as well as performs special tasks including proofing collateral, paying bills, and in the case of Dan Shafonda, handling overseas deals. When you’re such a powerhouse, why remain merely local?

    Having a team allows him to be thorough in his job. “When I get a listing, we do a full audit to know everything about it,” from the location of the gas tank to the well (if there is one). “We don’t show up to a presentation with a tear sheet,” he said. Instead, they bring those glossy brochures.

    And Mr. DePersia has WordHampton, a public relations firm, on retainer to further promote his doings.

    Every broker interviewed for this article cited “hard work” and “honesty” as the biggest components of their success, but that still doesn’t explain why all the hard-working, honest agents are not making killings.

    Some “second tier” agents such as Cynthia Kolbenheyer, with Corcoran in Southampton, need to be resourceful and clever. Ms. Kolbenheyer also runs two other businesses, a personal shopping club and Open Minded Concierge, a firm that refers her clients — often wealthy homeowners — to her local partners, mostly services from chefs to photographers to pool companies. The good news is that any one of these contacts can, and often do, become her real estate clients.

    Debra Scott is a recovering real estate agent, having plied the trade at Whitbread Nolan in Manhattan (back in the day), Vicki Bagley Realty in Washington, D.C., and Braverman Newbold Brennan before it was purchased by Sotheby’s International Realty.