What does an English-born, Stanford-educated PHD and Columbia Business School academic, with a highly-developed entrepreneurial itch do? Why, sell real estate, of course. This whip-smart, “speak quietly and carry a big stick” wisp of a woman wears more hats than a Beach Blanket Babylon player: organizational psychologist, negotiation guru, mother, general contractor and repeat top producer. With $216 million in recorded sales in 2015, drawn primarily from the highly-competitive playing fields of San Francisco’s Northside, including its vaunted Pacific Heights and surrounding environs, she occupies the #1 ranking at Pacific Union and is repeatedly found at the summit of the San Francisco charts.
On coming to America
I was born in England, did my undergraduate studies in England at Bristol University, and then did graduate work in psychology at Stanford. I was 21 at the time and selected Stanford because it was in California, and that sounded like fun. I stayed there for two years but returned to England after I was accepted into Oxford. I went there for a semester and absolutely hated it—very English, very traditional and very lonely. That’s when I made the decision to return to Stanford.
I got my first job at USC in the Psychology Dept. teaching Organizational Behavior. Then I headed to Columbia University in New York to continue teaching—touchy-feely courses such as Interpersonal Relations, and Advanced Decision Making. I thought I was going to stay there, get tenure and be a professor forever. But I got completely sidetracked by real estate. I bought my first apartment, and in the process I met a guy who was developing condominiums—split-level, exposed brick and super cool—up and down the Upper West Side. He was delivering a great product, but lacked serious infrastructure–marketing and the ability to get loans. Coincidentally, I had working relationships with Citi Bank, Chemical and Chase. So we teamed up. I did the advertising and handled the banking relationships. He did the building. It was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. We made tons of money.
On getting into real estate
I decided that real estate was my real passion, so I left Columbia. Coincidentally, at that time I was dating someone (now my husband) who was living in San Francisco, so I thought, “Well, if I’m leaving my job, I might as well join him.” I worked as a management consultant for a while but hated the lack of control that goes with the job. So, I decided to focus on real estate. I built 12 fairly large townhouses in Palo Alto in what was then an approaching recession. I remember being offered a dollar to have the complex taken off my hands – which I refused. We rented them out, and two and a half years later we were able to sell at a fairly reasonable profit. The big lesson I learned was that you have to have enough capital to ride the downturns. Then I decided to have children, so I started refurbishing homes in the City.
Initially I did not want to become a real estate agent. I feared that I wouldn’t be in control, wouldn’t be the boss. And I hated the housekeeping that goes with the territory, handling the keys, having to drive everywhere. But I followed my husband’s advice and tested the waters with Joan Gordon who was then at TRI and is now at Hill & Co. She had been the agent handling my development projects, so when I said I wanted to become an agent, her response was “Well, in that case you should join TRI.” I stayed there for more than 20 years but joined Pacific Union a few years ago because of what Patrick Barber has built—a fun, energetic, youthful, thriving home with fabulous collegial culture.
On the Hatvany model
My practice is concentrated primarily on the north side of town–mostly higher-end homes, condominiums and co-ops—Pac. Heights, Russian Hill, Telegraph Hill, all the way to Seacliff. My sweet spot is the traditional $3 to $10 million property in Pac. Heights. And it’s not about the price. I really want to stay in San Francisco because I have block-by-block knowledge and I know the buildings intimately.
My family tells me I’m intense. I do work extremely hard, and I’m overly keen to please. Nothing makes me happier than a contented seller or buyer. I have high standards. Sometimes I worry that my industry colleagues think I’m more contentious than I mean to be. That’s only because I’m a perfectionist and sometimes that can come across as being aggressive or demanding. “Where is the information? Why don’t I have it yet?” Having said that, I’m pretty much in control of my demeanor. My job is to hold it together.
I find it interesting to see how people make their decisions, how they’ll sometimes change their minds and backtrack. But I don’t get angry about it. I don’t berate clients or make them feel bad. I learned my lesson the hard way when I was doing development. My husband and I went into contract on a property, and after about two days we decided that it was just terribly expensive. I called up the agent and said, “I’m so sorry. This is overwhelming. I can’t proceed.” She could have been very angry, but she said, “Of course. I understand. There is absolutely no reason for me to deliver this news to the seller this minute. Why don’t you sleep on it? I want to make sure you know exactly what you’re doing. But if that’s your decision, of course I respect it, and we’ll get you out of this right away. I’ll call you tomorrow at 4:00 to confirm.” It was such a relief that she wasn’t angry. She wasn’t judgmental. She understood. We went to bed feeling much better. In the morning, after a good night’s sleep, the fear had dissipated. By 4:00 we were back in the deal. I said to myself, “This is how I want to be.”
I’m firmly committed to having good relationships with other agents, managing transactions professionally, having good endings. That’s tough to do in the in the hurly-burly of San Francisco real estate. I’m sometimes disappointed by agents who are sloppy in their paperwork or in their tracking of details. And sometimes you get this aggression that comes out when things don’t go quite right. The successful agents who impress me are always on top of things and always positive. I think a lot of agents start out thinking that their role is to be combative. “My client won’t pay one more cent.” Or, “You’ve broken the hood fan. You’d better fix it.” I think if you’re in the business long enough, you realize that’s totally counterproductive.
There was an instance when I was the listing agent. The sellers were in Los Angeles, so I was in charge at the time, an expensive house — $3 million. I was touring the house with a client when we opened the powder room door and there was a skunk. That was about 12:00 noon. I called the sellers and they said, “We have incredibly fine furnishings, art, fabrics and curtains. You have to do something so it doesn’t spray.” I had no idea what to do, so I called animal control, and they advised setting out a cheese trail to the outside. Because skunks are more likely to come out at night, I laid the trail, opened the door to the garden, and then waited. My husband and I sat in the living room in the pitch dark until 9.00 PM, and eventually we hear the powder room door creaking open, and the skunk exited. It was great.
On the family
Both my husband and I were born in England and we are proud U.S. citizens of long standing. Our son and daughters were born in San Francisco and two are lawyers who work with me in the business. My son Paul handles marketing of the properties; my daughter Natalie handles all of the transaction details from start to finish. My younger daughter, Vanessa is joining the team from her successful real estate practice in New York in September. I’m responsible for the sales function—securing the listings, handling the showings, managing the process, advising the client.
On life’s trials and tribulations
What upsets me? Clients who suddenly won’t communicate with me. If they explain what they’re doing, then I have infinite patience. If they just stop talking to me, then I become extremely anxious. I had a $10 million listing in Seacliff, which at the time was very high-priced. It all looked good. The buyer was a celebrity, and then all of a sudden they just backed out. They just decided they didn’t want it anymore and wouldn’t tell me why. I had a similar experience with a well-known sports celebrity who two days before the close, just walked away. Both times it was somebody famous enough who they felt they didn’t have to abide by normal courtesy. Of course, I’m upset. I’ve done all this work and I’m not getting a commission, but worse still was the immense disappointment, outrage and grief felt by the sellers. It’s the easy-to-write letter that didn’t happen. The letter that said, “Dear sellers, I have decided to terminate the transaction. I understand you will be shocked and horrified. I am so sorry. My mother died.” Tell me something. Tell me a white lie. Don’t just show disdain by not telling me anything.
There was a home I advertised as having a full bath down at the maid’s area, when in fact it had a half-bath. The buyer rightly said, “I paid for a house that had a full bath.” I had just opened the door and thought there was a shower behind it. It was an oversight with serious consequences. I apologized profusely, got a contractor to design and estimate what it would cost to make it a full bath, and paid the difference.
The beginning of the year is always bad for me. Remember, we’re in an entirely self-motivated business–no boss, no salary, no fixed income stream. And that’s really scary if you think about it. Come January 1st there is never any business, and there’s always the question, “Where is it coming from?”
On the people who made an impression
My husband is really my rock because he’s highly intelligent, level-headed and creative and he understands the issues. He’s interested in real estate and we renovate together a lot. So, he’s my sounding board.
Joan Gordon has been a major influence. She mentored me for an important early period in my career. Malin Giddings is a role model. She’s outstanding. Florian Moore. She was a terrific agent. I once went to an open house that she was hosting. She took me to every single room. I thought, “God, what dedication.” I have to say if it’s just an open house and I’m sitting by the front door, I’ll probably stay seated. She went above and beyond.