By Holly Dutton
Industry stalwart Diane Ramirez, CEO and co-founder of Halstead Property, has spent more than 30 years in the residential real estate business, rising in the ranks to eventually co-found one of New York City’s biggest brokerages.
A native of Jackson Heights, Queens, Ramirez attended Queens College and eventually moved with her husband and two young children to Florida, where her husband was opening an office for his company. It was there that she first discovered real estate.
“My children went into nursery school and I had a few hours on hand and I had already bought and sold three homes, so real estate kind of sang to me,” said Ramirez.
After getting her real estate license in Florida (which she still has), Ramirez began to sell homes. Her family stayed in the Sunshine State for three years, before returning to New York City where she got her New York real estate license and never looked back.
“It’s an industry where I wake up loving it more than the day before,” she said.
The first firm she worked for was Key Ventures, one she described as “a perfect upper end boutique firm,” where she quickly began doing very well. Less than ten years later, she had decided she wanted to open her own firm when someone introduced her to Clark Halstead, a meeting that forever changed the course of her career.
“I was opening my own firm and so was he, and one day over tea with a mutual acquaintance, they said you two should meet,” she said. “We were going the same road in different lanes. And our vision and synergy were so similar, I told my husband, ‘I don’t want this man as my competitor.’”
The two joined forces to create Halstead Property in 1984.
“He had venture capital with him as well. It was a no-brainer to me and I’ve never once looked back,” she said. “It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life, business-wise.”
The company’s very first office was on Madison Avenue and 80th Street on the Upper East Side. The next year, in November of 1985, the firm’s second office, which still exists, opened on the Upper West Side. They followed that up with a Soho office a year and a half later, which they also still operate.
“That was our original vision, a triangle; East, West and Downtown, and retail storefronts, which was unique to New York at the time,” said Ramirez. “We wanted to be in the communities we were selling in.”
Nearly three decades later, there are now 33 Halstead offices throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Connecticut, The Hamptons, Hudson Valley, and New Jersey.
“We both wanted to create an office environment that was forward-thinking,“ said Ramirez of the vision she and Halstead had. “Because back then, even the larger firms — which were very small in comparison to what’s large today — they were still all thinking like mom and pop (businesses).”
Ramirez and Halstead wanted to shake up the traditional brokerage firm structure and create an environment that was more collaborative, where agents didn’t just compete with one another, but instead shared information. They also pioneered ground-floor retail storefront offices, which planted an office right in the middle of a neighborhood, rather than stuck in an office building on a higher floor.
“It’s morphed and evolved, but our core values from those days have not ventured very far,” said Ramirez.
Some of the proudest moments of her career have been Terra Holdings’ purchase of the company in 2001, and being honored with REBNY’s Henry Forster Lifetime Achievement Award.
“When I was still selling, my last deal was a record townhouse sale that stood for a number of years, and it was very challenging,” she said. “I actually won Deal of the Year from REBNY for that transaction. So it always felt like a nice way to go out of my selling years.”
Ramirez will be a keynote speaker at the Real Estate Weekly Women’s Forum today (Wednesday, when she will discuss choosing the right mentor.
“I don’t know if it’s my generation, but in my life I never thought of people in a defined mentor role,” she said. “I thought of them as trusted counselors, confidantes, and collaborators. It’s funny, because as I see younger people coming in and I’ll be reached out to for help and to mentor, I realize it’s a much more defined role today.”
She listed Clark Halstead and her husband as two people who have been great mentors to her in her career, as well as Halstead’s executive director of communications, Robyn Kammerer, and senior vice president of REBNY, Eileen Spinola.
“It might sound silly,” she said of naming her husband as one of her greatest mentors. “He opened his own firm with his savings in 1971. He’s an investment banker. He believed in himself, I believed in him, we put everything into it, and it’s now a top firm and extremely well-respected. Long before I thought of being in real estate, or running my own firm, I saw how he did it – I saw his struggles, his anxieties – there’s not an evening meal that doesn’t go on that we don’t share an issue that we help each other with. He’s my live-in and most trusted confidante.”
The best advice a mentor ever gave her?
“Being true to yourself, and by that I mean in everything you do, big and small,” she said. “With a staff person that cleans the office at night, or a top executive colleague, or some very important homeowner; they’re all just people you’re working with, so be true to yourself and treat all people the same. I’ve learned to be who I am and that is a very comfortable thing to me.ˮ
And just as important, trusting your instincts — even when they’re wrong.
“I very much trust my instincts, they’re not always right, but it sort of parallels with being myself,” said Ramirez. “And that was something I was advised to do. You can’t be everything to everyone, so just be comfortable with who you are and yourself and it serves me very well.”
Ramirez emphasized the importance of communication when choosing a mentor.
“I think the most important thing is to communicate what they’re looking for. Bottom line, what do they need?” she said. “In any relationship, if you start off communicating and understanding what the person wants, you’re probably going to fulfill their needs.”