John Wollberg has a photographic memory — he can draw the floorplan of almost every property he has ever seen.
He’s leveraged that skill, along with many others, into a decades-long real estate career in Manhattan and Westchester County, during which he has represented nearly every type of client imaginable and received the Real Estate Board of New York’s (REBNY) prestigious Henry Forster Memorial Lifetime Achievement Award. We touched base with John to learn more about his background and what brought him to Side as managing broker for New York State.
What first got you interested in real estate?
I think I’ve always been interested. The very first picture I ever drew with crayons, which my mother saved and framed, was of a house.
The very first picture I ever drew with crayons, which my mother saved and framed, was of a house.
I went to school for architecture and business, and I always knew residential real estate would be some part of my future. When I first moved to New York in 1982 I was selling databases, but I realized it didn’t make me happy — and that’s when I turned to real estate.
What was your first real estate job?
I was the marketing assistant for Rockrose/TF Cornerstone, one of the biggest landlord-owners here in Manhattan. I remember one of my first jobs was to order a sign for the side of a building, one of those huge tarps that stretches 10 stories tall. This was a building converting from rental to co-op, but I didn’t know much at the time, and I had no idea there was a dash between “co” and “op.” So for about 15 years, the sign that hung off that building said: “Coops for Sale.” Needless to say, I had to learn things very quickly.
And you continued in conversions, correct?
I was made head of conversions, marketing, and sales after two years thanks to my terrific mentor, and then I was poached by the largest converter in New York City. We were doing a conversion a week. I was driving so much between our different properties, I didn’t have an actual desk. My office was my red Jeep with a phone in the armrest.
Then in 1989, the market crashed, and my company downsized from 150 people to single digits. During the downturn, I was approached by a foreign real estate company that owned a chain of hotels. I helped them purchase what was destined to be a condominium building and we converted it into another hotel.
Did you think about continuing in hotels?
They wanted me to; they asked me to be the general manager when it first opened. But I had a daughter, and I kept thinking about Eloise at the Plaza — there was no way I was raising my family at the hotel.
So after working for two boutique brokerages, I decided to open my own firm, Atco Residential Group, which I ran for nearly 10 years.
What made you leave?
I was very involved with the Real Estate Board of New York at the time — I still am, in fact. But back then, and this was around 2008, I was elected as co-chair of the Residential Division. And the other co-chair was the CEO of Halstead. It took her about six months to talk me into it, but I ended up leaving my company to become a managing sales director at Halstead. Then, after being the Executive Vice President of the company for a number of years, Halstead and Brown Harris Stevens — which were owned by the same parent company — merged into one so I continued there.
What brought you to Side?
The real estate industry has changed significantly. Long-term, I truly believe today’s traditional brick and mortar firms are going to have to move closer to a model like Side’s.
It’s funny, I think almost all brokerage executives have said to agents at some point: You’re a firm within a firm. That’s the reality, but traditionally, agents have had a nominal lack of control over their business. Agents are tired of and frustrated with that model.
What is the finest accomplishment of your career to date?
Without a doubt, my finest career accomplishment was founding the RLS, the Real Estate Board of New York’s residential listing system and then being bestowed with the Henry Forster Memorial Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2008 Real Estate Board of New York, Deal of the Year Gala by Diane Ramirez, my then-firm’s CEO and the prior year’s winner. The award is the top accolade in our residential real estate industry.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing agents in New York right now?
This is an attorney-only state, which means most of our documents are negotiated bespoke or independently. It actually takes an entire team of professionals to shepherd a residential real estate deal from beginning to end. Then you have New York City, which is its own unique animal. It’s a vertical city — some apartment buildings have 900 units, which is an entire neighborhood somewhere else. To really succeed here as an agent, you have to be very diversified or very segmented, but very sophisticated and very knowledgeable.
But I’ve been involved in this market for so long, I’m well-equipped to help with any issues agents might come across. I’ve also gotten to know all the other managers, CEOs and owners through my work at the Real Estate Board of New York for years now.
What are you most excited about when it comes to the managing broker position at Side?
I’m an innovator. I love building new things, new companies. I’m incredibly excited by the opportunity to break new ground as Side expands into New York State. This model has been proven in other markets, which I think bodes very well for how it will fare in New York.
What do you do outside of work that is surprising?
I collect contemporary 20th century paintings, American Indian paintings and pottery as well as antique industrial steel furniture. I have an old autopsy table in my kitchen, which may sound creepy, but with a new top, it’s really cool looking.
What is your greatest passion?
Real estate! I honestly live, breathe, and engage in it 24/7. Even when I’m on vacation, I am visiting property and studying the real estate market.