Pamela Liebman is a rarity in the real estate industry. She’s been with Corcoran her entire career, since 1984, serving as president and CEO for 18 years. She spoke with Inman in a wide-ranging conversation about the recent decision to franchise, as well as her thoughts on competitors, industry issues with elevating women and other trends.
She’s also a woman in a leadership role, something not terribly common in an industry where the National Association of Realtors estimates 64 percent of Realtors are women. Just looking at the recent T3 Sixty list of the most powerful and influential leaders, 81 percent are male. Liebman came in at 21 on that list.
As a leader, Liebman negotiated Corcoran’s acquisition by parent company Realogy and has expanded the brokerage outside of the New York City market to the Hamptons and Florida. In October, Realogy announced it would begin franchising the Corcoran brand taking it to new luxury markets across the globe.
With Liebman at the helm, the firm founded by Barbara Corcoran has grown to more than 2,200 agents in 25 offices, closing more than $21 billion annually in sales.
Liebman spoke with Inman in a wide-ranging conversation about the recent decision to franchise, as well as her thoughts on competitors, industry issues with elevating women to the top and other trends:
We’re a couple months out from the decision to franchise Corcoran. Can you provide us with an update on how that process has been going?
So it’s been a lot of dotting our I’s, crossing our T’s and getting things in order and getting our presentations ready for the potential franchise targets. And we’ve had lots and lots of inquiries from across the world.
I think we’ve assembled a terrific team, we’ve hired up a lot of people to work on the franchise side of the business in marketing, in tech and in the franchise sales part of it, which is great. We had a really great meeting [January 23], we had the whole team in New York for a “brand day,” and immersion in getting our franchise sales guys totally understanding what the Corcoran brand is.
It’s a very unique brand and it’s different from whatever they’ve been used to selling in the past. We’re well on our way and I hope the next time we talk, we’ll be talking about who we signed up. We’re ready to go now.
Revisiting that initial decision: why is now, in the current market and current climate, the right time to franchise Corcoran?
I think there’s a new regime in place at Realogy that looks at franchising a little bit differently and allows me, as the longtime leader of Corcoran, and my team to remain in control of the brand.
In the past, I felt like we might be diluted by having a separate group out there selling our brand. And we’re just totally brand obsessed. I just never wanted to give up the control. The new regime was interested in doing it all under our team. So that got me more excited about it.
I also think the world is getting smaller and it’s time for us to get bigger. So I think the timing was really good. There has been a lot of inquiries over the years as they were selling other brands, as to, “why can’t we buy Corcoran?”
So the franchise team was always chomping at the bit to get their hands on Corcoran, so they’re really excited. When people at Realogy were asked, “who wants to work on the Corcoran brand?” they say lots of hands went up.
It’s fresh, it’s exciting, it’s a really well-respected brand, we’ve had great press, people understand who we are. We’re going to make those who don’t know us, know us. [On January 23] we got worldwide press on our sale of the most expensive apartment in history — $238 million — and things like that really help showcase what we’re about.
Is there any concern that this major Corcoran expansion comes at a time when global markets are starting to turn? A lot of CEOs are worried about a global recession.
I think it’s fine. I love the idea of going against the tide. I think that’s when people can be really successful. We don’t want to follow the crowd. I think we can be even more helpful in tough times with enhancing a maybe smaller company’s reputation in their market place by aligning with a brand like Corcoran.
On the own-side, when you announced Corcoran was franchising, you also announced your brokerage was expanding. Can you provide any update on that expansion?
Yeah, the place that we’re focused on first is Miami. And I’m on my way there right now to continue to lock down some space.
We’ve hired a couple of brokers who are working in temporary space. That was a natural market for us because it is such an extension of New York. It’s like a playground for New Yorkers. It’s not that different from people that go to the Hamptons for the weekend, they go to Miami for the weekend.
It is also the gateway to South America where we’re hoping to have a large franchise presence. So it was a necessity for us to be in Miami.
What are some of your dream international markets to take Corcoran into?
I think we need a large presence in South America, all across China, Singapore and then certainly some luxury markets across Europe. For me right now, China is very important and South America will be important.
Canada is a natural market for us and we’ve gotten some great inquiries from Canada so I’m hoping we’ll be doing something there very quickly.
Frankly, a lot of our interviews are with men in leadership positions and they make up so much of the industry’s leadership structure. Why do you think that still is in 2019, where more than half of Realtors are women?
It’s a really good question. I’m not really sure. Corcoran has always been run by women. When I started at the firm, it was Barbara Corcoran, then it was another woman and myself. Many of my colleagues in other firms throughout New York are women.
I think that women in real estate are natural. I think you need to have a lot of empathy in this business and understanding of what people want. I think women as leaders provide a great balance of power and empathy and I think it’s natural for the real estate business.
It would be nice to see more people throughout the industry. Hopefully, it’s growing. It’s better in residential than it is in commercial.
I, as a leader, really try to empower women and mentor them and bring more women as leaders up throughout our firm.
What structures do you have in place at Corcoran – and also at Realogy where there’s a lot of women in leadership positions – to help elevate women?
Well, we elevate proper talent but we give women the chance to be in the right positions to be noticed and be considered for promotion and leadership positions. I can’t say that I neglect men at the expense of trying to promote a woman, but I think we like to provide the right mentorship.
I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of terrific women that have worked for me or who I have identified at other firms and targeted to bring over to Corcoran.
Right now, we have a really balanced team at Corcoran of men, women, straight, gay, diverse and I’m proud of that culture with us. We do try and keep a diverse culture. I think it’s important because it gives a balanced view at the table. You want to hear from lots of different types of people. There’s a lot of great men out there too.
What ways do you think Realogy and Corcoran and even other companies in the industry can improve to elevate a more diverse set of leadership?
I think when we’re searching for candidates, it’s important to really get the world out there. I think Realogy does, they have a diversity officer there. They are always looking for candidates that fit into our long term plans of being an extremely diverse company.
I think that it’s really important that we try our best to source talent from all walks of life and all types of people in order to have a culture that is not only made up of different types of people and very diversified, but it’s also set up for the future to elevate these people later on. And coach, and give talent and provide leadership mentorship so that everybody feels like they’re empowered.
I think Realogy and Corcoran both have a culture of empowerment for all and that’s very important.
You’ve been with Corcoran your entire career in real estate. What makes the company so special and why have you never considered looking anywhere else?
I just love the people I work with, to be honest with you. It’s been a great ride. I started with 30 people, now we’re several thousand people, we’re the number one firm in all our markets and my favorite thing, that I said when I took over Corcoran and this is what I love about it, we have the heart of the small and the power of the big. We’re just very true to ourselves, true to our brand.
Most of all, we worship our agents and we know where the bread is buttered. We have always said, and I have always said, I work for a couple thousand people and that’s my agents. We just try and create a culture that makes it a great place to work and of course a great place for employees.
We celebrate each other’s success. We don’t have a highly competitive environment, we have an environment that feels very family oriented. That’s what we’ve called it from day one, the Corcoran family. That’s why it works.
What do you think the most important lesson you’ve learned in your years at Corcoran has been?
My most important lesson: if something doesn’t feel right, end it, don’t let it drag on.
Can you provide any more context on that?
Sometimes, you feel like you’ve made a mistake and rather than perpetuate that mistake, it’s better to just cut it off. Throughout the years, whether it’s the wrong person in the wrong job or putting some money into a platform you realize is not going to work, we don’t want to throw good money after bad or keep the wrong people there. The long-term effects of not cutting your mistakes sooner can be very damaging. I think that was a good lesson.
One of the lessons I always try to tell people is that, even when you’re number one, always think like you’re number two. Never get complacent., Always be thinking ahead of strategizing because things will change. Learnings how to help people manage change is very important.
Looking back, what is something that you wish you would have done differently or handled differently?
The whole point of us getting together is, we saw the future was that if we don’t protect our own data and do something, somebody else will swoop in and do it. There was so much fighting amongst the firms, that we just finally threw our hands up in frustration and said, “forget about it.”
Our worse fears came true in so many ways with what has happened with online portals. Back then, if we had just been able to get along better and we could have pulled it off, it would have been a different world that we’re living in here today. I should have given up. I should have just figured out a way to make it work.
Technology is obviously really important for scale in a big real estate company, but with a niche market like Corcoran’s, what role does technology play?
Well, technology makes the lives of the agents and the company so much easier. When you have well-functioning technology that can support the agents and not take time away from what they’re really wanting to do, I think it’s helpful.
It can also make you a lot smarter if you know how to use it. It’s a tool, but it’s one of our most important tools. It really helps the agent serve the clients if you have very good technology. It helps you get things done faster and see things faster. Technology is something that we all have to stay on top of.
We’re sort of seeing this technology arms race in the industry with companies building their own platforms and I know Realogy works with an open-architecture platform – what are your thoughts on what is best for your agents?
For years, we have had our own platform in-house for Corcoran for our listing data management and we have, like, Realogy, open source for bringing in other technologies that can enhance our offerings. I’m completely open now to even outsourcing our listing management.
I think it’s become more of a commodity. I think there’s so much money driving technology with some of these outside firms that aren’t in real estate. That’s all they do all day, think about better ways to make technology.
We don’t need to compete with them, we just need to partner with them. I’m totally a believer in [Realogy CEO] Ryan Schneider with that. I think it’s a good thing.
What do you think some of the prevailing industry trends in 2019 will be?
I think you’ll probably see some more consolidation. I think some of the medium-sized firms may struggle with the market being so difficult and the competition being so fierce.
I’m hoping we’ll see brokers settling in more and agents settling in more. I’m asked this all the time and I think about the market trends. I’d like to see some more stability with the agent population. I’m hoping that’s a trend for 2019.
I think people need to focus on their clients and their customers and buckle down as we go through a market that is definitely adjusting.
Hopefully, we’ll start to see some pricing changes that create an increase in volume. And that in states like New York, the SALT [state and local tax deducations] will not be such a drag on the market and after people get through the first tax cycle of the new tax plan, that we’ll get back to talking about real estate more than we talk about taxes and the economy.
The other question I had, you kind of answered at the end there, but maybe you have more thoughts on it. What are some prevalent industry trends of the last couple of years that you think we might move past in 2019?
I think there’s been some overly aggressive behavior and a lot of talk and a lot of smoke and mirrors out there. I’d like to move past that and just get back to the reality of what we are — we’re people trying to match people up with buyers and sellers and find people a home. That’s what we’re really trying to do.
We’re not celebrities, we’re not TV stars – well a couple of us are, a couple people are – but I think that it got a little ugly out there between. Well, you know what I’m talking about.
Well, I’m going to ask you to expand a little bit though. When you talk about aggressive behavior what do you mean? In terms of acquisitions, in terms of growth?
I think it got very aggressive out there in terms of agent acquisitions and I think that some of the firms are setting an unsustainable future for themselves.
Hopefully, we’re going back to an era of responsibility where everybody can feel fairly treated, agents can make a lot of money, the firms can do very well and give agents all of the support they need and all the different firms work together in a very friendly and sustainable ecosystem.
I have to ask, are you referring to Compass or others?
No, not just Compass, but certainly I’d like to see them be less a part of the story going forward. They made a lot of noise the past couple of years. But when you get down to brass tax, they’re just like everyone else, they’re a brokerage firm. After the [initial public offering], or one day when they have to show their numbers and let people in, there’s no magic.
There’s nothing different there. They are just a firm that’s spent a lot of money to try and gain market share and it’s just created a lot of noise. It can’t go on like that forever, it’s just not possible.
As someone who runs a very successful company, I know what it takes. And longterm, whether it’s Compass or anyone that comes in with a model that makes a splash in the beginning, they have to change. I think I just read that Purplebricks changed its model.
Well, that was going to be a follow-up question to what we’re talking about now. We’re seeing a lot of these disruptors change their models. A lot of discounters and disruptors are changing more towards traditional models. What are your thoughts on disruptive, untraditional business models, Purplebricks, Reali, even eXp Realty doesn’t have a traditional office?
I think at the end of the day, it comes down to, how can you best serve the clients? How can you make your customers happy? It’s a very expensive business to run. I don’t see how, in a lot of the expensive markets across the country, that these kinds of discount models can work. They have never worked in the past.
Can they work in the future? Maybe. The top agents aren’t working there and the clients want the best agents working for them. If I have a multi-million dollar property, I want it with somebody who has a track record and is going to get me the best price. Those people aren’t typically working at a discount brokerage.
They certainly have their place. Disruption is good because it encourages change. And like I said before, change is really important. If you don’t change you just get left behind. I don’t mind the disrupters. I mind the smoke and mirrors that accompany it and the kudos that some people bestow on some of these disruptors that have no basis in reality. I think sometimes the press can create this fantasy world that doesn’t really exist.
The final question I have for you that I like to ask everyone is, whom do you view as Corcoran’s biggest competition?
I view the online portals as our biggest competition going forward. That’s who I view as our biggest competitors. They’re not going to stand still and they are just looking for ways to get into this business down the road. I don’t know if they’re a competitor but I view them as a future competitor.
Today, I think laziness, lack of investment and lack of foresight will be the problems that brokerage firms face. People have to embrace change, understand the future and not operate from fear, but take a courageous position that in this next wave they’ll be on top.