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 since.

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 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 Klein.

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 two decades?

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 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.

TY. 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 without?

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.

Many of these articles appear on the publication's website, which are often password-protected or members-only. For your convenience, I've gathered them on my own website.