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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Reba Miller

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-07-21

Reba Miller wanted to be a movie producer but wound up being a real-estate star instead.

"In a way, being in real estate is a lot like being in the movies," she said yesterday. "You've got to bring together talent. You've got to motivate people. You need to give your monologue. Then there's that dialogue you engage in. There are deals to be done."

It's been a stellar run for Ms. Miller, chairman of RPMiller & Associates Inc., a boutique full service real-estate operation that she founded in 1998. And prior to that, she pioneered prewar building conversions on Manhattan's Upper East and Upper West Sides, along the "Gold Coast" corridors of Park, Madison and Fifth Avenues.

To stretch the movie metaphor further, Ms. Miller's box-office take has been splendid, too. After she was dissuaded from joining the film business by Bruce Gilbert - the Oscar-winning producer of "On Golden Pond" - on the grounds that Hollywood didn't give a whole lot of respect to women, she decided to enter the real-estate industry.

"By the time I was 24, barely two years out of college, I was making tons of money," Ms. Miller said.

The money-making has metastasized since those early days after graduating in English and business from the State University of New York at Albany. Her privately held company's annual revenues now touch $30 million. She's expanding from residential transactions to commercial deals. She's also partnering with another well-known realtor, Barbara Fox, in designing and developing two residential towers on the Upper East Side.

There's still another dimension of the movie metaphor that can be applied to Ms. Miller. Films often do well because of good word-of-mouth, and through repeat viewers. In the real-estate business, Ms. Miller is considered royalty, especially by her foreign clients. Many of those clients hail from Europe and South America.

"You get one South American client, and soon you have four others," Ms. Miller said. Some of her clients give her repeat business - she's just sold an East Side apartment for the sixth time.

"If you're a good real-estate broker, people will follow you," Ms. Miller said.
And there's her unusual first name, the real-estate equivalent of a marquee billing.

"When I was a kid growing up in Roslyn, Long Island, I'd complain that my name wasn't Susan or Sara or Joan," Ms. Miller said. "But now I recognize what a difference a name makes. There aren't too many women with the name 'Reba." So everyone remembers your name."

That's Reba as in ree-bah. In Hebrew the name means "sweet jam."

One could think of many characteristics of people in real estate, but "sweet" isn't necessarily one of them. So, the reporter asked Ms. Miller, is she "sweet"?

"Very sweet," Ms. Miller said, without hesitation. "I'm very sweet, very caring and very giving - even when there's no dollar to be earned. I'm generous to colleagues, and even to competitors, I'm always willing to share information. I'm not looking for the edge."

Even when she's playing for championships in national tennis tournaments?

'Even then," Ms. Miller said. "I always call good fair lines. I always compliment my opponent."

Of course, complimenting opponents on court could also be interpreted as a disarming tactic. Whatever her strategy, Ms. Miller is almost as famous in the real-estate business for her tennis victories as she is for pulling off lucrative deals. At the Pan American Maccabiah games held in Mexico City, for example, she won two bronze medals while representing the United States.

Ms. Miller traces her athleticism to her high school days, when she specialized in volleyball. At college, she was on the varsity volleyball, basketball and softball teams.

Her love of deal making is attributable to her father, Sidney Miller, a haberdasher who also bought and sold commercial properties in Manhattan.

But it wasn't until her mother Carole mentioned that a neighbor's daughter had bought a mink coat from the proceeds of her first paycheck selling property that Ms. Miller became intrigued by real estate.

Her introduction to the business came at a now-defunct company called Whitebread-Nolan, a high end real-estate boutique. She soon graduated to Walter & Samuels, another prestigious company, where she learned about prewar conversions. The firm's president, David Berley, was so impressed by her energy and acuity that he made her director of sales.

While functioning as an owner's representative, Ms. Miller collaborated with attorneys and brokers on many domestic and foreign sales.

"I built strong relationships with developers and buyers alike - they trusted my honesty, market knowledge and experience in negotiating, renovating, and problem solving," Ms. Miller said.

She built on that trust when she launched her own company seven years ago. Ms. Miller said that she is involved in virtually every facet of the deal, from contract preparation, renovations, combining apartments, advertising and marketing. Her worldwide clients include individuals, large corporations and investment bankers.

"My goal is to always enjoy what I do, have fun doing it, and make as much money as I can," she said.

Is she surprised at her success?

"No," Ms. Miller said, with alacrity. "I'm not surprised at all. At 24, I was already doing something so big. It's only natural that I'd be where I am today. And there's more to come - and I'm having a great time at it."
Spoken like a prodigal movie producer.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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