2018 marks President Gary Malin’s 20th year leading Citi Habitats. In honor of this milestone, he shared with us insights on the past, present and future.
Citi Habitats: You have been with Citi Habitats for 20 years. What other jobs did you hold prior to Citi Habitats and what was the path that led to your role as President?
Gary: Before joining Citi Habitats, I worked as an attorney for two separate firms. I was doing tax planning, trust and estates, and real estate. Citi Habitats was founded by Andrew Heiberger, my college roommate from Michigan. Initially the company was one of my main clients. Once I dove into his business, I started recommending other areas we should focus on until finally he said, “Enough’s enough. Just come in and run the business with me.”
It was our history and friendship – he trusted me and I trusted him – we knew we could work well together because my brain was more business-focused and his brain was more real estate-focused. Together it was partnership – him teaching me and me teaching him how to build and grow a business while making sure he was protected.
Then, once he sold the company, he left within 6 months because it was no longer the right fit for him. I was then doing everything he had been doing – so eventually Pam Liebman, CEO of Corcoran, promoted me to President of Citi Habitats.
Citi Habitats: What do you think of these screenshots of what the Citi Habitats website looked like 18 years ago (courtesy of the Wayback Machine)?
Gary: Old days, wow, that’s pretty funny. Look at this – $1,395 for a studio in Greenwich Village. Different time.
In the beginning, we tried to do anything we could to be different and to think about how to solve problems and add value to consumers that other people weren’t doing. That was the fun part – we’d share ideas, put them out there, if they worked, they worked; if they didn’t, they didn’t. We’d say, “Okay, so we’ll lose some money if it doesn’t make sense, but it’s worth trying.” We even had a concierge because we thought clients needed different levels of service.
Back then, the rental world was still a world that the established real estate firms didn’t embrace. They didn’t want to handle it in the proper way. They didn’t understand you could make a tremendous sales business out of rental business.
So we asked ourselves, “How do we add services that other people aren’t? How do we take risks that people won’t and utilize the volume of business that we are doing?” And (still to this day) no one was touching us in terms of the number of clients we were dealing with on a daily basis. It was great.
Citi Habitats: That must have been an incredible experience to create this powerhouse company with your buddy from college.
Gary: That was the best part of it, for sure. Look, for me, I was a lawyer, but I didn’t love it. My grandfather was a lawyer, my father was a lawyer, so I followed in their footsteps. My time as a lawyer was valuable because it trained me to think a certain way – and allowed my brain to function the way it does. I think it’s helped me tremendously in business. But still, it wasn’t exciting. It wasn’t as fun. I wanted to bring clients in. I wanted to generate business. I wanted to create something.
Law is about how many hours you are billing every single day. While that’s great and you can make a very nice living at it, that just didn’t suit my ambitions nor maximize my skill set. If you look at where we were then to where we are now, what’s kept me here for 20 years is the culture and the people.
Citi Habitats: You have agents and staff who have been here ten, fifteen, twenty years. What is it about the culture that makes people build their entire careers here?
Gary: They know we’re honest, we’re straightforward, we’re constantly thinking about what will benefit our agents and employees. We maintain relationships. I have spent a lot of time with them on a personal level, whether it’s breakfast, lunch, dinner, golf. Anyone who knows me knows they can call or email me and pretty much within minutes, they’re going to hear back from me.
That relationship is hard to replicate because at another firm, you don’t have that history. The company today is not the company it was even five, six years ago. It’s a much different business and much different company. We have a vision and we execute and our team realizes that we’re doing it. We’re not just saying we’re going to do it. We have changed the whole look and feel of the company from the inside out. We’re killing it in the new development world. They see what we’re doing and that we’ve put our money where our mouth is, and they trust that.
Citi Habitats: What still surprises you about your work in real estate?
Gary: The business changes every single day. We’re really in the customer service and hospitality business first and foremost. You can’t be complacent. A lot of people in this industry attain certain levels and think, “I’ve arrived, and business is going to constantly come in and things aren’t going to change.”
For me, I know that tomorrow I better improve from where I am today. This business can be tough. Agents’ expectations are changing, clients are changing, technology is changing.
The internet is where everyone is starting their search and doing their homework and that’s where they’re finding us. You have to constantly evolve. We now have four big offices in Manhattan and four storefronts in Brooklyn – we tailored the mix to what works in each specific community. Our agents very happy with our conference rooms, phone booth rooms, the board package rooms. If you walk in here at eight, nine, ten o’clock at night, there are still a ton of agents working.
Citi Habitats: Who has been an important mentor in your life?
Gary: My dad. When I was younger, I never understood half of the advice he was giving me or why he was telling me all this. But as I grew older, it all made sense. He taught me ethics and a fundamental understanding of treating people well and doing the right thing. When I reflect on what I do and how I do it, I see the influence is all his.
More recently, Peter Sobeck served as a mentor. He had a different business perspective and he’s been in the business since he was a teenager. He was very successful as an agent, manager, and corporate trainer. He focused me in on the value of recruiting: why it will solve most, if not every, problem in this industry, and how it needs to be part of business life and part of every day as a brokerage. I knew the value of it, I just didn’t realize the nuances involved. He helped me refocus on something that I knew was valuable, but to do it in a different and more effective way.
Citi Habitats: What do you do to stay grounded and centered?
Gary: Family is literally the most important thing in my life. In the end, they need you and you need them. I get it from my dad, a huge family guy. My daughter’s going to college in the fall to Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Nothing could make me more proud. It was her goal, her dream, and she hit it. My son makes me proud in everything he does. He’s a great athlete and recently took up golf – so that will be a great way for us to spend time together. My wife and I have been together since high school and she is the one that keeps my whole family moving forward and working together – including our dogs, cats and gecko Ernie.
And then friends. You have to go out and have some fun and get into a little bit of trouble – despite my advancing age. We decompress by playing golf. It’s four hours of laughing and making fun of each other. And for business – when you can spend the day on a golf course with someone, you will find out more about that person and connect with that person on a far different level than if you took them out for dinner.
Citi Habitats: If you didn’t live in New York City, where would you live?
Gary: I love Austin, Texas. That city is incredible, so that’s definitely somewhere I would contemplate living – or California by the ocean. If I had to pick somewhere overseas, I’d probably live in the Caribbean because I like warm weather and that chill, mellow lifestyle. Grand Cayman is beautiful.
Citi Habitats: Do you have any shows you like to binge watch?
Gary: Yes, I watch a lot of bad television on Netflix. Peaky Blinders is an unbelievable show; Godless; Sons of Anarchy. I love to sit in my house with my two dogs, watch an hour or two of TV, and click my brain completely off. My wife can’t stand it; she thinks all I do is watch bad TV.
Citi Habitats: Favorite New York City restaurant?
Gary: Rao’s. I’ve been going there four or five times a year since I was right out of high school with my dad. It’s a family tradition, so I’m very much drawn there.
Citi Habitats: Favorite New York City building?
Gary: It evolves as architecture evolves. When we did New York by Gehry many years ago, I was totally enthralled by that building and the design elements of it. Now it’s Michael Stern’s American Copper, my current favorite. It’s an iconic building. I also love the building we’re working on for Sheldon Solow, 685 1st Avenue.
Citi Habitats: If your kids wanted to get into real estate today, what would you tell them?
Gary: I would tell them they should do whatever they’re passionate about. If it’s real estate, do real estate. If it’s cooking, do cooking – my daughter is an amazing baker, she has her own company called To Be Gluten Free (Follow on instagram here and check out the website here). My son was diagnosed with Celiac so she started creating baked goods for him because there wasn’t good stuff on the market for him to eat. Then she turned it into a business and she’s really successful at it. Anything they have a passion for is what they should do. I would tell them not to do it just because their father did it or their grandfather did it. They should do it because they want to do it. I wasn’t passionate about being a lawyer. I was a good lawyer, but I didn’t really love being a lawyer, so I was never happy being a lawyer. I want them to be happy above all.
Citi Habitats: Where do you see the real estate industry in ten years?
Gary: The industry is in a state of constant evolution. Look what can be done with data and automation now. How the real estate agent navigates this will be very interesting. Anyone who is fearful of technology has to get over being fearful because if they don’t embrace it, they’re going to be left behind. Many real estate agents who have been in this forever do things their way and they remain successful, which is great, but they have to adapt to technology sooner than later. I get it – it’s intimidating – I look at my kids and their ability to function in a technological world versus mine.
But even though technology can’t be ignored, at its core, real estate is a person to person business. Technology makes agents more effective, more efficient, and better at what they do, but I think the real estate agent is always going to be at the center of it. Whether it’s a sale or rental, it’s likely the client’s most expensive financial decision that year. People want the guidance of experts. They want to work with people who understand the complexities, who can educate them.
The question is: how does the real estate agent put himself or herself in the middle of that stratosphere of technology and utilize it to the best of their ability? I believe tech will help agents and companies be profitable – and simplify the entire real estate experience. The only constant in life and in business is change – and change means great opportunity.