Like many agents, real estate was not Nikki Field’s first career.
“Many of us old guards started with something else and evolved into real estate,” said Field, who leads a team at Sotheby’s International Realty in Manhattan. “I am sure you have heard this story so many times before: We had a career, then we went off to raise children. Once the children reached a certain age, we went back into what, at the time, was deemed socially acceptable part-time work. But, boy were they wrong [about] how much work this job involves.”
Since starting her career as a “part-time” agent, Field has gone on to become one of the country’s most successful agents. In 2022, The Field Team was ranked at No. 59 on RealTrends The Thousand mega team rankings, recording $387.7 million in sales volume in 2021.
RealTrends recently caught up with Field to discuss her career and the keys to building a successful real estate team.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Brooklee Han: How did you find your way into the real estate industry?
Nikki Field: Well, it was rather serendipitous. My background is in brand marketing. My husband has a marketing agency and, back in the 90s, we were known for branding and positioning our clients in places to succeed.
In 1996, when our two daughters had enough of me constantly being around, and I knew that I was going to have to get out of their [her daughter’s] lives a bit after being president of the parent teacher association, running fundraisers and doing all the things that mothers do (laughs), I decided to go back to work.
My husband and I decided that I wouldn’t go back into his marketing agency. By then, it had grown to almost 200 people, and I had been out raising children for 4 years, so it would not be right for me to come back into an upper management position. My husband and I decided together as a team, after 43 years of marriage, that real estate would be a great part-time job for me.
My very first day as an agent I was terribly nervous because I had never sold anything before. I knew marketing and branding, but I did not feel confident selling. However, by the second day, I knew I loved the job. It was so interesting, and you meet all these extraordinary people. Plus, I had been struck by the real estate gods to be working in the Manhattan market. After surviving that first week, I was completely hooked.
BH: What were those first few years in the industry like for you?
Field: I was truly lucky because in 1996, the Manhattan market was moving fast — all jets were on fire. I lived on the Upper East Side, and I had a large Rolodex from all my work with the schools, which was very helpful starting out.
Someone threw a medical office listing at me, because a lot of people didn’t really want to do medical offices, particularly elite brokers. I knew nothing about medical offices. The only thing I knew was from visiting my gynecologist, but I dug deep and sold it for more than list price. From there I became a medical office specialist.
Through my branding experience, I knew that specialization was going to be the way I could climb forward fast. So, I convinced my broker at the time to make me a specialist. He gave me a trial run, and within a couple of months, I had sold [several] medical offices.
Eventually, I got calls from doctors with offices in elite buildings on Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue asking if I could sell their office. I knew I could because, at that point, I was a medical office specialist. From those listings, my name was recognized by building residents. From there, those who had penthouses and other apartments would see my sign and call me to sell their home.
BH: Can you talk about your transition from selling medical offices to selling residential real estate?
Field: It was less than a year from when I started that I moved from medical offices to residential. I received a listing for a penthouse on Fifth Avenue after selling an office on the ground floor if the same building, and I had great success with the listing.
So, I marched into my manager’s office and said, ‘You’ve just lost your medical office specialist, I am now your penthouse specialist.’ Back then, agents didn’t specialize like they do today. But, owners who had penthouses and prime pieces of real estate all of a sudden felt more comfortable taking a bet on me because I was a penthouse specialist.
From there, I started selling townhomes. In our market, we see a lot of international buyers purchasing second homes or investment properties, such as townhomes, so that enabled me to build a strong international network. When the bottom dropped out of the Manhattan market in 2008, I still had a lot of international buyers and investors with whom I worked.
BH: Could you tell me a bit more about how you leveraged your marketing and branding experience, as well as your Rolodex of contacts to grow your business?
Field: Back then, agents were not really allowed to develop their own personal brands. It was challenging, and the [brokerage] agencies felt threatened that agents would carve off into their own companies.
There was no allowance made for agents to promote themselves and their brand. But by 1998, I was brought over to Sotheby’s, which was my ultimate goal when I started two years before. Even before I was in real estate, I knew branding and it was clear to me that Sotheby’s was THE luxury real estate brand in New York, and I wanted to be there.
When I started at Sotheby’s, I asked if I could do some co-branded marketing materials with the brokerage branding and my own branding. I wanted to start a team with different agents specializing in specific types of properties and customers. They were really concerned about how this would impact their branding, so they gave me a six-month trial to run with both, and it just took off.
BH: How did you structure your team when you started it and what were some of the specializations?
Field: I had geographic specialists — Upper East Side and Upper West Side. Then, I also had a townhouse division, as well as agents who specialized in new developments, walk-ups and entry-level properties.
Sellers like working with specialists because — along with the agent’s experience and negotiating skills — they know this person has experience with that specific market because they specialize in it.
BH: What were some of the challenges you faced in building out your team?
Field: I have trained scores of people to successfully build their own teams. Over the years, I discovered that there are always two main challenges: recruitment and managing.
I made a number of mistakes building my team and have crashed and burned over the years. Through that, I learned recruitment is essential to a successful team. The No. 1 thing I look for in a team member is not so much their qualifications, but their ability to be flexible and work within the existing team culture. Are they collaborative? Will they help someone else? Will they share information? You need someone with that personality and that mindset. You want someone who works well in a collaborative environment.
You don’t necessarily bring in another partner or someone who already has traction in the business, but rather someone who is brand new to the business and has the motivation, the skill sets and is hunger to grow.
That is the best way to not only build strength but promote loyalty and longevity in your team. I have one team member right now who has been with me for 19 years and another for 17 years. The average amount of time our team members has been with us is 11 years.
Many of these individuals started out as assistants, interns or mentees who learned our culture and how we do things and then decided to join us in a more senior capacity.
BH: What are some of the things you enjoy about working in such a unique market as Manhattan?
Field: Manhattan is such an incredible market, and I am blessed that I found a husband from Manhattan who insisted we stay here, otherwise who knows where I might be selling real estate. But Manhattan isn’t your standard real estate market, it’s really a tale of many markets.
You have the just-out-of-grad-school renters, who are just starting to explore more of the city. Then, you have those who are renting their second home and also starting to look at entry-level properties to purchase.
The entry-level market is fascinating and fun, and everyone on my team has to be at the entry level for a while, not only because it’s the hardest, but also the golden rule of real estate. The people you successfully guide through their entry-level purchase end up becoming your multi-time buyers and sellers, and they are the ones who give you referrals and help you organically grow your business.
One of my first residential clients was the daughter of a friend, and I helped her buy her first studio apartment. Now, I have helped her buy and sell seven properties.
BH: So many agents I speak with credit their success to having a set routine each day that ensures they make the most of their working hours. What are three things you do every day that you feel contribute to the long-term success of your business?
Field: I start my day at 4:30 a.m., even on the weekends, because of the strength of our international business, which for the last four years has been about 60-80% of our income. So, I am on the phone talking with people overseas while it is still within their business hours.
By 8:30 a.m., I start calling my local clients. Some people end their day with calls, but I think it is far more impactful first thing in the morning, because for me, by the end of the day, I just want to switch off and not think about business.
By catching people first thing, you are both more clear-headed and can tackle things in a more proactive manner. And, while the day can get busy, I always make sure to carve out 30 minutes to an hour to do something for myself — a workout with my personal trainer, a call with a friend whose husband is in the hospital, or lunch with my daughters — to name a few things.
BH: What is something you are working to change in the real estate industry?
Field: I have been working with agents and brokers on their succession planning and I am finally starting to see companies come onboard with the idea.
Now, we have a program in place that trains family members or close friends on how to take over a retiring agent’s business. I see so many agents retire and their entire business dies because they have no plan in place that allows the business that they built to continue without them.
I have a group in Manhattan made up of mothers and daughters in real estate, and we have 27 top-producing mother-daughter teams. I brought my own daughter into the business about eight years ago from her job at Morgan Stanley. Together, we introduced plans to train 20-somethings who are brand-new to real estate so they can take over a business from a retiring agent. I highly recommend that every agent who knows they are planning to leave the business in the next 10 years to develop a succession plan.
BH: Talking about agents new to the business, what is your best piece of advice to someone starting out in the industry?
Field: Become a mentee. Identify someone who has been in the business for a while, that you respect and who is selling a segment of the market that you would like to specialize in. Then, volunteer your services, run open houses, do as much as you can for them for free. Hopefully, they will quickly see your value and take you on as a full-time partner, but if not, you will have the highly valuable credential of working for a top producer.