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125 years of residential real estate.

As the William B. May Co. residential real estate firm celebrates its 125th anniversary, the secrets to its longevity are few, according to Chairman William "Bruce" May, III, whose grandfather was the first May to head the firm.

Among them, May said, are attention to detail and "a very sober" work ethic.

"You've got to be a plain, day-after-day business person offering a service," said May who is looking forward to retirement next year.

In addition, May said, he has seen a number of strong residential firms fail because they forgot the client must always come first.

"When the boss stops being the customer," May said, "That's when the service business ceases to function."

While other residential concerns have undergone numerous mergers and buyouts, William B. May Company is the oldest continuously operating firm in New York. Throughout its history, the firm has weathered about 14 recessions and downturns.

Today the firm offers co-op and condominium brokerage and property management from its main office on Madison Avenue and four branch offices in Greenwich Village, Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights and Irvington. The firm employs 200 and they are the exclusive New York affiliate of Great Estates, Inc., the global organization of firms specializing in luxury properties. They operate a Corporate Relocation Services Division and the company compiles statistics on the New York cooperative and condominium marketplace, based on sales in 400 buildings, that are published in its quarterly "400 report."

"We cover the metro area very well in terms of sales and rentals," said Peter Marra, the firm's president.

Gentleman with the White Tie

William B. May Company was founded in 1866 by Henry D. Winans. Winans later took a partner, William Bruce May, the current chairman's grandfather. The first William B. May, according to his grandson, was the "gentleman with the white tie" - a house salesman from England who sold to the Fricks, the Morgans, the Astors and other notable families.

"All dealt with William B. May exclusively as a one-man show," said May.

The company later went on to management, in one of its earliest forms. For investors May oversaw converted five-unit brownstones for 5 percent of the rent.

"There was no [management] school," May said. "No CPM designation."

Management was really turned into a science, May said, by Douglas Elliman in the early 20's when the first buildings were going cooperative.

Today, he said, management combines many disciplines and talent, including: accounting, engineering, and sometimes even psychiatry. "These buildings operate on a budget upwards of a $1 million, he said. "This is big business."

The first May was also instrumental in the conversion of 57th, Street from Madison to Sixth Avenues, from residential to commercial.

May was also involved with the purchase of lesser, private homes north of 50th Street to make way for the mansions and subsequently the grand New York apartment houses.

The second William B. May, who headed the company from 1934 to 1961, is credited first with getting the firm through The Great Depression. In addition, he assembled Madison between 56th and 57th Streets for Thomas Watson where IBM's headquarters is now. He also represented IBM in the purchase of property in Westchester, Nassau and Dutchess Counties. He is also recognized as the person who laid the groundwork for their full-service management activities.

The firm manages 65 cooperative and condominium buildings in Manhattan, 10 in Park Slope and seven garden apartment complexes in Westchester.

"We were the first to operate branch offices," said May.

The company over the years has built a reputation with the stars. In the past they have sold or rented apartments to, among others: Mick Jagger, Donna Sommers, and writer Nora Ephron.

May said the firm has always stressed education and they contribute to it for their brokers and managers.

"It's very technical now," he said. "The financial side makes or breaks it."

The current chairman joined his father at 35 after trying the "big business route."

While the William B. May Company has enjoyed more than a century of success, May says, the company does not rest on its laurels.

"It's nice to have a history but it isn't going to earn you a nickel unless you get out there and do it," he said.

After May's retirement the company will still be in the "family's hands." The firm's president is son-in-law Peter Marra and the management division is headed by May's son, William T. May.

Survival of the Fittest

The firm has also stayed active throughoutthe years, obviously, through its ability to adapt and change.

In a down market, the firm has created opportunity through its Corporate Relocation Division, directed by Karen Pagliaro. While the company had assisted the employees of companies transferring here previously on a "haphazard' basis they made the investment in a formal division at the end of 1990. Pagliaro works with companies and their employees in finding new homes when they move their operations here.

With five different offices, Marra said, the firm can offer a suburban residence or a number of urban possibilities, including a Brownstone in Park Slope, a Manhattan high-rise or the convenience of Brooklyn Heights for the Wall Street crowd.

"If we only had an office Uptown, I don't think our relocation division would be as successful as it is," he said.

The firm recently changed locations in Greenwich Village from 33 Cornelia Street to 529 Hudson Street where they took 50 percent more space and brought on additional brokers.

"The West Village is, in fact, a very lively area Downtown and the West Village is an attractive area in general," said Marra.

While condo sales have lost much of their favor with domestic and foreign investors, the May Company is confident of their continuing appeal to some buyers. They have grouped six or eight knowledgeable brokers into a cohesive team to market them exclusively.

In a condominium, Marra said, there is more privacy and a person is saved the grueling board approval process. Condo buildings, he said, also tend to be the newer buildings affording such luxuries as swimming pools, health clubs, and garages.

"I still think condos are a vehicle people want," he said, "and there are certainly a lot of them."

The firm has also beefed up its intrareferral system so that they may make their sales people and buyers aware of all the available options. In doing so, May said, they have "tripled" their efficiency.

The firm also manages investor portfolios for market-rate residential buildings.

Maintaining Price and Quality

The fourth generation May, Billy, handles the management aspect, is adept at the structural and operational needs of a building. He joined the firm 10 years ago and left in the mid-80's to do real estate in other parts of the country. He built houses as a general contractor and he managed property in North Carolina and in Los Angeles.

"No body is going to pull the wool over my eyes about what has to be done in a building," he said.

The young May said there is somewhat of a price war going on in the management field among some companies who are offering low-priced services to dollar-minded buildings. What they are actually getting, he said, are cut-rate services. The May Company, he said, has opted not to lower its prices or its standards.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:professional profile of William B. May Co.
Author:Fitzgerald, Therese
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Article Type:Company Profile
Date:Mar 11, 1992
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