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Lunch at Lever House with: Elizabeth Stribling

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-04-27

New York is where she's made her mark, but there's still a lot of the South in Atlanta-born Elizabeth Stribling.

Indeed, if by the South one means a widely used metaphor for a distinct sort of graciousness, then Ms. Stribling's comportment is totally Southern.

"I'm a very lucky person," the founder and chairman of Stribling Associates said yesterday.

Her reference was to the upbringing she enjoyed as the only child of a textile entrepreneur, Thomas Stribling, and his wife Elizabeth Davis, but Ms. Stribling could well have been alluding to her latest project.

"It's like the cherry atop the ice-cream sundae of my career," Ms. Stribling said, as the conversation turned from her personal history to her imprint on New York's real-estate industry - where her eponymous company has been offering high-end luxury residences for 26 years.

It's some cherry - Ms. Stribling is marketing the private residences of The Plaza, the French-Renaissance chateau-style building designed by Henry Janeway Hardenbergh. After a $350-million renovation, The Plaza will re-open next year - the 100th anniversary of its construction - not only as the luxury hotel celebrated in literature, plays and movies, but also a complex featuring apartments that can cost more than $30 million.

Ms. Stribling has the exclusive rights to market 181 residential apartments. Those units will be complemented by 282 hotel rooms, including 151 condominium hotel apartments.

Many of those units will have grand views of Central Park. All of them will be redolent with the European-style charm that characterized homes of the wealthy in the early 20th century, during the so-called Gilded Age.

Sales have been brisk, according to Ms. Stribling. Some buyers have signed on for multiple apartments in order to transform their purchase into a single large unit. A few units with views of the park are still available, although Ms. Stribling expects all sales to have been completed by the time The Plaza throws open its doors next year.

When it does, Ms. Stribling said, those doors almost surely will be guarded by Ed Trinka, the bluff, genial doorman who's worked at The Plaza since 1963.

"He's an institution," Ms. Stribling said of Mr. Trinka, who's seen by the public as the human face of the hotel.

The warmth with which she spoke of the doorman is typical of Ms. Stribling's mien. Her associates tend to laud her for her management style, which tends to be a blend of efficiency and - what else - Southern charm.

That style also includes a self-described indomitable nature.

"I've never been discouraged by anything in life," Ms. Stribling said. "I had a fabulous upbringing, and part of what my parents instilled in me was a determination to make things work."

The determination was evident at Vassar College, where she studied English literature. Then it was on to Girton College at Cambridge University. She traveled widely in Europe.

"This was my 'Henry James' period abroad," Ms. Stribling said.

It was a period during which she tried acting. Ms. Stribling performed in "The Music Man," which was a presentation in summer stock on Long Island.

It was also a period during she participated in the full array of social events available to young men and women of a certain class. During one such event for debutantes at a palatial home in Newport, Rhode Island, her escort on the dance floor brought up the subject of real estate.

"It was like a scene from 'War and Peace' - it all looked pretty theatrical and glamorous," Ms. Stribling said. "I thought that it would be interesting to sell such properties."

She pursued that thought in New York. Hired by Agnes Nolan, who ran the real-estate firm of Whitbread-Nolan, Ms. Stribling found herself learning the trade at the most elemental level.

"In those days, listings were typed up on little index cards - and your first duty was to Xerox them and put them in file books," Ms. Stribling said. "Then you'd pencil in changes as they occurred with the properties. The whole of my first week in the real estate business was spent xeroxing those cards."

That first week wasn't necessarily a precursor to what happened in Ms. Stribling's first year at Whitbread-Nolan. The first year was.

She became the company's top performer in that first year.

"It was a fabulous year - I sold 8 or 10 major properties, including residences on Fifth Avenue," Ms. Stribling said.

She sustained a winning streak during nearly 14 years at Whitbread-Nolan.

In those days, dealings between real-estate brokers and their clients were extremely informal, and business tycoons - who were among Ms. Stribling's customers - frequently contacted her directly rather than going through factotums.

"It was like getting a first-hand education at Harvard Business School," Ms. Stribling said. "I learned about business from some of the best known names in business and finance."

One thing she learned was that running one's own business was generally preferable to working for someone else. She also learned that Whitbread-Nolan was going through difficulties that would be most likely impossible to overcome.

"So I started my own company - and I've run it for 26 years since," Ms. Stribling said.

Her founding partner was Connie Tysen (correct); her starting staff consisted of 8 women - of these, Ms. Stribling still carries the licences of seven.

"The real ethos of our firm has always been: 'Work hard and be honest,'" she said. "I thought it used to be old-fashioned. But I feel proud that all of us on the team live with that ethos."

The team includes her daughter, Elizabeth Ann Kivlan, a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross. It also includes special broker teams put together by Ms. Stribling to market residences at The Plaza.

"When Elad Properties, the owner of The Plaza, approached me to be the exclusive marketing agent for the residences, it was clear to me that there was never going to be an offering like The Plaza," Ms. Stribling said. "It was also clear to me from the start that the types of people who were going to buy the residences would be an extremely cosmopolitan group. That's been borne out."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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