Unemployment remains high and foreclosures continue to be a massive problem, but for many of us the good times keep rolling. Then again, even the wealthy want a real estate deal these days. So what does it take to peddle mansions to millionaires in this market? A strong stomach. Boston’s top luxury broker, Tracy Campion, is sporting a sixpack—but is that enough?
If it’s in the Back Bay, costs more than $2 million, and isn’t a Campion listing, chances are it belongs to Beth Dickerson, a.k.a. Number Two.
Then there were the three empty, moth-worn mansions that last year hit the market on the “wrong” side of Commonwealth Avenue, i.e., the grubbier, westerly side. To prevent what she feared would be down-marketing in her neighborhood, Campion immediately called Joe Holland, a principal at Holland Development. Her pitch: Buy the properties, restore what can be restored, create the city’s most enviable lobby using the original sweeping Gilded Age staircase as the centerpiece, and build out 12 ultra-luxurious condos. Holland agreed, and as the plan rolled along, Campion worked with him on everything from the layout of the units to the sales literature, which was adorned with watercolor renderings and its own crest (inspired by a ceiling medallion). Her goal was to ensure that the branding, pricing, and the properties themselves were all in alignment. Most developers would have chucked that huge staircase to get more sellable square footage, but Campion, acutely aware that a tony neighborhood is a fragile ecosystem whose success hinges on the little things, made the case for saving it. Such authentic details both contribute to and benefit from the value of the Back Bay, she argued; make it too modern, and it might as well be SoWa or Fort Point. Holland followed her advice, and now, a year from completion, the building is already 100 percent sold — by Campion and Company, of course.
Unlike Campion, Beth Dickerson, a.k.a. Number Two in town, isn’t reluctant to talk to the press, or go on vacation. The former Ford model photographs well — or, in real estate speak, shows well; her print ads all feature a breezy headshot. Sporting a Gucci watch on one wrist and an Hermès cuff on the other, she isn’t hard to spot as she ambles down Newbury Street to her office, arms full of glossy brochures.
Dickerson and I climb into her BMW X5, on our way across town to meet her marketing manager, Mike Zarella, who directs the marketing for Dickerson and her fellow Sotheby’s agents in Boston. Though Zarella’s job is to assist every affiliated agent, Dickerson is his star performer. And it’s clear that this meeting has a goal: to help Dickerson gain ground on Campion.
As soon as we’re seated in the marketing department’s Tremont Street office, Zarella turns to her. He scans the list of recent sales and says, “You’re most frequently up against Tracy.” Dickerson has sold 21 properties so far this year: eight single-families at an average price of $4 million and 13 condos averaging $1.9 million. That’s a far cry from Campion, who’s sold 50 listings: seven single-family homes at an average price of $4.9 million and 43 condos averaging $2.4 million.
“She’s got higher-dollar deals, but your number of transactions blows her out of the water,” the marketing manager says, which is true, but only if you count Dickerson’s portfolio of rentals. “How do we get these numbers out there?”
Dickerson takes a swig of Ethos water. As she blithely peruses her brochures, the two of them mull the big questions: What can Dickerson do better? How can she distinguish herself from Number One, and compete on the same level? Zarella wants her to stress the international reach Sotheby’s gives her, something Campion doesn’t have. “She doesn’t have 10,000 agents in her network,” Zarella points out. “Her website doesn’t have our traffic.” Dickerson, he adds, has even sold to out-of-towners (read: Europeans), sight unseen, based solely on pictures. One guy bought a property online from Greece.
It’s an old game — Dickerson’s been competing with Campion for years. Actually, they used to work together at R. M. Bradley. Campion joined that firm in 1984 and was promoted to vice president in 1994. Dickerson started in 1993 and made vice president in 1997.
In 2003 Dickerson launched her own firm, then merged it with Sotheby’s a year later. “I could never work as much as Tracy,” she says, though the truth is that she works pretty damn tirelessly herself, forever returning phone calls and e-mails. Dickerson comes off as instantly likable and open; she’s the high school class president to Campion’s scrappy athlete. Throughout her career, she’s flooded the society pages with her smile and philanthropic efforts, spending her money and time to support causes that — thanks to the high-level connections she develops as a result — ultimately support her, as well.
Compared with the passionate Campion, Dickerson is calm, cool, and collected. No doubt that demeanor can be reassuring in high-stakes negotiations where panic is hardly unheard of. Broker Eve Dougherty of Coldwell Banker says, “It’s no BS with Tracy. She’s the roll-up-your-sleeves, let’s-make-a-deal type. Beth has more finesse. Beth works her sphere of influence, always working the crowd, always at the same parties I go to…. She’s branded, and she’s worked hard for it, but every time I call her, she’s on vacation.” Of course, no matter where she is, Dickerson picks up the phone.
Campion may be real estate’s finest hustler, but Dickerson has nailed the white-glove treatment that certain high-end shoppers seek. She’s good with wives who want to screen properties, then bring in the husbands when they’ve narrowed down the search. And those shoppers aren’t known for being easygoing, or low maintenance. “It’s a very emotional business. You have to be tough,” explains Ricardo Rodriguez, a broker at Coldwell Banker who has worked with most of the city’s top agents, including Campion and Dickerson. “You have to manage all these people — buyers, sellers, other brokers, and I think that’s where a lot of people get lost.” The longer a house sits, the more opportunities there are for the madness to reveal itself, and agents at the top of the market have seen it all. Behind every 360-degree online photo gallery and carefully edited paragraph shouting, “gorgeous,” “meticulous,” and “no detail spared” is a job promotion, a relocation, or a family that’s outgrown its space. And then there are the dozens of other reasons that houses are abandoned: divorce, death, illness, infidelity, substance abuse, aging.
I ask Dickerson about this tough side of real estate, but she brushes it off: “I say, it’s a waiting game and there’s always something for someone.” Maybe she’s just good at managing expectations? “I guess that’s it,” she says.
Anyway, who has time to be introspective when quarterbacks and supermodels are waiting? That’s who Dickerson says she’s headed to see after she drops me off, though when asked about it later, she goes mum. (Another Sotheby’s agent, Allison Mazer, was later reported as the listing agent for Mr. and Mrs. QB’s $10.5 million Beacon Street townhouse.) When I ask about where she’d place her most high-profile clients, Dickerson mentions the hot property of the moment, the Mandarin, but notes that the surrounding buildings look right into it. The suburbs are, well, the suburbs, although they’re always an option if her clients don’t find something downtown that works. See, Dickerson always has to consider every angle. If she didn’t, you-know-who would be waiting in the wings.
Tracy Campion double-parks on Columbus Avenue. She leaves the car running while we dash across the street so she can show me the Bryant’s new and improved lobby. She greets the concierge and he gives her a conspiratorial smile; they both know that keeping Boston’s values stratospheric, keeping the richest of the rich happy, is a team sport. Later, as we sprint through yet another phenomenally expensive development that’s under construction, I find myself silently envying the couple that can afford a two-story walk-in closet.
Tracy reads my mind. “Remember that poem in my office?” she asks. “That’s why I made you read it.” She’s referring to Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory,” which is taped to her door. The subject, Cory, is the most elegant and wealthy man in town, so refined and genteel that everyone wants what he has. “So on we worked, and waited for the light,” the poem reads, “And went without the meat, and cursed the bread / And Richard Cory, one calm summer night / Went home and put a bullet through his head.” All along, I’d assumed Campion thought of herself as Richard Cory. Not so, it turns out. In her interpretation of things, it’s her wealthy and ambitious clients who, collectively, are Cory.
Though she makes millions each year, Campion says she still thinks of herself as the waitress, the seller, the peddler. “To be good at this,” she says, “you had to have had a hard life. I walk up the three flights of back stairs to the office every day so I don’t forget where I came from.” Being raised tough gives her a certain amount of empathy, she says, and the ability to bounce back. To be Number One, Campion explains, you’ve got to work hard, really hard, and she can’t tell me this often enough. She’s a tough broad, in other words, but she’s only as good as her last sale. “Money doesn’t necessarily make you happy,” she tells me with a knowing look. But I have my doubts. Standing in this enormous multimillion-dollar condo with the 14-foot-high ceilings and apartment-size master bath, I’m certain I could be content. Then again, Campion works hard day and night to make clients feel just like I do right now. Happiness, after all, is part of the sell.