As a child in Israel, Michael Shvo created an unusual tribute to the metropolis he and his parents had left behind. Along the baseboard of his bedroom, in the small beach town of Arsuf, Shvo pasted a cut paper silhouette of the New York skyline, with its arching bridges and iconic towers.
Twenty-eight years later, Shvo is poised to bring that childhood fixation to life, by literally transforming the skyline of Long Island City—the tatty industrial section of Queens, just across the East River from Manhattan—into the city he had built in his mind.
It won't be easy. Years of nightmarish political wheeling and dealing are a given. And it's certain to raise hackles, if only for the sheer hubris of Shvo's vision. But the 34-year-old real-estate marketing wunderkind has been girding for this challenge his entire life. "In 10 years, I want to say we're responsible for this skyline," he says. "We're in the greatest city in the world, and there's still an opportunity to put your signature there."
No one ever accused Michael Shvo of thinking small. And with a distinct softening in the property market, even in New York, the odds that his ambition will derail are not inconsiderable. But Shvo's strategy—to turn each building he markets into a luxury brand of its own—is calculated to insulate his developers from such turbulence. His basic contention is that real estate should be marketed in the mode of Cartier, Gucci, or Rolex: massive market research; devotion to demographic and psychographic analysis; extreme attention to customer experience and service; integrated marketing across every touch point, every function, every channel.
That's not news in the consumer-products realm, but it represents fresh thinking in an industry that, until recently, worried less about seducing customers than about simply feeding their insatiable demand.
"The real-estate industry is accustomed to being very conservative," says Anna Klingmann, author of the upcoming Brandscapes: Architecture in the Experience Economy (MIT Press, fall 2007). "They have, by and large, relied on tried-and-true formulas." In the urban condo market, that meant selling based on location, square footage, and predictable amenities ("Working fireplace! Park view!"). But as consumers have become more design savvy, demand has escalated for more upscale, sophisticated dwellings that serve, essentially, as a residential shorthand for a buyer's style, aesthetic, and weltanschauung.
And that niche is where Shvo sees his opening. If the product is extraordinary, he says, it's insulated from the dreaded competition that invariably afflicts commodity properties when the market softens. He raises a bottle of branded Shvo water— Shvo2O—to make his case. "If you're buying this water from me for $1, and somebody else says she'll sell it to you for 99 cents, you're in a race to the lowest price," he says. "But if I bring you a bottle of water from the Holy Land, you'll pay $2 for it because you can't get it anywhere else."
He's cocky, and he's blunt—two Myers-Briggs characteristics required to compete for Gotham real-estate moguldom. Indeed, it's tempting to write off Shvo as yet another ego in a business that's saturated with them—tempting, that is, until the sheer scale of his operation sinks in. In New York alone, through the end of 2007, he's handling 6,335 residential units in 30 buildings (including 9 in Long Island City) that are collectively worth about $7 billion. And he's primed to extend the reach of his eponymous company to Washington, DC; Texas; Florida; Singapore; Mexico; and the UK. By 2008, he expects to have $8 billion in property under development outside New York, putting his total marketing and sales portfolio in the neighborhood of $15 billion. Nice neighborhood, especially for a business founded in 2004.
So, can Shvo outsmart a teetering market? Nationally, the median price of a previously owned home fell 3.5% in October, to $221,000, according to the National Association of Realtors; by November, it had dropped further, to $218,000, down from $225,000 a year before. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com, predicted that housing prices would continue to sink in 2007, marking the "first [annual] decline in national housing prices since the Great Depression."
The condo market in many cities is already in free fall. In Boston, for example, the asking prices for a Philippe Starck—branded project were lowered by an average of 12%. Some developers, meanwhile, have opted preemptively to convert their buildings into rental units (seven apartments in a serpentine Manhattan tower by starchitect Charles Gwathmey are now rentals), hotels (the old Tommy Hilfiger headquarters in New York were to become a Peter Som—designed building but ended up being sold off to Hyatt), or offices. And across the country, some high-end developments have been abandoned outright, from Miami (15 developments representing 1,900 units) to Bethesda (a planned $1 billion Canyon Ranch Living mixed-use complex) to Las Vegas (Aqua Blue, an 825-unit, $600 million condo-hotel resort with Michael Jordan as an investor).
True, Manhattan condos are insulated to some degree by factors unique to that market, including the record bonuses on Wall Street, the influx of foreign buyers drawn by a weak dollar, and the relatively low incidence of speculation. But despite the rampant, hopeful talk among brokers of a "soft landing," the market is still a pale imitation of its robust 2005. Traders on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which recently began trading futures and options contracts on housing prices in 10 U.S. markets, including New York, are predicting declines in all 10 over the next 12 months, with the composite index predicted to fall 6.8%. In November, the inventory of unsold Manhattan condos was up 70% from the previous year.
It's tempting to write off Shvo as another ego in a business saturated with them—tempting, that is, until the sheer scale of his operation sinks in.
With nearly 30,000 new units either under construction or being planned in the city over the next few years, there's "a cold breeze on sales of condos," says Ron Cohen, executive director of commercial real-estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. "And when you have such big negative carries, as in construction costs and debt service, marketing becomes a critical factor. Every day that those units are not sold, there are huge repercussions."
But a cool breeze is mere refreshment to Shvo. If he can continue to come up with "irreplaceable properties," he says, the buyers will be there. And if the competition to create the next buzz-worthy project in New York is heating up, the rest of the country remains a blank canvas, just waiting for him to arrive with his real-estate Shock and Awe road show.
"I could do a New York project with my eyes closed," he says, with customary humility. "But in Chicago, Houston, or Mexico, we walk in with an attitude that has never been explored. It's like having sex for the first time."
New York competition is heating up, but the rest of the country is a blank canvas, just waiting for his real-estate Shock and Awe road show.
Alan Becker, director of Becker Arquitectos, the winning bidder on a spread south of Cancún that was the former Mexican Camp David, says he was in despair, trying to find somebody with the required zeal for his high-end hotel/residential project. "I interviewed six top-of-the-line companies," he says, "and it was always very cold. Ten minutes after the introduction, they wanted to know square feet, absorption rate, etc. But for me, the first stage is to be passionate about the project. It took Michael and me seven minutes to agree on everything. We still haven't talked about square footage."
As the amenities arms race keeps expanding, the points of differentiation increasingly move into the psychographic space. You are where you live. "We've moved beyond the cachet of a neighborhood to the cachet of a building," says Klingmann. Marketers now strive to aggregate like-minded buyers under a single roof—vertical villages of simpatico souls.
"It's all about that feeling that you're not just buying an apartment, but joining this superexclusive club," says Lockhart Steele, publisher of the real-estate obsessives' Web site Curbed.com. "Where Shvo is for real is that he caught on to that before most people and was able to break away and infuse his projects—even if from a literal design standpoint they didn't deserve it—with this kind of rock-star ethos, just by being associated with them."
That's why, in Shvo's book, selling amenities is so 2005. "People want to feel they own something that has a personality and a story," he says. And that means more than just the usual appliance upgrades, or adding a health club. "What are you going to say, 'I bought in the SubZero building' or 'the granite-countertop building'?" he sniffs. "People are looking for self-definition. They're looking to belong."
"I have this aversion to kitchens." Resplendent in one of his many $5,000 Brioni suits and a $170 pink silk basketweave Hermès tie, his wavy hair slicked back like Tom Hanks's in The Da Vinci Code, Shvo has stepped into high-intensity broker mode in the sales office of a 1920s neoclassical building called 20 Pine. Next to him stands a wall of cabinetry that, but for a slender faucet and discreet Miele cooktop, could be a high-end entertainment unit. No sign of a fridge. No inkling of a dishwasher. Not a telltale knob or handle or dial mars the surface of the rift-cut white oak.
Despite the camouflage, this is, indeed, a kitchen, albeit one unlikely ever to see a toaster oven, let alone a box of Annie's mac-and-cheese bunnies. "The target clients in this building are mostly singles and young couples—alpha males—not people who cook," he says, with some distaste. "So I didn't want to see any appliances. It took me six months to try and put an oven behind the cabinet because of code. But it was worth it, because a kitchen's not a very pretty thing."
Martha acolytes might argue that point. Armani fans, probably not so much. And that's what Shvo is counting on: a healthy pool of style-dependent, restaurant-hopping young buyers willing to pony up between $680,000 and $4.5 million for a minimalist condo in a building dressed by Armani/Casa, the home-furnishings arm of the fashion empire.
The building is, to date, the most fully realized example of Shvo's strategic vision. Indeed, the sales office at 20 Pine makes the Prada store in Soho look a little sketchy. The cavernous 8,000-square-foot space is furnished like a massive living room, with cozy conversation areas and seductive lighting. Receptionists, armored in Armani, sit before a towering 28-foot-high bookcase crammed with an impossible number of oversized art books. Nooks along the perimeter allow potential buyers to view floorplans on plasma screens and get real-time sales information. In an adjoining room, a small replica of the Armani catwalk in Milan bisects a space where video loops detail the neighborhood, the health club, and the concierge service. A life-size model of a kitchen and the bathroom, which features an exotic dark stone—galaxy schist from India—complete the presentation.
If it all seems a little Milan-by-way-of-Mulan, it should: "
Shvo's trick has been to cross-pollinate Disney's slavish attention to detail with the brand experience you might have shopping for a high-end Beemer, and roll it out in the housing market. "The truth is that real estate is the ultimate luxury brand," he says. "After all, it's the single most-expensive purchase you'll make in your life." Shvo is hardly the first to make that observation. Donald Trump, for one, has built an empire around loud marble and a big brass nameplate. But while Shvo venerates Trump as a master marketer, "Donald thinks his brand can be multiplied 500 times, and it will never be diluted. I disagree. I don't believe you can create greatness in mass. Every project we handle is bespoke, a custom job.
"In that sense, we're the Ferrari of the business." In the Wonderful World of Shvo, modesty is weakness.
According to luxury-marketing expert Michael J. Silverstein, author of Trading Up: Why Consumers Want New Luxury Goods … and How Companies Create Them, Shvo is a "segmentation guy." His technique is to perform a demographic presort of the market, then develop product strategically marketed to particular niches. "He's like the guy in the bar who can throw three bull's-eyes at the dartboard." Trump, on the other hand, has one shtick. "For every one he appeals to," Silverstein says, "there's one he doesn't. With a microsegmentation strategy, if you're certain the applicable universe is big enough, you have a winning formula."
The formula—well understood by commercial-real-estate consultants who know to site Prada on Rodeo and its more youthful spin-off, Miu Miu, on Melrose—is simple: the right brand, the right location, and the right product for the right customer. ("That's the magic," Shvo says. "It's what we get paid millions to do.") The fact that it has been applied so rarely to urban residential property probably has less to do with unevolved thinking than with a long boom that made sophisticated marketing irrelevant. But now, in tighter times, it's becoming table stakes for high-end condos.
And it's trickier than it looks. Gwathmey's Astor Place project, for example, while architecturally stunning, was a bad fit for the boho neighborhood in which it was sited. "I love the East Village," says Curbed's Steele, "but if I had $10 million to spend, I'm not sure I'd want to be stepping outside to skateboarders every morning." Similarly, the ultra-high-end conversion of the Stanhope Hotel on Fifth Avenue landed with a thud when buyers balked at paying upward of $10.5 million for condos with déclassé 9-foot ceilings.
Misfire on one component of the algorithm, in other words, and your next building may be fronted with golden arches.
"The precision required for luxury pricing is more significant than in recent memory," says Jonathan Miller, CEO of appraisal firm Miller Samuel. So, as Manhattan condo inventories build, Shvo must prove that his microsegmentation instincts are the best in town. Even with a staff cherry-picked from the world's top luxury marketers—Calvin Klein, Brioni, Dolce & Gabbana—that's a daunting challenge.
"The first question is about authenticity," says Patrick Hanlon, author of Primalbranding. "Can he get the icons right? The appliances in the kitchen, the fixtures in the bath. Then, can he be sure he's appealing to a psychographic that actually exists?"
More important, can he continue to differentiate his properties in a market that is increasingly aping his approach? On New York's Upper East Side, for example, Miraval Living, an offshoot of the Miraval Resort in Tucson, Arizona, is developing a luxury property designed for folks whose dream is to live at the spa, with hot-and-cold running yogis. Downtown, club and hotel maestro André Balazs has created the William Beaver House, an NC-17—rated condo building targeting the randy-singles market (the private screening room is furnished with daybeds). On Central Park West, architect Robert A.M. Stern is putting finishing touches on an ultraluxe property that features a David Spon—designed wine cellar with an octagonal tasting room (hedge-fund manager Daniel Loeb paid $45 million for the penthouse; Denzel Washington, Sting, and one of the Google guys will be neighbors). In other words, the relentless flood of newfangled amenities (Covered outdoor dog parks! Climbing walls! Murphy offices!) are cries for attention in an ADD market. "If you don't do that now," Miller says, "you can't keep up."
"It takes brass balls to sell real estate," Alec Baldwin's character says in David Mamet's movie Glengarry Glen Ross. Shvo's friends—and detractors—are likely to tell you he has what it takes.
The child of two Israeli organic-chemistry professors, Shvo first came to the United States when he was 6 and his father had a short teaching gig at Yale. His most vivid memory of that period, besides the Manhattan skyline, was a seminal performance of Peter Pan on Broadway.
After a stint in the Israeli army, and a program in finance at Bar Ilan University, he set up his own brokerage firm, specializing in trading gas and oil stocks. He made a fortune, he lost a fortune ("I learned how to deal with greed and loss," he says), then woke up one day in 1995 and decided he'd outgrown his little country. He sold his stake in the business to his partner and flew to New York with $3,000.
On the ride into Manhattan from the airport, he asked his cab driver how the taxi business worked. Within three months, he had used his money to lease medallions and was running a fleet of 10 cabs and 30 drivers off a street corner in Spanish Harlem, where he was sleeping on a friend's floor. He plowed every dollar back into the business. At one point, he miscalculated and ended up not eating for three days. "I was too embarrassed to call my parents," he says.
After a brief period during which he managed a bar and got married (a relationship that has since ended in divorce), he interviewed for a job renting apartments. He was an instant success. He'd work 18 hours, showing as many as 40 low-end places a day. He loved the immediacy of the return on his sweat equity. "You could come to work, find somebody an apartment, and get paid three days later. It was totally dependent on how hard you wanted to work."
When his company was bought out by Douglas Elliman, he brought his hard-charging style to posher precincts, eventually forming a group of brokers within the company who reported to him—and gave him a hefty cut of their commissions. The Shvo Group was a Darwinian crucible: Some people thrived, others were crushed. "He treated his employees like s—t," says one. "We worked like dogs. Crazy hours. There were a lot of people crying." His peers maintained that Shvo's rabid style and tactics were anathema even in a sanguinary business. "He drove me crazy," Paul Purcell, Elliman's former president, told New York Magazine. "If you gave an inch, he wanted a yard. There's a psychology behind this, almost a psychosis."
By piling up his commissions and those of his group, however, Shvo logged sales of more than $300 million in 2003—earning him the title of "top producer" at Elliman.
"Real-estate brokerage is an 'eat what you kill' kind of business," Shvo says now, without remorse. "If you're good, you can make a lot of money. But 10% of the brokers do 90% of the deals." He has nothing but contempt for people who approach the profession at less than full throttle: "Do it right, or don't do it at all. There are enough people out there who can do a half-assed job."
That attitude earned him a reputation as "the assassin of Manhattan real estate," a ruthless shark, an unstoppable force of nature, and "master of the f—king universe." It also won him an ethics complaint. In spring 2004, a grievance was filed against him with the Real Estate Board of New York after he met with a developer who had an exclusive agreement with another broker—taboo in the industry. He was forced to take a 90-minute ethics class as penance. (The developer smoothed things over by presenting Shvo with a $30,000 A. Lange & Söhne watch for his birthday.)
Adam Tihany, the restaurant and hotel designer, thinks his friend Shvo's youth and success fuel the professional enmity. "Real estate is a very important and extremely lucrative business," he says. "In New York, where you don't have that much land and opportunity to develop, it breeds envy. Who can sell more, whose building is bigger, who has more gold in their teeth. That Michael's young and successful and good-looking makes the older ones yellow."
Plus, even in a city accustomed to Trumpian intemperance, Shvo set a new bar. "The allure of the bad boy is part of what's in play here," Steele says. "Every community needs its outrageous characters." If a week goes by without a Shvo item on Curbed, Steele says, "an email will come in with the subject header 'Michael Shvo,' and it will either be a random rant or a demand for more coverage."
In October 2004, Shvo left Elliman under circumstances that are still cloudy. Some sources claim he was fired. Shvo says there was a more compelling rationale: "I made the most amount of money that anybody had ever made in a year, so there was nowhere to go. If you're a shrink, you would probably say that once I get to where I want to go, I want to move on to something more interesting."
That something, he says, began taking shape one day in 2004 when he walked into the new
When he left Elliman, he took 27 members of his group with him. The Shvo Group has since dwindled to 12 as the marketing organization takes preeminence (the vestiges of the group act as a conventional brokerage while Shvo Marketing both promotes and sells all the new developments). The company now occupies two floors in a Tihany-designed office on Fifth Avenue—directly across from Trump—with zebrawood paneling and a Rody Grauman lighting fixture called "85 Bulbs." ("It's in MOMA.")
One key hire was Marci Sutin Levin, a ringer for the character Edna "E" Mode in The Incredibles, who had run marketing operations for Brioni and the Italian coffee company Lavazza. She originated the marketing campaign for 20 Pine, creating a 112-page, four-color magazine-style brochure, baited with libidinous and underdressed models—the better to lure those Wall Street alpha males.
"We were selling the entire Armani experience," she says, "like stepping into the brand. From the moment you walked in there, you were disconnected from the street. It's a bit like Vegas."
To maintain the illusion, Shvo signed up the tony concierge firm Quintessentially (famous for rounding up a flock of albino peacocks for JLo's wedding), to provide services for residents, including a free breakfast for anyone living above the 25th floor. He and Levin conceived the idea of keeping the sales office open 24 hours a day for time-strapped investment-banker types, a stunt that drew attention from CNN, ABC, the BBC, and Dutch, Japanese, and Korean television. The opening night party featured R&B star John Legend. There's a golf simulator and a Turkish bath in the basement.
Buyers were impressed. "I looked at 25 or 30 properties over a three-month period," says Edward Sander, who runs marketing for SAP. "No other property had a showroom that allowed you to have the emotional experience of what living in the building would be like." Within two days of opening, 30% of the building was sold, not bad for a project just blocks from ground zero. Currently, 75% of the condos are under agreement—all, says Shvo, at asking price.
"At the end of the day, what we do translates into real dollars," he says. "At 20 Pine we're 30% above any other building in the neighborhood. And we're $100 million over the estimate of what the project would bring when we started."
There's no way to verify Shvo's numbers. But he insists he gets at least two or three calls a day from developers looking for a taste of the Shvovian magic, especially those with projects languishing in the market. He says he turns away 95% of the business he's offered, limiting himself to five or six new clients a year.
Shvo takes a percentage of sales, the magnitude of which depends on the project. Industry experts say marketing costs for a run-of-the-mill project typically run about 6% of the development's cost; in luxury buildings, that can hit 10% or more. Given Shvo's stated $15 billion portfolio, his company stands to rake in revenues well over $1 billion over the next three years.
Niche On Wheels
We're riding uptown from 20 Pine in Shvo's chauffeur-driven black Mercedes S500, and Shvo, as ever, is checking his BlackBerry messages while chattering into his cell. Except this is no deal in the works. It's his parents, calling from Israel, to wish their son a happy new year. After a few minutes of animated conversation in Hebrew, he snaps the phone shut: "My mother wants me to get married this year."
It could happen. (He and his girlfriend live in the upper reaches of the Time Warner building overlooking Central Park.) But Shvo can't keep his mind on weddings today, when there's so much opportunity passing by his window. "See this 50-story building? Hotel-retail-condo—we brought Daniel Libeskind to the table." "We're doing a building in the middle of this block in two years." "See this building? We just completed that one." "That one? The Peter Som building? I said from day one that it wouldn't work." What about Balazs's new affluent-horndog project, the William Beaver House? "Balazs's brand doesn't work for a 400-unit building. If I was advising André, I'd tell him to stay true to his brand, which is taking quirky little properties and making them really chic."
We pull over in the middle of a dusty block on West 18th Street—"Central Chelsea," apparently, a designation that's a function more of marketing than cartography. The elevator is being repaired, so we climb to the second floor, to a small sales office lit by a vaguely Moroccan lighting fixture. This is the Jade, a building rescued from obscurity by its connection with Jade Jagger, Mick's lissome spawn, who's forging an identity for herself as a jewelry and fashion designer.
We step into an empty room; a heavy beat kicks in. And suddenly, there's Jade herself, in full IMAX mode, stepping off the curb, as a 360-degree streetscape plays out on all four walls. "I'd like to introduce you to a new concept in urban living," she says. "One that's very personal to me. A place that a modern nomad like myself can call home."
Evidently, Jade's nomadism is largely confined to New York, London, and Ibiza, and her building borrows heavily from each, with a Mediterranean rooftop terrace where the kids can poach in "soaking tubs," a sort of Aladdin's-Oasis-meets-the-Garment-District. Lucy Liu is said to be interested.
The Jade opened for business in July, typically a sleepy time for sales. But in eight weeks, Shvo swears, his team had moved 35 of the 56 units. "We sold more apartments in the last month and a half than were sold in a year across the street," he says. Without dropping prices, of course.
The question now becomes, How many ways can you slice a market? Once you've aggregated the Wall Street fat cats, the holistic health fanatics, the randy twentysomethings, the kid-focused families, the West Side culture mavens, the starchitecture snobs, what's next? Condos for pet-loving Egyptologists? Stamp-collecting oenophiles? When does it stop being a clever marketing segmentation strategy and start sounding a little silly?
Steele, for one, is watching closely: "The next 18 to 24 months will tell us if Shvo's really onto something, or whether he's simply the fulfillment of an age when real estate was selling itself—and where, as long as everything was going to sell, you may as well get a premium for yours by making it a little shinier than the next guy's."
Already, not all of Shvo's projects are so crisply defined and hotly desired. Sales at 8 Union Square South, a luxury building where large condos sell for $1.89 million to $8.9 million, have been less brisk than at 20 Pine or Jade. And its positioning, "A park to call your own," has inspired some sniggers from locals who know the area is less Central Park than it is a piebald tract overrun with Filene's Basement shoppers, skater kids, and opiated indigents.
But Shvo is getting a little bored with Manhattan anyway. As his shrink might say, it's time to move on. And he already has a range of projects on the boards: the Cancún project (in partnership with the GHM Hotels—the folks behind the Setai in Miami and the Legian in Bali); a billion-dollar mixed-use project in Houston; and a $750 million resort in the Turks and Caicos.
And then there's Long Island City—Shvo's own personal Tomorrowland. It's a chilly December night, and we're back in his car, moving slowly over the Queensborough Bridge into Manhattan. It's warm and dark in the back seat, when Shvo starts murmuring sweet nothings into my tape recorder. "The beauty is that Long Island City has no brand, it's nothing. And nothing is a great place to start," he says, his passion rising. He wants nothing more than to rebrand the place, he says, starting with a skyline worthy of Chicago. Boat slips. Parks. Cafés, supermarkets, schools. "Here, I can put up the most beautiful building in the world, and it's not just another building in a busy skyline. Here, I can create anything I want!"
Five years from now, he says, "we'll sit on the Manhattan side and say, 'My God, look at this. It's pretty damn cool."
It's a dazzling vision. Until I recall what one marketer told me about peddling luxury real estate: "What we focus on is that moment of truth when a customer walks into our property and goes, 'Wow!'" he'd said. "It's like falling in love. In that millisecond, the value spike goes poof!"
I, apparently, am just another seductee. And Shvo is the man behind the curtain, waving veils and blowing musk.
"That," he says, "is what we do."
A version of this article appeared in the March 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.