“Psychologist, visionary, philosopher, salesman, handholder. I don’t know any industry that requires you to be so many things.”

So says David Michonski, CEO of Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy, and apparently he’s very skilled at that kind of multitasking. After all, he’s somehow managed to cram in a number of lifetimes already. Philosophy student and would-be classics professor? Check. Dormitory cook and Boston bartender? Check. State Department advisor, venture capitalist and eventual head of one of the fastest-growing brokerages in the nation? Check.

But in the rough-and-tumble world of Manhattan real estate, Michonski reaches all the way back to Greek philosopher Aristotle for his guiding principles. “He was a great observer of the way people actually are, as opposed to the way you’d like them to be,” he laughs. “That methodology has always served me well in real estate.”

Hear Michonski speak next week at Inman News’ Real Estate Connect 2005 in New York City.

Indeed, New York City has always been known best for its cutthroat competition and brassy, outsized figures like Donald Trump. But for a guy who figured there was a place in real-estate world for someone who was “nice and honest,” Michonski has done pretty well for himself. Since he linked up with Manhattan agents William Hunt and JoAnne Kennedy in 1996, they’ve gone from 26 agents to 300 and reached $1 billion in sales.

Not bad…but not where he figured he would ever be. The Palmer, Mass., native – a closet Red Sox fan, he admits, working in the middle of Yankees territory – started out studying classics at Colgate University. He also doubled as a cook for the student dorms, after the chef died suddenly of a heart attack, and Michonski (then a dishwasher) had to sub in at the last minute. It’s a skill that’s served him well since: Every year he straps on the apron and helps cook an international-themed holiday dinner for hundreds of employees. (Last year? Hawaiian.)

Michonski went on to pursue his Ph.D., but with few jobs at the time and an impatient mother-in-law on his case, he secured his real-estate license. He and his wife ended up buying out the brokerage they were working for, for $5,000 they didn’t even have; they charged $1,000 on five different credit cards, and crowned themselves the new owners. They sacked 12 of 13 brokers, started fresh, and built up the business sufficiently so that in a few years, they could afford to take another 180-degree turn: Retire to a 10-acre farm in New Hampshire.

But while raising a family and restoring their farmhouse was certainly fulfilling, larger events came calling. He dipped back into real estate with LandVest in Boston, then moved to New York to start the firm’s operations there. He became an expert in the specialized niche of international real estate, and went to Eastern Europe to advise the U.S. State Department after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact he and his wife subsequently spent a full two years in Warsaw, “one of the happiest times of my life and the least successful,” he laughs. After all, as newcomers to contract law, Eastern Europeans didn’t tend to pay a lot of attention to signed agreements. Michonski, understandably, came back to New York to do business.

Michonski signed on with Coldwell Banker, and teamed up with Hunt and Kennedy to take on Manhattan, after a long search for just the right partners. Together they went from “a pimple on an elephant’s ass” with a tiny office above a pizza parlor, to a force with a 40 percent compound annual growth rate. That brand of success doesn’t surprise Miriam Lowe, VP of international operations for the National Association of Realtors. She remembers Michonski being a networking machine at international meetings, as the NAR worked on building partnerships abroad. “It’s a little hard to keep track of him,” she laughs. “He’s a whirling dervish.”

Everything looked relentlessly positive, until the time Michonski found himself on the subway headed towards Brooklyn the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The conductor announced the news, the passengers broke out in “pandemonium,” and his world was forever altered. Getting out of the train in Brooklyn, he “could barely see 20 feet in front of me,” with all the smoke that had wafted over the East River. He took shelter in an office vestibule, just as the dust and debris from the falling towers rushed up Montague Street after him; he remembers a woman’s shoe, blown two miles from the blast, dropping from the sky right in front of him.

Michonski then walked back through Manhattan, against the flow of thousands going the other way across the Brooklyn Bridge, past all the empty triage beds in lower Manhattan waiting for the wounded that never came. He got on the first train he could at Grand Central Station – he didn’t even know where it was going – and eventually made his way back to his Connecticut home.

That soul-shattering day, though, didn’t alter Michonski’s optimism about Manhattan and its future. People are once again moving back into the city after a long decline, he notes. Every part of Manhattan is now considered prime, as the city gets safer from crime. And with the dollar falling against the Euro, it’s like a fire sale for foreign investors, with land at a 48 percent discount. Solid fundamentals, combined with the emotional resilience of the city and its people. “If 9-11 couldn’t knock a city to its knees, what could?” Michonski asks. “After that event, everyone said, ‘I have only one life to live – and I want to live it in New York. Come what may.'”

***

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