Ken DeLeon: Silicon Valley's real estate rock starSan Jose Mercury News June 12, 2015
LOS ALTOS -- Ken DeLeon parks his Rolls-Royce outside the Georgian-style mini-mansion that he anticipates selling for a whole lot more than its $5.49 million asking price. It's his latest listing. Inside, a tour for fellow real estate agents is in progress.
There's an expensive catered spread in the kitchen and an espresso cart in the backyard. DeLeon fist-bumps the barista, then stands back to observe the action as the agents breeze through, lattes in hand, checking out the 14-foot ceilings and grand winding staircase. They also check out DeLeon, greeting him with excited hugs, and more than one touching the Zegna wool of his suit, custom made in Hong Kong by his favorite tailor.
An object of affection and envy -- like a favorite cousin who's become a rock star -- DeLeon has taken the Silicon Valley real estate world by storm with his ambition, marketing skills and breezy braggadocio: "People are kind of drawn to me. They want to be around me," he says in a typical sound bite of self-appraisal. "I pretty much raised the bar for everybody, for the expectations of what a good agent should be."Above and beyond others on the scene, DeLeon, 42, symbolizes the frenetic world of Silicon Valley real estate: taking Chinese and Indian investors on tours across the Peninsula in his Mercedes limo bus or flying with them over the region in his Cirrus jet. Three years ago, the Wall Street Journal ranked him the No. 1 agent in the United States -- a first for a Bay Area agent -- after he racked up $275 million in sales in 2011.
Though New York and Los Angeles agents have since claimed the top spot, DeLeon and his team at DeLeon Realty, his Palo Alto-based agency, continue to sell homes by the boatload: $202 million in 2012, $334 million in 2013, $558 million in 2014. He predicts sales of more than $600 million this year, along with a return to the No. 1 or 2 spot in the nation.
The son of a math professor, he talks about algorithms, data analysis and his agency's ability to guide clients to surprising deals in hot neighborhood pockets with high projected appreciation.
His agency, which he likens to a startup, aims to be a one-stop shop, with in-house consultants on construction and renovation, interior design, estate planning and tax law. Focused on the valley's core -- Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Mountain View -- he discusses preparations for a northward expansion through the Peninsula and eventually on to San Francisco as if it were a military campaign.An attorney, he has advertised his properties on the Golf Channel and once posed as a member of the Village People in a two-page newspaper spread. He takes his techie clients clubbing in San Francisco and enjoys being first out on the dance floor.
"He cuts through all the noise," says Julie Ray, a Coldwell Banker agent on the Peninsula. She recalls an open house where DeLeon drove up with his "SXYRLTR" (for "Sexy Realtor") license plate and began juggling doughnut holes, catching them in his mouth, a virtuoso act. But there also was the negotiation where he scaled back, listened quietly to all the parties and "just purred like a cat" while dialing in the deal.
His presence can be hard to match: "It's not that other people don't do what he does," says David Barca, Pacific Union's vice president in charge of Silicon Valley, who admires DeLeon's imagination and marketing savvy. "Other people do almost exactly the same thing, but they're just not putting it out there in the same way."
Against this backdrop of success, DeLeon has a made-for-the-movies history of tragedies from which he has rebounded.
He was 15 when his older sister and only sibling -- Jane, who helped raise him in Boca Raton, Florida -- committed suicide in 1987.
In 1998, while out for a walk with his father in Boca Raton, he was nearly killed by a car that jumped the curb at an estimated 40 to 45 miles per hour. The bones in DeLeon's right leg and arm were shattered. He was thrown through the same car's windshield and into the passenger seat as the drug-addled driver attacked him throughout a wild three-mile ride that made the national news.
Then in 2007, DeLeon underwent treatment for lymphoma after doctors found a softball-sized tumor lodged at the base of his spine. He endured five months of chemotherapy and radiation. Doctors now consider him cured.
Driving through the Palo Alto hills in his Rolls on a recent morning, pointing out this and that estate that he has sold, DeLeon laughs it off: "Anyone can have one tragedy -- but to have three? Now that's a mensch!"
Active as a motivational speaker, he will roll up a pant leg to reveal his scars: "Five dollars to touch it! Ten dollars to kiss it!"
The humor has a purpose. Whether speaking to real estate agents or Palo Alto High School students, DeLeon disarms his listeners while urging them to throw off self-imposed limits, take risks, identify their passions and go for it. An unusual mix of hard-core businessman and New Age self-actualizer, he tells them to "embrace their inner greatness" and "optimize" their lives -- the mathematical concept of optimization being an obsession since his college days as a math and economics major.
"I'm totally free," he says. "Because I've been so close to death, I've stopped caring what other people think of me, and people are drawn to that." He claims not to be motivated by money: "The irony is, when you don't care about the money, the money comes in."
That house in Los Altos, by the way, drew multiple offers and quickly sold for $6,549,000 -- more than $1 million over the asking price.
A divorced father of four, DeLeon lives in a 5,500-square-foot house in Palo Alto where he lately has been polishing his memoirs: the accident, law school in Berkeley, a two-year stint with the Silicon Valley law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, where he honed his negotiating skills. But he was bored: "In law, I knew what every day would be."
He got into real estate in 2002 and founded DeLeon Realty in December 2011 with six employees. He now has 40 and owns the company outright: "I get all the commissions, but I bear all the risk."
And he says that if he were to lose everything, he would "be fine with it. I'm actually a fairly simple guy. I don't need a lot." He works at the office most nights until 9 or 10 o'clock, but he clears time on Wednesdays and weekends for his children.
In the next breath, he talks about expanding into real estate development and, conceivably, lending. He even sees the dance floor as an environment ripe for optimization.
DeLeon recalls a night 20 years ago at a Boca Raton club when he hesitated before heading out onto the empty floor, because he was "doing a pro-con analysis. The pro was, 'I'm kind of a funny dancer. I've got a lot of speed and I can get the energy going.' The con was, 'Am I being selfish by imposing my dancing on everyone in the club?'
"And while I was doing the analysis, this meathead got up there and tore his shirt off, and you could feel the whole energy level of the club just drop. And I realized that by overdoing my pro-con analysis, I abdicated my responsibility by not going up there and giving it my energy and taking it to the next level. It really was an epiphany for me. It's my duty to be up there."
Family: Father of four, divorced
Home: Lives in a 5,500-square-foot house on 1.65 acres in Palo Alto
Origins: Grew up in a 1,500-square-foot ranch house in South Florida
Parents: His father, Morris "M.J." DeLeon, taught math at Florida Atlantic University and his mother, Barbara DeLeon, was auditor for the city of Pompano Beach, Florida; his high school friend Curt Sramek -- now the construction consultant to DeLeon Realty -- remembers that "Ken and his dad would sit around and listen to the radio, doing math proofs together. This is how they passed the time."
Education: Math and economics major at UC Santa Barbara, class of 1995; graduated from UC Berkeley School of Law in 1998
His memoirs: In progress, with two working titles, "Why Bad Things Happen to Sexy People" and "An Optimized Life."