Sotheby’s And Corcoran CEOs Talk The Changing Face Of Luxury

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In real estate, “luxury” seems to have a fluid meaning that continues to adapt based on the eye of the beholder. At Inman Connect New York, Sotheby’s International Realty CEO and President Philip White and Corcoran Group CEO and President Pamela Liebman discussed with panel moderator Clelia Peters, managing partner of Era Ventures, all the ways that luxury is continuing to transform today.

Philip White | Photo credit: Sotheby’s International Realty

With us at Sotheby’s International Realty, [luxury is] not so much about the price point, it’s about the service we provide,” White said.

White elaborated that luxury is defined more so by how a client is taken care of by the company and its agents, as opposed to what type or price of real estate they happen to be purchasing.

“I would say that luxury comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes,” Liebman asserted. ‘Luxury is ‘live who you are,’ [Corcoran’s mantra] … and of course, the service and everything that comes with it.”

The group turned to White’s and Liebman’s contrasting depictions of luxury as demonstrated by their attire on stage — White was dressed in a formal suit, while Liebman was donning a more casual, yet clearly upscale, leather jacket.

“I look at luxury in a little different way, neither [is] right or wrong,” Liebman added. “We used to have a dress code at Corcoran… that just doesn’t exist anymore.”

She noted that how someone dresses doesn’t necessarily indicate what type of customer they may be, explaining that she has high-end clients who surf off of Montauk, New York, and will come into her office with flip flops and casual clothes on a surf outing.

Pamela Liebman | Photo credit: Corcoran

“A lot of the wealthy customers have gotten younger,” she added. “I think today, you find your niche in the business and figure out what works for you.”

Peters wondered if the more traditional and seemingly refined representation of luxury that White embodied onstage wasn’t also new in its own right. White noted that Sotheby’s has very much embraced digitization and younger generations, in both its clients and incoming agents.

“We’ve really pivoted in a big way,” White said. “I’m really proud of how we’ve tapped the emerging market and we really have a parallel path with Sotheby’s auction house. They’ve pivoted to a digital auction environment and a digital retail experience … and I think that’s the same for Sotheby’s International Realty. We have new customers coming in and a lot of young agents.”

If a new agent were trying to choose between Sotheby’s and Corcoran, Peters wondered how the two CEOs might pitch their company over the other — but each seemed to think that it isn’t so much about pitting brokerages against each other as it is about finding the right fit between a brokerage and an agent.

“I think it’s about the people, who you connect with,” Liebman said. “I try and zero in to what’s important to them.”

Liebman noted that just recently White had actually referred to a Palm Beach agent to her when he felt the agent wasn’t necessarily a great fit for the Sotheby’s brand.

“Just in terms of pitching an agent joining us,” White said, “I never talk about the competition. I only talk about my company and the value proposition we provide … The other agents in our offices are really the ones that help us recruit and that’s the best opportunity that we have…”

“I think every agent — as they should — wants to feel important and that they’re valued by the company,” Liebman said. “And it’s a shooting pain when I hear someone say they only care about their top brokers, whether it’s [at] Corcoran or anywhere else.”

Liebman added, however, that she’s noticed a trend in the luxury sector of a certain braggadocio among some successful agents, which she’s been very turned off by. She said the trend became more noticeable in the wake of the pandemic, as some agents really thrived during that period when others struggled immensely, and the former emerged with a sense of self-importance that she felt was in poor taste.

“Sometimes I feel like people have lost what’s important,” Liebman said. Sometimes I say, ‘Remember guys, we’re the help. We’re not the ones buying the multimillion-dollar apartment.”

Peters pointed out that Sotheby’s has been recruiting more aggressively in the US over the last few years, and wondered if that had had any impact on Corcoran establishing its franchise network in 2020.

“We saw the world was getting smaller… and I’m very invested in the company,” Liebman said.

She added that real estate professionals across the country kept expressing interest in the Corcoran brand, but she was hesitant to pass the brand name off to new people, which is where the franchise network came in with already established Corcoran personnel to help get new franchises up and running.

“I always say it’s a partnership,” Liebman said. “I want to make money and I want agents to make money, but we’re trying to run a business too.”

Email Lillian Dickerson

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