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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Pamela Liebman

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-05-19

Pamela Liebman wanted to be a movie mogul but wound up a real estate magnate.

She also wanted to be a high-powered sports agent but had to settle for being president of CEO of what's arguably the world's biggest property brokerage company, the Corcoran Group.

"Let's just say that no one made me an offer to head a film studio or a sports talent agency," Ms. Liebman said. "But there's still time."

That was said with a chuckle. But then consider what Ms. Liebman had said just a few sentences earlier: "When I was a little girl growing up on Staten Island, I was a little bit aggressive. If I saw something that I liked, I pursued that -- and managed to get it."

And: "I have never been one to accept the word 'No!' That's just a challenge to turn to 'Yes!'"

And: "I was so ambitious from an early age that my mother once asked, 'Where did you come from?'"

Marilyn Liebman of Staten Island's Sunset Hill asked that question in jest and wonder, to be sure. As a special-education teacher, she and her husband, Murray, a C.P.A., recognized their middle daughter's energy and drive. Their other children went on to do well, too: Seth became a lawyer, and then a teacher; Deborah became manager of Burberry's flagship store in New York.

"I was never one who operated well within some sort of career formula," Ms. Liebman said. "I liked to create my own destiny. I always felt a sense of entrepreneurship."

Her entrepreneurship was on display while still at grammar school, when she was elected class president.

"Even from a young age I was a natural politician - always trying to build consensus and keep everybody happy," Ms. Liebman said. "It was also important to gain people's respect, which became even more relevant as my career advanced."

Growing up, Ms. Liebman spent time developing her leadership skills while working as a lifeguard, camp counselor, and swimming instructor for handicapped kids. By the time she graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with a major in communications and a minor in marketing, she was convinced her future lay in real estate.

Why?

"I knew real estate brokerage was a career that could be potentially lucrative and would allow me to use my negotiating skills to do what I loved: make deals and work with a variety of people," Ms. Liebman said.

She found a mentor in Egon Salmon, who ran a realty agency on Staten Island.

"He taught me the fundamentals of real estate," Ms. Liebman said. "I found that the knowledge I gained, plus my passion, made for an unstoppable combination."

It was Mr. Salmon who introduced her to Barbara Corcoran.

This is how their initial conversation went:

Ms. Corcoran: "I really want to hire you, but you don't seem like the type who's going to stick around very long."

Ms. Liebman: "I'm not sure what the future holds, but right now this is where I want to be."

The year was 1985. Ms. Corcoran quickly hired the 22-year-old Ms. Liebman. Within a year, Ms. Liebman had become the company's top Downtown broker. Soon after, she was tapped to run the company's downtown operation, and in 1990, Ms. Corcoran made her a partner in the firm. In 1995, Ms. Liebman founded and became president of Corcoran Group Marketing, the company's new development division.

Five years later, she became president and CEO of the company. She developed a strong friendship with marketing guru Louise Sunshine; now Ms. Sunshine's eponymous firm is a part of the Corcoran Group.

Ms. Liebman is also in the process of expanding Corcoran's menu to include sales of luxury resort accommodations around the world.

What explains this velocity?

"I'm an optimist," Ms. Liebman said. "I'm a can-do person. I don't think that I can stand still."

Consider this: When she became president of the Corcoran Group, its annual sales were $2 billion. This year they will exceed $12 billion.

In addition to her drive, part of Ms. Liebman's success can be attributed to a canny recognition on her part about the emerging prospects for high-end residential growth in the TriBeCa and the meatpacking districts of Manhattan. Corcoran was the first Manhattan firm to establish a dominant presence in the Brooklyn market. Ms. Liebman also acquired local companies in Florida and in the Hamptons, which added to Corcoran's reach.

The corporate acquisition of Corcoran in 2000 by NRT, a division of Cendant Corporation, helped stretch Corcoran's reach beyond its traditional markets in the tri-state region. One of Cendant's subsidiaries is America's largest real estate referral organization.

The acquisition also proved fortuitous for Ms. Liebman was when Barbara Corcoran resigned from the leadership position at the time of the company's sale, she left Ms. Liebman with the day-to-day responsibility to run the company in her own style.

"My style is that of getting the most out of people," Ms. Liebman said, alluding to the 2,400 brokers who work for Corcoran. "I always emphasize innovation, risk taking, and pushing the company's position as a brand leader. I like to give them the courage to take risks, to be impactful."

That style means that Ms. Liebman rarely swerves from her focus on her job. Doesn't that generate stress, especially when rivals have famously and publicly criticized her in less than charitable terms?

"The criticism doesn't bother me. The way I look at it, if someone wants to take pot shots at me, they're taking time off from paying attention to their own business," Ms. Liebman said.

Her stress is softened, she said, because of her two daughters, Dylan, 11, and Tori, 7, and because of her daily regimen of running and lifting weights.

But there's a special stress relief mechanism that Ms. Liebman relies on.

"That would be my husband Michael Krouse," she said. "He's a chiropractor. Every evening I can look forward to getting my balance back. I would recommend every woman to marry a chiropractor."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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