Dottie Herman: Closing the Deal

At 6:15 every morning, Dottie Herman is already exercising, with a trainer if she’s in her Manhattan apartment or in her own gym if she’s at her home in Oyster Bay Cove. Then, for an hour and a half, she has her coffee and reads the paper as her phone starts to ring with business calls. People know she’s up and running, she says.

Next, she’s off to exercise her cerebral and managerial muscles for the rest of day. As president and CEO of Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate, she runs New York’s largest real estate company and the fourth largest in the nation. About 3,800 sales professionals work in more than 60 offices stretching “from Manhattan to Montauk,” as Herman likes to say, generating $12 billion in annual sales.

If she’s in the city, she’ll head to her own office or visit one or more of the sales offices. If it’s a Saturday, she’s off to host her live WOR radio show, Eye on Real Estate, from a Manhattan studio or from Long Island. If it’s Monday or Tuesday, she’s likely to be on the Island, meeting with some of her top people first in Nassau County, later in the Hamptons. She drives herself from one spot to another, alone in her car.

“Sometimes it’s the best time for me. I listen to my music, current pop or what I grew up with,” says Herman, who’s married to attorney Jay Herman and has a grown daughter who is a teacher. Even in the car, though, business isn’t far from her thoughts. “I’ve incorporated real estate as part of my life. It’s what I do.” Besides owning a house in Southampton and being an active supporter of several non-profit groups, she has no leisure interests.

“She’s hard-driving. She never stops,” says Jonathan J. Miller, cofounder of appraisal firm Miller Samuel. Miller issues influential market reports with Herman’s company. “She has this spark that appeals to a lot of people.”

She has the spark, Herman says, because real estate is her passion. “I love real estate. It’s one of the few industries left where you can get to know people. I’m a people person. And it’s never the same. The market is always changing.”

Herman, who grew up in Franklin Square, has been in the field since the 1980s, when she worked part time while studying to become a financial planner at Adelphi University. Then she joined Merrill Lynch, which had a national real estate business while most shops were still ma-and-pa affairs, and was working to integrate its other financial services with real estate. “It was the start of my career. I worked my way up the ladder. I became a manager, then the regional manager, and then I ran the whole company for them on Long Island.” They sent her around the country to learn, so she gained a global perspective.

“I saw the big picture. I traveled with them,” says Herman. She was hooked. When Merrill Lynch decided to sell its real estate offices, she wrote a letter offering to buy them, she says, though she had no money. “It was impossible, but I was too young to know that.” Prudential bought the business, and she worked for them for several years—until they decided to sell the local offices. She wrote another letter, and this time she didn’t give up. “I said, ‘Why don’t you finance me?’” First they said they couldn’t, then they advanced her $9 million to purchase the Long Island offices, which continue to be part of the Prudential network. They also loaned her working capital of around $1.7 million, she says.

That was in 1989, just before a major recession. She weathered that, she says, then began to expand into the Hamptons—a different world from the rest of Long Island—in the mid 1990s. Someone offered to buy her out and she could have retired. But she went in the opposite direction. She decided to expand to Manhattan, an audacious move. “I like to grow. Once I reach a plateau, I’m always seeing the next step.”

In 2003, she made her move, acquiring Douglas Elliman with the help of business partner Howard M. Lorber (who’s also executive chairman of Nathan’s Famous) and another loan from Prudential. The price tag: nearly $72 million.

“There’s only one payment left, in June, and then I’m done. I’m thrilled. It was a lot of money, and right after 9/11. When we’re in the city negotiating, we were on orange alert or red alert. Prudential thought we were crazy, but it worked out for all of us.”

So where does Herman get all this drive, this moxie? One place to look is into a tragic event in her past. When she was 10, her entire family was in an auto accident. Her mother, Louise D’Ambrosio, died. Her father, Joseph, was incapacitated for nearly a year, and she and her younger sister and brother were injured. “You have to grow up quickly,” she recalls. “I had to make a lot of decisions that, when you have mom, she’ll make them for you.” She was already ambitious, but this added another dimension. “It was overnight. As a child you don’t understand it. But you look back on it, and you realize that life can change on a dime. So I always went with my passion. I wasn’t afraid.”

The accident also gave her a new view of family. “Tragedy can either rip a family apart or bring a family closer together. It brought us closer together. We rely on each other.” She’s tried to create a similar closeness in her business, she says. “I try to make my company like a family. We’ve gone through great times as a company, and we’ve gone through bad times, but we’ve stuck together. Some people have worked for me for 25 years.”

Recent times, of course, have been difficult and she’s had to cut back. But her company has many branches, including property management, commercial and retail leasing, rental, title and relocation services. Last year, she realized that rather than being just a mortgage broker, “I needed to be a bank. I did a deal with Wells Fargo.” The new partnership makes loans. And she’s ready for the next step, whatever that may be.

“All the rules have changed,” says Herman. “You have to have vision. I tell people, if you have the passion to do something, you should do it. I have.”

aileen jacobson

Aileen Jacobson writes about the arts for the New York Times and other publications. A former arts and media writer for Newsday, she is also the author of two books.