Monday, August 28, 2006

Business: Weekend FT - Dolly Lenz

HOUSE AND HOME: 'I'd condo all of Central Park if I could'

Jul 29, 2006

Dolly Lenz is typing furiously on one of her three Blackberries, with one phone pressed to her ear and another ringing beside her. She dives for her Chanel bag but misses the call. "Hello, hello, hello?" Then both phones are ringing and do not stop.

Lenz, who is vice-chairman at Prudential Douglas Elliman in Manhattan, has been the top-selling real estate broker (as measured by dollar value of sales) in the US for the past three years. In the 12 months to May, she racked up $500m in deals, for which she should earn at least $8m in commissions. Late night meetings at Nobu or Cipriani downtown (she's been known to attend three business dinners in an evening) and at least two lunches at Michaels or the Four Seasons are the norm seven days a week. She even admits to keeping a Blackberry at her bedside so she can respond to e-mails in the middle of the night.

I spend an afternoon with her at Cipriani Club Residences, a luxury condominium development, where Bruce Willis, Harvey Weinstein and Naomi Campbell, among others, have bought units. She's overseeing sales and marketing for the development, in addition to handling other prime properties around the city. But, when I ask her about stress, she laughs. "Do I throw the phone at people? No," she said referring to Campbell's reported tantrums. "I eat lots and lots of chocolate. Like three candy bars a day. Cheap chocolate, and Bellinis." (Prospective buyers at Cipriani are offered the restaurant's signature cocktail, and Lenz sometimes joins in.)

In spite of her schedule and diet, the 48-year-old Lenz is petite, with girlish, long blonde hair. She wears four-inch patent leather heels and a snug-fitting black Armani suit, one of the 30 black suits she owns. This is her uniform every day except Sunday, when she still works but might put on jeans. She says she rarely sees her husband and two teenage children for dinner. "My husband likes it that way," she jokes. "That is why we've been married happily for more than 25 years."

A native New Yorker and a former accountant, she seems like a born saleswoman: blunt, fast-talking, occasionally coarse, but still charming. "This is like a million six, with all the services," she says of one condo. "This is classic. Everyone wants it." Later, she declares a studio apartment with a fold-out sofa bed and a $890,000 price tag a deal. "Cipriani is a 106 unit building, other units downtown are 600 apartments. It's a classy building, the average age is 27 to 45. I'd love to be 27." Click, click, click. Her heels tap away on the polished wood floor. "Look at these refrigerators, completely hidden. This is what people are going to be killing for in Manhattan. It's the perfect pied-à-terre. It's like a jewel box." The week we meet, Lenz has sold three Cipriani penthouses to two Wall Streeters in their 30s for a total of $7.5m; a $200m building lot to an Italian developer; and 14 apartments at a mid-town development, the Veneto. "I've got $1bn worth of listings on my website, that's a third of Prudential Douglas's business in New York," she says.

The value of the property she's sold over her 20-year-plus career is more than $5bn, including deals for whole buildings, estates in the Hamptons and homes in London and Barbados.

Still, she says, it has been a long climb in a cut-throat world. "Oh my God. When I started, no one would show an apartment with me," she says. "They'd say 'Who are you? Which rock did you crawl out from under?'" But Lenz was lucky to have top-notch clients early on. These included singer Barbra Streisand, whom she helped to sell several apartments and eventually to purchase one. "We looked for almost 19 years," she says. "I learned the whole market as a result, and she introduced me to a lot of people."

Now she works with numerous celebrities. She says Revlon boss Ronald Perelman is her most interesting; but others can be difficult. "I sold P. Diddy an apartment, [and] his people wouldn't sign," she says. But "I said 'If you want the apartment, you need to put down $400,000, like now'. As a woman, I have to be very tough."

Lenz, who has moved 38 times in Manhattan and currently lives at the Park Imperial atop the Random House building at 56th and Broadway, prides herself on knowing when a buyer is ready to seal a deal. She says it takes her about 12 minutes. "You can just tell. You can tell when a man is going to buy. They start to perspire. You can see it in their face. It's like when men see boobs. It's that same look."

She says she conspires with many women to encourage their husbands to buy and enjoys that part of the business. "I love hearing about people's lives. I have 307 marriages to my credit. I love matching people to people. Are you married?"

As for a widely reported real estate bubble, Lenz is unsurprisingly bullish, especially about the top end of the market. "I think there is a good balance of supply and demand, but if there was a huge oversupply, well that would affect only the cookie cutter [condos], like in the last bubble in 1990, when there were 10,000 new apartments," she says.

That said, she's always hoping for more new developments in Manhattan. Although she starts each day at 6am with a 12-mile run through Central Park (still carrying those phones and Blackberries), she thinks the 843-acre oasis could be put to much better use. "You know, I'd condo all of Central Park if I could," she says. It's clear, once again, that selling property will always be her top priority.

Prudential Douglas Elliman, tel: +1 212 891 7113, www.elliman.com