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Top Agent Q&A: New York City’s Frances Katzen

Former prima ballerina turned Douglas Elliman agent chats with RealTrends about the transition from professional dance to the real estate industry and the lessons she learned along the way.

Douglas Elliman agent Frances Katzen is no stranger to major life changes. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Katzen and her family moved to Sydney, Australia when she was a child. At 15, Katzen relocated yet again, moving halfway around the world to study ballet at the School of American Ballet in New York City.

Katzen went on to dance professionally for 14 years with American Ballet Theater, the Miami City Ballet and as a soloist with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Then, sidelined by a major injury, she started over in a new career, pirouetting her way into the world of real estate.

“While I was dancing, it was suggested to me that I should get my real estate license because I love architecture,” Katzen said. “I have a family member who is a well-known architect and designer. My family just all has an eye for design, so I just went on a lark and got my license.”

During her careers as both a professional dancer and a New York City-based Douglas Elliman agent and founder of The Katzen Team, Katzen has learned a thing or two about work ethic, persistence and how to be successful in two very different arenas.

RealTrends recently caught up with Katzen to discuss her career in real estate and the lessons she learned during her professional dancing career.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Brooklee Han: Before we dive into your career in real estate, I want to learn a bit more about your background in ballet. What first attracted you to ballet?

Frances Katzen: I basically bumbled my way into ballet. I was in a modern dance class. I hated the class so much because the teacher was so bad, and I ended up taking a ballet class. I was studying through the Royal Academy of Dance and you have to take exams.

For the exams, there’s a series of exercises that you demonstrate and a little creative dance. At my exam, I couldn’t remember the dance. I will never forget my examiner, she was Mrs. Turnbull, and she gave me honors. So here I am coming out of the exam crying, mortified and thinking that I failed, and I ended up getting the highest award. So, I realized that I might actually be good at this.

Top NYC real estate agent Frances Katzen

BH: After that initial taste of success, what kept you coming back to ballet?

Katzen: I’m a glutton for punishment and a perfectionist (laughs). I love music and movement. There was something about it that arrested me, it sort of connected me with a part of myself that I wanted to express and that was really meaningful for me.

I needed an outlet to say and feel whatever it was that was going on and it met that need. Dance is very spiritual — you transcend yourself at times. I mean, going on stage and hearing those symphonies play Tchaikovsky and feeling the breeze as the curtain goes up — it takes you to another universe. There is nothing like it.

And I got to do the one percentile career that most don’t get to do. You can’t fake ballet. You either have the body or you don’t. You either have the technique or you don’t. You either have the facility or you don’t. So, it is a very black and white career and I think what it allowed me was a vehicle to get paid to do something that I really felt I couldn’t live without at the time.

Just dancing with another person on stage, doing a pas de deux, it is a lot of fun because you are reading each other intuitively and that is such a different way of connecting. It was very powerful to communicate with people with your body and with music and it transports you out of your head. I think that is what we all sort of crave in the world — something that makes us passionate and happy.

BH: Now you are 14 years into your professional dance career, and you have a major injury, but you have your real estate license. Can you tell me a bit about the start of your career and about the transition from professional dancer to real estate agent?

Katzen: I had my license for a bit, but I never did anything with it. So, when I was injured, I figured it was now or never. I also wanted to do the complete opposite of dance when I was done. I didn’t have a craving to continue on [with] choreography or teach or become a yoga or Pilates instructor. I wanted to be running and creating something and no longer acquiescing to someone else’s opinion of me. [I wanted] to take control and create my own world.

In the ballet world, you are subservient to someone else’s opinion of you and it can make or break you. Whereas [real estate] was entrepreneurial. What you put into it is what you get out.

I had no idea if I could even do it because I came from a world where money was predicated on passion. I loved ballet, so I wasn’t doing it for the money, so I had never been in this other world, which was all about the accruing of financial success through service in trading product. It was a completely different world. It was sales, it was about speaking, and it was about business.

I wanted to go back to school but I didn’t have the ability to do it based on where I was in my life. There is a really low bar of entry into real estate, but I was out of my depth. I was thrust into an office where someone with press-on nails and a potted plant is sitting next to me, and I had been sitting in a studio on the floor tying up my leg warmers and getting my tights ready.

What was also really interesting is that when I would tell people I was a ballet dancer, they would say, ‘Oh my God, that is amazing, tell me more.’ But now I am at a dinner party, and someone asks what I do, and I tell them I am a real estate agent, and they say, ‘Pass me the salad dressing.’

There was no interest and that was an eye-opening moment. [Selling real estate isn’t] rare. It was a process, but I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t have a lap of luxury to fall into, I needed to figure out how I was going to make a career. There is not a lot of transition support for ballet dancers into careers.

BH: What aspects or skills that you picked up during your career as a dancer did you find most helpful as you made this switch into real estate?

Katzen: I was definitely a people pleaser. When it came to doing business, that was very much appreciated as I was service minded. So, I [could] connect really well with people. Plus, as a dancer, you really focus on getting things right and the need for perfection is so high and that drive helped me a lot as well.

BH: When you first started your career in real estate did you have any specific aspirations or any idea of how long you would stay in the field?

Katzen: I had no reference point, and I was terrified. When you have fear, it’s a very interesting mindset to be in because there’s no time to decide or deliberate. I didn’t have many career choices because, as a ballet dancer, I didn’t go to college.

So, it was either go back to Australia and work in a sandwich shop and figure out my life or stay in New York and figure out how I was going to survive. I knew that I liked architecture and I knew that I liked people. I was ready to move on and do something different.

I was in debt my first six months and then I got a break. I had the opportunity to take over a listing from another broker who hadn’t managed to sell a $2 million, three bedroom in Midtown West. I punted the seller heavily to give me the opportunity to do it. I ended up selling it at full price and the commission was double what I had made as a dancer. I paid off all my debt.

That first year, I was a rookie of the year. However, I didn’t want to be a rookie of the year winner, because I didn’t want people to think I was new to the industry. That may hurt my ability to win business, so I was very thoughtful about how I wanted to succeed and build quickly.

BH: When you started out did you work with a mentor at all?

Katzen: I first interviewed as an assistant at Corcoran. I said I had experience as an assistant and knew how to use a computer. I got the job, and I bought a “computer for dummies” book to see if I could learn how to use a computer in three days. It was hilarious. I clearly didn’t know what I was doing and the team I was working for was the Townhouse Specialist Group at Corcoran. They looked at me after a couple of days and said, ‘You are possibly the worst assistant we’ve ever had, but you’d make a great broker.’ And things just went from there.

I had two mentors who were my managers and I drove them bonkers. I must have walked into their office 25 times a day asking them, ‘What would they do? How would they do it? What about when [a consumer] says this? What do I do next?’

There was a lot of competition, but the top-tier brokers were not threatened by me, so they were much more open to guiding me. The two managers I worked with were some of the greatest mentors. They were the ones who really showed me what to do. In this stage of my career, I love paying it forward. I think that mentorship is so important.

BH: You are now nearly two decades into your career. How did you manage to go from ‘the worst assistant ever’ to a top-performing agent in New York City?

Katzen: I put blinders on and I just did the work. I am very driven, and it doesn’t come from a place of arrogance, it was from a place of wanting to take care of the people that gave me a chance. I was in the top-10 at the brokerage my fourth year in the business and when I started, I had no contacts. I just built it through shared connections, hard work and delivering. You absolutely have to deliver, you can’t walk in and promise people the moon, sun and stars. I always believed under-promising and over-delivering was the most effective way for me to succeed because the humility of that is ultimately what is attractive. I think sellers are not interested in who you are, but in what you’re going to do for them and how you’re going to do it. So, I come from a place of contribution rather than wondering what I am going to get from it.

BH: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career and how did you overcome them?

Katzen: One of the biggest things I have learned is that sometimes there is more action done in not doing than in actually doing. There is an art to that, and I learned from very solid managers and brokers who were kind enough to show me. Most of the broker and agents are my firm were men, so I would hang out with really tough brokers, and they took me under their wing and gave me a ton to think about. I was a sponge — I still am very interested in always learning more.

BH: What are some of the strategies you have discovered over the years that have really helped you excel in this business?

Katzen: I think you have to be open to change in order to make money and you have to delegate. Now, delegation is a slippery slope because it usually means the brokers stop having a pulse on the clients. They stop taking ownership of the appointments and the negotiations and the positioning. That is something I do not do, but I have hired someone to show me how to run a business. This way the business can run itself in terms of operations and fluidity, so that we can take on more clients and have systems in place to give everybody the same level of customer service. The systems are set up to help everything run smoothly without me having to be hands on with absolutely everything.

One of the biggest changes though was me changing my mindset from being a reactive business to a proper business. What I mean by that is we have systems in place to build and create incoming business while we are handling the day to day. The reactive business is sitting by the phone and waiting for a call from someone asking for help selling their home or someone asking if you can help their sister’s best friends’ cousin find an apartment for her dog. With this you are just reacting to what is coming in and you don’t have systems in place to ensure that when things slow down there’s still a methodology to create future business.

BH: New York City can be a tough market to work in. What are some of the things you like and dislike about working in this market?

Katzen: What I love about New York real estate is it’s never the same. I am able to enter into people’s world for a finite amount of time and learn about them — people that I would never have had the opportunity to be even remotely next to, whether it’s someone in politics to somebody in fashion to somebody who’s in the NFL. It is very fast, intense and finite, but after you separate there is always this connection. So, it is wonderful to build this feeling of really touching so much of the world.

What I don’t love is the way some people in the business handle themselves. They can treat other people like bargaining chips, and they are just out for instant gratification and that can leave a little bit of wear and tear on you as a person.

BH: How has the real estate industry changed since you started?

Katzen: When I started out there was no third-party vendor providing listing information, so brokers were really the ones providing the clients with the information. Now with all these sites, a lot of people believe they have access to all the information out there and they don’t. These sites don’t tell you is there is a radon gas issue or latent defects. So, there is this feeling, I think from the younger generations of buyers, that they don’t need a broker and that agents are becoming obsolete and that couldn’t be further from the truth. A home is one of the biggest assets we purchase, why on earth wouldn’t you want to have an advisor making sure what you are doing is legal and safe and to give you some sort of protection?

BH: What do you like best about being in the real estate industry?

Katzen: I get to take something that may not look its Sunday’s best and turn it around completely and watch it succeed on the market. Also, understanding the market and learning about consumers — through real estate you really learn how to tap into people’s emotions, and structure and position products to be seen in a way that gets them to bite down on it. I love that part.

BH: What are some parallels you see between your experience in dance and the world of real estate?

Katzen: You have to be consistent, and consistency requires a discipline irrespective of fatigue and mood. Also, the art of being able to push forward when things don’t go your way and being able to not get caught up in the drama and stay on course. Things will ultimately align themselves and I think it teaches you about the conditioning of how we approach ourselves in our day-to-day application in life. I know that sounds a bit heavy, but I do feel that way.

BH: Is there anything in the real estate industry you wish you could change?

Katzen: I don’t really have a complaint. I think you get what you put in and it comes down to the discipline of it. I think it comes down to you make the decision to do it or not. In many ways it is similar to sports or art, the more you put in the more likely you are to succeed. But I think there is a new generation, that has seen these television shows and they want that success, but there is a learning curve and I think that the new generation has very little patience of the sweat equity. I don’t mean for that to be a gross generalization, but I believe there is really something to be said for doing your time and learning from that, rather than just being given a fat marketing budget and a big split. When you have to earn things, you really learn, and you truly appreciate what you accrue.

BH: What is your best piece of advice for new agents starting out?

Katzen: Don’t give up. Trust your gut. There are too many people that give up because it is hard and it is scary and it isn’t lucrative right away. It is the most exhaustingly hard business. You’re making something out of nothing. It requires a tenacity and a focus and a trust and you need to be smart about it. It doesn’t happen in a minute. All good things take time. It is a really good career option for someone who enjoys connecting, serving, negotiating and design. It is a lot of work. People think you turn a key and make 6%, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.