“You want to know what it takes to sell real estate? It takes brass balls…” proclaimed a swaggering Alec Baldwin in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. That this image of a broker should remain fixed in collective consciousness is in no small part thanks to cosmopolitan buccaneers the likes of Donald Trump who have steadfastly dressed a mogul’s worth of riches in ragtag mannerisms while having pimped raggedy properties till they smacked of gold. With shows like Million Dollar Listing and Selling New York building on the ideal that success comes to those whose weight (sic) is calculated in dollars and nonsense, it becomes hard to imagine realty without a dose of ruthlessness, flamboyance and well-coiffed ‘ABC Always-Be-Closing’ idiocy. Entering this otherwise calculated arena of desperation draped in indifference comes one Tristan Harper, a man whose genteel European air and transparency belie his professional acumen and savvy instincts.
With finely chiseled features and deep-set eyes forever combing the spaces around him, Tristan sits waiting for me in the restaurant as though an urban planning committee placed him there. His demeanor has architectural integrity: restrained gestures, elongated posture, forthright greeting and a bold handshake – each element attesting to a man that is in perfect harmony with his surroundings. In possession of a charming accent that owes as much to the highly polished cadences of his compatriot ER’s Goran Visnjic as it does to their mutual land of origin, Tristan responds to my question of how his being Croatian informs his work: “Croatia? It’s in my blood …as is real estate.” Having been landlords since the “old Venetian times,” his ancestors had long been involved with selling estates and properties. “My grandfather had done so and his grandfather before him… and despite taking a different path in my studies when I first arrived in New York, I suppose this legacy impelled me to reconsider.” There’s old world attentiveness to the way in which Tristan communicates. He is resolute on ensuring that I understand each sentence he utters in its proper context.
When asked about how he got started, Tristan gives way to a self-effacing smile reminiscent of the one often sported by Robert Herjavec, the Croatian-born Canadian millionaire who stars in ABC’s Shark Tank. “Let’s put it his way,” Tristan admits, “certain clichés are profoundly true and when you come from the outside, it’s not what you know but who you know. And in my case who I knew were the contacts I still had from Europe – some of whom, luckily, were looking to buy properties in New York. To this day they constitute a good part of my business.”
As an associate Real Estate broker at the prestigious Douglas Elliman, Tristan has not only repeatedly broken record expectations but has recently won the Top 50 Sales for 2013. His ability to take his work seriously without taking himself too seriously is evident in his recipe for success, “in my case it was 90% word of mouth. After a couple of small sales here and there in the beginning – well, one thing led to another.”
The business, Tristan explains is as much about understanding the client as it is about finding the right locations. “There’s a lot of hand-holding involved. Foreigners don’t always know much about the city… they have a budget, some vague idea as to locations but you have to be in for the full run. Choices abound: Co op vs. Townhouse, one area vs. another, high rise vs. pre war, then there’s the application process, the purchasing process… much to consider and more to reconsider.” The job gets no easier with local buyers; “the wife wants one thing, the husband another… It’s a question of finding a balance. I mean it may sound cheesy but it’s pretty satisfying when people come to recognize what they actually want and you see that sparkle in the eyes that says: yes, this is it.”
Tristan concedes that there are frustrating moments, “People don’t always listen in time. I can say, ‘this is a great deal, it works for your needs, you clearly love it so jump on it’… but suddenly they waffle, a form of hesitation sets in and by the time they say Yes, it’s gone. Apartments move fast. It’s just the way it is. This city has limitless money rolling in… but the inventory is limited.”
The Croatian poet Anka Zagar wrote, “When we pass we pass, so if we meet we meet.” The idea of doing your best and then leaving things to fate is an ideal Mr. Harper abides by. “Everyone in this business is hungry for a sell and the right leads… with me that’s true to a certain degree but I’m not willing to kill for it. I don’t believe in the pressure sell. Sales come with understanding but not by desperation or forcing it; and I’m not about to go chase buyers or stab a colleague in the back. My grandparents once told me: good things come to good people. Now that may sound like kitsch to some but essentially it’s what I believe in. I know, no matter what the score, if I do something good for you, you’ll be back – if not next year then in ten. For me it’s simply bad business to pull the wool over someone’s eyes. Even my self-interest demands that I do only what I believe serves my client’s interest”.
In a way, Tristan Harper’s is an early 20th century success story – the one where the immigrant lands on Ellis Island and retains his identity and beats all odds in a single act that alters not only his own destiny but that of his new home. That highly publicized moment came just weeks after 9/11 as city real estate hit a downward spiral that promised to be a standstill. It was then that Tristan sold an unfinished apartment on Park Avenue for $18 million. “I felt satisfied – not merely for the sale but for the vindicating fact that there was someone out there who believed in New York … he understood that New York is eternal. Investing in her properties is like cash in the bank no matter what the period. People will always be coming to this island and because it is an island, it is finite. Every property in New York is – given time – eventually a good one. In the late 90’s there was an apartment on 96th and Park and some old timer colleagues told me: who the hell would go there? Well today, who the hell wouldn’t? Harlem is slowly becoming one of the hottest new investments in the city. Both East and West. It’s just a question of time.”
Tristan understood New York as only a convert could. He knew her intimately. Each building. Each high ceiling. How an area looked and how it would look in a few years. The Croatian writer Olinko Delorko had observed that ‘when we first see a city about which we had earlier read, we don’t really see it. Instead, we see only what we had always imagined it to be. Then slowly, sorrow sets in and we feel it is less spacious than our imagination, Finally, we relinquish this sorrow and are able to see the city for all its beauty in a way those born there could not’. As Tristan Harper walked away, I understood that the New York he saw daily was one that the rest of us were still in the process of building, one whose structures and spaces were made of more than concrete, one whose perspective demanded several states of mind. Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross seemed to be right about the true value of real estate when he said: “I have these properties I would like for you to see. What does it mean? What do you want it to mean?”