Under her leadership, Halstead identified growth in emerging communities, in both sales and rentals, and has blossomed into one of New York’s largest brokerage firms, with 12 neighborhood offices in the metro area and more than 600 agents. Ramirez continues to lead Halstead’s innovations, as her marketing team has created Web video tours of key neighborhoods throughout the city—educational and selling tools that provide a glimpse of life in each corner of New York to potential clients from all over the world.
Ramirez’s numerous contributions to the real estate community through decades of involvement and activism were recognized in 2007 when her peers honored her with the Real Estate Board of New York’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
When you partnered with Clark Halstead 25 years ago, you envisioned a high-end firm covering all neighborhoods in New York. How has that evolved?
Back in the ‘80s, believe it or not, most of the business throughout the city—and lots of the business really hadn’t even evolved yet—was done from the Midtown, East Side location. That’s when we recognized neighborhoods emerging. We were going through co-op conversion craze. So many more people wanted to become owners of real estate that we realized that we should be in the neighborhoods. Now we have 12 offices, but we’ve kept to our business plan of having a storefront in the community that we’re actually selling.
Is it a challenge to keep a neighborhood feel with a big firm?
It’s actually not. In a word, we’ve also managed as a firm to keep the sense of a family. I think it’s each nucleus, being part of something in the community, and then looking to the company in the big picture, so it’s not these huge offices where no one knows each other. I go to all the offices, so they know the face of the head of the firm. They all know me, and I know them, believe it or not.
Since Halstead’s acquisition by Terra Holdings in 2001, the company has expanded in rentals and development. How do these pieces fit together?
When Terra Holdings bought Halstead, they owned a very well-respected firm called Feathered Nest, a high-end rental firm. Rentals were an important component of our marketplace. They realized the synergy for Feathered Nest was tremendous with us, so they meshed it into our company, so that we [got] the plus of the brand name and all of their back office and procedures and policies that were far more evolved than ours. Within a year and a half or so, we had gotten the message out that we were in fact that wonderful firm and we were able to drop the Feathered Nest name.
As development was starting up again in New York, it actually started in the rental arena. Because of our expertise of the strength of the two companies combined, we were asked to help them market. So many of the developers who were building rental units asked us for our expertise in marketing, so we started very small, both gaining that knowledge [as] we moved into sales and then into larger and larger. One of our directors who was heading up that division, as executive director, Steve Kliegerman, helped us grow that department. It’s an incredibly profitable and very beneficial division to our company. Needless to say, we know about developments coming out in the creation stage. So even though we’d never have any unfair advantage over competition, you just do know what’s coming to market. As development is slowing down, they will remain. We just don’t have the quantity of developments coming to market now, so that will be a smaller aspect in the big picture.
How have you adapted to today’s challenging market?
We’re a very hands-on firm. Within our community, we’re well known for an extremely strong executive team. For instance, we have education at all levels, from beginning to very advanced. We were able to very quickly add into what we affectionately call our boot camp for the newer, less experienced agents, sessions that are very buyer-focused. We’ve beefed that up. We’ve done advanced seminars for our entire agent body on ways to look at getting new business. We just recently put out a full-service program called Halstead360 that’s designed for the residential real estate investor. We have a management company affiliate that manages co-ops and condos in New York, which is a wonderful added value. Many months ago we recognized that there are individual residential real estate investors that are now going to become landlords. They bought thinking they were going to be able to resell very quickly. But they might not want to sell right now. So we put together a complete hassle-free program to manage, maintain, help them lease, and eventually sell these incredible, valuable properties. Our agents are able to now work with investor clients and give them solutions: we’ll help you manage it for a small fee, and then sell it in a year or two or three years, when you’re going to achieve the profit you had originally envisioned.
We have kept our focus very New York, and it’s paying off in a shifting market such as we’re living through.
Most recently are things loosening up?
What we’re seeing is more the volume of business. September 15 was kind of, I hate to refer to it, but the 9/11 of Wall Street. That’s where it really hit everyone very heavy. From then, we have really seen a slow-down and hesitancy, even more so than what we had started to see in the marketplace. And we lived through that, pretty much through October, maybe into Thanksgiving. Since then we have seen an incredible pick-up in interest by buyers. Subsequently we’re seeing the transaction numbers start to build. Nothing of the pace that we saw in 2007 and the beginning of 2008, but we are seeing great interest in our open houses. The phones are ringing again; the agents are all busy. Transactions are being negotiated. And we’re seeing some optimism that the market is moving forward and is going to be all done with value purchases. We’re trying to help our agents manage the longer term relationships that they’re going to have with buyers. It’s no longer a race.
We’re going back to the art of doing the deal that we haven’t seen in probably 10 or 15 years. It’s been 15 years since we were in a buyers’ market. A lot of my agents new to the business never worked through this market.
Where do you see opportunity in the New York market?
Oh, it’s every single level. Of course, the most fortunate are either just coming to New York or are in a rental, or really the first-time buyer, because they don’t have the challenge of selling property. What I always tell any client, and certainly my agents all the time, is if you’re buying and selling, the best thing you can do is buy it in the same market.
This is a marketplace where a seller may say, “My God, why didn’t I sell two years ago?” But the reality is, if they’re buying, they’re buying at an incredible value time. There’s choice which they haven’t had for a lot of years. They also are not going to feel the pressure of four other people bidding on that same apartment, so you’re going to have that chance to digest what you’re doing and really make astute decisions. And you’re going to have the wonderful negotiation ability.
What’s new in terms of marketing and advertising the Halstead brand?
The numbers are up to 84, 85 percent of all buyers start on the Internet. But I don’t think that means that percentage of your marketing dollars should be in online initiatives.
One of the things that we’ve led the pack on is Portfolio Magazine, a bound cocktail table book that we do twice a year. It’s beautiful. People actually hold onto it and we have incredible subscription we send through The New York Times and to hundreds of thousands of viewers. We created an online version of Portfolio Magazine, which is a fabulous experience: you can hear the page flipping. We have links to almost anything of importance within the book. If you’re looking at a property on the online version, you can link right to that property, or right to the agent’s bio. We can get you to our video part of our Web site. We have been encouraging our agents to send it to their customer base. It’s becoming a very useful tool for us.
And for Halstead’s luxury clients…
We’ve also done what we call S3, service to the third power. This replaces Halstead’s original tag line of “Service, Service, Service,” which we dropped when we re-branded. Our new tag line is: “How real estate gets real.” We wanted to bring our service for our high-end consumers to another level. It’s really an accountability program: they can go into their own private Web page where we give them an outline of all the marketing tools that we promised, all the Web initiatives, advertising, timing on when we would do it. In addition, they can go to the statistical part of it and see the results of the advertising. We rolled this out for our $5 million and above customers as a start, but we will eventually be rolling it out and lowering the price points until we do it for all of our properties.
Let’s talk about Halstead’s green initiatives.
There are a lot of things we’re working on and internally we’ve done everything from paper plates to bathroom products as environmentally appropriate as possible. All of our marketing materials we have turned over to recyclable papers and environmentally safe inks. We do millions of pieces a year, so this is huge.
But we’ve also tried to do consumer awareness. We give at closing to our clients a gift box in a recyclable box with an energy-efficient light bulb. More importantly, there’s a pamphlet showing how to be green conscious in their home. Particularly for the buyer, that is probably the most opportune time for someone to rethink their decorating or painting.
We’ve given all of our agents a recyclable grocery bag that has “green is better” and our Halstead logo. It’s a great advertising tool, but it’s really showing that we care. They, in turn, are buying them and giving them to clients and they love it. It’s just taking little steps. Are we perfect? No, but I do think it’s a conscious effort on the part of our company to be responsible.
Do you see in your development division a move toward green or a demand for green homes?
Our development team is very tuned into it and they do advise. Nothing is on paper yet when we speak to these developers and they’re doing focus groups with our very bright, tuned-in group, to tell [potential clients] that not only does it benefit them for tax reasons, but that the consumer really is looking for this. The consumer wants to do it. I think there’s still a push-back: it costs a great deal, especially in this environment. But most of the developments that have chosen to go green are being able to do it competitively. So we very strongly urge them and help them in every way we can to guide them in that direction.
You’ve spent your career in real estate management in New York City. What are some of the changes you’ve witnessed in the profession in these 25 years?
I’ve seen an incredible rise in the professionalism and the pride of the industry.
When I started in the ’70s, a very large majority of buildings in the city were rentals. It wasn’t until the early ’80s when many of the owners of rental buildings started to do co-op conversions. Then as development took starts and stops, obviously new condos came on the market. Probably at least two-thirds of our city is still rentals, which surprises most people. We were a much smaller community when I started, and the product you had was usually fairly high-end: it was your white glove buildings, up and down the major avenues. Downtown had very little. The East Side had probably more than the others. Some of the communities were not even thought of at the time. As we grew, we understood more that we needed to be connected to our professional organization, which in New York is the Residential Board of New York. I witnessed the Residential Board of New York putting together a residential division, believe it or not, in the ’80s. The early ’80s, it was mostly commercial. We realized that we had to stand together and set guidelines and rules and regulations, and professional practices for ourselves to then bring to our agents.
So we now as a community have some rules and regulations that make us an unbelievably professional organization. I’ve seen us agree to mandatory co-broker all of our listings. But we, as the Real Estate Board of New York, created the REBNY listing service, and to be a member of that, you must co-broker immediately all of your exclusive listings. We have truly put the consumer ahead of our own goals. And we talk to each other. If I have a problem with one of my competitors on the way the transaction is going, we pick up the phone. We’ve just evolved to a very cohesive professional group that we’re all very proud of.
What’s some of the unfinished business in your career?
My involvement will always be with my professional organization and we’re ever-evolving. We see, in the real estate community, lots of changes. There was a recent ruling regarding virtual office Web sites, which in New York is something we’ve not really seen a great deal of yet. So [we have to] look outward. With an organization such as REBNY and all of this coming together, we’re always asking, are there changes in the law? Are there any ways we can improve how we do business? That’s something I will always be at the forefront of. Within the company, I use the term “strategic growth.” We are a firm that will always look for opportunities and growth potential that will serve our agents, our brand, and our consumers. So I see a lot of growth and opportunity for the community and Halstead in particular. I’m thrilled to be at the forefront of that.