It’s one thing to reach the top of your field, quite another to stay there for years. For Gayle Probst, whose name is a familiar one in the world of Palos Verdes Peninsula real estate, the formula has to do with the love of her job and a Midwestern work ethic that never quits.
“I LIKE PUTTING THE PIECES OF THE PUZZLE TOGETHER. IT’S LIKE A HIGH. GETTING PEOPLE’S GOALS ACCOMPLISHED IS EXCITING.”
Originally from Iowa, Probst has lived in Palos Verdes and the South Bay since the late 1970s
Included among REAL Trends “The Thousand” in 2016 for transaction volume
Among the Top 100 RE/MAX Agents in Southern California, and the Top 50 for the Westside/South Bay region
“I still do this as a seven-day a week job—I always have,” says Probst, whose pre-introduction to real estate came in the late-1970s, when she and her husband began buying properties and fixing them up. “We were just playing around with that because we were here in California and I wanted something to do,” says Probst, a native of Iowa who has called the South Bay and Palos Verdes home since moving West with her husband in the seventies.
Fast forward to over a decade later, when Probst, then a mother and housewife, had a yen to get back into the workforce. “I have a degree in education—teaching—and I didn’t want to be a teacher,” she recalls. “So what was I going to do? I’m going back to work. What is it that I think Gayle Probst could be good at?”
With a love for homes, a knack for sales and a husband in commercial real estate, in 1992 Probst acquired her real estate license. She joined Coldwell Banker and rolled up her sleeves. (In late 2012, she moved to her current home, RE/MAX Estate Properties.) Decades later Probst remains at the top in what is arguably one of the most competitive real estate pockets in the nation.
“Most people know I’m extremely honest and reliable and direct, and I think those are qualities that are needed today,” she says plainly when asked about the keys to her success. She also credits an ironclad commitment to working hard inculcated by her banker father.
But the word “fun” comes up frequently during the conversation, too, from discussing the sale of an epic oceanfront estate along Paseo del Mar to Probst’s conversations with prospective clients—almost always referrals from current or past clients—who call her to discuss their real estate issues.
“I like putting the pieces of the puzzle together,” she explains, describing the process of matching a buyer with their ideal home or helping a seller move on from a property, from plotting out the marketing plan to celebrating a final sale. “It’s like a high,” she says of her work. “Getting people’s goals accomplished is exciting.”
From Probst’s earliest real estate days to now, her business has been focused on the charmed haven of Palos Verdes Peninsula, a place she has enjoyed since taking childhood treks from Iowa to visit her aunt and uncle. “There’s much to love,” she says, pointing out the variety and beauty of the natural landscape to the strong schools and low crime.
“We’re in such an interesting mix of young and old here,” she adds, discussing the trend of longtime residents who are choosing to stay in the area, versus retiring to some far-off locale, thus increasing the number of local senior living communities. “People like the comfortable atmosphere. It’s always been one of those warm, inviting places.”
To newer real estate agents looking to bolster their success, her advice is as straightforward as the woman herself: Know your stuff. Have a deep and intricate knowledge of your business and market. Be ready for success and for clients. Every day. “People will come to you because you are prepared and they’re going to see that. Be prepared,” she says, adding with a chuckle: “That’s the old Girl Scout motto.”
RE/MAX ESTATE PROPERTIES
450 SILVER SPUR ROAD
ROLLING HILLS ESTATES, CA 90274
“I don’t know if I told you I grew up on a prison reservation. I mean, what’s uglier and more depressing than a prison?” asks Meridith Baer with a chuckle. The designer and founder of home staging giant Meridith Baer Home is talking beauty and making it happen where it’s scarce. It’s a skill she’s perfected since childhood.
Meridith Baer Home stages approximately 200 homes per month
Houzz has named her firm Best of Design for the last five years (2014 to 2018)
ROOM TO DESIGN
Her DTLA warehouse—what Baer describes as “Disneyland for lovers of all things and interiors”—spans over 300,000 square feet of furnishings, rugs, plants, artwork and other décor
The daughter of a prison warden, Baer learned at an early age to create a world of her own making. To play and handcraft games, fun and wonder out of thin air. “You do the best with what you have, where you have it,” says the designer.
“And you take some risks,” she adds. “You get up and do something different.” She’s taken this advice to heart, and this year celebrates 20 years of rather stunning success with Meridith Baer Home, a company she spun from her imagination and two hands. In the late 1990s, Baer, then an actress and scriptwriter, was in between rental homes.
A woman of modest means and fabulous taste, she had lots of furniture, art, and decor, not to mention a massive plant collection—but nowhere to put it. A developer friend, whose unfurnished, high-end home on the Westside had been sitting on the market, let Baer perform her decorating magic in the home. She did and the property sold quickly, and well above the asking price.
At the time, home staging was not done, a situation Baer would change. A real estate agent who heard about the successful sale asked Baer to “furnish” another home. Then another. She rode the momentum to create Meridith Baer Home, the nation’s staging company, with a list of who’s who celebrity clients and an army of designers working around the nation. Doing the best with what you have, indeed.
“I got kicked out of my house,” explains Baer. “But then I put the furniture in a house someone was selling, and it sold for half a million over asking, and now I have a $100 million company.”
YOU DO THE BEST WITH WHAT YOU HAVE, WHERE YOU HAVE IT—AND YOU TAKE SOME RISKS. YOU GET UP AND DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT.
Headquartered in Los Angeles, which is also home to the company’s design warehouse spanning over 300,000 square feet, Meridith Baer Home has offices in San Francisco, New York, Miami, and the Hamptons. When we speak in mid-July of this year, her company had already staged 1,600 homes—a record. Baer’s firm also does interior design and leases luxury furnishings.
For those in a hurry, there’s Instant Home, where designers can furnish a property in as little as two weeks, based on a single consultation. “I’m super proud of the company, and the group of people I work with that built it,” says Baer. “It has a life of its own now, with all these great designers and business development people and crew. It’s a machine.”
Staging by Meridith Baer Home in New York (top) and California (bottom).
The idea of taking something undesirable or unwanted and giving it a new, positive life is summed up in a cheeky mantra Baer is fond of. “Chaff to gold,” we’ll call it here. “It’s basically taking something that no one wants, or something that doesn’t matter, and turning it into gold,” says Baer, who constantly applies it to design—turning cast-off gates into charmed decor or fashioning a gathering of branches into sophisticated centerpieces.
Even bad situations can be steered to the positive. This has been Baer’s belief since childhood, and for the last 20 years, she’s applied it rather spectacularly to her company, which continues its spiral upward. “I want to work seven days a week,” she says exuberantly. “I’m doing what I love.”
MERIDITH BAER HOME
DIGS dives into the stories behind some of the world’s best real estate professionals. Market Influencer weaves a narrative journey about agents, entrepreneurs and influencers—and what drives them to succeed. This week we tell Cindy Ambuehl’s story, a social media maven & partner at The Agency.
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Cindy Ambuehl, the LA real estate star points out the power of social media and the forever power of caring for your clients.
Cindy Ambuehl was already accustomed to high-profile success when she hit her stride as a real estate agent. “I had a 22-year run,” she says her former career in front of the camera. “I was very blessed as a sitcom actress, then I ended on JAG for three years. It was fabulous. But while they were all taking their studio bonuses and buying matching motorcycles and jet skies and Aston Martins, I was out buying real estate.” Ambuehl credits her pragmatic streak to a modest upbringing in Orange County with a police officer father and housewife mother. “I was raised that the simple things in life are the important things. I didn’t need all that to make me happy.”
Nowadays, Ambuehl is partner at The Agency and sells top-tier real estate mainly on the Westside, where she creates much of her business due to a robust social network. “My clients seem to hug Sunset Boulevard,” she says with a chuckle, referring to the ultra-luxe corridor running from Malibu to Beverly Hills.
When clients are following my stories and my posts—I do funny videos with my kids and my husband—people feel like they know me. It creates a feeling of familiarity and trust.
Much of her approach to real estate involves a smart melding of new and time-tested practices. “In 2018, it’s done differently and we love that,” she says, referring to the practical benefits of technology. In the process, she points out, sometimes the focus gets blurred on a real estate agent’s most important function—to help shepherd one’s client through an important, often deeply personal purchase. Don’t let that happen is her advice, particularly to newer agents. “Don’t ever attach yourself to the outcome, because then you’re not honoring the process that gets you there,” she notes. “If you honor the process, the outcome will happen.” The process in this case: “Caring for our clients, period.”
Ambuehl’s media acumen can be seen in one of her current listings, a glossy Brentwood showcase. Listed at just under $11 million, and a few minutes north of Sunset on North Tigertail Road, the home has piqued the interest of pop-rock royalty Justin Bieber, who Ambuehl hosted a showing for in early May. The Los Angeles Times pointed out its “It” factor when they listed it as Home of The Week. Much of this is documented on her Instagram feed, along with her live clips from the fun shindig thrown to premiere the home.
Cultivating client relationships is where Ambuehl shines. Her nearly 40,000 social media followers get to know her via frequent postings spanning real estate business, travels and a full and animated home life that includes her husband, actor Don Diamonte, and their seven boys. “Social media gives buyers the chance to put a personality to the name,” she says. “When clients are following my stories and my posts—I do funny videos with my kids and my husband—people feel like they know me. It creates a feeling of familiarity and trust.” Social media was a tool she was initially egged on to use by her sons, and her faith in its business value was cemented when a single post led to a referral from Dallas and a subsequent sale. “He saw one of my posts and within 21 days I had sold the guy a $10 million house.”
DIGS dives into the stories behind some of the world’s best real estate professionals. Market Influencer weaves a narrative journey about agents, entrepreneurs and influencers—and what drives them to succeed. This week we tell Alex Abad’s story, a top producer in El Segundo.
The South Bay’s homegrown entrepreneur talks about the rise of El Segundo and the real meaning of real estate success
Alex Abad was well into adulthood when he selected real estate as his ambitious next act. “It was something I always wanted to do,” says the entrepreneurial Abad, who joined South Bay Brokers in 2005 after selling off majority control of his multi-million dollar janitorial company, which he had built from scratch with his wife and a $5,000 credit card. “We had established ourselves as a very elite company that provided an extremely high level of service,” says Abad, who still owns a stake in the firm. “That carried with me over to real estate.”
Soon after joining South Bay Brokers (since merged with Vista Sotheby’s International Realty), Abad was charged with opening a Hermosa Beach office with colleague Nick Schneider. He then opened another office for them in El Segundo. With the move to El Segundo came a homecoming of sorts and a planting of his flag in what would become the center of his business.
El Segundo, after all, was where his father had worked not long after bringing his family from Argentina in the late 1960s. As a child growing up in the South Bay, Alex spent many happy days doing what South Bay boys do—surfing and hanging out on the beach.
Even after switching real estate firms in 2013—the year that Abad joined Palm Realty Boutique—he stayed focused on El Segundo. From his brick-front office located in the center of the still-charmed town, Abad’s been active not just in real estate but in shaping the town’s future too. In addition to being its high-profile booster, he is a member of EDAC, the town’s Economic Development Advisory Council, along with being former chairman of the El Segundo Education Foundation.
In recent years, the town has blossomed to heights few could predict, and Abad is more than pleased. “In the last couple of years,” he reports, “we’ve had over 170 companies come to El Segundo.” Many of them are in tech or production and seeking sharp-looking creative spaces blessed with El Segundo’s close proximity to the airport, along with other plum bonuses that come with the location.
“The main reasons why a lot of individuals and companies are intrigued with El Segundo,” says Abad, “is the quality of education, the quality of life and the business-friendly atmosphere that El Segundo provides along this amazing coastal corridor.”
News on the residential side might have you kicking yourself for not scooping up that $500,000 charmed shack you were eyeing 10 years ago. Inventory is low and prices are soaring. “There’s an average of eight to 11 single-family homes at any given time,” says Abad. “This makes it extremely competitive for buyers, who find themselves often dealing with multiple offers on any given home.”
Scarce inventory is not unusual in the South Bay, but demand has stepped up with the number of new companies coming to town—which means, prices are rising at the pace of a turbo-charged elevator. “In 2016 the median price home in El Segundo was about $950,000,” says Abad. “In 2018 it’s roughly $1.4 million. This growth has made El Segundo the city with the fastest increasing land value in California for 2017.”
It’s a wave Abad has been riding with ease. After all, he was that kid with a penchant for making others happy, and in business, the entrepreneurial self-starter with no qualms about rolling up his sleeves to get a job done. It’s a lifetime of experience that makes for a clear-eyed assessment of what his current vocation is really about: “I start every day by being extremely grateful for everything I have,” says Abad.
Then a challenge: “How can I do a better job today?” It’s a mentality that Abad adapted from his earliest work history—to perpetually bring forth an increased level of service, with the goal of being the go-to guy. In the South Bay’s sea of agents, how does one even stand out, much less be selected as the right one for the job? Being highly knowledgeable, likable and reliable are good places to start, he says, “If I’m chosen it means I’m trusted—and to be trusted is the greatest reward you can have in this business.”
Palm Realty Boutique
201 W Grand Ave, El Segundo, CA 90245
310.877.6488 | alexabadrealestate.com
Written by Constance Dunn | Photography Courtesy of Alex Abad
DIGS dives into the stories behind some of the world’s best real estate professionals. Market Influencer weaves a narrative journey about agents, entrepreneurs and influencers—and what drives them to succeed. This week we tell James Respondek’s story, an A-lister agent at Sotheby’s International Realty.
James Respondek, the A-lister muses on a nearly four-decade real estate career—starting when a fixer-upper could still be had in the Palisades for $200,000
James Respondek was 18 years old when he made his first real estate transaction for the princely sum of $5,000. “I rode up on the back of a friend’s motorcycle, up to this little subdivision,” he recounts. “We looked around, and I found a lot. The real estate agent said, ‘Why don’t you buy it?’ and I said, ‘How can I?’ and he said, ‘Well, just give me a $20 deposit and go back and figure it out.’” Respondek did, and a few years later sold it for a $3000 profit. It felt good.
“Real estate had always been appealing,” says Respondek, who made his career choice official in 1979 when he got his license, settled into the Westside and started selling homes. It was a time when the MLS was available only in print, computers were hardly mainstream and national cell phone service was still a glint in a developer’s eyes. “When I first started,” says Respondek, “the first computer was a matrix line computer in the back of the office that peeled off listings.”
Nowadays, if one is looking at the high-luxe real estate in coastal communities from Malibu to Marina del Rey, and inland to Bel Air, it very well might be listed by Respondek. It’s the seasoned agent’s home turf, with the core of his business located in Pacific Palisades, where he’s had offices since the 1980s. “The Palisades is just a great bedroom community,” he says. “It’s a great family area.”
He’s particularly positive on Palisades Village, developer Rick Caruso’s 125,000-square-foot development that will bring over 50 shops and eateries to Sunset Boulevard and Swarthmore Avenue this summer, along with a reconfigured Bay Theater. “It’s going to give the Village a fabulous facelift,” says Respondek. “As charming as it was, it was kind of tired from an architectural and amenities standpoint. This is going to be a huge plus.”
Ask Respondek if he, decades ago, could imagine the run-up of prices in his market and his answer is swift: “No. Never.” But price prophecies are a tricky thing, he says. The moment you’re sure the sky’s the limit, you might get hit with an unexpected downturn. And vice versa. “As soon as you say, ‘It can’t go up anymore’—it goes up some more.” His advice? “Stay open and let the market flow.”
It’s counsel coming from a learned place, considering Respondek has been witness to a sea change in local real estate since starting out nearly 40 years ago. “The [Malibu] Colony was still relatively cheap,” he recalls. “You could get a little fixer-upper in the Palisades for under $200,000.”
A lifestyle change that Respondek muses might be coming to the market in the next couple of years relates to the size of homes, challenging the concept that “bigger is better.” “People might put less emphasis on the size of a property,” he points out, instead placing greater weight on ease-of-living variables such as efficiency, comfort and being within convenient proximity to everyday destinations. “The mega square-footage thing is nice,” he says, “but it’s just more stuff to take care of.”
In a business not known for lacking in competition and hungry newcomers, Respondek has kept his place on top by staying engaged in his market. “You have to stay active,” he says. Spot emerging trends. Have good product knowledge. “Always be looking at property and keep your ear to the ground with what’s going on—who’s selling what and who’s buying what.” Anything else? “Some of [success] is probably going to be an innate intuition, talent, and gift of the gab.” For Respondek, who has transacted over $1 billion during his career so far, there’s also the visceral excitement that comes with striking a deal. “When you get a deal and it falls together—that’s exciting,” he says. It’s a rush that’s not abated for him since the day he hopped on the back of a motorcycle and bought his first property with a $20 bill. “It’s probably more exciting to me than getting the check.”
310.255.5411 | jamesrespondek.com
DIGS dives into the stories behind some of the world’s best real estate professionals. Market Influencer weaves a narrative journey about agents, entrepreneurs and influencers—and what drives them to succeed. This week we tell Ed Kaminsky’s story, a top 100 producer in the South Bay.
It was the mid-1980s when Ed Kaminsky, a transplant from Ohio who was working in the jewelry business, decided to try his hand in real estate. It was a good time to get involved, doubly so if you were a hardworking, up-from-the-bootstraps type accustomed to the long hours of retail and intent on grand success, despite not having a college degree or any personal contacts in the business.[/cs_dropcap]
“I came in as naked as I could be,” recounts Kaminsky some 30 years later. A mainstay of luxury real estate in the South Bay who sells over 100 properties a year (top producing agent at Strand Hill, Christie’s International 2017, and Trendgraphix’s top agent in the Beach Cities are among his awards), Kaminsky employs a team of 10 and is engaged in businesses beyond selling properties.
The South Bay is extremely ripe for significant appreciation over the next 10 years. I say that because of the amount of job growth that is happening in Playa Vista and areas like that with the tech industry. It’s heavily influencing this market.”
“I don’t run around and call myself an entrepreneur,” says Kaminsky. But it fits. “I work for myself,” he adds. “I create revenue streams with different companies, and that’s what an entrepreneur is.”
Staying on top for decades requires more than just smarts and dedication. A knack for knowing what’s coming around the corner and how to properly optimize it continues to be essential to Kaminsky’s success. The state of the local market, for instance, has him bullish, and jobs are the prime reason.
“The South Bay is extremely ripe for significant appreciation over the next 10 years,” says Kaminsky. “I say that because of the amount of job growth that is happening in Playa Vista and areas like that with the tech industry. It’s heavily influencing this market.”
Twine that with an increase in the quality of education in the South Bay, particularly in Beach Cities, where star-school status is spreading beyond Manhattan Beach to increased rankings in neighboring communities like Redondo Beach. “You’re seeing a strong buyer demand for the other Beach Cities that were not always as sought after as Manhattan Beach has been in the last 10 or 15 years.”
Education has been a draw for moneyed global buyers, mostly from China, who in recent years have been coming in large numbers to the local area, particularly Palos Verdes. Kaminsky notes this trend has hit a snag of late due to difficulties some of these buyers face moving their funds out of their native country. “It’s slowed the pace down quite a bit.”
Real estate trends that go beyond the South Bay? Connection. Shorter commutes. Walkability.
“People are less interested in commuting very far to work, and having a sense of community—shops, restaurants, coffee places, within a short distance—it’s becoming incredibly important in every community in the U.S. right now,” says Kaminsky. Another tendency in the local luxury market that has Kaminsky “a bit nervous” is the expectation of buyers when it comes to style and design.
“Buyers are walking into homes expecting a certain look today,” says Kaminsky. It’s an expectation built on television’s flurry of home flipping and real estate programs that show even modest homes as sleek, contemporary hubs packed with the latest bells and whistles. “Not every house is going to fit that shape and color that television, or friends, are trying to portray,” says Kaminsky, noting that it’s made it a challenge to sell homes that don’t fit this bill aesthetically.
Surely Kaminsky will find a way to capitalize. “I’m constantly looking for problems and creating solutions for the problems. Competitive desire fires the idea. Delivering on the service is what creates the results.” Case in point: His company SportStar Relocation, which handles moving duty for pro athletes, was initially based on Kaminsky’s desire to have a bigger slice of the burgeoning sports market. How to accomplish it? Provide something that no one else is; in this case, an all-around concierge service.
“Become insanely educated about everything in your marketplace.” “Deliver more than what is expected from your clients.” These orient Kaminsky’s work ethic, which he’s driven at a dogged pace for decades, broken for hours devoted to family (Kaminsky is a grandfather of two and a father of two daughters with his wife Cindy) and small pleasures.
“My favorite experience is to drive up to the top of the crest of Manhattan Beach Boulevard,” says Kaminsky, who’s been a Manhattan Beach resident for nearly 20 years. “You see the downtown district. You see the pier. You see the Pacific Ocean. You see it on a clear day with blue skies and I don’t think there’s anything more beautiful or welcoming than that view.”
Kaminsky Real Estate Group
440 Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach, CA, 90254
310.798.1277 | itzsold.com
Written by Constance Dunn | Photography by Kieron McKay