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The path to a successful real estate career is not always a smooth or straight one.
But several individuals who are successful luxury agents today started out in a variety of different careers: consultant, waiter, NFL player, lawyer — the list goes on.
Those experiences weren’t for nothing, these real estate big shots told Inman. They helped them gain valuable skills that went with them into their real estate careers and have helped launch them to the top of the industry.
See how, as Inman spotlights the winding paths the industry’s top luxury agents followed to success.
Santiago Arana, The Agency
A native of Bolivia, Arana worked as a consultant for Bolivia’s government as a young man out of college armed with a degree in business administration and marketing. Shortly thereafter he was awarded a scholarship to get a Master of Finance in the U.S. — the only problem was that the program was entirely in English, a language unknown to Arana.
Not letting that small detail discourage him he deferred entering the master’s program and moved to Santa Barbara to live with some relatives and learn English through immersion. He jumped right in getting a job as a busser at Cava Restaurant in Montecito, which regularly hosted celebrities like Kevin Costner and Oprah when it was in business. Improving his language skills with free night classes, he got up the courage to ask for a promotion to waiter. After about eight months of waiting tables, he gave selling houses a try at the suggestion of his cousin who worked as a mortgage broker.
“It was a little bit of a different path,” Arana said. “One of the reasons I’m very successful at what I do is because I actually use my business and marketing knowledge that I have and apply it to my real estate career.”
“The amount of experience meeting people and the ability to read people, read personalities” was another skill from the restaurant industry Arana brought to real estate.
“From the moment someone would sit at a table, I was able to tell, they’re going to be a person with an education, they’re nice or not so nice, they’re cheap. You just kind of learn how to read people, you learn how to deal with people because we know now in the hospitality business you need to learn a lot about customer service — and that’s one of the things in real estate that a lot of agents forget.”
Beau Blankenship, Engel & Völkers 30A Beaches
After graduating from Ohio University, Blankenship was drafted into the NFL as a running back for the Jacksonville Jaguars and played in the NFL for a little less than one year. He said playing a professional sport taught him a formula for how to succeed in any sales business.
“What sports teach you is training,” Blankenship said. “What you have to do to win, what you have to do if you lose, what to improve on, what you have to do to be very good and the discipline it takes and the time it takes, so implementing all of that.”
“It turns out it actually translates directly into sales,” Blankenship added. “Whether it’s real estate, whether it’s medical sales, whatever — it’s a direct correlation.”
Dennis Chernov, The Agency
While still enrolled in college, Chernov became a mortgage broker and was in the industry for about seven years in the early 2000s. For about half that time he co-owned a company, learning all the ins and outs of the business including how to handle personnel and the details of handling a loan from start to finish.
Those skills have ultimately proved incredibly useful to Chernov, now running his own real estate business which he decided to transition into after the market crash of 2008.
“I learned how to run a business,” Chernov said. “You have to wear a lot of hats, from being a therapist to a client to being an accountant and not spending too much on marketing, to dealing with financial issues. I would say that’s probably the biggest help — I understand financing. I understand how a loan is processed. I understand that a consumer needs to make a certain amount of money or file taxes to get a proper loan out there.”
Bess Freedman, Brown Harris Stevens
For five years after finishing law school, Freedman practiced as a prosecutor and Legal Aid lawyer in Maryland and Florida before transitioning into real estate.
She said being a lawyer helped her learn how to think analytically, understand and effectively write contracts, communicate well with her clients and professionally carry herself. In particular Freedman said as a prosecutor she learned some very valuable skills from being in a courtroom.
“In my opinion, it was the absolute best experience that anyone could ever have,” she said. “It taught you how to get prepared, be on time, dress the part, speak articulately, communicate the facts and argue things. It also taught you how to negotiate and sit down with people — all sorts of people — whether it was lawyers or people who didn’t have lawyers and wanted to work things out and navigate solutions.”
Tomer Fridman, Compass
While pursuing his J.D. at Loyola Law School Los Angeles, Fridman participated in a practicum at Warner Bros. Studios in business and legal affairs, a course of training that he likened to “a combination of what someone would have done in an M.B.A. and a J.D.”
Then he ended up working in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office for about a year where he was frequently assigned to homicide cases. Ultimately, however, the family business called to Fridman and today he works on a real estate team with his mother Isidora.
Getting a law degree and spending time in the field helped train Fridman to spot the fine details as well as learn how to work with the large teams of lawyers, accountants, business managers and trusts that often go hand-in-hand with the kinds of high-end transactions he’s involved in.
“The truth is, if you look at the caliber of our transactions, the majority of them do have some kind of business management team that’s involved in it and you really have to know how to navigate through a buyer’s or seller’s team,” Fridman said. “You have to know your way around, or at least be prepared to navigate that process.”
Ginger Glass, Compass
For about 10 years, Glass worked as an in-house legal counsel member for a number of major corporations including Trump Taj Mahal, Tropicana Casino-Resort and Aramark Corp. before starting a real estate career.
She said that handling challenging negotiations with high stakes and lots of moving parts helped prepare her for everything that her real estate career would throw at her.
“I was charged very young with negotiating multi-million dollar contracts and preparing for court cases often in short periods, so I know how to manage a vast workload, think quickly and switch tactics, instantly resulting in the best results for clients,” Glass told Inman in an email.
“I am also experienced enough to know when I need an expert and how to ask them the proper questions for the best representation of my clients,” she added. “I represent lawyers, judges, managers and great people in all businesses and careers and have even represented many top agents that did not want to represent themselves which is the ultimate compliment.”
Amanda P. Jhones, Coldwell Banker Warburg
Jhones started modeling at the ripe age of 17 and continued her modeling career for about ten years while singing jazz on the side, a passion she continues to this day for stress relief. Once she matured out of modeling Jhones decided to pursue a real estate career and started out with Douglas Elliman in 1997.
Performing on the catwalk or stage helped Jhones learn to captivate an audience, she told Inman, which has helped her earn the trust of several real estate clients over the years.
“As a born entertainer, I like to capture my audience, but the best thing is, I want you to follow up with me,” she said. “Now, that doesn’t happen all the time. But I want you to sit and listen to what I have to say, because I am not going to waste your time.”
Nancy Kogevinas, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices California Properties
During her 20s and early 30s Kogevinas worked in marketing at a major advertising agency and then The New Yorker and Time Magazine. Her work brought her in contact with elite clients and executives in Los Angeles, New York and London, and prepared her as a disciplined professional when it came to working with luxury homebuyers and sellers.
“It was a very glamorous business, but also a disciplined business,” Kogevinas told Inman. “We entertained clients quite a bit and I worked on luxury brands, so I was exposed, not only to the strategies and the way that those brands were being marketed and sold to the public, but we also entertained the executives and the customers of a lot of our clients.
“That was an introduction at a pretty young age of how to treat people, genuinely, who are you customers, and do really good customer service and client relationships, but also just [how to be] around accomplished, successful people. That’s really what we’re doing — our clients, for me at least, are all extremely accomplished and it doesn’t matter if they have some $1 million house or a $20 million house. They’ve made something of their life, and [you have to be] able to meet them where they are, so to speak.”
Jason Oppenheim, The Oppenheim Group
Oppenheim practiced law for about four years before getting into real estate, working at O’Melveny & Meyers LLP in Los Angeles and representing clients in major cases like the Enron Corp. criminal trial of the early 2000s.
He said being a lawyer helped him develop critical thinking skills and how to provide the best representation for a client possible, in addition to teaching him a lot of helpful knowledge about the law and contracts which comes up frequently in real estate.
“Law school helped me think critically and taught me how to problem solve and analyze,” Oppenheim said.
“Also, practicing real estate requires a lot of legal acumen. You really are in many ways practicing law — when you’re drafting contracts and addendum items and you’re negotiating, so there’s a ton of confluence between being an attorney and being a real estate broker, not to mention, I’m a businessman now too, because I’m running a company and a brokerage, so it prepared me for a lot of the legal aspects of running a company.”
Gary Pohrer, Douglas Elliman
Pohrer went to school with a plan to become a stockbroker. When the market crashed in 2008 just as he graduated, he decided to take a chance and give his passion — golf — a shot professionally.
He played a few mini tours and realized the people he golfed with had some pretty nice houses. So, why not build a real estate business based on the people he met while golfing?
“I think golf is an amazing tool that you create great bonds with so many people because, where else are you together with three other people for four to six hours?” Pohrer said.
“This is something where you see people go through significant emotions on the golf course. You can be happy, you can be annoyed, you can be slow, you can be fast … you really see how somebody is on the golf course and pretty quickly you realize, ‘Ok, I play golf with this guy — do I want to hang out with this guy?”
Jacqueline Thompson, Jacqueline Thompson Group
Thompson worked as an information technology business consultant for a few years out of college and traveled all over the country regularly for her job. Working in corporate America helped instill in her what she perceives as some fairly basic skills, but ones that are crucial to succeed in sales as a real estate agent today, she said.
“I learned early on to give quality service, no matter what field you’re in,” she told Inman. “You always put the client’s needs first. You really have to listen to your clients — clients tell you what they want. When I was a consultant, they would tell me what they want, and I would come back and draft a proposal to meet their needs. And I think real estate is the same way.”
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