Philip White, President and CEO of Sotheby’s International Realty: Be Authentic, Personable, and Available to the Luxury Buyer

Earlier this year we spoke with Kevin Thompson, chief marketing officer for Sotheby’s International Realty Affiliates LLC. For our most recent expert interview, we had the pleasure to talk with another very prominent figure in the luxury real estate industry: Philip White, president and chief executive officer for Sotheby’s International Realty.

Philip has played an essential role in the brand’s growth over the last 40 years and the results speak for themselves. Under his management, Sotheby’s International Realty achieved a record $112 billion in global sales last year, the highest performance in the history of the brand.

Philip shared with us his thoughts on the trends and challenges of today’s luxury real estate market, as well as his view of the relationship between technology and the human element in the business.

Philip White, President and CEO of Sotheby’s International Realty

Q:  Tell us a little bit about your background and why you chose a career in real estate. 

I graduated from the University of Virginia with a finance degree. I became a banker by trade and was in New York City when I heard about the formation of Sotheby’s International Realty. I realized that this new entity could be a job that combined my banking experience with my desire to be part of the Sotheby’s International Realty® brand. I was attracted to the entrepreneurialism of the industry and felt that I had certain creative skill sets that would match up well with real estate.

I pursued my career interest with Sotheby’s International Realty and joined the company in 1980. I held several different positions over the last 39 years – real estate agent, manager, brokerage company owner, COO and now president and chief executive officer. I’ve experienced firsthand all facets of the business, and truly believe the Sotheby’s International Realty brand success is a result of the hard work and dedication of our brokers, owners, managers, and most importantly, the exceptional sales associates representing the brand around the world. The brand possesses a rich history and clients trust in the quality of the brand and its legacy. In fact, the Sotheby’s auction house recently celebrated its 275th anniversary – a testament to the staying power of a great brand.

Q: How has the real estate industry evolved these past 30 years, according to your experience?

I’ve been in the real estate business for almost 40 years now, and the introduction and advancement of technology have most certainly had the biggest impact. I remember when FedEx Standard Overnight® was first introduced and how exciting it was to overnight a contract. Then came the fax machine, and the ability to fax a purchase or sale agreement to an agent or buyer anywhere in the world. The introduction of the computer and email was the next tech advancement, which allowed for the exchange of information in a timelier manner. However, the emergence of the cell phone was the real game changer. The cell phone finally allowed agents to travel and be accessible to buyers and sellers beyond the 9-to-5 workday.

Q: How has the rise of technology impacted the industry from your point of view?

Today, technology is certainly augmenting the business of real estate. It is allowing consumers to get more real-time information and do more research on their own. Few areas present more opportunity than real estate technology. The tools are nearly limitless. It helps consumers and agents alike do things better and faster than they could before.

We recognized the importance of technology early on and we pioneered hi-res photography and video to showcase our fantastic properties for agents and to appeal to clients. We were among the first to introduce virtual staging and 3-D tours to and the first real estate brand to launch a virtual staging augmented reality app.

While the latest tools are important, they cannot replace the human element that is involved in a real estate transaction – the personal touch. At the end of the day, the consumer is the real focus, and that’s important when you do business in the luxury space. We decided early on to provide the consumer with a high level of exceptional service and true global exposure. The Sotheby’s International Realty brand possesses strong relationships with clients; relationships that have been cultivated in the same manner that a private bank or luxury brand would.

Q: How would you describe the luxury real estate market in the U.S. today in terms of trends and challenges?

The U.S. luxury property market has never been as exciting as it is today. Many reports indicated a softening luxury real estate market last year, but the Sotheby’s International Realty network had a record-breaking 2018 in terms of sales volume, reporting $112 billion in sales globally. In the United States, the brand achieved more than $100 billion in sales volume last year.

Regarding overall trends, we are still seeing foreign interest in the U.S. luxury market and are also starting to see a significant increase in millennial buyers. Millennials are projected to have a historic increase in households, catching up to Gen X and Baby Boomers. The millennial impact is big because there are more of them when compared to recent cohorts, and millennial homeownership is slated to provide strong future transaction tailwinds.

In addition, amenities are still of importance to our high-end clients. Many luxury buyers continue to look for sleek design, high-end finishes, unique concierge experiences, and club-like amenities when searching for homes. Lastly, we see that smart homes and greener construction also continue to be of importance to our clients.

Q: What are, in your opinion, the hottest U.S. markets for luxury real estate at the moment?

We saw an increase year-over-year in sales in key Florida markets such as Jacksonville, Boca Grande and the Gulf Coast. This can be partly attributed to the fact that buyers are coming to Florida for the tax benefit of no state income tax and their change in allowed deductions.

We also saw a significant increase in sales in many major resorts and second home markets. Many of the Sotheby’s International Realty network’s largest ski markets were up year-over-year, including Jackson Hole, WY; Big Sky, MT; Steamboat Springs, CO; and Lake Tahoe, NV/CA; Aspen Snowmass, CO; and Park City and Salt Lake City, UT.

In Nevada, there was a greater demand for properties in the luxury niche among California buyers. Price exhausted California buyers are crossing the state line to take advantage of Nevada’s tax benefits. We’re also seeing California buyers interested in Texas due to the state’s strong economy and affordability. We also saw increased sales activity in major metro markets including Chicago, Boston and Atlanta.

Q: If you could give any advice to those who are just starting, what would it be?

I think it is important to find a mentor that you can work alongside and to choose one that is honest, ethical and knows how to conduct themselves in a positive manner. Being able to work on deals with your mentor and watch them negotiate, is priceless. You can pick up incredibly valuable career lessons working alongside them, paying close attention and just listening.

Q: Any other insights you’d like to share?

I think it’s important to use discretion in real estate, especially in luxury real estate, and put your best self forward. I believe agents should consider a more measured and careful approach to marketing themselves, and always remember to be authentic, personable and available to the luxury buyer. High-end clients want to be taken care of and catered to, and that’s what we really brought to the business.