Lisa Whitney, relentless La Jolla real estate broker

"I knew in my heart I could do it"

— Lisa Whitney's cerulean-blue Jaguar glides through the streets of La Jolla at 8:15 a.m. Its driver is bound for a "pitching session" with the La Jolla Real Estate Brokers Association. She is dressed in a black pants suit, and, though the sun has not finished its magisterial ascension, she wears dark sunglasses.

"It's very exclusive," Lisa says of the Brokers Association, nosing the Jaguar Sovereign into a parking spot. "But you have to be in it if you want to sell in La Jolla."

Lisa Whitney knows about selling residential real estate in La Jolla. Within the last two years, the 30-ish Coldwell Banker agent/former model has risen through the ranks of seasoned La Jolla real estate salespersons to become one of the area's top reps. With her husband, Gregg, she's now a member of Coldwell Banker's "President's Elite," earning gross commissions over $250,000 a year.

"Very seldom have I ever seen an agent climb the ladder of success as quickly as she has," says La Jolla Real Estate Brokers Association (REBA) president Karsten Joehnk, who is also Lisa Whitney's former landlord. "Agents often take 10 to 15 years to get up to that volume level -- and she's accomplished that in 2 years." Doing this was no small feat. According to "residential biz" insiders, breaking into the La Jolla market is like storming a family gathering at Buckingham Palace -- very few succeed. It takes chutzpah, connections, and an almost delusional belief in one's sales abilities. A touch of La Jolla "old money" image helps, too.

After fielding a call from Gregg on her car phone, Lisa alights from the Jaguar and enters the very un-La Jolla REBA building at 908 Kline Street. Within its 1960s-drab interior are convened nearly 60 agents. Some have already taken seats in metal fold-up chairs. Others are shmoozing -- sipping coffee, shaking hands, nodding "hellos" across the room, and talking into cell phones in urgent, hushed tones. Only two look like Central Casting Real Estate Agents -- a pair of bejeweled dowager-blondes attired in bright colors. They, too, wear sunglasses, despite the fluorescent lights. Most of the other agents -- clad in short sleeves, slacks, cotton dresses -- could claim just about any profession: accountant, librarian, lawyer, nurse. Except Lisa Whitney, who is perched against a dinette wall, surveying her compatriots' bobbing heads.

With her mane of cocoa hair, green eyes, and black-suited 5´8´´ frame, she commands attention. Her polished leonine look is less La Jolla than Beverly Hills, where agents boast Cristophe haircuts and chauffeur starlets and visiting sheiks in glinting-black Mercedes convertibles. Black, right now, is the "in" color for California real estate agents. A recent Brentwood "for-the-trade" open house lured so many black-suited, black-dressed, black-car-driving agents that at least one passerby mistook the gathering for a wake.

As Karsten Joehnk bids greetings to the agents, a few female reps approach Lisa to rave about her seven-month-old toddler, Brooks. Hearing her daughter's name brings a huge grin to Lisa's face. "She's so adorable, Lisa!" an agent whispers, as Joehnk continues his speech. "She's the most adorable baby!" "She's such a beautiful baby," says another.

The "pitching session" has begun. Joehnk summons agents one by one to the front of the room, where they lean into a microphone to describe the properties they're selling. A young Arab man tells the audience that his client is "very motivated" to part with a million-dollar home. A cherubic matron, in an inaudible voice, sings the praises of a four-bedroom home.

"Lisa Whitney?" Joehnk calls out.

Lisa Whitney steps up to the microphone to introduce a $339,000 Coast Boulevard condo. "The buyers have tremendous motivation to sell," she begins. "And these kids have done a fantastic job remodeling the whole thing." She quickly details the condo's assets and, with great subtlety, underplays its size -- less than 1000 square feet. "It's great for a first-time buyer, trade-up, or second home," she concludes, and is soon followed to the microphone by a succession of fellow pitch artists: a rouge-cheeked sprite; a Jane Curtin lookalike who apologizes for her ailing seller who "can't show the house for a while"; a soft-spoken midlifer who, shrugging, announces that his property-under-construction has been increased an extra million dollars (from $2.9 million to $3.9 million) because "it's turning out better than we thought"; a red-haired woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Queen Elizabeth I; a sun-hatted European who repeatedly refers to her $1,395,000 property as "chahming, chahming..."; and a mirthful brunette who informs the group, amid chortles, that the red-kitchened, red-walled house she's been trying to sell finally has been discounted.

The most poignant pitch, however, comes from a dark-complected man with a vaguely Indian accent. "I need your help," he says. "This house I am introducing is my daughter's house. She has just bought another house." And he launches into the morning's lengthiest pitch, describing his offspring's four-bedroom residence with passion and detail.

After the pitch session, Lisa Whitney beelines for the REBA entrance but is broadsided by more well-wishers. "You have the sweetest baby," one tells her. "How's Brooks?" asks another, clutching her arm. After praising Lisa's toddler, the woman secures Lisa's promise to co-orchestrate a baby shower for another agent, a mutual friend. Soon Lisa is back in her Jaguar, heading toward the condo on Coast Boulevard, which she will show to fellow agents until noon. Just a block from the condo, she passes a white Jeep Cherokee driven by a good-looking blonde man about Lisa's age. Lisa brakes mid-street. "Honey!" It is Gregg Whitney. The two lean out their windows to exchange schedules. As cars approach, Lisa and Gregg agree to meet for lunch, wave good-bye, then head off in opposite directions.

The condo building at Coast Boulevard is tall, old, and faded. Its lobby is small and smells of cooking. The elevator is tiny, almost antique. Lisa Whitney strides up the edifice's stairs, where she meets three waiting agents. "They're redoing the entire building," she says, before they ask. "Remodeling everything, and it's going to look great. The lobby, the elevator... The workers are outside right now." As if on cue, electrical equipment revs up.

The little elevator slowly ascends bearing its load of real estate agents. Lisa Whitney continues to showcase her property. A great location. Close to shops, restaurants, beach. Reasonably priced... Down a hallway, which looks very 1950s New York -- "but is about to be recarpeted and repainted," Whitney says -- the group wanders, until it arrives at its destination. Lisa raps loudly, turns the key, and calls out, "Honey? We're here! Are you there?"

The condo's co-owner, a 30-ish, attractive Asian woman with an Australian accent, comes to the door, followed by a round mocha-and-cream-colored female cat who massages herself on a chair. After exchanging a series of hellos and good-byes, the condo co-owner exits. Lisa Whitney leads her entourage through the condo's small interior, as the female cat trails the pride of agents from room to room, swaying her tail.

Although the unit is tiny, it is tastefully appointed. A tiled entrance leads to a gray-carpeted living room with black leather furniture, lots of candles, and a 40-plus gallon reef aquarium on a wrought-iron base. In the kitchen area is a glass-tabled dinette. The bedroom and study areas are post-collegiate in decoration. Lisa Whitney fields questions from the visiting agents and then, as they leave, seats herself at the glass dinette table, sets down her belongings and cell phone, and waits for more colleagues to arrive.

Her cell phone rings. It is a client, a seller whose deal-in-progress seems ready to close. Lisa Whitney smiles. She converses animatedly with the man. But as the call continues, Lisa Whitney raises a well-shaped eyebrow.

Apparently the buyers' agent has requested that Lisa Whitney reduce her commission in order to "lock up" the deal. Lisa listens intently to the seller's words, studying the gray carpeting and kitchen cabinetry. Then she responds, "Yeah, well, my commission's not negotiable. She [the buyers' agent] can lower her commission." The seller reminds Lisa that the buyers' agent, a new rep, already has offered to discount her fees. "Yeah, well, then she can lower it some more." Lisa explains nicely why her own fees are immutable, like the Pyramid of Giza: She has struck a superb deal. She has accommodated the buyers' wishes while holding rock-firm for the sellers' asking price. She describes her accomplishments in a matter-of-fact tone that demands acquiescence. Then she hangs up and says aloud, "I'm not lowering my commission."

As an after-thought, Lisa Whitney picks up her cell phone and dials. "Honey!" she says into the receiver. She is speaking to her husband Gregg. "The deal's about to close." She directs him to prepare the paperwork and fax it to the buyer's agent.

Lisa Whitney is a Taurus, which, according to Parkers' Astrology Guide, makes her "persistent," "determined," "inflexible," "partnership"-oriented, and "possessive." She is married to a Leo, who, says Parkers', tends to be "ambitious," "warm-hearted," "creative," and "faithful."

The two met about five years ago when Lisa was in a different line of business. She admits that the path to finding her vocational self has been labyrinthine, and she offers an abridged autobiography to confirm this: The daughter of a dentist and a nurse, second youngest of six siblings, Lisa Whitney says she studied at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology; became a fashion editor at Penthouse magazine; tried her hand at marketing; modeled ("but not at Penthouse," she says quickly); took up acting, appeared on One Life to Live as well as in an off-off Broadway play, in a few Japanese commercials, and in "an alien movie," which she refuses to name. She married an engineer, became a marketing representative at an escrow title company, then stumbled upon the real estate trade.

How did she settle upon this vocation?

"I had counseling sessions with my brother's wife," she says. "And she had me list my objections." Twice, Lisa Whitney says "objections" instead of "objectives." Lisa's brother's wife is no ordinary brother's wife. She is Cherie Carter-Scott, Ph.D., co-author of the best-selling book, If Life Is a Game, These Are the Rules. Carter-Scott's raison d'être is helping people find their life's calling. Four years ago, she interviewed her stepsister, Lisa, and found a woman who, in Carter-Scott's words, was "deeply searching for the next chapter in her life."

"She said very clearly that she wanted to be closely involved with a husband, working and playing," Carter-Scott would say days later. "It was a new image for her. And I think she let this idea incubate for a while. But that's what she's doing now -- partnering, accomplishing goals, and being of service to people by finding them their dream homes."

"I knew in my heart I could do it," Lisa says.

In the two short years that Lisa Whitney has been plying her real estate trade, she has done very well: She and Gregg currently are ranked as the fourth most successful real estate salespersons in La Jolla, of an estimated 685 agents. During the first six months of 1998, they unloaded 26 properties worth a total of $14,682,500. According to Lisa, over the past 24 months, she and Gregg have sold 100 percent of their listings for 98.5 percent of the properties' asking prices. Additionally, the Whitneys are fast: their salable properties remain on the market an average of 27 days, while many agents require double that time to close sales.

Lisa Whitney's biographical expositions in the condo's dining area are sporadically interrupted by door knockings. An ebbing and flowing stream of real estate reps appears at the door, greets her, inspects the small condo unit, then recedes, leaving a swell of four-color photographed business cards in its wake. Some of the agents are quite friendly -- like the thin, big-bosomed woman who informs Lisa that she has just fallen in love, but "love hurts"; and the white-haired Southern belle who asks about an older client who fell into the bushes while showing his house. Others seem a bit meek as they peek into the bedroom and office area. "Can I bring a client here this afternoon?" one asks. "Umm, how many square feet is this again?" inquires another (and furrows his brow when he hears, "just under 1000 square feet").

Gregg and she had instant chemistry, Lisa Whitney says, as an agent exits the room to use the condo's lavatory. Gregg pursued her for nearly a year, she adds. But, because of their business relationship, they remained friends. Still, the Italian-Czech former model/actress was smitten by the adorable 6´5´´ tow-headed real estate whiz who left sweet messages on her voice mail and listened compassionately to her tales of boyfriend woe.

After a fortune-teller predicted that Lisa Whitney (then Lisa Mills) would go into business with a tall blonde man who'd become her lifemate, the two confessed their mutual attraction. They married in Maui in June 1996. Lisa quickly earned her real estate license, demonstrated that she could sell houses like a seasoned pro, then convinced Gregg to make her a full partner in his sales business. Not long afterward, the two were recruited to Coldwell Banker by manager Nicki Marcellino.

When the last agent leaves, Lisa Whitney packs up her belongings and locks up the condo, after ascertaining that the hyperfriendly cat has not escaped during the visitor deluge. Then she motors off ("at the speed limit because the police around here know my car 'cause I tend to drive fast") to visit her son, Ryan, 6, at his grade school during lunchtime, before heading home to her new four-bedroom, three-bath home in La Jolla's Muirlands. She angles the Jaguar in front of the house and rushes through the front door. The home is partly furnished, but what's there is expensive and elegant.

"Where's Brooks?" Lisa Whitney calls out. Maria, Brooks's nanny, presents the toddler. She is a charismatic baby. Upon spying approaching adults, Brooks flashes a beatific smile and spreads her arms beneficently, as though welcoming the Magi with their spice offerings.

Josie Pomije, Lisa's mother, is in the large kitchen, chatting with her long-term friend, Joyce. Both are visiting from Palm Springs. Josie's astrology sign is Cancer -- "loving," "intuitive," "moody," and "protective," according to Parkers'. In contrast to Lisa's unrestrained ebullience, Josie is modest, a skeptical but fair listener.

"She's always been very outgoing," Josie says of her daughter. "And she never learned the word 'no.' "

" -- Which has helped me in the real estate business," Lisa says, as she dials her cell phone and cuddles Brooks. In a top kitchen drawer are Lisa Whitney's modeling photographs. Cameras -- and a few men, she says -- have fallen in love with her image. Her square jaw, white teeth, and light-shaded eyes have made her highly photogenic.

Lisa Whitney slams shut the drawer and sighs. "I still have to lose weight from this pregnancy," she says, and then orders Josie not to disclose her pre-delivery poundage. To shed the remaining extra weight, Lisa has hired a personal trainer and has taken up "body-sculpting" and step-dance classes at a local gym.

The Unclosed Deal weighs heavily on Lisa Whitney's mind. But it is now mid-afternoon, time for lunch. With Josie and Joyce trailing in a rental car, Lisa whizzes down the winding La Jolla streets ("at the speed limit") toward Trattoria Acqua. She requests outdoor seating in the restaurant's gazebo and places her cell phone on the table, beside a woven bread basket and a glass of Merlot. Her conversation switches between family talk and real estate, until she notices a dark-haired, muscular woman seated nearby. "Honey!" Lisa Whitney bolts from the table to give the woman a bear hug. It is her personal trainer.

Fifteen minutes later, Lisa Whitney picks at thinly sliced carpaccio. Her cell phone chirps. It's the buyer's agent, about the Unclosed Deal. Staring above the heads of her table guests, Lisa listens as the woman enumerates the deal's remaining obstacles. Will she lower her commission? the agent asks. Lisa Whitney stabs delicately at a piece of goat cheese. "Honey, I'm not lowering it," she responds, munching softly, "because it's not a negotiable thing."

"She's relentless," Coldwell Banker manager Nicki Marcellino later says of the woman she recruited to her Prospect Street office two years ago. "It's one of her strongest points. She decides what she wants to do and then she does it. And she's an extremely savvy negotiator."

Late in the day, Lisa Whitney receives word that the Deal will soon close. The buyer's agent has agreed to a concession. Lisa helps Josie guide the rental car out of a tight parking space, then jumps into her Jaguar Sovereign and guns the engine. "I got everything I wanted," she says, before careening her car out from the dark womb of the underground parking structure and into the afternoon light.

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