AIB Featured Business Leader – Dorothy Herman
Dorothy “Dottie” Herman lives a fairytale life. With a personal worth estimated at $US260 million, she spreads her time between New York City, Long Island’s North Shore and the Hamptons. But like the heroine in all good fairy tales, her strength has come from battling through childhood adversity and loss.
Herman was born Dorothy D’Ambrosio in 1953, the eldest of three sisters, and grew up on Long Island, New York. When she was 10, the family were driving home from a skiing trip when their car skidded off the road. The young Dorothy woke up in hospital to find that her life had changed. Her mother had been killed in the accident. Her father was badly injured and unable to work for the next two years. Herman herself suffered injuries that would cause her to experience seizures throughout her life.
Over the next few years, Herman had to grow up fast. As the oldest sibling, she stepped up, helping to care for her sisters, doing the domestic chores and seeking out odd jobs to help supplement her father’s disability payments while he recovered. That early self-sufficiency never left her, and she focused on getting herself to college with a focus on finance and property. She enrolled at Adelphi University but took time out when she became a mother, having her daughter Christine when she was 19. She returned to her education, graduating and landing a job as a real estate broker with Merrill Lynch in 1978. She stayed for several years, gaining experience while she raised her daughter.
Building her real estate empire
Then, in 1987, Merrill Lynch decided to sell off its real estate division to Prudential. During the transition period, a former co-worker suggested to Herman that she buy the business and run it herself. To do so, she borrowed money from Prudential itself in order to buy the business from them, and she was off and running. At that point, Prudential owned more than 30 offices across Long Island, meaning that the purchase cost was a staggering $9 million, but Herman wasn’t daunted. “It actually wasn’t that scary”, she told the New York Times: “because I didn’t have it to pay back”.
As it turned out, she wouldn’t have to pay it back: under her tutelage, the agency was a roaring success. The first few years were lean: 1990 brought with it a real estate recession and house turnover was down across the country. Once the economy picked up speed, Herman’s agency did so right alongside. In the mid 1990s, Herman expanded business from Long Island into the Hamptons. The company’s good fortune didn’t go unnoticed, and Herman fielded offers to sell. Instead, hungry for an even greater challenge, she bought. In 2003, while New York was still reeling from the events of September 11, 2001, she and her business partner Howard Lorber purchased the Manhattan brokerage Douglas Elliman, which has a pedigree dating back to the First World War. It cost them a cool $72 million, but it was worth it: already Manhattan’s largest and most prestigious brokerage firm, Douglas Elliman was recognised in 2015 as one of the fastest-growing private companies in America. It’s also the largest real estate company in New York, and the fourth largest in the country.
In 2009, Herman diversified again. She realised that as well as brokerage services, Douglas Elliman could offer banking services, and she did a deal with Wells Fargo so that the new partnership could offer loans directly. She’s also across every aspect of her business, an impressive feat given its size. That includes its web presence, which she recognised as vital even in the early 2000s when many companies were lagging behind, and her constant focus on networking and extending her contacts.
Unwavering passion and drive
Herman’s passion for real estate extends past her company, but not far past. On Saturdays, she hosts a live radio show called Eye on Real Estate and which focuses on the latest real estate trends. She’s also a contributor to the Tilles Centre for the Performing Arts as well as a number of health care institutions, from fundraising for paediatric oncology to donations made to the American Heart Association. All in all, it adds up to the portrait of a woman who is unwavering and extremely driven to succeed in her chosen field. She’s known to be ruthless in her acquisition of excellent talent, and she’s described herself as ‘brazen’, someone who, if she wants something, asks for it and usually gets it.
She is also famously high energy. She’s up by 6.15am working out with a trainer or in her own personal gym, and she’s regularly claimed to be up until 1 or 2 am the night before, totalling four to five hours sleep a night. And when she’s awake, she’s working. “If you have the passion to do something, you should do it”, she says. “I have”.
What do you think?
What do you admire most about the career and life of America’s richest self-made woman in real estate, Dorothy Herman?
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: Wikipedia, The Real Deal, New York Sun, New York Times, Long Island Pulse and Inc.
Photo credit: Forbes