By Konrad Putzier
David Schlamm is no typical New York broker, and he’s perfectly fine with that.
His office is plastered with Grateful Dead paraphernalia (including a Jerry Garcia doll). His company, City Connections Realty, is out to break with industry traditions, and his colorful past offers enough material for a novel.
But 25 years in the business have molded Schlamm into a rather square peg that, against the odds, fits the round hole that is the New York city real estate business.
And he puts it all down to karma. “Trust is probably the most important thing to me. Even when I was broke and really needed money very badly, I always tried to do the right thing. Call it karma or good luck, but it all came back to me.”
Last month, Schlamm rented a 150 ft. yacht to sail his agents and clients around New York Harbor as a way to thank them for helping him make City Connections not only one of the most successful boutique firms in the city, but also one of the best places to work [The Real Deal 2012].
A keen boater himself, Schlamm chartered the three-story vessel to celebrate a record-breaking year at City Connections, during which it reached its quarter century business milestone. “It was probably the best party our firm has ever had and having it for our 25th anniversary just made it sweeter,ˮ said Schlamm.
And partying is something he knows plenty about. A recovering alcoholic, drug addict and compulsive gambler, Schlamm also knows he’s beaten the odds.
But that part of his life has undoubtedly shaped the successful businessman he is today. “I learned so much from the many 12-Step meetings that I attended. The two biggest things I learned are not to lie and to always try to do the right thing,ˮ said Schlamm, who has been clean and sober of all three addictions since 1991.
Born in Kew Gardens in 1957, he grew up in the Long Island towns of Oceanside and Baldwin. “I always worked hard and enjoyed making money,” he said.
As a college student at SUNY Albany, he drove down to the Catskills on the weekends to bellhop at the hotels Grossinger’s and Brown’s.
After college, he started working for his father in the childrenswear business selling to department, chain and discount stores.
He said he became disenchanted with that business when the manufacturers basically took the lines away. “The manufacturers did this to save money. We had really built up market share for them, so they figured, why pay us any more, let’s now do it ourselves.ˮ
It was then he turned to real estate and took his license to a Greenwich Village rental firm.
Long-closed, Schlamm recalled the broker was “a big time gambler.ˮ His long bouts at the bookies gave Schlamm free rein to bring in business and he learned the ropes pretty much by doing everything himself.
By the mid-80s, he had given up on the dead-end brokerage and, confident enough in the skills he’d amassed, ventured out on his own.
He started working from his basement apartment in the Village, before moving into a tiny office across the street three years later.
“It was during a down market,” he recalled. “In down markets, you have an easier time opening up new accounts and building new relationships. I knew early on that having exclusives, or extremely good relationships with owners of buildings was very important, more important than focusing on getting new customers.ˮ
It was around that time that Schlamm’s addictions began to take their toll. In a one-step-forward, two-steps-back mode, he soon found himself on the edge of bankruptcy and barely able to scrape together his rent.
A self-described “risk-taker,ˮ Schlamm recalled the epiphany that set him on a new path. “After a heavy night of drinking and drugging, I simply woke up the next day, looked at my trashed apartment and started to cry. I had hit my bottom. I am very lucky that my bottom was not worse, as it usually is in most cases of addiction.ˮ
His life-line came from the group Cocaine Anonymous and, once he grabbed hold, no-one had to tell Schlamm twice that this was his second chance. He has held on for over 20 years building a new life, new business and new family.
Just 45 days into his sobriety, Schlamm met his wife of 20 years, Jill. Ironically, she was a client who called his agency looking for an apartment.
“I picked up the phone and liked her voice, so I told the agent she was working with to ask her if she was single. We rented her an apartment and charged her a broker’s fee. Then, I went on a blind date with her.”
Today the couple has two daughters: Emma, 19, a sophomore at Franklin and Marshall College, and Maggie, 16, an 11th grader. “It’s interesting that, out of the million possible women, I met the one who doesn’t like drinking,” said.
As his personal life began to fall into place, so too did his professional life. “I got whole portfolios on an exclusive basis because the owners trusted me,” he said, noting that trust is an attribute held high at his company.
“The whole idea of City Connections Realty is that I want to be known as the ethical company, where it’s not okay to break the rules to do a deal,” he said.
“It can be really difficult in a city that glamorizes behaviors seen on reality shows, and tolerates disagreeable behaviors just so long as the transaction happens.
“Because of the way our business model works, I can never make a lot of money from an individual broker, so it’s easy for me to tell someone who thinks that kind of behavior is okay to leave the firm. That’s an important part of our brand.”
The company expanded into its current offices on West 23rd Street in 2004 when Schlamm introduced what was then a new business model, a high-spit deal that allowed agents to keep 90 percent of their commission while paying a monthly desk fee to the agency.
“We were the first company to successfully do this,” said Schlamm
Last year, he reconfigured the plan and introduced a newer structure that caps how much of an agent’ commission goes to the house. He said the system is a win-win that allows producing brokers to keep even more of their commissions than the previous model. Schlamm tweaked the system again last month; check it out at www.gamechangenyc.com
“It’s an evolving process,” said Schlamm. “We changed the landscape of Manhattan brokerage with that high-split model — no there must be 30 companies that do that or 100 per cent model.
“I can make money doing this because I don’t take on new, inexperienced brokers. Agents who do work here have to produce to receive the very high splits we offer. So there is reason for my madness.”
Today, City Connections has around 100 agents working. They operate primarily in the middle market that keeps the huge majority Manhattan agents in well-starched shirts.
“You probably won’t be reading about someone closing on a $100 million condo here,ˮ reflected Schlamm. “We don’t have a lot of huge home run transactions, but you would be surprised just how many sales we are doing and the significant commercial leasing transactions we have recently completed. And yes, we are still a powerhouse in rentals, too.
“We’re never going to be that huge, sexy firm. It’s just not in my DNA. But that’s okay.ˮ