By guiding Corcoran through a series of strategic acquisitions, Pam Liebman has transformed the company into one of the country’s premiere real estate firms
By Dakota Smith
Photography by Naila Ruechel
“Her role is critical because she knows better than anyone else whether a company would be the right fit for Corcoran.”
Real estate may be her profession, but Pamela Liebman certainly knows a thing or two about mergers and acquisitions. Since Liebman was appointed CEO and president of Corcoran in 2000, the company has been on a buying spree, snapping up real estate firms from New York to Palm Springs and establishing itself as the dominant agency on the moneyed Eastern seaboard.
Indeed, name any city outside of New York, and it quickly becomes apparent that the beautiful 44-year-old executive has a dossier-and quite possibly designs-on the region. How about Miami?
“I love Miami,” says Liebman, pointing out that Corcoran Sunshine, the company’s luxury division, is currently marketing the Mondrian, the Morgan Hotel Group’s first residential project, an impressive hotel-condo in South Beach. “We have been approached by several companies in Miami who think they would be a good fit for Corcoran.
“Last week alone, we received three calls from companies around the country looking to be bought out,” she adds.
Everyone, it seems, wants to be a part of Corcoran. Barbara Corcoran may have founded the company in 1973, but Liebman has turned Barbara’s vision into an empire. Today, the company has 45 offices, nearly 2,000 agents, and annual sales of about $13 billion. Corcoran expanded its New York City business over the last five years by attracting top talent and increasing sales each year.
Fueling Corcoran’s growth are acquisitions. Liebman has an eye for a deal; On her watch, the company has purchased eight companies, including New York rental company CitiHabitats, the go-to listing service for any college graduate, and Corcoran Sunshine, the firm credited with setting the gold standard for luxury marketing in New York.
But last summer’s purchase of Allen Schneider, the venerable Hamptons firm, has been the company’s largest coup to date. Following the purchase of Hamptons firms Cook Pony Farm and Dayton-Halstead, Corcoran’s parent firm NRT nabbed the brass ring, acquiring Allen Schneider for a reported $40 million. (NRT is owned by Realogy Corporation, which is also the parent company of Sotheby’s International, Coldwell Banker, and numerous other real estate-related companies.)
With 12 offices, Allen Schneider was the largest independently owned brokerage on Long Island’s East End-and a company that produced $1.4 billion in sales in 2005.
“That was our key acquisition,” says Liebman of the firm. “It wasn’t just the additional sales they brought to the company, but they also enhanced Corcoran’s reputation because they were considered by many to be the most prestigious firm operating on the East End.”
“Before Allen Schneider, Corcoran was a firm that had an excellent presence in New York but just an okay presence in the Hamptons,” says Gary DePersia, senior vice president at Corcoran who worked at Allen Scheider for eleven years. “Now they are the number one agency on the East End.”
And given Corcoran’s presence in New York City and Palm Beach, having a strong foothold in the Hamptons is crucial, adds DePersia, since many of the same buyers purchase in all three, or at least two, of those regions. “There is a tremendous crossover of buyers,” he says.
Meanwhile, the Allen Schneider buy also ratcheted up the rivalry between Corcoran and Prudential Douglas Elliman, longtime competitors in both the Hamptons and New York. While negotiations with Allen Schneider were going on, executives from Prudential planted an item in New York magazine noting that Corcoran was closing offices in the Hamptons. If Liebman wanted to tell the magazine’s reporter why Corcoran was shutting down offices, she kept happily mum. “Well, the reason that we were closing them was because we were anticipating the synergies that Allen Schneider was bringing to the table. It was part of a strategic vision for the combined company,” says Liebman.
The competition between the two firms continues today, fueled by developers who are happy to hand off buildings if sales aren’t up to snuff. (Famously, developer Steve Witkoff’s minions at The Residences at Cipriani Club escorted Corcoran’s Louise Sunshine out of the downtown building last year-and then handed the whole project to Prudential Douglas Elliman). Howard Lorber, Chairman of Prudential Douglas Elliman has jabbed at Corcoran in the press, but the classy Liebman declines to partake in the mud slinging.
“We don’t really pay attention,” she says, referring to the rivalry. “It’s not what we focus on. I don’t keep track of what other people are doing other than how it affects my business.”
These days, business for Liebman means meeting with executives at NRT’s headquarters in Parsippany, New jersey, or at Realogy Corporation’s head office in New York City to discuss acquisitions. According to Corcoran staffers, Liebman, who also holds the title of Regional Senior Vice President of NRT, personally selects companies for acquisition and is intimately involved in the negotiation process.
“Her role is critical because she knows better than anyone else whether a company would be the right fit for Corcoran,” says a Corcoran staffer.
Meanwhile, Liebman is also dealing with her own company’s acquisition. In December, Realogy Corporation announced that it had been purchased by Apollo Management for $9 billion; the sale is expected to close this spring, But Liebman says she expects little to change at Corcoran. “I think it will be business as usual,” says Liebman. “We don’t like the brokers to feel a change of ownership.”
One only has to stop by the Corcoran’s New York headquarters to see that Liebman works hard to make sure her agents feel comfortable. With bright open spaces and kitchens stocked with sodas and snacks, the office has a fun dot com feel. “We’re a big company, but we have the heart of a small company, ” says Liebman. “Our culture is very broker-friendly, very strong, and very warm.”
Back when Liebman joined Corcoran in 1985, the company had just 30 brokers and no formalized co-brokering. A New York City native, Liebman says she originally considered heading to Wall Street after college because she liked the deal-making process. Instead, she chose real estate. “I always had this thing for real estate,” says Liebman. “I liked the unstructured nature of the business and the constant charge I get out of putting deals together.”
Liebman’s talents were recognized early when Barbara Corcoran made her a partner in the company in 1990. Liebman then founded the company’s new development division in 1995, and quickly made a name for herself in development circles. In 2000, she became president and CEO of Corcoran and shepherded the company through its most sensational period of growth as its sales multiplied six times over during the next six years. If many real estate firms enjoyed record-breaking deals in the last few years, Liebman wasn’t content to sit back during the recent upswing; instead, she forged ahead by rolling The Sunshine Group, a recent NRT acquisition, into Corcoran in 2005.
Not that the acquisition went so smoothly. “Stumbling out of the gate,” wrote local real estate trade magazine The Real Deal, quoting competitors about the supposed struggles of the merger (later, there’d be plenty more ink about the subsequent public push out of company founder Louise Sunshine.) Liebman chuckles about the rumors. “Louise and I work well together and are extremely close friends. At the time, we laughed about the talk of dissent.”
If there were early bumps in the merger, things appear to be running smoothly now at the luxury division. A recent study by The Real Deal showed Corcoran Sunshine far ahead of their closest competitor in the luxury new development. Many of New York’s most talked about projects are marketed by the firm, including 40 Bond, 40 Mercer, the Extell portfolio, and 101 Warren, to name just a few. In addition, Corcoran Sunshine arm is currently marketing properties in the Turks and Caicos Islands and Anguilla, and Liebman says to expect more projects both overseas and in the U.S.
“I’d love to grow the resort properties division all over the country,” she says. “And we will be pushing to be more international.”
Additionally, Sunshine will continue to market the Azzurra condo in Marina del Ray, but Liebman doesn’t predict a West Coast Corcoran push, given that Coldwell Banker and Sotheby’s (both owned by NRT) already have a dominant presence in Los Angeles metro region.
But other changes are coming as well. Last spring, Corcoran rolled out a major overhaul of its website and ad campaign. Corcoran has the highest real estate website ranking of any other major real estate firm, and in January set a record for 2.4 million visitors in a single month. “We consider the website to be our greatest tool,” says Liebman, “and we are constantly working to make it better.”
And don’t be surprised if Liebman adds a few more companies to the Corcoran portfolio. As it turns out, it’s a plan that she’s had along. “I’ve always said I want Corcoran to grow in a strategic way that enhances our brand, yet never loses the flexability or determination that comes from being the little guy. When I start to get stale, I’ll know it’s time to go.”