By Linda O’Flanagan
There’s not a lot that spooks Max Dobens, not even real spooks. He’s settled into his newest role at Prudential Douglas Elliman, and his new office digs, like it’s where he was always meant to be.
Every fourth Friday, he barbecues in the back yard of the townhouse at 137 Waverly for the office Broker of the Month, and he’s redecorated the conference room to give it a more “clean and contemporary look.”
Local legend has it that horror writer, Edgar Allen Poe, once lived at 137 Waverly. When asked if he’s seen any ghosts there, Dobens replies, “Not here.”Well, you’ve gotta ask ….“Then where?”
A long, long time ago, on a dark, windy night on the plains of South Africa, the veteran broker was visited by the apparition of a horrible specter …“I was in South Africa with my family for the World Cup,” recalls the soccer-daft New Yorker. “At the end of the tournament, we went on safari and the cottage we were in had a fireplace in the living room. I threw a log on as we went to bed, but a little later, the place started filling up with smoke.“I was laying in bed and heard what sounded like dried seeds being dropped on the roof. At first, I thought it was a squirrel. [Do they have them on the African plains, this reporter wondered].
But it kept going …..”By now, he could not attempt to define, or even to describe the incessant sound that pulled him nervously out of slumber and down the creaking and shivering stairs.“I saw this apparition move down the stairway and go straight out the door,” Dobens says. “I saw it,” he insists. “I wasn’t dreaming.”This reporter believes him.
That’s the thing about Dobens, he can carry on a conversation just as easily and convincingly about ghosts and ghouls as he can about walkups or penthouses. He’s a natural at being himself, and there is no doubt his easy-going and affable manner helped him land his new position as a PDE executive vice president, director of sales, West Village.
He explained, “I always tell our agents that they are each their own brand. You can be Prudential, Corcoran, Halstead, whatever, but I am always Max Dobens and who I am and how I treat people goes with me everywhere.
“When management was asking around about me for this job, one senior executive came up to me and said, ‘Max, you must have done something right, because no-one had anything bad to say about you.’ That was the best back-handed compliment I ever had.”
Dobens grew up in the one traffic light town of Hamilton, New York, and went to Michigan State to study business and marketing. But he says, “The things that I use every day in the real world, I learned outside the classroom. I sold stuff in a fraternity store and I started a non-discriminatory fraternity. We had Jewish guys, a couple of Chinese guys, Black guys, White dudes and gay guys all just getting along.
“It was a great time, but it was also my first taste at starting a small business. I was selling an idea, starting something that didn’t exist before. I had to speak in front of people, make everyone get along, negotiate, sign leases for the house. That’s all the stuff I do now. That’s my rock.”
His first job was in corporate sales at Avis car rental and, coincidentally, where he met his wife, who was then the manager of a tour company looking for payment rates for Avis in Spain.
He later went to work for Leading Hotels of the World, the hospitality consortium that specializes in, among other things, hotel inspections for its member properties. Dobens traveled the world, from Scotland to Stockholm, “inspecting” some of the world’s finest destination hotels.
He traveled to Paris on Concorde and dined at the Hotel Plaza Athenée. He rode a one-horse sleigh on a snow-covered Norwegian mountain. But with a growing family and a booming dot com business back in New York, Dobens was tempted into the new tech world where he worked first as a business development director at Iguana Studios, and later as an online content manager for a dot com newbie.
Then one day, while he was vacationing with his family in Greece, he got a fax from his boss telling him the firm had gone bust and he had no job. “At first, I was shocked,” says Dobens. “But thank god I was taking my real estate course. I came back and finished the course.”
He was supposed to take his exam on September 11, 2001. From the windows of the classroom at 123 William, he could see the twin towers burn. When desperate victims began to throw themselves to the ground, Dobens recalls, “I couldn’t look. I had to leave. To get home to my family.”
A week later, he drove to Albany to sit the exam and then quickly went to work selling real estate for Prudential Douglas Elliman. That was in 2001 and, since then, he has gone on to become a New York Residential Specialist, earning what is essentially the equivalent of a master’s degree in residential real estate brokerage.
He is an honorary faculty member at the Hospitality School of Business at Michigan State University and lectures to students on a regular basis about how to translate their college experience into the real world.
A consistent top producer, last year he was a member of the PDE team that ranked seventh overall in Gross Commission Income (GCI), tenth overall for the most transactions, and achieved the firm’s Pinnacle Award for earning more than one million dollars in commissions.
The promotion to EVP has come at the perfect time, as far as he’s concerned. “The whole value proposition of working in this office is that you’re in a boutique firm environment with all the benefits of working for a large company,” he says. “It’s part of a new thing at Elliman that, if you get burnt out or tired of brokerage, there are other opportunities. I decided I wanted to be manager, although I think the name is a misnomer. I am a coach and a leader. My job is to help people who are really good at what they do and make them even better, and I am having so much fun doing it.”
Dobens then reels off the many programs he’s brought to the office in pursuit of his goal, like “higher education Thursdays” when he teaches “real world” lessons in qualifying your buyers, networking and personal branding.
“This week we’re doing role play on how to pick up a buyer at an open house,” he says. “It’s something different every week, but always something that I think is missing from traditional real estate education.
“I am not teaching theoretical nonsense, I am teaching real life application. As a broker, I was shocked and appalled by how many people were running around with unqualified buyers — what the hell good does that do?
“It’s the tool box every broker needs. I am drinking my own Kool Aid right now, because I am helping people and its fun. I want to attract other brokers, too, those who aren’t getting the kind of support they need, because there are choices in New York City, and I can help them take their career to the next level. I was with a top team for 10 years and I’ve applied everything I have learned in life and in the classroom to being the best at what I do.”
He tells a story about playing soccer with his two boys at Brooklyn Tech, the high school in Boerum Hill. One of his kids was wearing a Brazil jersey, which sparked one of those Dobens conversations about who knows what with another dad.
“I ended up selling him an apartment,” says Dobens. “It turned out he worked for a private bank and, over the years, he must have referred me more than $20 million worth of business, all from that one game of footie. That’s the thing about being a broker. Who you are as a person is just as important as what you do as a job. Think about it … a bad attitude can really come back to haunt you.”