It was a perfect Friday evening in May. Two Rolls-Royce Phantoms were parked in the circular drive, models dripped with diamonds from Eiseman Jewels, and Jan Strimple worked the room. The guest list included several folks who could write a check for a $330,000 car or a $5 million home—or both. They nibbled foie gras from Wendy Krispin and sipped Domaine Leflaive Meursault Sous le Dos d’Ane. The talk was of grown children, boats, vacation homes. Discreet security guards made sure house trinkets and jewelry did not disappear.

All to sell a house.

But not just any house. This was a six-bedroom, 11,000-square-foot mansion, with handcrafted molding, library, exercise room, office adjacent to the 625-square-foot master suite, balcony overlooking the pool, terraces, fountains, and 2 impeccably manicured acres of landscaping. Originally built by Cy Barcus for Belo exec Robert Decherd, the pink brick home was on Hollow Way Road in the heart of Old Preston Hollow. You couldn’t find a better neighborhood, with neighbors who regularly entertain U.S. congressmen and presidents.

The man making it all happen was Dave Perry-Miller, who was so broke in 1981 that he had to leave his watch at a gas station. Now he was marketing a $5.74 million palace. Welcome to the rarefied world of the new real estate power broker. (See below for our list of the best and a note about the difference between a broker and an agent.)

Selling dirt in Dallas is a different ballgame than it was 20 years ago. We’ve come as far from the St. John-suited ladies trading house fliers over coffee as we have from affordable square footage. Once upon a time, through the ’80s and early ’90s, Jennie Ling and Mona Biskamp competed fiercely at Henry S. Miller, selling almost a third of the homes north of Mockingbird Lane and south of LBJ Freeway. Biskamp, in fact, topped the property sales charts in Dallas for 15 consecutive years and put two of her five kids through college by selling the same home on Dentwood Drive five times.

But in the mid and late ’90s, merger mania and aggressive acquisitions brought franchise brokerages to Dallas, wiping out the mom-and-pop firms. The hottest stock market in history pushed land values sky-high, and the building boom made any house more than 15 years old a scraper. Today, despite a weird economy, year-to-date sales of million-dollar-plus homes in the Park Cities, Preston Hollow, and Plano are up more than 50 percent over all of 2003.

It’s made for a wild ride for those who were here during the lean years. Della Lively’s first sale in 1979 was 2 acres at the corner of Harry’s Lane and Lennox. She sold it for $103,000. Three weeks later, she sold it again, for $119,000. “I’ve seen it go from $100,000 to $1 million an acre,” she says. “And I was here when it all crashed.”

Location, location, location? Timing, timing, timing. Fresh out of her noncompete with Ebby Halliday, who bought her high-end boutique company in 1995, Ellen Terry had a nice Mother’s Day treat this year. An out-of-town buyer called her just after church and wanted to see 10265 Inwood Road, the 3-acre estate of the late Home Interiors founder Mary Crowley. List price: $3.5 million. “Well,” Terry said, “I’m just about to have Mother’s Day brunch with my family, so can I meet you there later this afternoon?” They set an appointment for 4 p.m. Two days later, the buyer signed a contract for full price; the deal closed in 11 days. Terry represented both the buyer and the seller. Cha-ching.

More often than not, though, big buyers today want new homes, so sales of pre-existing homes have slowed while raw land and tear-downs have skyrocketed. “Those lots in the Lobello-Palomar area [of Preston Hollow] are now more than $1.2 million an acre,” Eleanor Mowery Sheets says. “Raw land is out of sight.”

“We were in a slump last summer, and 2003 was a disaster for many Realtors,” Keller Williams’ Connie Fife says. “But we got out of it real quick last November.” That was about the time Martha Tiner at Briggs-Freeman sold 8602 Jourdan Way, originally listed by Ebby Halliday’s Mary Jane Young for $16.99 million, for less than $12 million. Tiner’s sale, Dallas’ biggest in 2003, kick-started more.

“Everything started selling, and builders were selling whatever they had on the ground and once again building custom,” Fife says. Now they are begging her to find tear-downs and empty lots.

Though the Connie Fifes, Dave Perry-Millers, Doris Jacobses, Eleanor Mowery Sheetses, Ellen Terrys, the Briggs-Freeman folks, and the other power brokers make it sound like a piece of cake (frosted by record-low interest rates), in fact, today’s top real estate agents work their fingers to the bone for every commission penny. Thirty years ago, all you needed was a driver’s license and a few dollars and you were a real estate broker. Flash forward to what agents face now. In today’s litigious world, they must take 180 classroom hours to get a broker’s license, even more once they join a firm. They have to hone their marketing skills. Blitz advertising is the name of the game. Perry-Miller estimates he spent more than $200,000 on advertising last year; Erin Mathews runs ads until the buyer leaves the closing table. And forget having an open house unless you hire those off-duty cops. Last year, several real estate agents were mugged at gunpoint while trying to hold open houses for their clients, including one top Poston producer who gave up $200,000 worth of jewelry and begged for her life.

Then there are the expanded duties that come with being a power broker. Top real estate agents know that to move the meat in this town and move it fast, they need to help their clients get it together. When a property has been sitting on the market for too long, like A-Rod’s $4.7 million listing on Douglas, some real estate agents bring in William Lawrence to decorate with wares from his Design Center showroom, William & Wesley Company. For a price, he decks out a house so well that it often sells in days. A-Rod’s place had been on the market for four and a half years when Allie Beth Allman brought Lawrence in. It sold seven months later for $4.5 million to J. Baxter Brinkmann. Another house that had been on the market for three years sold seven days after Lawrence went to work.

Good decorating always helps. So does good design—web design, that is. It wasn’t too long ago that pundits were predicting the end of the real estate agent all together. The Internet, they said, would save grateful consumers their commission fees because buyers could check out homes on the Web, take a virtual tour, and e-mail contracts faster than an agent could touch up her lipstick.

As it turns out, the Internet has only enhanced the profession. Seventy-one percent of buyers hit the Web as their first step in buying a home, says Virginia Cook, president of Virginia Cook, Realtors. Seventy-eight percent of those buyers contact the agents who “grabbed them” online. Five and a half million prospective homebuyers per month visit Realtor.com, according to the National Association of Realtors. Aggressive agents have web sites that link to the Multiple Listing Service, voice mail, e-mail, PDAs, and an always ringing mobile phone.

Like Judy Pittman’s. She moved out of Preston Hollow and sunk her perfectly manicured nails into the old folks’ homes—the high-rise market on Turtle Creek, that is. The Claridge, the Vendome, the Mansion Residences. Seventeen years and millions in sales later, Pittman rules the Dallas Gold Coast. In the first half of 2004, she sold $71,314,500, driving to as many as 11 closings in one day in her Rolls-Royce. At a 3 percent commission, that’s $2,139,435. The year is still young.

Which brings us to the prickly matter of reporting sales volume when it climbs into the eight digits. Some real estate agents shout figures as if PA systems were attached to their Jaguars; others closely guard their numbers, sharing them only with the IRS. It irks solo agents that “team” sales obviously outsize the loners. Compare Doris Jacobs’ 2003 sales volume of $40 million versus team Perry-Miller’s $70 million. But those figures can be misleading. Even team queen Eleanor Mowery Sheets cautions against “double dipping.” When a fortunate agent represents both the buyer and seller, that agent might figure the house twice, so a $1 million sale will count as a sales volume of $2 million. Gross commissions earned is a better gauge of how well an agent is performing.

About those commissions. They’re negotiable, especially within the firm, which is why real estate partners and agents often part ways. For top agents, there’s always a firm out there that will give them a better cut. In fact, three top Adleta agents just left to join Allie Beth Allman. “They didn’t pack up and move because Allie Beth throws a better holiday party,” one observer says.

Which brings us full circle: Perry-Miller wasn’t just marketing one of his newest listings that perfect, Krispin-catered night in May. He was also celebrating his latest affiliation: Mark Cain, a top producer at Virginia Cook. Cain had jumped ship to join Perry-Miller’s Prudential team that day. Cain is a rarity in the city’s real estate agent ranks, not only because of his good looks and sales skills, but also because of his age. He’s 36.

“He has more potential than anyone I’ve seen,” Perry-Miller says. “In his spare time, he combs the streets of Preston Hollow, virtually memorizing the homes.”

As for what the future might hold for our power brokers? “My crystal ball is out of order,” Fife says. “I’m just going to ride it as long as it’s there, because come tomorrow, it could be all over.”

Mary Candace Evans is a longtime contributor to D.

POWER BROKERS *

Allie Beth Allman, Allie Beth Allman & Associates
Cynthia Beaird, Allie Beth Allman & Associates
David Bush, Coldwell Banker
Joan Eleazer, Briggs-Freeman
Connie Fife, Keller Williams Realty
Paulette Greene, Ebby Halliday
Joseph Gullotto, Ebby Halliday
Mary Harker, Keller Williams Realty
Doris Jacobs, Allie Beth Allman & Associates
Jennie Ling, Virginia Cook, Realtors
Della Lively, Lively Realty
Lindy Mahoney, Briggs-Freeman
Erin Mathews, Briggs-Freeman
Carole McBride, Adleta Fine Properties
Judy McCutchin, RE/MAX Preston Road
Martha Morguloff, Ebby Halliday
David Nichols, David Griffin & Company
Cindy O’Gorman, Ebby Halliday
Dave Perry-Miller, Prudential
Judy Pittman, Judy Pittman
Tom Rhodes, Virginia Cook, Realtors
Jan Richey, Keller Williams Realty
Susie Ryan, Briggs-Freeman
Carolyn Shamis, Carolyn Shamis Realtors
Eleanor Mowery Sheets, Coldwell Banker
Roxann Taylor, Realty Executives Worldwide
Ellen Terry, Ellen Terry, Realtors
Randy White, Prudential Texas Properties
Mary Jane Young, Keller Williams Realty

TOP SELLERS

Lesli Akers, Prudential
Cindy & Mark Baglietto, Keller Williams Realty
Arlene Balady, Keller Williams Realty
Laura Beazley, Coldwell Banker
Len Bourland, Briggs-Freeman
Scott Carlson, Scott Carlson Real Estate
Charlie Carneal, Prudential
Ann Christensen, Prudential
Steve Collins, Virginia Cook, Realtors
Terry Cook, Poston
Keith Cox, David Griffin & Company
Claire Dewar, Briggs-Freeman
Nancy Haberman Dunning, Briggs-Freeman
Carl Ellis, Prudential
Danna Fason, Ebby Halliday
Karen Fry, Briggs-Freeman
Phyllis Glover, Ellen Terry, Realtors
Dan Harker, Keller Williams Realty
Juli Harrison, Allie Beth Allman & Associates
Beth Henderson, Ebby Halliday
Linda Jordan Hobbs, Ebby Halliday
Carole Hoffman, Ellen Terry, Realtors
Scott & Glenda Jackson, Ellen Terry, Realtors
Madeline Jobst, Briggs-Freeman
Gayle Johansen & Suzi Greenman, Ellen Terry, Realtors
Michelle Musick Jones, Coldwell Banker
Joe Kobell, Ebby Halliday
Robert Kucharski, Abio AHK Realty
Nora Ling Lane, Virginia Cook, Realtors
Alan Levy & Barry Hoffer, Prudential
Mark Linvill, Ebby Halliday
Susan McCrory, Ebby Halliday
Tony Mervis, Allie Beth Allman & Associates
Jennifer Miller, Adleta Fine Properties
Danna Morguloff-Hayden, Ebby Halliday
Beverly Morris, Ebby Halliday
Libby Norwood, Briggs-Freeman
Greg Pape, Virginia Cook, Realtors
Linda Peterson, Century 21
Sandy Petruska, Briggs-Freeman
Stephanie Pinkston, Ellen Terry, Realtors
Frank Purcell, Allie Beth Allman & Associates
Ralph Randall, Ebby Halliday
Mayo Redpath, Virginia Cook, Realtors
Dawn Rejebian, Abio AHK Realty
Russell Rhodes, Keller Williams Realty
Jan Richey, Keller Williams Realty
Penny Rivenbark, Ebby Halliday
Mike Robertson, RE/MAX
Elissa Sabel, Ebby Halliday
Hanne Sagalowsky, Coldwell Banker
Cheryl Saldana, Prudential
Judy Sessions, Briggs-Freeman
Tiffany Sharkey, Ebby Halliday
Debbie Sherrington, Coldwell Banker
Chari Singleton, Briggs-Freeman
Shell Stegall, Briggs-Freeman
Ashley Smith Tacker, Abio AHK Realty
Donna Trayler, Keller Williams Realty
Lee Trenholm, Allie Beth Allman & Associates
Kay Weeks, Ebby Halliday
John & Paige Whiteside, Coldwell Banker
Trae Williams, Keller Williams Realty

UP-AND-COMERS

Ashley Akin, Adleta Fine Properties
Neil Broussard, Virginia Cook, Realtors
Dara Brusniak, Keller Williams Realty
Mark Cain, Prudential
Kim Jacobs Calloway, Allie Beth Allman & Associates
Zachary & Sonia Cates, Keller Williams Realty
Bill Churchill, David Griffin & Company
Debbie Cooper, Ebby Halliday
Cynthia Paine Drennan, Prudential
Jennifer Ferguson, Ebby Halliday
Cory Flowers, Allie Beth Allman & Associates
JL Forke, Ebby Halliday
Kim Fowler, Coldwell Banker
Paul Gilmore, Keller Williams Realty
Forrest Gregg, Virginia Cook, Realtors
Lisa Gross, Abio AHK Realty
Dallas Groth, Virginia Cook, Realtors
Nicole Hinkle, Carolyn Shamis Realtors
Jessica Hutchings, Prudential
Marshall Jackson, Ebby Halliday
Christopher Jeffries, Coldwell Banker
Claudine King, Ellen Terry, Realtors
Lee Lamont, Coldwell Banker
Britt & Rudy Lopez, Keller Williams Realty
Meredith McKee Maxfield, Briggs-Freeman
Tessa Mays, Prudential
Christopher McGuire, Briggs-Freeman
Ward Miller, Coldwell Banker
Brady Moore, Ebby Halliday
Mike Morgan, Prudential
Kate Mote, Briggs-Freeman
Stacie O’Gorman, Ebby Halliday
Jason Pankz, David Griffin & Company
Mary Patterson, Briggs-Freeman
Alvin Paulson, Real Estate Marketing Associates
Tommy Pennington, Realty Associates
Sheela Percy, Century 21-Judge Fite
Layne Pitzer, Briggs-Freeman
Aimee Reiners, Carolyn Shamis Realtors
Burton Rhodes, Virginia Cook, Realtors
Gena Richards, Ebby Halliday
Dana Rosen, Briggs-Freeman
Alan Shaffer, Keller Williams Realty
Jill Reagor Smith, Virginia Cook, Realtors
Kristi Stansell, Briggs-Freeman
Jonathan Thayer, Abio AHK Realty
Eve Sullivan & Shelly Tillery, Allie Beth Allman & Associates
Trey Trenholm, Allie Beth Allman & Associates
Amy Trumpower, Coldwell Banker 
Verruschka Verveckken, Ebby Halliday 
Paige White, Coldwell Banker 
Amy Willaby, Coldwell Banker
Burt Zinser, Virgina Cook, Realtors

* There is a difference between a broker and an agent (a broker, in essence, is higher up the chain). Some listed here are brokers; others aren’t. But they all broker power.

HOW WE DID IT

With the help of industry sources, we chose 29 power brokers based on their experience in the field, their reputations, and their impressive sales volume. These are the giants of Dallas real estate. We then asked the power brokers to nominate a total of eight real estate agents: four top sellers (two inside the power brokers’ own firms, two outside) and four up-and-comers (two inside, two outside). We looked at the gross 2003 MLS sales for everyone and established a cutoff of $5 million for top sellers. Up-and-comers had to be under the age of 36 or they had to have received their real estate license in 1999 or later.