The New York Minute

Interview Series: Fascinating Engel & Völkers Colleagues from Around the World

Jennifer Ames

Paul & Vince would like to welcome to the conversation Jennifer Ames from Engel & Völkers Chicago, Illinois.
I get to be the gatekeeper of culture and talk a lot about creating a safe environment. No crazies, no divas, nobody that will abuse our staff. I love that I’m now working in a place where I’m happy every day to be here. Where people with similar values surround me. Where we collaborate, we share, and we hug.

Jennifer Ames is a real estate veteran of over 25 years with more than $2 billion in career sales. While her career began with an English degree from Yale, Jenny has always committed to being a lifelong learner and loves sharing her passion with everyone around her. She frequently speaks to international real estate audiences on various topics, including how to build an authentic brand, manage your career like a business, provide white-glove service, and maintain balance in your life.

As the CEO and License Partner of Engel & Völkers Chicago, her goal is to inspire every company member to be their best self and grow their career to their fullest potential.
Jenny is also passionate about giving back. She has served on some of her city’s most prestigious boards, including the Auxiliary Board of The Art Institute of Chicago and The Board of Directors of Lincoln Park Zoo. In her spare time, Jenny loves cooking and is passionate about dance. She lives in the heart of Chicago with her husband and their three children.


Paul & Vince: What are the best things about living and working in Chicago?

Jenny: My family has been in Chicago for five generations. We were here starting in the mid-1800s, which was right around when the city was founded. My family helped build Chicago, so I have super deep roots here. My family started the symphony, and we started the Midwest Journal of Commerce, which was bought by the Wall Street Journal. We also used to own Yellow Cab.

Paul & Vince: Wow, that’s amazing!

Jenny: And there are a lot of really cool things about Chicago. One is that it burned down. And when it burned down, in the late 1800s, they had the opportunity to start from scratch. Architects came from all over the world to rebuild. They came in and did urban planning. If you’ve ever driven in Boston, the roads are all like old cow trails. You make a wrong turn, and you’re in Cambridge! But here, it’s all very well planned. They created a really efficient roads system, we’ve got a great public transportation system—and we’re also right on Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes.

Our entire lakefront is open and protected. You’ve got great access to recreation, you can ride your bike from one end of the city to the other. We’ve got an incredible parks system. Our zoo downtown is free, and it’s world-class. The Palmers—Potter and Bertha Palmer, who were leaders in developing the Gold Coast in Chicago in the late 1800s—were Francophiles, and they amassed an enormous collection of paintings by unknown, edgy artists like Monet and Degas, which later became our permanent collection at the Art Institute. We have the largest Impressionist collection outside of Paris, and it’s better curated than the Musée d’Orsay.

Jenny: Another benefit of being in Chicago is that it’s super easy to jump on a plane and go anywhere. Because no destination is too far! You can get to the East Coast in a couple of hours, and the West Coast in four hours. So being a hub is a big deal.
And we’re affordable, by the way—especially compared to New York!

Paul & Vince: Ok, ok. We get it. [Laughs.]


Paul & Vince: So, what did you do before entering real estate?

I went to Yale University for undergraduate studies, so I was on the East Coast then. When I graduated from Yale, I actually came back to Chicago, and I was an actress and a model for a couple of years. I had done theater and dance all through school, and I was actually with the same agency as Cindy Crawford—

Paul & Vince: Nice!

Jenny: —but I got bored because it’s a lot of “hurry up and wait.” So I went into investment banking, which had been a summer job for me in college. I did public finance, which was a lot of muni-bond deals.
I was actually in New York a lot–they would fly me out for tentative closes. And it was the eighties, you know? I was a high-flyer, comin’ into town on an expense account, and it was really fun. But I was a woman in the eighties, and I got a lot of “Good job, dear, keep it up,” while the men who were my counterparts were getting much bigger bonuses—and after five years of that, it kind of ticked me off.
So I was looking for what to do next, and I met a guy who was a film director who had won a bunch of awards, but he was kind of missing the business side. I switched from my investment banking business to producing, and I ran his company and did the financial side of things.

And we did all kinds of films! We did documentaries; we did fundraising films for charities, and TV commercials—we did anything emotional and about people. Just not movies, not feature movies.

That was really fun, and I got to travel, which I loved, and it opened doors. But I found my partner kept going way over budget, and I’d say, “I can’t print money.” So after about five years of that, I’d had enough. And I was really trending toward being master of my own ship.

Jenny: My mom sold real estate for thirty years. She was a luxury broker in the [expensive] Gold Coast area of Chicago. And she kept saying, “You should do real estate!” She didn’t go to college, and I did, so I thought I was special, and that I shouldn’t have to do what she did. That I should run the world or something, you know? [Laughs.]

But she kept saying, “No, you should do this—you’d be great at it.” So I went into real estate. I had 60 top-producing, young, entrepreneurial people who were the core of my business when I started. And I was number three in the city in my third year.

Paul & Vince: Wow! That’s incredible.

Jenny: Yeah, it was pretty good. [Laughs.]

Paul & Vince: So, how did you find your way to E&V?

Jenny: At my old company, it was getting worse because it was all the things I didn’t believe in. I was with unethical people, untrained people, and it was really, really hard. As my husband put it, I was losing my mojo.

So when Engel and Voelkers called me, I was like, “Who?” [Laughs.] ” I’m sorry, I’m really busy!”

But I started to see that the standards were higher. And I couldn’t find anyone in Chicago who aligned with my standards. The turning point was when I went to E&V Exchange (EVX) in Seattle. I’d been speaking at the National Association of Realtors for years; I’d gone to many other events where I was a speaker. And I’d look around the room and go, “I don’t fit into this crowd.”

But in Seattle, I was like, “Wow—these people are cool.” And there aren’t too many times where that happens for me.

I’ll tell you a story… When former President Obama was running for state senate, my husband and I went to a cocktail party at Northwestern University. There were, like, 35 people there. And I got to talk to Barack for like 45 minutes. And we got in the car afterward, and I said, “That guy is firing on so many cylinders. I loved speaking with him. I wish we had more friends like that.”
But when I was in Seattle with the folks from E&V, it was the same thing. It was like, “These are smart people. These are thoughtful people; they present themselves well. I don’t want to sound like a snob, but I like being around smart people. That’s my business: smart people.”


Paul & Vince: What’s happening in your real estate market?

Jenny: Houses are up, and condos and co-ops are down. People don’t want to be downtown. A lot of the younger buyers don’t want a pre-war apartment. And people are going toward houses because they need to upsize. So I would say in our market that, houses are in short supply, and well-done houses are selling for a premium. But if you’re interested in living downtown, condos and co-ops are really valuable.

Paul & Vince: Where are your buyers coming from besides the Chicago area?

Jenny: Primarily from cities on both coasts. I just made a sale last night for a two-bedroom apartment downtown to a couple coming in from Boston. I had three showings on Saturday for a house in Lincoln Park. One couple was coming from outside San Francisco, one from Connecticut, and the other was local.

I’m seeing a lot of moves related to “the family.” In and out, you know? Parents moving to be closer to kids and grandchildren, and vice versa.

Paul & Vince: Are you seeing any good deals right now that people are coming in to take advantage of?

Jenny: The whole city’s a great deal!


Paul & Vince: What do you like most about your career in real estate right now?

Jenny: For many years, my career in real estate was about building, being number one, and selling and selling. And now, I’m at a point in my career where I’m still selling a lot, but I’m also enjoying the opportunity to take what I’ve learned over the years and help other people grow.

I’m running my sales team, but I’m also a licensed partner, and I’m able to bring on people—special people, because we’re pretty careful about who we bring on—who fit our culture, and then rebrand them and help them meet both their personal and professional goals.
I also get to be the gatekeeper of culture and talk a lot about creating a safe environment. No crazies, no divas, nobody that will abuse our staff. I love that I’m now working in a place where I’m happy every day to be here. Where people with similar values surround me. Where we collaborate, we share, and we hug. And almost every phone call I get off, it’s like, “Okay, love you too! Bye!”

In my work environment, I sign my emails to my colleagues like, “X.O.” [meaning “hugs and kisses”]. It’s a different place, and I’m at a point where I care about quality. I don’t need to be number one; I don’t need to win. I need to have a great life, and that’s what I’m doing now.

Paul & Vince: You’ve built the exact kind of environment that you want to work in.

Jenny: Yeah! We’ve created a culture here of lifelong learners. We do Masterminds. We do round tables. We do networking. We do a ton of stuff that’s about how to be better. The day you stop learning is the day you start falling behind, right? You go backward.

Paul & Vince: Well, we’ve heard you speak before—in fact, our team learned a lot from you about balancing between providing great customer service and not letting clients walk all over you as a professional.

Jenny: Yeah, setting boundaries! It’s hard because we’re all people-pleasers in sales, right? And we all want to make people happy. And occasionally, I’ll have a difficult client, and then I’ll get in my own way. Because it’s like a point of pride, like, “I gotta sell this house! And it’s just killing me that I’m not doing it.”

And sometimes, that’s a dumb business decision.

When you see somebody on Caller ID, and you’re like, “Ugh…” then you should get rid of them as a client because it’s bad for your day!
I sat in my team meeting just this morning and was like, “Guess what we’re gonna do? I’m so excited!” I told them brokerage stuff—but they were a part of it. And so I get to do what I love now.

Paul & Vince: You have both a work family and a real family.

Jenny: Yeah! Very much.

…and one more, Just For Fun

Paul & Vince: Ok, now we want to ask you your fun question. Imagine you could invite any three people from history to a private dinner. Who would you invite and why?

Jenny: Hmmm…Have you ever read the book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (And It’s All Small Stuff)?

I listened to that as an audiobook when I was on vacation before I came over to E&V when things were spinning out of control at my old company, and I was pretty unhappy. And that book is so great. And I was excited to write a letter to the author, Richard Carlson, because he says in the book, “Write thank-you notes, even to people you’ve never met before.” And I loved that.

So I came home and sent the book to a bunch of people. And they called and were like, “Oh, it’s so sad!” I’m like, “What do you mean it’s so sad?” “The guy who wrote it died of an aneurysm!”

Paul & Vince: Oh no, that’s awful!

Jenny: Yeah! So, I still miss that I didn’t get to have that conversation! I would invite him because he’s talked a lot about important things for type-A personalities like me to think about. Like being “present,” not always thinking about where you’re going next. About capturing those moments with your kids when you can. And I valued that.

Paul & Vince: That’s so true.

Jenny: Another person is Kahlil Gibran. I was first given his book The Prophet in high school, which I’ve gone back to many times. And it’s such a crazy thing that it was written so many years ago, in 1923, in a completely different culture. It’s timeless, and it’s so profound. And I’d love to ask him, like, how did he think of all these things? How did he understand them? I look at something like The Prophet and just like, “This is like a miracle.” Kind of like Beethoven composing by candlelight, you know, at fourteen or whatever it was.

Paul & Vince: That’s so true.

Jenny: And then the third person I’d put on the list is Barack Obama because I’d love to circle back and say, “Okay, we talked here—now this much has happened. How do you feel today? Like what’s your perspective on the world, and on what you were able to accomplish or not, and where do you see things going for the future?” Because I’d love to know—now that he’s got gray hair, and he’s endured all that he has—what his perspective might be.

Paul & Vince: Those are three great people. Now, what would you serve?

Jenny: Okay, well, at the moment, I’m on a diet…but…!

Paul & Vince: [Laughs.]

Jenny: What would I serve? I think I’d probably go to my fallback dish; beef tenderloin. Yeah, that’s one of my favorites for a party because it’s easy! And then I’d do roasted vegetables, and maybe a carrot timbale—you know, where you make it in a mold? I like doing those.

Paul & Vince: Nice!

Jenny: And probably flourless chocolate cake for dessert, with whipped cream!

Paul & Vince: [Laughs.] That’s very specific, but it sounds great! And do you think all three of them would get along and have much to discuss?

Jenny: I think they would because they are three different generations, and they’re all thoughtful people. They are all people in touch with what’s important in life. And can you imagine the room if all four of us were together? We’d all be drunk by the end of the night. [Laughs.]

Paul & Vince: Well, with that menu and that guest list, would you mind if we drop by, too?

Original artwork by Jolisa Robinson, Gavriani-Falcone Team Marketing

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