From The Priesthood To The Penthouse: Kevin B. Brown Shares His Real (Estate) Story

Part I

By Jeff Vasishta August 12, 2016

It’s hard to match the man I’m speaking to with his career. Some reality TV shows characterize super successful Manhattan brokers as self-absorbed and money-hungry. In my conversation with Kevin B. Brown, I can’t help but think that he seems too nice to have achieved everything he has. Aren’t New York real estate people supposed to be sharks? After a while, though, embroiled in conversation, it dawned on me, it is precisely because Brown is so amenable, debunking the myths of the emotionally removed money grabbing broker, that he has been so successful. It’s hardly surprising to discover that at one time, Brown was intent on studying for the priesthood and today is actively involved with various charities.

Kevin B. Brown
Kevin B. Brown. Senior Global Real Estate Advisor and Associate Broker for Sotheby’s International Realty

“I’m part Mother Theresa part Lee Iacocca,” he jokes when I mention his disparate interests. In twenty-five years as a Manhattan broker, Brown has trail blazed his way to the rarefied upper echelons of New York real estate, selling luxury property to the globally rich. A former owner and chairman of Century 21 NY Metro and, prior to that, a partner of Ashforth Warburg Real Estate, now Warburg Realty, Brown’s trajectory, with billions in real estate sold, is the kind of career every broker fantasizes about. Now at Sotheby’s International Realty, Brown has been particularly successful in harnessing Sotheby’s sale of New York real estate to the Asian market. 

JEFF VASISHTA: You’ve been doing this for a long time. The industry has changed a lot. How have you managed to sustain success?

KEVIN B. BROWN: Picking a brokerage firm was very important because that’s the name at the top of your business card.  I started off with Edward Lee Cave who along with Alice Mason were the two top firms. Edward could sell ice cream to Eskimos. He specialized on 5th Avenue and Park Avenue. He knew every owner of every luxury apartment in New York City. Even 26 years ago it was very competitive. You could tell the great brokers from the mediocre ones. In sales, you know about the 80/20 rule. Twenty percent of the brokers make eighty percent of the money. In Manhattan I’m convinced it’s more like 90/10. Ten percent of the brokers make ninety percent of the money. I realized I couldn’t compete with the people out there. I was surrounded by Pierpont, Rockefeller, Dupont and I was Brown from California. I didn’t have the connections and contacts but what I did do was decided to focus only on condominiums. At that time condos were only 15 percent of the market place. All the other Duponts and Pierponts were concentrating on the Park Avenue co-ops and Fifth Avenue co-ops. It’s important for new brokers to find their niche and what they are interested in. I hear new brokers talk about ‘Well, I’ll start with rentals then studios and then go to one bedrooms etc.’ I’m just too impatient for that. That’s a complete waste of energy. It’s actually a lot easier to sell a $10-million-dollar apartment than it is a $500,000 one.

VASISHTA: Did you have a specific marketing plan at that point to attract buyers?

BROWN: I knew that everyone likes to hear a story. We all like something that begins with a “Once upon a time”. I wrote a letter to everyone I know that was real about real estate envy. I wrote about going to Calvin Klein’s house on E 76th St and 5th Ave and walking into one entire room that was refrigerated which was just for his flowers. Basically I was expressing my enthusiasm for real estate. One of the people I wrote to was someone who’s wedding I’d been to two months before. A person of note. The bride and groom were coming to New York. The groom was going to be appointed as one of three presidents of Madison Square Garden. He was working with a broker who was showing him co-ops but I told him that he should be looking at condominiums not co-ops and why. Within a month we found a penthouse at 78th St and it was $1 million. It was the first time anyone has given me a check for $30,000 and I was hooked.

VASISHTA: What did you do to from that point?

BROWN: At that time, when I started, the majority of realtors were women and I’d see how buyers would let them down after they’d been showing them properties for a year and the realtors would be distraught. I realized early on I wanted a legal relationship with the buyers so the same thing wouldn’t happen to me.  I started concentrating on the listing side. At one point, fifteen years into it, I was doing a listing presentation and I was asked how many listings I had over $1 million and I had 33 listings over $1 million. I was a listing animal. I loved listing.

VASISHTA: How did you get them?

BROWN: I would send out 5000 letters every single month. I was very disciplined with the marketing. Out of those 5000 I’d probably only get three call backs but one of those three would result in a deal. The letters we did weren’t one of those silly postcards that brokers send saying, ‘I just sold an apartment in your building, for a free market evaluation, please call me.’ That’s a throwaway card. What I sent was always 3 pages. On the first page I’d always talk about their building. I’d be very specific. I’d have a second page of exclusives that I was handling and a third page of the floor plan of one of the exclusives. Every week I’d have an open house. It didn’t matter if people came or not, the important thing was that it got onto people’s radar screens, other brokers. Once I’d established a relationship with the seller, if he/she wanted to buy another apartment I was the obvious choice. I’m not in the business of selling apartments. I’m in the business of building relationships. Brokers who get that confused aren’t ever going to be successful. 

VASISHTA: Why did you decide to join Sotheby’s?

BROWN: When I came over eight years ago. New York really was becoming an international city. For the first time people were comparing New York City to London, Paris, Bejing. I realized we needed to have more of an international presence. I realized that I needed to pivot. No one has the kind of international presence that Sotheby’s has. We started going to Hong Kong and mainland China.

VASISHTA: So it was a desire to connect with international buyers?

BROWN: Sotheby’s auction house gave us access to some very wealthy individuals. At the end of September there’s a huge Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong. Sotheby’s International Realty holds us up to a very high standard of behavior. Confidentiality is extraordinarily important to us and our clients. We just opened up the Bejing office 3 years ago. I helped open the office in Taiwan and Brazil. We just came back from Delhi. Every country has different types of gate keepers. In the US the gatekeepers are other brokers. In China, the gatekeepers aren’t brokers, they are other bankers. Nikki, my partner and I realized we neede
d that type of relationship, so we hired Daniel Chang who represents the private banking arm from New York in those countries. He ran HSBC’s operations in mainland China and Taiwan and Hong Kong representing the private banking arm from New York in those countries. Daniel spends at least 2 or 3 weeks in Asia on our behalf.

Tune in next week for Part 2 of Kevin B. Brown’s interview with Agorafy where he talks about the key components to being a successful broker and why New York has become a hub for international investment. 

Jeff Vasishta



Jeff is a writer, husband and father but not necessarily in that order. As a music journalist he counts Prince, Beyonce and Quincy Jones amongst those he’s interviewed. He's also owned and flipped homes in Brooklyn, NJ, CT and PA.

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