Douglas Elliman’s Sonia Stock on Her Journey From Tennis Pro to Broker
Among the residential brokers who take a whack at commercial, there is a steep learning curve.
The businesses, everyone will tell you, are extremely different. Success in one rarely translates to success in another, and very few manage the transition.
But Sonia Stock, an associate broker at Douglas Elliman, is good at taking a whack at things—be it a tennis ball or a client from out of nowhere.
Like this one time…
In the summer of 2004, Stock (then focused solely on residential) had a dental appointment in Union, N.J. Coming from New York and being a runner, she figured she’d take the train from Penn Station to Rahway (the station closest to her appointment) and sprint the eight miles to her dentist.
But when the train arrived late, she knew running wouldn’t get her there in time. So the experienced world traveler hit the side of the road and stuck out her thumb and was picked up by a woman in a Mercedes.
“We got along very well,” Stock said, recalling what would turn out to be one of her most memorable sales. “She said, ‘Why the hell are you on the road thumbing it? I could have been anyone.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but I looked at you first. You were a woman. You’re smaller than me, so I figured I’d be O.K.’ ”
The two talked and laughed and got along so well that they stayed in touch. Shortly after, the woman told Stock that she and her husband were looking to move from Short Hills, N.J., to a three-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. Stock would eventually make the sale, but this isn’t just a story of how a deal can emerge from the unlikeliest of scenarios: This is also a story of perseverance.
Over the next nine to 12 months, Stock (now 59) would show the woman and her husband 118 apartments. Throughout the search, the woman had one restriction: She did not want to live in Battery Park City. After 118 viewings, the options were dwindling.
So for the 119th showing, Stock ignored the restriction and took the woman to Battery Park City.
“One day, this beautiful apartment came up at the Ritz-Carlton, down there at 20 West Street,” Stock said. “And I said, ‘You really should see this. You’ve seen 118 apartments. I know you don’t want to be in Battery Park City, but afford me this chance because I don’t know where else to take you and I think this is a great one for you.’
“She walked in the apartment, she looked at me. It had a magnificent view of the water; a cruise ship was going by. It was a picture-perfect day. We walked to the elevator, and she said, ‘Where do I sign? We’re going to make an offer.’ She bought the apartment, and they still live there. That was my first big sale. And that sort of started me on the road, because I could say, well, ‘I sold this.’ ”
The woman and her husband bought the 2,638-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bathroom for $2.6 million in July 2005.
But, again, that was in the days when she was focused on residential. Stock has recently taken big steps toward the commercial side of New York real estate.
She has handled one commercial sale to date, the mixed-use 918 Putnam Avenue, on the border of the Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhoods of Brooklyn, which sold for $1.9 million.
Mostly, she has specialized in Tribeca, including managing 44 Hudson Street, where she has leased space to the likes of James Gandolfini (an apartment) and the Coca-Cola Company (an office space) for the past eight years.
“It’s a mixed-use building, with commercial out front,” Stock said. “So I’ve been renting it out. Right now there’s a shirt company and a tile company there, and the rest is residential.”
She has also handled commercial rentals for 345 Greenwich for the past four to five years, and now that the building’s for sale, she’s managing that as well.
“I’m marketing the commercial space,” she said of the property (there are residential condos above), which went on the market toward the end of June. “Right now, it’s a restaurant of 2,100 square feet with basement and then a lingerie store next door with an art gallery at the back (2,000 square feet with about 800 square feet of basement space). The owner is selling the restaurant for $6.5 million, and the other side for $5.5 million.
Stock’s road to real estate began on a small island about 68 miles southeast of London called the Isle of Sheppey, where she grew up with her family, including her farmer-carpenter father who spent much of his time with his pigs.
“He used to ride them,” she said. “We always used to have races on the weekends, riding the pigs with my father. When he had to take them to market, he would give the pigs a name, so he knew every pig—he raised them from piglets. When he took them to market, he cried his eyes out. I cried my eyes out, too. You have to earn a living. That’s what he did.”
Stock began working at 11 with a paper route—she said she was 13 to get the job—and sold goods at a local market until she was 18, when she left her small island to see the world. She worked as an au pair in Germany and France, passed through Yugoslavia and other countries and ended up in Damascus.
“I remember going into Turkey, and there was a lake or something, and there was a bunch of ladies washing their clothes with regular soap,” she said. “I went down there to talk to them. It was kind of hard because I didn’t speak their language. And I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got this liquid soap in my backpack.’ So I gave it to one of the ladies, and they were hysterical. They thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. They’d never seen liquid soap before. The expression on their faces—it was huge to them. I thought, Well, this is just a simple thing, but to them it was incredible.”
While working at a hotel in Nice, she met people from Islamorada, Fla., who talked up the sunny vacation town. Liking what she heard, Stock saved her money and moved there in 1978.
She worked the graveyard shift at a hotel—Cheeca Lodge—for several years but later transferred to the property’s tennis pro shop to work as a tennis pro, despite having no history with tennis. Again, her resilience paid off.
“The pro shop was hiring, and [the woman there] said, ‘I’m not going to hire you. You have no experience,’ ” Stock said. “I said, ‘I’ll work for you for three months for free. If you don’t think I’m any good, you can fire me after two or three weeks. But after the three months, you start paying me.’ So she said, ‘Well, this sounds like a fair deal.’ ”
Stock poured her heart and her time into it and, she said, progressed at an impressive pace, playing tennis “morning, noon and night.” Within a few years, she was a licensed tennis pro with her own shop.
“I played all day, every day, until I had blisters on my hands, and I never gave up,” she said. “The first time I played in a game, the lady at the pro shop put me into a game that was a round robin. And one of the women, I’ll never forget this, came up to me at the end and said, ‘You have to be the worst tennis player I have ever played with.’ I was a gutsy English go-getter, and I said, ‘You know what? In six months, I’m going to beat you, and you’re not going to be able to get a game from me.’ She laughed as she walked off. Six months later I played her again, and I beat her 6-0, 6-1. That’s how my career started in tennis.”
Stock spent the better part of the next two decades getting even better, becoming a licensed pro and running various tennis clubs, including one she built called the Islamorada Tennis Club. One of her clients was baseball legend Ted Williams.
“I taught Ted. We played tennis on and off for about five or six years,” she said. “I played with Ted at 6 in the morning. He couldn’t move too much because he was in his 70s. But he didn’t have to—he’d spin every ball. If you didn’t run the ball down, then he would lob you. If you didn’t run for the lob, he would drop-shot you. He was a conniver. He could hit the ball anywhere on the court he wanted. But if you made him run, you won the point.”
Stock got her fill of exposure to celebrities and dignitaries in Islamorada. She played with George H.W. Bush when he was vice president—Stock and another local pro would play doubles (and never lost) against Bush and his Secret Service agent—and while she never got to play tennis with Paul Newman, she would see him jogging on local roads, recalling that he had “the skinniest legs of any man I ever saw.”
Lilo Hagbeck owned a motel near Stock’s club and took lessons from her. She said it was clear back then that Stock had the qualities needed to be a tenacious and successful real estate broker.
“There were people who built houses around her tennis club; they were so loyal to her way of being,” Hagbeck said. “She’s competitive—she goes after something until she gets it.”
(After Commercial Observer spoke to Hagbeck, she emailed to make one other point about Stock: “She also beat any male tennis player up and down the Florida Keys.”)
In 1996, Stock married a private detective who lived in Mendham, N.J. She sold her tennis club, sacrificing her sun-filled life for the Garden State, and joined his practice.
“I said goodbye to Islamorada and cried all the way up there,” she said, noting that the life of a private detective is far less action-filled than the way it’s portrayed in television and film.
“Most people think that being a private detective is riding around in a Ferrari with a Hawaiian T-shirt on, chasing people,” she said. “It actually doesn’t work that way. It’s not fun popping out of garbage containers, hiding behind them or driving a beat-up old car and having lots of disguises so the person you’re following doesn’t recognize you on a street.”
Stock got divorced six years later and, tired of the private detective business, needed yet another direction. While in Florida she had done some real estate brokering on the side, so she decided to get her New York license and began interviewing for brokerage jobs. To make herself extra memorable, she would bring homemade spinach pies to her interviews. The people she met with loved the pies—but wouldn’t hire her.
“Every time I did an interview, they said, ‘Look, we think you’re great, but you don’t have any experience,’ ” she said. “I said, ‘Yeah, but I can learn, and I can learn fast.’ Nobody would take me in.”
In 2004, she wound up working for a “very small rental company” called Domain Properties that only had a rental department. Stock wanted to be in sales and persuaded them to let her start a residential sales department—even without any experience.
“I didn’t even know how to make a flyer,” she said. “It was me leading me, not knowing what I was doing, but eventually finding a way to do something and going on from there.”
Stock stayed with Domain for over a year but yearned for greater opportunities. While selling an apartment in Hanover Square, she met Sharon O’Brien from Douglas Elliman.
“She said, ‘What are you doing with Domain Properties? You should be with my company,’ ” Stock said. “I said, ‘They don’t want me.’ She said, ‘I will get you in.’ ”
Elliman hired her, but audacious as ever, Stock imposed a condition for her hire.
“I really shouldn’t have had the right to say, ‘On one condition.’ I hadn’t gotten my foot in the door. But I figured if you don’t ask, you don’t get,” she said.
Stock wanted to work in the Soho/Tribeca area (she has lived in Tribeca for the past 12 years), and even though the manager who offered her the job worked out of Chelsea, she soon started in the Tribeca office.
“I’d always wanted to be around the Soho area, and I just thought Tribeca had a warehouse look that reminded me of London, with warehouses [that looked] somewhat derelict but somewhat posh,” she said. “There were pockets that were interesting and different. So I ended up going down there.”
She quickly saw the difference between working for an independent company and working for a behemoth like Elliman.
“Douglas Elliman can provide a lot more,” she said. “They provide a lot more services when it comes to training, which was highly important, especially for somebody like myself coming in and not knowing the bare essentials of flyers and computers and advertisement and so forth. And you can spin off of so many people here that have so much more experience than you, whereas in a smaller company, you can’t, because they’re learning, just like you. So to come to a bigger company and be able to say, ‘Hey, how do I do this?’ or, ‘How do I do that?’ is very important in real estate.”
Stock quickly learned how to best care for her clients. Brooks McEwen works for nonprofits, and her husband, Josh Brandt, is a writer for the FX hit The Americans. Due to his job, they have generally spent four months a year in Lon Angeles and eight in New York, making finding apartments here exceedingly difficult. They’ve rented four apartments from Stock, including an artist loft in Tribeca they’ve now lived in for two years, and McEwen said that Stock has been the perfect broker for handling their unusual requests.
“She’s persistent. I think she uses her private-eye skills to get people exactly what they want,” McEwen said. “She is a researcher. She will find exactly what you want in the right neighborhood, for the amount of time you need it for. It’s almost like she’s got this missing person she’s trying to find, but instead, she’s trying to please her clients using the same skills.”
While Stock has largely worked on the residential side to date, she’s excited about her current push toward commercial.
“I see the residential market being absolutely flooded with brokers,” she said. “I think commercial doesn’t have as many brokers, and I could be wrong about that. But they certainly don’t like to work on weekends, and I’ll work seven days a week. Someone called me the other day and said, ‘What’s the latest you can show, and I said midnight.’ That’s my attitude—I’ll work any time.”
Stock hopes the sale of 345 Greenwich will launch a stronger presence for her on the commercial end of the business. Those who’ve benefitted from her kindness and her tenacity have no doubt she’ll succeed.
“She’s like a dog with a bone,” McEwen said. “You give her a project, and she will not let up until she gets you what you need.”