Jeff Hyland is a prototypical California guy. He was born and raised in West Los Angeles, in the quiet Little Holmby neighborhood between Beverly Hills and UCLA. During summers that he was home from a boarding school in Ojai, Westwood was his playground. He jetted off to New York after high school to study at the Cornell University’s school of hotel administration, but the cold winter there soon drove him back to California. He spent the next few years surfing and studying business in San Diego at United States International University. He didn’t start working – in any field – until he was 28, when he woke up one day determined to be in the real estate business. His dad, a screenwriter and literary agent with extensive Hollywood connections, brought him his first celebrity client. He formed his first residential real estate firm, Alvarez Hyland & Young, just three years into his career. It lasted more than a decade, until one partner died and the other moved on. In 1994, he partnered with Rick Hilton to form Hilton & Hyland. Today, the 140-agent firm is known for selling some of the most exclusive residential estates in Los Angeles. Last year, the firm did more than $2 billion in sales, the most for any single residential office in Los Angeles County. Hyland recently sat down in his Beverly Hills office with the Business Journal to talk about his L.A. childhood, his passion for historic L.A. estates and his latest book project.
Question: You grew up in West Los Angeles. What was it like back then? Answer: I spent my youth in Westwood Village, but I also spent time in Beverly Hills, when Rodeo Drive had restaurants on it and there was a Thrifty Mart with, I think, the original Baskin-Robbins. I can still recall my mother taking me from Beverly Hills to the Chinese Theater on the street car. To watch the city grow from then to now has been a fascinating experience.
Was Little Holmby an exclusive neighborhood when you lived there?
My dad paid $17,500 for his house. I asked him why we didn’t move to Beverly Hills and he said because the same house would cost $3,500 more. But I was really raised in Westwood Village. I would get on my bike – I’d tell my parents I was going to my friend’s house and he would tell his parents he was coming to mine – and we’d meet in the middle to ride our bikes into the village and just have a wonderful time.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Cornell. I wanted to be a hotelier. It was easier to get into Harvard than it was to get into Cornell’s hotel school, because there were only 140 slots. I got in, but I quickly realized I didn’t like upstate New York and the weather. I had thin blood. Little did I know – fast-forward – that my partner would be a Hilton!
What interested you in the hotel business?
My idea was to one day own hotels and what better way to get into it than to learn and work your way up the ladder? Just like people who would want to do show business start in the mail room.
Was there something other than the weather that turned you off from hotels?
The weather was enough. The thought of spending another three years there was just too much. Then, I realized I might not even be able to work in Los Angeles. In the hotel industry, you travel. You spend two years running one hotel, then go to another hotel and another. By the time I made the money to go buy my own hotel, I might’ve found myself not in Los Angeles.
So you returned to California after a year at Cornell?
I came back and I graduated from the United States International University in San Diego. I got a B.A. degree in business, but I think I spent more time surfing. I probably have a B.S. in surfing!
What did you do after you graduated?
The best thing my father gave me was, when I graduated from college, he didn’t say, “You have six months” or “It’s been a year, get a job.” He didn’t even say, “Come work for me” or “I can introduce you to people in show business.” He allowed me to do whatever I wanted.
So what did you do?
Nothing. I partied, I played, I read a lot. I just had a wonderful time. I wish every kid today could have that window and not rush into a career out of college. I think it’s unhealthy.
When did you get into real estate?
One day when I was 28 I woke up and I just decided it was time to go to work. So I went to Coldwell Banker here on Canon Drive and I said, “I’d like to go to work.” I had a real estate license but I didn’t have a broker’s license, so I told them I wanted to take some time off – about 12 weeks – to get it. I went and took the exam, got the license, came back and said, “I’m ready.”
Why did you decide on real estate?
I decided I love real estate and I have a passion for architecture, but I knew I couldn’t do that math. I wasn’t set up to be an architect and thank God I didn’t become one because you don’t make any money. I was blessed that I couldn’t do the math.
What did your parents do?
My mother was an artist, very devoted to me and my sister, and my father was a writer and literary agent. My first client was a referral from my father.
Who was your first client?
My father introduced me to Dino De Laurentiis, who was this very famous Italian producer. He was looking to spend $2 million. At the time, no house had ever sold for $2 million. The Playboy Mansion sold for a million and change. So it was a big coup for me to pick up that kind of client. I took him out and showed him many properties. Oddly enough, he bought the Knoll for $2 million, which was listed with my future partner, Elaine Young.
How long did you work at Coldwell Banker?
I was there for about nine months, when late one night I overheard the bookkeeper telling a friend of hers on the phone that the highest earning agent that year did $70,000. I was gone the next day.
Why? Not enough for you?
I had been led to believe that everyone there was a high earner, and I never paid attention until then. But I realized at that point that that wasn’t the office for me.
You went to work for the late Mike Silverman next, the ‘Realtor to the stars.’ How’d you end up there?
I’ve always been on Canon Drive. It was known as Realtor Row back then. From the Coldwell Banker office, I could have walked out, made a right turn and gone to work in an office there. But it was next door to the Saloon, and I’d been eating at the Saloon – one of the great restaurants in Beverly Hills – almost every day. I was tired of eating there, so instead of turning right I made a left turn and walked into Mike Silverman & Associates.
What was Mike like?
Mike Silverman was the original boutique broker. He handled just the most exclusive, expensive and high-end properties for celebrities. That was all he did. So I went to work for him so I could eat at the Bistro Garden, which was next door. What’s ironic about that is that my office today used to be Mike’s office, and Mastro’s Steakhouse was the Bistro.
When did you start your first firm?
I was with Mike for about two years before I decided it was time to move on. I partnered with an agent there, Elaine Young, who’d been working with Mike for about 20 years. A week after we opened our office, we heard that the No. 1 agent in the city – Juan Alvarez – was leaving another firm. He had interviewed with everybody but us, so I called him. We met and within 20 minutes we had a deal. That was in 1980, and we had a 10-year run.
How was business?
It was fabulous, we were rocking and rolling. These were the ’80s when real estate was really fun. Everybody had a great time, and houses – you put a new tennis court on a house and freshen it up and you could sell it for $500,000 more. You could buy houses in town for $1 million. Then it became $2 million, then $3 million, then $5 million. It was great.
If things were so great, why did you close after 10 years?
We had the recession of 1990, and our partner Juan died. Elaine decided the pressure of running an office was too much for her, so she went to work for someone else.
Then you got together with Rick Hilton. How did that happen?
A couple of years before we closed the firm, I had gotten a call from Rick. He wanted to form a partnership, but at the time I said, “I’ve got two partners already and I don’t think it’d be good to have four partners.” So remembering that two years later, I called Rick and we merged our companies.
How did you know Rick?
I had known Rick for 20 years. I surfed with his brother in San Diego when we were in college and another one of his brothers lived right around the corner from me above the Sunset Strip.
What do you enjoy about selling these huge estates?
One wonderful thing about these properties in L.A. is there’s a genealogy for almost every single house that people know. Almost every house has a recognizable genealogy, even if the seller today isn’t someone you and I would know. When I say that Humphrey Bogart used to live in the house or that it had been leased by Elvis Presley, that adds a great cachet. There’s no place else in the world where you can do that with such regularity.
What do you do to relax?
I read a book a week. My dad was a writer, but when I was born he became a literary agent, so every night he came home with a stack of scripts. He would have to read those scripts and that took him away from spending time with me. So at an early age, a book was not something that I embraced. Maybe 20 years ago, I woke up and realized, my God, this is a wonderful opportunity that I’ve never taken advantage of. It was a negative association I had. Now I read a book a week and I love it.
And you write, too. How did that come about?
What really got me going 20 years ago was I was approached by somebody to write a book about Beverly Park. Beverly Park was designed to be the largest exclusive subdivision of megamansions in the country, and there are some 70 homes there now. It’s where Barry Bond’s house just sold. Sumner Redstone, Sylvester Stallone and Denzel Washington live there. The book got me into doing research and then it got me into writing. After I co-wrote that first one, I wrote “The Legendary Estates of Beverly Hills.” Now I’m working on the sequel to that book.
How do you find time to put together a book?
At 3 o’clock in the morning. I took a year off to write my first book. Now I write whenever there’s a moment. I’ve got a computer that just deals with the book and I hired three researchers to help me pull everything together.
What’s your favorite estate in Los Angeles?
It’s the closing house in my book, in a section called “Gone but Not Forgotten,” which is all the great homes that are no longer. My favorite house is Enchanted Hill in Benedict Canyon, which was named by Greta Garbo. It was a silent-movie cowboys’ estate. Wallace Neff, a Pasadena architect, built it.
So it no longer exists?
No, that’s the tragedy. I sold it to Paul Allen, who had some young architects who wanted to build him a house. He said he’d remodel the house, but someone convinced him to take it down and nothing was ever built in its place.
Are there any homes you haven’t seen yet that you’d like to?
No, I think I’ve seen all the great homes. Not because of my business, necessarily, but just by going there for dinner or occasionally for a charity event. I think I’ve seen those I want to see.
What do you do for fun?
I have a 70-foot yacht in the marina at the California Yacht Club and I go out and take agents from my office out. I also take clients out. We’ll take it up to Paradise Cove, anchor it and have lunch, or maybe take a little skiff to the restaurant and have something to eat. I bought it in Florida, took it to the Bahamas, then had it shipped here.
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