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Top Agent Q&A: Manhattan’s Stan Ponte

The #8 independent agent in New York state chats with RealTrends about his start in the industry, the importance of mentorship and current challenges facing real estate

Stan Ponte of Sotheby's International Realty in Manhattan
Stan Ponte of Sotheby’s International Realty in Manhattan

Stan Ponte credit’s his grandmother for helping inspire his two greatest loves in life: acting and sales. Near his hometown, Ponte said there were a number of local community theaters and his grandmother would take him on the weekends to see what she would call the “live theater.”

“I had a little suit, and my grandfather would let me borrow his gold pocket watch and eventually I became a child actor myself,” he said. “They saw me walking in every week and one year one of the theaters approached me because their usual Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol had grown too much over the past year and they needed someone smaller and that was my first role.”

After his first taste of the spotlight, Ponte was hooked, continuing to pursue acting through the early stages of his professional career. His career in sales also started on the stage, when his grandmother would bring him up during microwave oven demonstrations at their family owned appliance stores in the early 1970s. Ponte said his grandmother would make a variety of dishes using the microwave and then he would eat the foods and tell his grandmother how delicious the food was.

“At the end of the demonstration my grandmother would say, ‘I am such a proud grandmother to be able to give my grandson warm delicious food after school rather than just a cold sandwich.’ and every single person in the room and sometimes it’d be like 200 people would buy a microwave oven immediately,” he says with a laugh.

That early sales training paid off. Ponte, an associate broker and senior global real estate advisor for Sotheby’s International Realty- East Side Manhattan Brokerage, was ranked as the No. 8 independent agent in New York state by sales volume in the most recent RealTrends rankings, selling $144,113,875.00 in volume.

During his 23-year career as a real estate broker in the fast-paced Manhattan housing market, Ponte has learned a thing or two about how to be successful in the business. RealTrends recently caught up with Ponte to discuss his career in real estate, the housing market in Manhattan and major industry issues. The contents of this interview have been edited for clarity and length.

Brooklee Han: Can you tell me how you first got into real estate?

Stan Ponte: I came to New York City in 1989 from Dartmouth, Massachusetts to follow a passion which was to be an actor. I auditioned for NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and I was given almost a full scholarship to the Tisch School to study at the Stella Adler Conservatory and to get my degree at New York University. My grandfather wanted me to get some business knowledge so I did attend Stern Business School, but I only completed a “concentration” in business. And then I started doing what tens of thousands, if not millions of actors have tried to do, which is try to break it. Try to get my break. Try to find somebody who would say, ‘Oh my God, you’re so talented. You’re so beautiful. You’re so funny. You’re so something that we’re going to give you a TV role or a film role or anything on stage, Broadway, Off-Broadway or some stage in the middle of Ohio, anything.’ And what did I end up with but shopping channel host, dating game host, psychic television program host, voiceovers and computer electronics infomercials.

On top of that I worked as a waiter and all of it summed up to equal me being a starving actor, but one night I was taken to dinner by my best friend and normally that meant that we went to Bleecker Street and got two slices of pizza for $1.99, but on this night he said that we were going to a steak house and that it was on him. So we have this wonderful meal, course after course and the whole time I’m thinking, “How is he paying for this?” and at the end of the meal he tells me that he got his real estate license and has been renting apartments for this company for a month. And this wasn’t even in my realm of general understanding that this was a possibility to do. So I went back to my other friend’s apartment where I was sleeping on his couch because I didn’t have any money and I kept thinking about what my friend said, so I got up early the next morning and by 7:30 am I was knocking on the door of a real estate school and by 9am I was in real estate school. About two weeks later I did my first rental and a month later I’d made enough money to pay all my bills and now, 23 years later I am still here.

BH: What were some of the challenges you faced during those first few months in the industry?

Ponte: For the first couple of months I actually had no challenges. It was the dot-com bubble of the late 90s, early 2000s and basically all the new dot-com companies were coming to New York with 20 or 25 young people from Columbia, Harvard, Stanford and MIT looking to set up live-work spaces. I honestly don’t remember how I got my first lead, I might have just been the person at the agency that picked up the phone, but the first group I helped was a bunch of new university grads and they wanted a huge loft space and they had a massive budget and I found them this amazing space. Once they got settled in they invited me to a party with some of their other tech friends and everyone was marveling at their loft and they just kept telling people that ‘Stan found it and he’s the man.’ So, for the first few months I did somewhere between three to five of those a month, which was great because it was a huge influx of money, especially for someone who could barely afford $2 for pizza. But, I had to learn how to manage that money and not just go spend it on luxury vacations and fancy dinner with my friends and that was a bit of a challenge for me.

BH: It certainly sounds like you had the good fortune of entering the industry at an opportune moment.

Ponte: Absolutely. And right now there are a lot of new agents, but guess what? There was more real estate sold nationwide in 2021 than ever before, so for those agents it is a really good time to start, but the question is: how long will it last? And no one really knows that answer, but these new agents that had banner years need to figure out how to maintain their business even when the market slows down and I highly suggest they work with a mentor or a coach to figure that out.

BH: Did you work with a mentor when you started out?

Ponte: I always had a mentor. I always had people who were in the business for 10, 15, 20 or 25 years, who didn’t just take me under their wing but let me volunteer, to do their open houses, sweep the streets, clean the windows of their listings, photocopy the flyers, just anything to be around the experience of a mentor who could help me to grow, to learn more. At other times in my career when I had the time, the resources and the intelligence I have even hired coaches to specifically coach me on certain things, but I believe that in almost any part of life that having an active mentor is one of the best things you can do to help yourself.

BH: One of the biggest things a lot of new agents and agents in general struggle with is lead generation. How do you generate leads and how has this changed over the course of your career?

Ponte: As I said I don’t remember how I got that first lead, but through my experience those first few years and throughout my career is that business makes business. You can market yourself, brand yourself, use social media and do all the things one should do to succeed, but the key to it, is that you must be working and doing the job of real estate as high a percentage of your time, especially in the early stages. If you have a choice between going to a continuing education class and sitting another agent’s open houses over the weekend for a $100 tip or lunch, take the open house because when you’re at an open house, if you’re good, and you’re nice to people and welcoming, you’re surely going to meet someone who says, ‘Well, I don’t have a broker. Do you have anything else you can show me?’ So, you donate your time for a sandwich or a $100 to some broker that’s away at their weekend house because they’ve already made it while you’re still not making it and you end up with two buyers and if you’re smart, by the way, you’ll share the commission with that broker, who let you do the open house because then you’re going to want them to help you with those buyers.

BH: How did you transition from a rental agent to a sales agent?

Ponte: I didn’t want to stay a rental agent, I wanted to do bigger deals and make a real living, which means moving into sales, but I didn’t know anything about sales. So, every single sales job I did, even if it was my own lead like a friend or a friend of a friend, I always partnered with a senior broker to teach me the ropes and to be sure that I was doing my best for my client because if I’m doing a real estate deal for my client, and I’ve never sold a $2 million apartment, how can I possibly be giving them the highest possible service if it’s my first time? Maybe it’s possible for some, but I don’t think it was possible for me. After my first 18-24 months of doing rentals I moved to a luxury sales brokerage and of course I didn’t want to do rentals, but sometimes your clients still ask you to set them up with a rental while they renovate, so I didn’t run from the fact that I was a rental broker and that helped me keep my business pipeline going while I transitioned to a sales focused agent.

BH: Obviously you have become an incredibly successful agent. How have you structured your business to take advantage of your strengths?

Ponte: One of my strengths is understanding that I can’t be everywhere all the time for every client every day. When you start, you should be everywhere for your client every day 24 hours a day, no matter what because you need to build that trust and as I said, business builds business. But now, I have junior agents and trusted coworkers who I can share the business with just like when I started and was someone else’s junior agent. So, it has taken more the form of a private bank model or a law firm model, where I play the role of senior financial advisor or the founding partner of a law firm. I am available. My cell phone is always on and I’m always available because I still need to be there especially if there’s a deal moment happening and they need me or if the broker sharing a deal with me needs my advice or counsel.

BH: As you mentioned, when an agent is starting out they have to be available all the time for their clients and a lot of agents I have spoken with struggle with finding a work-life balance. Do you have any insight into striking the right work-life balance?

Ponte: I definitely burnt myself out from time to time and had to scrape myself up off the floor or off the ceiling and give myself a couple of days away for rest and relaxation. Self-care is very important for real estate brokers. It’s a real high low job, so it’s important to exercise and find a way to let all that nervous energy go. But more specifically, during the early part of my career when I was doing rentals I ended up doing a building that had had 48 apartments that the developer wanted to rent first and then eventually sell. Doing rental deals is very time consuming. There is a lot of paperwork, so I asked the developer if I could have a full-time assistant to do all of that work, which was truly a moment of good fortune. So, I tell everyone, that if they can afford an assistant or even use a virtual-assistant when they are overwhelmed with work because you should never let yourself get overwhelmed by the minutiae.

BH: You have spent your entire real estate career working in Manhattan. What are some of the things you like and dislike about working in the market in Manhattan?

Ponte: I love Manhattan. I am the biggest cheerleader for New York City. I am the biggest cheerleader for Broadway. I love the diversity of New York. I love the excitement of New York City. What don’t I like about selling in New York City? Rain, sleet, snow and slush. Also, interestingly enough, New York is the only major city market in the country that does not have a fully active MLS. We have other aggregators but nothing like a full MLS. So, I wish we had easier access to our listings.

BH: Going off of that, how has the technology in real estate changed since you started out?

Ponte: I am a 1,000% believer in technology and learning how to help myself and my clients with the best of technology. Some people see it as a disruptor, but it only disrupts you if you can’t figure out how to get it to enhance you.

BH: Are there any specific technology tools you that you really love?

Ponte: Technology is constantly evolving and while you might think the platform you have been using forever is the best, there could be something better out there so we are constantly looking for new tools. For example, as my group of agents has gotten larger we have started using a shared Google calendar to keep track of everyone’s appointments.

BH: With the rise of technology, all the various platforms and of course the iBuyers, there has been talk that the role of the real estate agent is diminishing or disappearing. What are your thoughts on this?

Ponte: A smart business person looks at the disruptor or potential disruptor to their business and says, ‘I’m going to figure out how to leverage this in a positive way.’ But I don’t think the role of a real estate agent is going away. Just look at travel. You can book flights and hotels online now, but people still use travel agents. The clever ones have figured out to survive and the same may eventually be true in real estate.

BH: The numbers say you are one of the best at what you do, but is there anything you are currently struggling with or wish you could improve with your business?  

Ponte: I try not to use the word challenge, I try to use the word opportunity, not because it sounds good, but because I actually believe it. Even though some things may be hard, they are still opportunities, you just have to work harder to understand how to overcome then and all the things you learn while you work harder to overcome it make your life and your business better. So, when I come across something I haven’t dealt with before and get stuck, I try to learn from it and lean on friends and experts to help me and the next time it happens it will be no problem at all because we know what to do.

BH: What are some big market trends in Manhattan right now?

Ponte: After the COVID shutdown there was a lot of pent-up demand and interest rates are still low and ultra-high net worth buyers are getting properties at prices that they feel are fair. An “arm’s length transaction” as we call it in real estate. Neither buyers nor sellers feel like they are getting a bad deal. That’s the general energy in New York City right now.

BH: Why do you think real estate is a good career option?

Ponte: I think it is a great career option because you are an independent contractor, and you choose your level of success. You do have to generate business, but you don’t have to ask anyone to give you a job. There is no boss and there’s no one that says that you have to work this hard for seven years or whatever before you can get to the next level. I choose and every real estate broker chooses how much they work which then translates into how well they do and if they are working hard but not doing well, they have the opportunity to do something, to do more training, more mentoring. And they get to increase their circle of influence by doing things like volunteering at organizations they are passionate about and surrounding themselves with people with similar interests who will likely turn to them to help them buy and sell their homes and apartments.

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

Ponte: My best advice is to take care of yourself, do the best you can and don’t blame yourself for any lost deals, just learn from them and grow.

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