Barbara Corcoran doesn't follow trends: she sets
them. The Corcoran Group was the first real estate firm on the
Web, and this New York power player has been innovating ever
By Carol Milano
Photographs by Joe Putnnam
When Barbara Corcoran began selling real estate from her tiny
Manhattan apartment, at 23, she was determined to project a luxury
image. So she'd wear her one expensive garment - a fur-collared
coat from Bergdorf Goodman - to every appointment.
Twenty-six years later, The Corcoran Group sells $2 billion
in property each year and claims to be New York City's largest
privately owned residential real estate firm, with more than
500 agents, 11 offices and a fast- growing global sales division.
The corcoran.com web site averages a deal a day, often sight-unseen.
Her brainchild, The Corcoran Report, is a semi- annual bible
of industry trends.
Despite a tight job market, in a high-turnover industry, Corcoran
has a 20-person waiting list for new openings. Her tactics to
build motivation and zeal include in-house training free massages,
and frequent yoga classes. "I want everyone to love this
company as much I do," exclaims its founder, who warmly
welcomes visitors to her airy, spacious headquarters overlooking
Central Park and the Manhattan skyline.
Mother of a six-year-old son, with four grown stepchildren,
Corcoran owns desirable homes in Manhattan, Fire Island and upstate
New York. Trim and robust at 49, she enjoys sports and European
jaunts in her spare time. With her luxurious Madison Avenue headquarters
above Barney's, the high fashion palace, Barbara longer hesitates
to take off her coat during meetings. When she does, she's often
wearing designer labels such as Armani, Valentino and Calvin
How did an inexperienced young woman face heavy hitters in
tough, lucrative, testosterone-driven marketplaces, and prosper
for decades - while still enjoying herself? TYCOON caught up
with her for some tips and insights about her life.
TY: What led you to choose real estate?
I entered real estate by accident in 1973. I was a receptionist
at a building manager's office. His son had a brokerage firm.
I asked if I could work for him on weekends, for extra income,
on commission. I took the real estate sales exam and started
showing residential properties in Manhattan. The first weekend,
by renting two apartments at commissions around $330 each, I
earned three times as much as I had in three weeks as a receptionist!
And it was a lot more fun than sitting behind a desk.
TY: How did you set out to be different from the existing
real estate firms?
I thought I had a better personality - people liked and trusted
me right away and became loyal clients. After a few weeks, a
"spy" came from a private corporate-relocation firm.
Instinctively feeling something was amiss, I gave her the show
of a lifetime all day: parks, schools, the works. She thought
my service was incredible. At the end of the day, to no surprise,
she confessed she was not a customer. From then on, she sent
every single person looking for a New York City home to me. Eighteen
months later, her firm merged with Merrill Lynch Relocation Service.
That gave me a stream of income to hire my first employees.
TY: How has your company turned out to be different after
As a firm, we have a great ability to take a risk. We're highly
creative and redefine everything all the time. We set the trend.
We're never afraid to fall on our head. We also attract innovative
people who are passionate about what they do. The technology
will play out in our business very big card. Because of the Internet,
I believe real estate will change more in the next three years
than in the past 100. In 1999, we'll do $99 million in sales
on The Internet, up from $31 million last year. I would have
to open two new offices to do that. The Web site began in 1995.
We were the first real estate firm on the Web. We've redesigned
it three times - when most people in the industry feel they're
successful if they have a home page!
TY: What was your biggest setback or failure?
Homes On Tape. It was a video of all our properties with pictures
and floor plans, very well-done, very expensive to produce -
and a bomb. No one wanted to stop by to pick up the video. We
had to redo and update them every month to keep current or they'd
be misleading. Sifting in the basement surrounded by hundreds
of tapes. in 1995, wondering what we could do with them, I remembered
someone had told me about the Internet. So we scanned all the
properties into a Web site. A viewer could aim at only the features
they wanted. It was a natural for showing real estate. And the
Internet was already at people's home or office, so no delivery
problem - they could watch whenever they wanted. That was how
www.corcoran.com got born - as a cover-up for a big mistake.
Yet it's the single best thing we've done in years! Also, in
1997, I reserved 50 rooms and the Grand Ballroom at the Plaza
Hotel, and had all the speakers lined up for the first World
Conference of International Real Estate Leaders. Two weeks before,
only one person was coming. The silence of that realization was
enormous. We had to cancel. It was the hardest failure we've
had. The good news: We fell on our face so hard we had to make
it work the next year. This spring, we expect 120 companies.
TY: Which aspects of your earlier careers proved
to be useful in making you succeed in real estate?
Every earlier job relied on my two talents: I'm highly organized
with good people skills. As a waitress, bringing the right order,
and smiling, led to good tips. As house mother at an orphanage,
my people skills got them to trust and love me. When I was a
receptionist, I had to deal with a busy switchboard. I had enormous
practice in my talents: my mother had 10 children, and ran the
best-organized "boot camp" in our neighborhood.
Have you ever made a mistake you real estate?
.Back in 1979, 1 didn't buy my first studio apartment at Fifth
Avenue and West 11 Street, for $68,500 - a high price at the
time. It was in mint condition, with a roof garden. I regret
that for the bad feeling about being a coward. It diminished
my own self-esteem about how brave I was. That indecision haunted
me. The good news is, I said I'll never do that again.
TY. How much time do you have for your personal life? How
do you spend your spare time?
I take a lot of time for my personal life. Since my son, Tommy,
was born, I get home to put him to bed with two songs and two
stories. In my spare time, I'm an avid gardener and skier: both
cross-country and downhill. I read gardening books and spend
a lot of time seeing the world through my son's eyes. I'm afraid
I sound boring! I've never had a good idea at work. I get them
while I'm pushing Tommy on the swing or gardening - pulling weeds
clears up everything,
TY: Do you consider yourself a tycoon?
Not at all. A tycoon is someone who has arrived. I'm just
aggressive and aggressive people never feel they've arrived.
People who accomplish always have their eye on what they can
do in the future.
TY: What motivates you?
Pure curiosity: to see how far I can go, and the fun of getting
there. Until ten years ago, my motivation was proving to myself
that I wasn't stupid. In school, I was dyslexic and always thought
of myself as stupid. In those days, that was not diagnosed. I
was motivated to build a family of my own, and I did it through
my business. I left home at 18 after minding eight younger siblings
for years, with no longing to be a mother. It was much easier
to build a success story at work than at home. My husband, Bill,
is a '60s flower child. He has a "Spouse Play Desk"
at my office, and a business card that reads "Spouse."
Bill tolerates me at home, where I'm a different person, with
an extreme need for peace, tranquility and order. Bill is anything
but - my stepson calls him Captain Chaos.
TY: What do you see as your biggest success?
Long-term, it's the Internet. Our aggressive stance on it
will prove to be the single best thing we've done. I hope I'm
right - or it will be our biggest failure. Short term, it was
the one-day, one-price sale. My one-day sale idea came in 1991
when I watched the farmer across the road let shoppers pick the
best puppy of the litter, which she had every month. She'd invite
people in twos, to fight over the pick of the litter. I saw that
when they're far back in line, people will celebrate getting
the runt of the litter because everyone behind them got nothing.
The real estate market was flat then, with prices dropping.
Buyers felt no urgency. We had no money for advertising. So I
grouped 81 apartments (different sizes, neighborhoods and views)
into one batch, priced them all alike, and invited everyone on
the same morning. I told my salespeople to only bring their best
friends. We sold all 81 in one hour. Commissions were over $1
million. These were the same people who wouldn't have bought
them the day before. It was a great gimmick to create urgency.
The million-dollar commissions saved my business.
TY: Are women with money treated any differently than women
Anybody with money is treated differently. In business, people
will treat you as though you're more important if they believe
you have that key ingredient: money. It's all b.s. It turns me
off. If you have money, it buys you a right to be heard. Ideas
are not money-related. The best ad campaign we ever ran came
from our own receptionist, who got the idea from a Land's
End catalogue. Money almost makes your brain dull. If you're
very comfortable, you're less likely to think of a new idea.
A problem that needs to be solved gives birth to an idea. I was
far more creative when I was younger, because I had more problems.
It's hard to stay creative when you're less needy.
TY: If not real estate, what other career might
you have liked?
I would have been a great ski racer. I was beaten only once
by a man. At great risk, I'll race by anyone I see. I love the
thrill of it. I think I would have been good at sports: I'm aggressive,
competitive and have strong legs.
TY: Does money bring any negatives?
People can be more phony. The more new money that surrounds
us, the phonier people are. People look at you without knowing
anything about you. I have very few friends, and I had them when
I was poor.
TY: How do you get through the bad times?
I've gotten through them before, so I have a history. For
me, success is always in the extra 10 percent after the 100 percent,
after you think you've exhausted all the options. That's always
where things break for me. The one-day sale was when I was trying
to figure out how to gracefully go out of business.
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