November 23, 2015 Filed under: The Buzz
Interview by Alf Nucifora
Chairman of the Luxury Marketing Council of San Francisco
She rules Bay Area real estate as does a monarch, with her kingdom, the nation north of California Street, home to San Francisco’s wealthy, influential and social elite. Swedish by birth, but San Franciscan by choice, she eschewed her family’s rarefied world of international diplomacy choosing instead a career path birthed in the rough-edged confines of the travel and hospitality industry, leading, ultimately, to real estate. Continuing to rank #1 in the Bay Area, where sales in the double digit millions are now the norm, she represents the quintessence of a top producer—charming, gracious and indefatigable, with an uncompromising ethic of hard-work, and committed to a belief system, refined from decades of experience, that values candor, a passion for the business and the client’s satisfied smile, above all else.
On growing up
I was born in Stockholm on D-Day. My father was a diplomat and involved with the war effort, heading up the massive task of delivering food to the Allies. He flew clandestine missions with Churchill. At war’s end, he was appointed the first President of the Nobel Foundation. All of my schooling was in Sweden and my vacationing in Europe. As a result, I learned four languages Swedish, English, French and German. Only in later years did I add three more top the list-- “location, location, location”.
On starting a business career
My first real experience in the business world was at age 18. A genius businessman founded a travel company that took youngsters to Switzerland and Austria to ski and hired me to head the company. I started with a blank canvas; bought the desks; hired the people. That lasted for five years until we were acquired by what is now the world’s largest vacation school, E.F.!
Then I was out of a job. That’s when I tested for a position with a global travel agency. Of 6,000 applicants, I was the only one who survived the training. As a result, I was posted to New York where I was put in charge of youth travel, visiting all the major vacation markets in the U.S. After a year of that unrelenting pressure, I took a real vacation and landed in San Francisco to spend time with a cousin. The rest is history. I ended up married and working in PR for a ski resort.
On landing in real estate
Facing an impending divorce, it occurred to me that I better get myself a profession, so I swatted for the real estate license at night. I figured that it was the one thing that every Tom, Dick and Malin could do.
It was hard to make it in the beginning. Luckily, in the early-seventies, I met Susan Branghan who has remained a very close friend. We were similar in lifestyle and personality—newly-divorced and hard-working. She was spec'ing properties, buying homes and flipping them for a profit, and she moved a lot of properties because she was staging them, an unheard-of practice in those days. So we started a business together, “San Francisco’s Finest Furnished Living”. We bought apartments together, furnished them, and rented them. I managed the rentals and Suzanne did the remodeling. In 1978, we developed San Francisco’s first Bed & Breakfast at Jackson Court. Very soon we got an offer for the hotel that we couldn’t refuse and sold it for $1,600,000, serious money in those days. Suzanne and I are still partners and we’ve operated on a hand-shake since day one.
On the San Francisco market
The market is strong but, generally speaking, it’s hard to be an agent today. It’s a very competitive environment. You can submit four or five offers for the same client and not get paid because you lose the deal to a higher offer. Then there’s the perennial inventory issue. It has been a challenge since I started in the business. The one time when inventory loosened up was in the disaster year – 2008. Otherwise, lack of inventory is always a problem in the upper-end luxury market in San Francisco.
The new buyers – the tech kids – are so wealthy. They make decisions quickly. They know what they want. They don’t beat around the bush. They tell you exactly the way it is, what it is they need and what they have to spend. They’re not shy about it. But they’re biggest flaw is that they always think they’re right because they’ve climbed mountains at an early age that nobody else has climbed. They’re not arrogant, just confident. So, if I say that it’s not possible, they say, “It is possible!” Is that not marvelous?
On her operating style
You have to communicate with clients so that they believe you and trust you, because if you make a mistake, it matters. The home is the biggest asset that most people sell in one fell swoop, possibly in a lifetime, so it matters if they make the wrong decision. The hardest thing in real estate is telling people the truth, which is not what they always want to hear. And you have to do it within the first 30 minutes after you’ve met. I’m very well-known for my forth-righteousness and telling it the way it is. It’s who I am.
Basically, I trust people until proven otherwise. I’m a tough negotiator, but very fair. Agents love working with me because they know I don’t cheat.
On the secrets of her success
I do what very few do, I focus on a very small area. I concentrate on the region north of California Street—Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill, Pacific Heights, Presidio Heights, and Seacliff. End of story. In this small part of town, I know every block, every building, every floor plan, every doorman and most of the owners. That’s why I’m so confident in my judgement and advice. And it provides absolute peace of mind for my clients.
Work is part of the fabric of my life. It’s nice to hear that people regard me as successful, but success can change quickly. Clients are not going to stay with me for the rest of time, so I still need to be on my toes. You always treat people with respect, give them your time and never forget that their house is your life.
I go beyond the expected. I try to figure out who they are and what it is that’s going to make them happy. I don’t get paid for that, but it doesn’t matter. Let me give you an example from years ago. I’m the seller’s agent for a home on Russian Hill and the buyer came with another agent from the Peninsula. They bought the house. The buyer, who is a delightful person, made it known that she was unfamiliar with Russian Hill, had never lived there. Now I had lived on Russian Hill for 30 years and knew the area intimately. I went around to all of my regular haunts—coffee shop, dry cleaner, hardware store, deli, etc. and picked up their business cards. Then I made an album of the business cards with contact names and personal comments on each. That was her Welcome Home present. Now she was not my client, but to this day, she refers clients to me and relates that story. In her words, “It saved me years.”
My young, high-tech clients have become really good friends. They like me personally because I take an enormous amount of time with them. I have one client, the founder of a very successful and well known dot com, who started with me when he was 26, and bought his first house when he was 36. That’s 10 years of training. Now I’m his San Francisco mother, and I regard him as a son.
I’m just as psychologically invested in a lower-priced property as I am in a high-priced listing. Price has nothing to do with it. It’s the deal. It’s helping the person out. Much of my drive is service-minded. Having said that, I’m perceived as only handling the high-end, which is partly accurate because of my geographical focus north of California Street. But I’ll take a $500,000 listing any day of the week.
On what the competition says behind her back
That I’m very fair and hard-working. That I’m fun. That I’m probably too old and past my prime and that I’m too outspoken.
On life’s defining moments
As a family, we were financially comfortable. My mother was the daughter of the railroad baron in the south of Sweden, so she had money. But she was also very strict with money. From the age of 10, I got 100 krona a month, about a $100, and with that I had to buy absolutely everything – clothes included. It taught me to live within a budget.
When I was young, I considered myself something of an ugly duckling. In a way, that stays with you forever. But that can be good for you as well. You never take things for granted. It forces you to always go the extra mile.
You have to understand that if you are a foreigner, and you come to this country with no money, and you were not born in this city, you’re going to have to work very hard, if you intend to make it. You don’t go home to party, you go home to work.
I didn’t realize I was successful until late in life. I was always so busy. This is a 24/7 job, and you don’t stop to smell the roses. You really don’t. I might have taken a vacation here and there, but I was selling houses underneath the ski-lift. The pressure is constant.
On her lifestyle today
I’m not cheap, but I don’t need to live opulently. I don’t need to live in a way that does not reflect who I am, even if I can afford to. I am comfortable with that. And I don’t worry about, “Am I going to make it?”— because I have.
Nowadays, I’m serious about golf and I do like to party. I rarely splurge, but if I did I’d love to have a car and driver. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look good to have a real estate agent with a car and driver.
On her mentors
There was a woman, Florian McGuire Moore, who I never stopped admiring. She was the original McGuire of McGuire Real Estate. Thanks to Florian, I have the business that I have today. She was the queen of real estate in San Francisco, bigger than life and she did exactly what I wanted to do. She taught me everything that is worth knowing about the business.
On what it takes to be a top producer
You have to devote your life to the business. There is no going home at 6:00 because your wife says “It’s my day out with my girlfriends.” Off the table! “I’m babysitting the kids today”. “It’s Sunday. It’s football.” Off the table! You are not going to be successful unless you are available in body, mind and spirit—24/7.
This is the first in an in-depth interview series featuring real estate industry notables, top producers and trend setters who are redefining the business. The interviews are conducted by Alf Nucifora, Chairman of The Luxury Marketing Council of San Francisco. Full article here.