By CANDACE TAYLOR
NEW YORK — Aiming to change its rentals-only reputation, Citi Habitats has renamed its sales division, calling it "Citi Sales."
The company has issued new marketing materials, business cards and window displays, emblazoning them with a new Citi Sales logo. But the division will remain under the Citi Habitats umbrella, operate out of Citi Habitats’ offices, and see no major changes, explained Gary Malin, the firm’s president.
Founded as a rental agency in 1994, Citi Habitats is the third-largest real estate company in the city and does more rentals than any other firm. Its sales business has also grown steadily over the years: by 2008, sales transactions comprised around 40 percent of the company’s revenue, Malin said.
Still, the company — which rented nearly 13,000 apartments in 2009 — is known to many clients and brokers as a rental firm.
"When you rent 13,000 apartments a year, it just overshadows everything you do," Malin said, adding that Citi Habitats has lost customers because people don’t realize that the company also does sales.
"Citi Habitats, to many people, simply meant rentals, because they didn’t know us as a sales company," he said.
He’s hoping the rebranding will change that.
"What the sales division needed was a repositioning," he said. "We needed to create some sort of new identity to really draw focus and attention to our sales business."
One reason for Citi Habitats’ persistent reputation as a rental firm was its acquisition by the Corcoran Group in 2004.
Before the acquisition, Citi Habitats had launched a boutique sales company known as SoLOFTS, Malin said. When Citi Habitats was acquired by Corcoran, the two SoLofts offices became Corcoran offices, he said.
That led many in the industry to conclude that Corcoran, which is owned by national real estate company NRT, would now be handling Citi Habitats’ sales business, said Bruno Ricciotti, a principal at competitor Bond New York.
Malin said that’s a common misperception, but Citi Habitats has always had its own sales business. "We never thought that Citi was going to refer our sales business to them," Malin said. He added that Pamela Liebman, the CEO of Corcoran, is "fully supportive" of Citi’s sales operations.
Ricciotti said Citi Habitats and Bond are among of the city’s few true hybrid firms, where both rentals and sales both make up a significant portion of their revenues. He said he’s not surprised that Citi Habitats has a strong sales business, since renters tend to become sales customers down the line if brokers play their cards right.
"Renters are potential buyers and sellers," Ricciotti said. "The hybrid model facilitates faster growth of a sales department."
But when asked if he was concerned that the new Citi Sales brand will create more competition for his sales brokers, he said, "I don’t think it will make any difference."
Clients, whether they’re renters or buyers, tend to be loyal to individual brokers rather than firms, he said.
However, branding is incredibly important in Manhattan real estate, as brokers here are well aware.
Last year, Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy closed its doors shortly after founder JoAnne Kennedy told The Real Deal that New Yorkers "associate the Coldwell Banker logo with the suburbs."
The company’s luxury division, Coldwell Banker Previews International, was intended to help the brand gain traction in Manhattan, she said, but it was too little, too late. (NRT, Corcoran’s parent company, operates Coldwell Banker franchises, including the now-defunct CBHK.)
Malin said he’s taken note of this cautionary tale, but feels the Citi Sales brand will succeed because it is based in an already thriving business. "It’s not like I’m building a sales division from nothing," he said. "I have a very strong sales division. It’s just a matter of repositioning it so it’s very clear that we have this division."
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