Materially speaking, Jermaine “Jay” Morrison wasn’t born with much. He had brains and personality, and his circumstances gave him drive. “We were really, really, really poor,” the New Jersey real estate broker told The Observer. “Shit was hard. Really, really, really hard.”
Growing up in Somerville, N.J., he could see just two ways out: one was crack, the other was cocaine, and at various times he tried selling both. At age 16, Mr. Morrison started peddling drugs, and soon discovered he had a knack for sales—to the tune of $100,000 a year, he claims.
“I would be on the street all night until 4 a.m.,” he told The Observer. “I remember, it was Christmastime and it was really cold outside. Slowly, every other guy would leave, until it was 3 in the morning and I was the last guy in the corner. I got all the business.”
That work ethic provided income that enabled Mr. Morrison to pay his family’s bills, buy groceries with cash instead of food stamps and, in a splurge, get himself a Rolex Submariner instead of highwaters from Goodwill. If those things meant going to jail—and they frequently did—so be it. He would leave food on the table for his mother and enough cash tucked away for his release. “You always had to have your money in order,” he said. “You have bail money, lawyer money, just-in-case money and your re-up money, where you re-up your inventory.”
Fifteen years after his first arrest and eight years after retiring from drug sales, Mr. Morrison has patched together a career selling houses for Prominent Properties Sotheby’s International Realty and serving as a guest broker on NBC’s Open House NYC. He said that he’s currently in talks with the network about a show of his own. “It’s kind of like a cross between Million Dollar Listing and House of Lies,” said the suavely tailored former dealer.
He’s also a motivational speaker who preaches the virtues of real estate over drugs, but the more complicated reality is that the latter gave him the skills to succeed in the straight business world in a way that no other job or after-school club ever could have.
“You learn supply and demand,” said Mr. Morrison, now 32. “I had people working for me, so I had to learn staffing. You learn organization. You learn to be strategic. You learn about inventory. You learn how to keep the flow of your business going. Although you sell drugs, you still want to be relatable to people. I was nice to my clients. I took them out to lunch.”
There were two other key assets that proved useful, then as now. “I had balls,” he said.
Those also served him well two years ago, when he was trying to figure out how to upgrade from mid-level homes to mansions. One day he Googled “richest towns in N.J.,” and Alpine came up. Soon he was in the office of Mary Lenk, a top broker in the area, trying to convince her to partner with him.
Ms. Lenk referred him to Michael Oppler, a broker at Sotheby’s Prominent Properties. They met for lunch, and Mr. Morrison expressed his desire to start a nonprofit teaching kids about real estate careers. The Sotheby’s name would give him the credibility he needed.
“Where he worked before and all that didn’t mean much to me,” Mr. Oppler said. “Most realtors are just in it to make money, but he talked about his initiative, saying, ‘I’ve come up with a great opportunity for young people to see the positive benefits of approaching life in a different way.’
“He needed to be at Sotheby’s to do this, because aligning yourself with the most prestigious brand out there is imperative.”
“Life is largely about perception,” Mr. Oppler added.
That’s A LESSON Mr. Morrison learned early on.
After reaping a 100 percent markup on the $50 bags of cocaine he purchased from area wholesalers, he heard that he could reduce his supply costs by buying in Harlem instead. At 16, Mr. Morrison made his way to 137th Street, where “hundreds of people were selling drugs openly on the street.”
“Everyone was pandering,” he recalled, “but there was this one guy sitting on a crate with a nice clean outfit on. He looked like a businessman. He handed me his card that said ‘The Professionals’ and said, ‘Next time you come here, don’t go to them, come to me.’”
After Mr. Morrison turned a $300 outlay into $1,400, he returned to Harlem to meet with the natty purveyor. “He brought me into the back of a clothing store. It was more discreet than doing it on the street. I was so impressed by him that I became a loyal customer,” Mr. Morrison said. “What I learned from that was the importance of presentation.”
“I did kind of steal his swagger a bit,” Mr. Morrison said. “I took his approach.”
“Now when you see me, I’m going to be in custom suits,” he said.
Who makes them? “I have a tailor. I would give him a shout-out, but he won’t give me a branding deal. I won’t say your name or tweet you unless you pay me. I don’t do it for free.” (As of press time, he had 98,000 followers.) Another lesson learned.
During the summer of 1998, Mr. Morrison learned to cook crack with his father (also a client) and his stepmother. His father told Mr. Morrison that he could make twice as much money pushing drugs out of Nebraska than he did in New Jersey, thus introducing his young son to the concepts of flipping and scaling up.
With each successive trip, Mr. Morrison brought more cocaine to sell to his father’s associates in Nebraska—the third satellite in an operation that included Baltimore and New Jersey—until he was eventually arrested for trafficking cocaine across the country.
During a stint at Summit Shock Intervention, a minimum-security lockup in Summit, N.J., he befriended a fellow prisoner named White Boy Eddie, a dealer from Staten Island. One day, White Boy Eddie decided to write down the names of all the “fiends” he knew, dealer parlance for users. He explained that when he got out of jail, he planned to distribute free samples to his former fiends to earn back their loyalty.
Mr. Morrison thought that was an excellent idea. “At that point, my plan wasn’t to clean up. It was to be a better drug dealer,” he said. “When I got out, I went around and said ‘Hi, I’m Jay. Here’s a sample of my drugs,’ and gave them my cellphone number. I also told people they didn’t have to go to the corner—they could call me. Within six months, I had $60,000.”
Mr. Morrison said the experiment taught him the value of giving something away (other than plugs for tailors), be it cocaine, real estate advice or his book Hip Hop 2 Homeowners, which he dispenses on his site. “I’ve gotten 15 nationwide referrals just from my website,” he said. “I’ll do something for free to keep you coming back.”
Mr. Morrison gave up selling drugs late in 2004, after what he remembers as a sudden epiphany: this lifestyle could only end in double-digit jail time, or “football” numbers, as his friends in prison called it. With nothing to show for himself—“nothing for my mother to be proud of”—he unloaded the rest of his drugs to his partner, renewed his real estate license and got his criminal record petitioned so he could work in the industry.
From 2005 to 2008, Mr. Morrison worked managing mortgages at both Liberty State Finance and Keller Williams Realty while running his own independent investing and contracting company, “Mr. Real Estate LLC.”
After that came a brief and failed foray into restaurant ownership in Virginia, as well as talent management for R&B artist Brian Gibbs. “It went semi-well until a friend of mine came home from jail,” Mr. Morrison recalled. “He was like, why are you doing parties and nightclubs? You know real estate. You got the look, you know the game.”
His detour into music gave him entertainment industry connections that have proved valuable. Although Mr. Morrison has yet to make any big sales on his own—he said he is about to ink an $8.5 million solo listing—one of his first victories for Sotheby’s Prominent Properties was making sure the agency didn’t lose a contract on a slow-to-move $2 million converted warehouse loft at 331 Newark Avenue in Jersey City. After the property was featured on Open House NYC thanks to Mr. Morrison, the seller renewed with Sotheby’s, he said.
“People are very influenced and impressed by his celebrity clients, and he stands out,” said Ingrid Hart, vice president of sales for the company. Mr. Morrison protects those clients’ anonymity—another business practice learned in a previous life—allowing only that they are “NFL clients, Giants guys, Knicks guys, Jets guys, rappers, R&B singers, execs.”
However, the telegenic young professional has no problem touting his own “it” factor and “aura,” qualities his colleagues don’t deny. “He has very high self-esteem and is incredibly confident. I’ve never seen anybody more comfortable in front of a camera,” said Ms. Hart.
The same magnetism that drew “all the prettiest girls” to the young dealer is now wooing audiences as Mr. Morrison makes the speaking rounds with his nonprofit Project Culture Change, an outreach program that spreads the word about home ownership.
Within the nonprofit is an initiative called YMC, which variously stands for “Young Millionaires Club” or “Young Minds Can,” a series of group discussions covering a blend of self-empowerment, financial literacy and career-building. “I preach three things,” Mr. Morrison explained. “Think like a millionaire, dress like a millionaire, speak like a millionaire.”
Also: work like one. There he was the other night at his desk in the Hoboken office of Sotheby’s, banging away on his partnership agreement with a sales team in Saddle River, hours after his colleagues had cleared out. “You can’t outwork me,” he said. “I’m crazy that way.”
It was 2 a.m.