It was a gray January day when The Observer met Ilan Bracha at the Sony Building on Madison Avenue for lunch. But inside the Philip Johnson-designed atrium, at Solo (Zagat: the "be-all, end-all" of "gourmet" glatt kosher restaurants), it could have been a breezy summer evening in Mr. Bracha's native Tel Aviv.
Speakers piped in a mix of pop-klezmer and Euro-trance just a little too loudly. Next to the Solo-branded matchbooks was a stack of white yarmulkes, also emblazoned with the Solo logo. A handful of tables were occupied by men wearing dark suits and their own yarmulkes and a few women in long dresses, no doubt machers all.
And in the corner sat Mr. Bracha, a BlackBerry and a smart phone resting beside his knife and fork. He joked that he had chosen his offices, for the first New York branch of Keller Williams Realty, in the Trump Tower across the street, just so he could be closer to Solo, his favorite restaurant.
Mr. Bracha, soft-spoken yet built like a linebacker, wore a black wool vest over a tailored white shirt, his navy pinstriped suit jacket hanging off his chair. It was a marked contrast to his slightly disheveled frum neighbors. Mr. Bracha, once avowedly secular like many of his countrymen, said he meditates and prays, and as for keeping kosher, he stretched out his hand and swept it upward over the white-linen table.
Only moments after The Observer took a seat, one of the Orthodox men in the restaurant came over to declare, "This is the best guy in America, maybe even Israel!"
Mr. Bracha was for almost seven years a top-selling agent at the city's largest residential real estate brokerage, Prudential Douglas Elliman, while also financing hundreds of projects annually with his B&B Investment Group, even building some of his own. Last month, however, he left Douglas Elliman to open that Keller Williams office, bringing the nation's third-largest real estate franchise into New York City, where home-hunting is blood sport.
"It's not about the company, it's about the people, and Keller Williams attracts the best people, and that will be true in New York, too," Mr. Bracha said. Because the franchises take a smaller commission than the competition, brokers are more eager to join, he explained.
Mr. Bracha got his start in New York real estate as a mover. After his tour in the Israeli Defense Forces, where he led 120 troops, he took his discharge to New York and decided he never wanted to leave. He tended bar nights (a mover and a shaker!), shlepped days and partied in between. One day in 1997, Mr. Bracha was moving Lewis Kaye of LBKaye International, a commercial brokerage, when Mr. Kaye told him he had such a magnetic personality that he should go into real estate. "I took the moving van back and immediately went out and got my license," he said, in the sort of soft yet powerful voice that induces people to listen intently.
Mr. Bracha spent a year working for another broker before joining LBKaye. Five years later, in 2004, he met Dottie Herman, the CEO of Douglas Elliman. Within a year, he became one of the firm's most proficient-and profitable-brokers. In 2006, he launched B&B International with Haim Binstock, a New Jersey investor he had done some work for. During the height of the boom last decade, he was financing almost a deal a day while his team at Douglas Elliman was selling dozens of apartments daily. His team's record was 114 units in two days.
Then came the crash. Being both a broker and a developer only compounded his problems. Mr. Bracha recalls being taken aside in June of 2009 and told his team was in 69th place at Douglas Elliman. "I was doing so many deals with B&B, I began to neglect the team. I went back to the streets, I started selling. I did 200 deals in two months, and by the end of the year, I was back on top."
All this made him fall back in love with brokering, and led to Keller Williams. He made a promise over lunch: His agency will be the biggest brokerage in New York within five years.
At the end of the meal, there was a small issue with the bill. The maître'd at his favorite restaurant could not find his account, so Mr. Bracha brandished his black AmEx before it was realized the account was under the B&B name. Out in the lobby, The Observer remarked on what a wonderful building the Sony was. "You know Philip Johnson?" Bracha said. "You know I sold his last project, 5 East 44th Street."
Of course he had.