In the Assassin's wake...

The Real Deal

Tom Acitelli
April 1, 2006

They call him "the real estate assassin." Who does? Well, ABC's Nightline, which aired a recent segment on Michael Shvo, the 33-year-old wunderkind behind the Shvo Group and, for many, the face of New York City's recent real estate boom.

Shvo might get the attention, but other 30-something Israeli émigrés have also made it in Big Apple real estate after rising from humble beginnings. They're not on Nightline, nor in the pages of New York magazine, where a lengthy feature story labeled Shvo the city's "most loathed" broker.

But they're out there.

Shvo himself managed a fleet of taxis when he first came to New York before going on to become a big broker at Prudential Douglas Elliman. Fellow countryman Ilan Bracha's career had a similar lofty trajectory toward the top end, partly at the same brokerage.

After serving in the Israeli army, Bracha had plans to open a bar in Tel Aviv, which called for a trip to research bars in the Big Apple. But, as he told The Real Deal, "I fell in love with the city." He stayed, and soon found himself working as a mover. One day, Bracha managed the move of an MLBKaye International Realty office, and someone there suggested he had the right personality for real estate.

Two weeks later, he had gotten his real estate license. He called MLBKaye for an interview, but they were too busy to talk to him that day. His next interview, with Dwelling Quest, landed him a job. Bracha spent a year with Dwelling Quest and more than four years with MLBKaye (after interviewing with the same person who suggested real estate as a career on that fateful moving day). Then, he met Dottie Herman, at the time the new president of Douglas Elliman.

"She made me an offer I couldn't refuse," Bracha, 31, said, by way of explaining his jump to one of the city's biggest brokerages, where he's now an executive vice president. Bracha had the highest number of exclusives at Douglas Elliman last year, as well as the highest number of transactions and sales, second only to superstar Dolly Lenz in total number of commissions. "You have the struggling in the beginning," Bracha said, "but it's very basically been a fun ride."

The same might be said for fellow Israeli Barak Dunayer, who always had Starbucks in his corner -- or, rather, on his corner. Before his firm, Barak Realty, grew to 20 brokers from just himself -- and before the firm had an Upper West Side headquarters -- Dunayer used to meet clients at Starbucks.

It would work something like this: Dunayer, who started in real estate in 2000, working out of his sixth-floor-walkup studio, would call clients or they would call him, and request a meeting. He'd say, Sure, why don't we do it at the Starbucks at [fill in New York street corner here], I'm right nearby...

Clients were none the wiser. And Dunayer, 32, was able to get a foothold in the hypercompetitive universe of New York real estate.

Such drive toward success in real estate might be inherent in Israelis, says Eddie Shapiro, chairman and CEO of Nest Seekers International, which now has Manhattan, Florida, and Hamptons offices. "If you're Israeli, 22, 23 years old," Shapiro, 30, says, "you're looking for two things -- a bride and a mortgage. We're like the Floridians -- we like to own real estate."

Shapiro himself worked a series of "every possible odd job" for a year after he arrived in New York in the early 1990s, before he got his real estate start at Dwelling Quest. He also played gigs in Greenwich Village as a jazz guitarist that first year, but gradually "got tired of the bagel and cream cheese for breakfast, lunch, and dinner." So, Shapiro went looking for something more stable and financially rewarding.

Enter real estate.

For Shvo, the human barometer against which 30-something New York real estate up-and-comers may for a long time be judged, the climb toward the top started with a broker's fee he paid for a Manhattan rental. After arriving from Israel in the mid-1990s with $3,000 and "no idea what I wanted to do," Shvo built up a fleet of 10 yellow cabs and 30 drivers, then managed a Manhattan bar for a relative. But paying a fee for a broker's minimal effort in putting him into an apartment opened his eyes to the possibilities of the real estate business.

The on-site leaser for his building had a friend in real estate who suggested he become an agent. He did so in 1998, and the brokerage he worked for was later bought by Douglas Elliman. In his first year, Shvo rented more than 300 apartments. Now, Shvo has his own marketing and sales firm, the Shvo Group, a force behind some of Manhattan's toniest new condo developments, including 20 Pine Street and Bryant Park Tower.

"I knew no one in real estate," Shvo said of his career change. "I took every opportunity I had, worked 18 hours a day, just was always working."