The good life
Stuart Siegel finds profit--both financial and spiritual--in doing what he loves
T he book Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow: Discovering Your Right Livelihood by Marsha Sinetar could have been written specifically for Stuart N. Siegel '78. The admonition in the title speaks directly to his discovery of his "right livelihood" and his success thereafter.
Siegel enrolled at Kenyon intending to study science with the goal of perhaps becoming a doctor. "The appeal was greater than the reality" is how Siegel describes his beginnings as a pre-medical student at Kenyon. "I went to a very competitive high school, the Horace Mann School," he says, "and it had a dominant math-and-science culture. I just thought that pre-med was what I should do." At the same time, Siegel recognized early on the value of a broad education, stating in his admissions application that "to narrow oneself to one specific field of interest provides all the necessary ingredients for a boring and uninteresting individual."
"My first year was a real struggle academically," he recalls. "[Professor of Biology Emeritus] Dorothy Jegla was so sympathetic about my inability to fit in. She tried to guide me." After dabbling in anthropology and sociology and philosophy, Siegel enrolled in an art-history course taught by Mark Levy. "I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," says Siegel of the experience. "When I found my niche, the horizon was suddenly limitless. Levy was a great teacher, at least for me, and he helped me to think about my future. It was he who told me about the graduate program in architectural preservation at the University of Virginia that I ultimately enrolled in, and it was he who made the appropriate introductions for me." Siegel was accepted into the Virginia program on the condition that he successfully complete the prerequisite courses in physics and quantum mechanics, which he did during two summer terms. "I loved those courses in the context of architecture, while I would not have enjoyed them in the context of science at Kenyon," he says.
President of Delta Tau Delta as well as rush chairman and house manager, Siegel played varsity tennis for four years. "I was quite serious about tennis," recalls Siegel. "I worked summers as a professional in a club." He once expressed to a family friend and mentor that he thought he might like to skip college and become a professional tennis player. The friend asked him who had won the U.S. Open ten years ago. When Siegel couldn't recall, the friend asked him who had won five years ago. When Siegel still couldn't recall, the friend advised, "If you want to make your mark in this world, do something besides tennis." It was sage advice that Siegel took to heart.
By his senior year, when he had begun to contemplate a possible career in some aspect of museology, Siegel secured a one-week internship at the Toledo Museum of Art. It was an important experience that gave him insight into the museum business and a feel for the future direction he wanted to take.
Following completion of his master's degree at Virginia, Siegel returned to New York City, where he took a job with the New York Landmarks Commission. "I was young and filled with unbridled enthusiasm," recalls Siegel. "I was assigned to the research team looking at the creation of the Upper East Side historic district that the mandate said would run from Fifth Avenue to Third Avenue. We thought that was much too broad an area, and not really the true historic district, so we wrote--unasked--a dissenting report. My career in the public sector was short lived," he says with a broad smile.
S itting in his spacious, airy office, New York's ever-present horns and sirensblaring in the background even through a thick glass muffler, Siegel recalls his first days at Sotheby's, which he joined in 1981. "There were seven of us in an office of about twenty square feet," he says. "It was a real Rube Goldberg experience even to get up to go to the restroom."
One of life's happy coincidences had brought him there. "I had read an article about Sotheby's just after leaving the Landmarks Commission," Siegel recalls. "A bit later, on the street, I encountered a man who had been a guest lecturer at UVA. He had been involved in the Sotheby Realty start-up, he and urged me to apply for a job."
In the early 1980s, Siegel explains, Sotheby's auction business was much different from what it is today. A two-hundred-fifty-year-old company, it was more like an English men's club where who you knew was more important than what you knew, and whether you knew which fork to use was more important than whether you could read a financial statement.
The real-estate side of the company was different. It embodied some of the tradition of Sotheby's, but it was, in most respects, a modern American business run by smart, aggressive people. And it was a start-up venture. It was a great situation for someone like Siegel, coming in without much in the way of business training. He likes to say that his first two years at Sotheby's constituted his M.B.A. work. "I learned everything by apprenticeship," he says. "I learned about business development, financial statements, presentation skills, and strategy. Apprenticing is really the only way to learn the real-estate business."
In 1983, a group of American investors, led by A. Alfred Taubman, acquired Sotheby's Holdings. A real-estate developer and noted collector of modern art, Taubman imposed a much-needed business structure on the entire organization. His interest in real estate extended to the young enterprise known as Sotheby's International Realty.
Shortly after becoming president in 1992, Siegel was asked to go to London and establish a European presence. "Every time I've been ready for something new," says Siegel, "the organization has been able to accommodate me." Unwilling to move his family to London, Siegel said he would commute. While it seemed like a crazy idea at first, he managed to do it for three years until the business was firmly established. There are now a full-time managing director, two European directors, and an American director all based in London.
Sotheby's is the only international brokerage in the world. Specializing in high-end residential and agricultural properties, it is able to give these properties exposure beyond their local area and increase the pool of potential purchasers. With transactions averaging $1.3 million, the business represents 25 percent of Sotheby's net profit. The real-estate division offers comprehensive service to trusts and estates, including appraisals and complete financial services, such as loans secured by works of art as well as by real estate. "We are very competitive with Wall Street," Siegel explains, "because we know the value of the underlying asset. A Wall Street financier would have to hire someone like Sotheby's to appraise the asset before making a loan."
Sotheby's is currently in a period of aggressive expansion, doubling in size in the past three years and anticipating doubling again by the end of 1999.
D espite his early abortive career in the public sector, Siegel has retained his interest in historic landmarks. He presently serves as chair of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, whose mission is to preserve and protect historic urban sites. The organization includes a sacred-sites program that lends restoration money to religious organizations that hold historic property. "It's a dynamic, trendsetting, multidimensional organization," says Siegel. "I give it as much time as I can, and am very proud of the work we do."
Siegel met his wife, Adaline Havemeyer '78, at Kenyon. They now have three daughters, Catherine (nine), Anna (six), and Eugenie (three). Eugenie's art work adorns Siegel's office, where visitors often jokingly remark they have works by the same artist.
"The girls are precocious, like many city kids, and they really enjoy living in the city," says Siegel. "We try to give them a sense of life outside the city and opportunities to know non-New Yorkers. We visit our house in Kent, Connecticut, as often as the social life of our nine-year-old permits," he quips.
The other family members share Siegel's fondness for athletic pursuits, and they enjoy gardening, horseback riding, skiing, and tennis. They also like to spend time with Siegel's brother Richard J. Siegel '79 and his wife, Jennifer Bakewell Siegel '80, and their three boys, Cal (eleven), Ned (nine), and Pete (six), at their home in West Newbury, Massachusetts. Both Richard and Jennifer are involved in the art world, Richard as an art-services representative and Jennifer as a graphic designer.
But it is as New Yorkers that family members identify themselves. "The key to living in New York," observes Siegel, "is to not give up too quickly. The city lets its secrets out slowly. To survive here, a person must have a very strong sense of self because it is easy to get distracted by all that is going on. There is so much competition and so much success that, even if you are successful by any other normal measure, it is easy here to feel like a failure."
And perhaps, as it has been for Siegel, it doesn't hurt to do what you love. The money, as they say, will follow.
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