After a few dead months, the market perked up in March, then roared ahead in the spring. The brokerage did 200 deals in June, the best single month in the company's history, "which was shocking to everyone," says Michael, "including myself." The four blackboards in the Kalles office hallway where deals are marked were completely covered, and the staff were jotting down transactions on the windows of the office across the hall. The continuing strong sales since then have kept everyone busy - none more than Elise, who personally hardly noticed the slowdown that pummelled everyone else's sales.
One of Elise Kalles's assistants has been giving me updates on her boss's progress from her latest appointment, and finds me outside to announce that Elise is in the building. The mystique surrounding this woman who has sold more luxury residences than anyone in the country makes me anticipate an imposing presence, two cellphones going at once as she barks instructions to aides trailing behind her. Instead, a small, elegant and slightly stooped woman walks in, warmly shakes my hand, and asks, "Have you had lunch? We should be giving you lunch!"
If Harvey is the scrappy founder and builder and Michael the smooth operator and manager, then Elise is the soul and main revenue engine of this company. She's the one who organizes the parties and picks out gifts for the staff, but she's also the one rustling up the big cheques. Asked about the best business decision he'd ever made, Harvey doesn't hesitate: persuading his wife to take out her real estate licence. The first time they went to the licensing office, she changed her mind at the door. A few years later, she finally went in. And a star was born.
As he tells this story seated in the office boardroom, Harvey Kalles has the faraway look of someone watching a memory unreel in his mind. But that passes quickly, and he's back to being the focused deal maker, a guy who loves to swap stories of big scores and close misses.
He bought land in Mississauga when it was literally farmland. "Those [purchases]turned out to be very lucrative," he says, a smile underlining the extent of his understatement. He still owns industrial buildings that throw off income. (Aside from the residential brokerage, the Kalles have a commercial brokerage, a property development arm and a mortgage operation, which Harvey has increasingly focused on as Michael took over the main business.)
When Harvey opened his brokerage in 1957, he leaned in part on connections his father, a wholesale fruit merchant, had among wealthy grocers, such as the Loblaw brass. In 1973, Elise sold the company's first high-end home for $1-million, an unheard-of price then. Deciding that "it was the same amount of work selling a $50,000 house as a house for $1,050,000," the family decided to "farm" the ultra-tony Bridle Path neighbourhood. Harvey also figured the high end was more stable: There are always rich people, even during poor times. The family, still living in a middle-class home, began moving among the "billies" (Harvey's term for billionaires). The Kalles had for some time been involved in philanthropic causes, and now it became important for business to shake the right hands at fundraisers and charity balls.
Elise had charm and warmth, but the Holocaust survivor also had tenacity and sangfroid in negotiations. Plus, she's a relentless worker.
The day I meet her, she's been up since 7 a.m. "talking to Europe about an offer." She's handling the sale of Eb Zeidler's house - "you know, the architect?" She's also selling Cardinal Carter's former home. We decide to talk in the car on her way to her next appointment. The right back seat is outfitted with a table and phones, and as we sip iced coffees her driver has fetched, she shows me brochures for her current properties. One is the Eatons' mansion in Caledon Hills, listed for $20-million. It's magnificent, she trills, piling on superlatives as she describes the guest house, the indoor pool, the ballroom and, oh, look at the gardens! Houses in this price range are marketed internationally, through affiliates such as Christie's and the Board of Regents, as there are few people in the world who could afford this place as a second home.