New York's Dolly Lenz Is Intense and Laser-Focused on Doing the Next Big Deal

Posted by — June 12, 2005

By Richard Galant, Newsday

Dining with Bruce Willis. Hanging with Usher. Dishing with Barbra Streisand. Such is the working life of broker Dolly Lenz, who reaped more in commissions last year than anyone else in Prudential's 58,000-person-strong national real estate empire.

It was a good year. And that was before she completed the sale of the state's most expensive home--$45 million for Burnt Point, the Hamptons mansion bought by Kinray Inc. chief executive Stewart Rahr.

That deal alone brought her a check for more than $1 million. What did she do with it? "I made a photocopy," she says. Then she handed it to her CPA husband, who handles the money for Lenz and her two teenage kids.

Lenz is intense and laser-focused on doing the next big deal, working seven days a week and getting by on an hour and a half of sleep when necessary. Constantly checking her BlackBerry for e-mail, she estimates she could thumb-type at about 80 words per minute before she got a new model that slows her down.

She combines an accountant's grasp of the numbers with a native New Yorker's intuitive take on human nature. "I will walk in with a buyer, and I know in 12 minutes if they will buy the property ... I could see it in their eyes, in their breathing."

She scents a deal the way sharks smell blood. In fact, Dennis Kozlowski, the ousted Tyco CEO now awaiting a jury verdict in his corporate theft trial, has been quoted referring to Lenz as "Jaws." When she protested to him, Lenz says Kozlowski told her he considers that a "positive ... you get the job done."

In his new book on Manhattan real estate, The Sky's the Limit, author Steven Gaines describes Lenz as "a combination Babe Ruth and Jack the Ripper."

If you spend some time talking to Dolly Lenz, you learn that celebrities aren't the only point of her all-consuming career. They are relationships to be cultivated as a subset of the clients who furnish "revenue streams" for her business.

Lenz, who's 47, fought her way into the snooty "mom-and-pop" world of Manhattan real estate 21 years ago, but now fits more comfortably in an era dominated by corporate giants like Prudential Douglas Elliman.

She's a beneficiary of the boom the real estate industry has enjoyed from an epic surge in prices that some will argue is a rational reaction to historically low mortgage rates and the city's appeal.

Others say it's a gigantic bubble likely to burst and predict consequences even more dire than those that followed the stock market bubble's collapse. Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan has weighed in, seeing "froth" in the national real estate market from "a lot of local bubbles."

For more than a decade, the bubbles in Manhattan real estate have looked a lot like effervescing champagne. It's been a nonstop party, a mix of celebrity, power and riches, with no price too steep for a piece of the island.

For those like Lenz, who have matched buyers and sellers, the rewards have climbed higher and higher as the prices have soared. Last year, she brought more than $6 million in commissions to her company, which she prefers to refer to as Douglas Elliman, a name with more cachet in Manhattan than Prudential. How much of that went to her? She'll say only, "I get a very high split."

In pricing a choice Manhattan apartment, it's not only location, location, location, or the view or the amenities that matter. It's the "provenance" of a property, the famous names who live, or once lived, in the building. One apartment being marketed by Lenz boasts the "Bing Crosby" room, the place where the crooner stayed when he was in New York.

Having a big company behind her makes a difference, she says. When she really needs to clinch an exclusive listing on a property, she brings along Howard Lorber, who co-owns Prudential Douglas Elliman with chief executive Dorothy Herman.

Lorber, who's chairman of the firm and also CEO of Nathan's Famous, will connect with super-wealthy sellers. As Lenz puts it, "He'll say, 'Didn't we meet at the hunting lodge? Didn't we smoke a cigar together at Davidoff?" It took two years to get the exclusive on Burnt Point and only 41 days to sell the property to Rahr, she says.

For weeks, Lenz tried to convince Rahr to skip a weekend day of golf with Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach and go look at the house. Rahr, who already had a place in the Hamptons, wasn't interested until, Lenz says, "finally we did a DVD of the house, a virtual tour, and we gave him the Architectural Digest it appeared in."

Pointing out that another bidder had already signed a contract for the property overlooking Georgica Pond, Lenz hired limousines and a helicopter to ferry Rahr from his Whitestone office to the 18,000-square-foot house.

The wooing of clients like Rahr is a constant. "The other day she was working on a new sale at Time Warner Center for one of the penthouses," Lorber says. "They wanted to see the apartment at sunrise, at sunset, at twilight and at night when it was dark. She was back there four times with the people."

In the early 1980s, Lenz was working as a certified public accountant for an insurance company when she began investing in studio apartments. Real estate beckoned when Lenz's husband pointed out that the commission on a one-bedroom she bought would be $24,000. She was making less than $100,000 a year at the time.

Getting into the business wasn't easy. "Nobody would hire me. I was a girl from the Bronx who had no provenance, really nothing to offer, they thought," says Lenz, sitting on a March evening at Lorber's regular table in Harry Cipriani's, a crowded clubhouse of the rich and famous on Fifth Avenue. "I was probably 50 pounds overweight, reasonably unattractive. I didn't wear makeup, and I had my hair in scrunchies," she says.

When she finally landed a job, she sold 18 apartments in six months. "I knew the market cold because it was what I bought for myself," she says. Then someone pointed out, "It's as much work to sell a studio as it is to sell a million-dollar apartment."

Knowing the high end of the market helped her with celebrities. Streisand would call her in the early morning hours. "Come over, I want to discuss something with you," Lenz quotes Streisand as saying, "I'd be at her apartment by 2, and we'd stay up till 3:30," talking about apartments for sale and strategies for getting approved by the notoriously selective boards of Manhattan's priciest co-ops.

She was with Streisand once when Bill Clinton called and asked the entertainer to critique a speech he had given. "She said, 'Well, you know you shouldn't do this. You should raise your head.' You know she was directing it, in a sense, even though it was after the fact. To me that was incredibly exciting."

If landing a big deal for a celebrity is a plus for its publicity value, even more important is the cultivation of developers building large residential projects. In new buildings on Park Avenue and elsewhere, Lenz is the exclusive agent for apartment sales. She aims to have a say in how the buildings are designed and furnished. ("It's much more interesting than just opening a door.") She intends to get mortgage business for Elliman's mortgage subsidiary, to get the company building-management fees and to keep a presence in the buildings to reap commissions from resales.

While waiting for a dinner guest at Cipriani's, Lenz says it's been a rough day: "Even with every nightmare problem today--I'm surprised I still have hair--nightmare, nightmare, nightmare, constantly problem solving ... but it's still like a thrill."

Her guest is at hand. Donald Trump Jr. is her "boss" on selling $60 million worth of apartments in the Trump Park Avenue and Trump World Tower buildings. "How are you, sweetie?" Lenz says to the son of The Donald.

Copyright © 2005, Newsday, Melville, N.Y. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. This article also appears on RISMedia.com

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