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Why I’m in the Real Estate Industry

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From circa 2009, Lucky Strikes Social Media Club, NYC
From circa 2009, Lucky Strikes Social Media Club, NYC

The following is entirely personal, and unlikely to offer any sort of insight into the burning issues of the day. I thought to write it because I was presenting at a meeting just this past week, and as is often the case, the attendees usually fly in the night before and have a chance to hang out.

One of the people I met is Sherri Meadows, the new President of the Florida Association of REALTORS. We got to talking, and somehow, the topic got into why I’m in the real estate industry at all. I told her, and she suggested that I tell that story publicly, to all of you. So I will. Thanks, Sherri!

I Didn’t Exactly Intend It…

I think most people who are in real estate didn’t exactly intend to end up in it. Not too many people go to college thinking, “I want to be a real estate agent”. A lot of times, folks end up in real estate as a second or third career, usually because of life changes. More than a few successful REALTORS I know started their career because they had kids and wanted more flexibility, for example.

I suppose I’m not all that different. I ended up in real estate because my Internet software company went belly-up after 9/11. I began at a boutique commercial real estate company trying to do acquisitions of aviation properties, then got a job at Kinesis, an interactive agency in New Jersey, one of whose clients was Coldwell Banker and Coldwell Banker Commercial.

I tell you what… coming from the “tech world” into real estate felt a little bit like being a viking landing next to an undefended village. The real estate world was such a huge part of the economy, but technology adoption was so woefully bad that I felt like there were opportunities everywhere. I couldn’t wait to bring some of the newer technologies and newer concepts into this old-fashioned, hidebound, and ass-backwards industry. Arrogance of youth, I suppose….

And then… I started meeting people.

The Conversation That Changed Things

I ended up working for the client, Coldwell Banker Commercial, as the Sr. Director for Interactive. In that capacity, I often participated in sales pitches to companies we were trying to bring on as franchisees.

One of those sales pitches were successful, and we ended up signing a major independent brokerage in California, owned by “Tim”. (I’m not going to get super-specific, since the gentleman in question isn’t a publicity-seeking kind of a guy.) All I knew about him before the conversation was that his firm was the largest independent in the area, that he was a good-looking older gentleman who had a Southern California tan, looked like a million bucks, drove expensive cars, lived in a house I could only dream about. In other words, all I knew was that he was a major, big-time, rich guy. He looked like someone that Central Casting would call if they needed an actor to play the role of a wealthy aristocrat.

Then, we go out to dinner to celebrate their coming on board. During that dinner, Tim told me about his life. It was nothing like I had imagined.

Tim didn’t come from money; in fact, he came from nothing. A Vietnam veteran, he found himself discharged after his service with a new wife, a baby on the way, and about $25 in his pocket. He knew nobody, didn’t have a job, didn’t have any powerful connections, didn’t have any money, and very little education. But he had a wife and a baby on the way. So he got to work, doing whatever he could find, any job that would pay.

Along the way, he got his real estate license, and an opportunity to be a salesperson. He told me about the 16-hour days of cold calling, door-to-door prospecting, of driving miles and miles on a speculative land development deal to have nothing come of it. For years, Tim was obsessed with working, with making money, with supporting his young family. He told some funny stories about trying to get deals done in those early years, about clients he met, relationships he built, and above all, the hard, hard, hard work of building a real estate business from nothing. Funny they were, but the unmistakable message was that nothing ever came easy for our hero of the American Story.

At the end, he turned to me and said, as best as I can remember:

“So this business has been my blood, sweat, tears, and a lot of sleepless nights for over 35 years. It’s been good to me, and I’ve done well for myself and my family, but it’s got my soul in it. I am now signing on with you guys, taking on your brand name, and paying you a whole lot of money. The first thing I’m going to ask of you guys, then, is — don’t screw it up.”

Tim’s words and his story left an impression. He’s absolutely right. This wasn’t just a “franchise deal” where our company (CBC) would get between 6-8% of GCI for the next ten years. It wasn’t just a slick financial deal. It wasn’t just the brochures we were printing, the sales pitches we had rehearsed, or any of that. It was us taking on major responsibility for the well-being of Tim’s life’s work, and the life work of dozens of partners, associates, employees at his firm.

Maybe I’m idealistic and romantic, but I left that dinner feeling the weight of responsibility; whatever little part I had to play in making sure that his bet on CBC paid off, I’d do. This went beyond just business, just making money, just finance. As Tim said, his soul was in that company. We would not screw it up.

And Tim… he might look like the picture of the elite rich white guy, but he earned every single thing he achieved in life. For their 35th anniversary, he bought his wife a $150K Mercedes convertible. You know what? It wasn’t just him that put blood, sweat, and soul into the business for 35 years; his wife was there every single step of the way, through the good times and the bad times, and the near-bankruptcy times, and the panic times. He made good; he made the money; he was successful… but not by himself.

The People

What really stood out, though, about Tim is just how down-to-earth, kind, and humble he was. He was a certifiable Rich Guy. He had made it. He was worth eight, nine figures. He was a leader in the community, respected by all. He could have, with every justification, treated a young whippersnapper employee of his franchisor like dirt. He did not. Instead, he was the soul of kindness, genuinely concerned not just for the big bosses at CBC, but for every low-level staffer. For me.

And you know, the more time I spent in real estate, more I got to travel, more people I got meet… I have to say, as frustrating and as archaic as this business can be at times, there is one thing that is absolutely unique about real estate: the people are just so, so good.

The working men and women, the brokers and agents in the field, are among the sweetest, kindest, most decent people I have ever had the privilege of meeting. Many of them are pillars in their communities, serving as deacons in their churches, chair of the PTA, heading up fundraising drives for charities large and small. They don’t all have the healthiest of businesses, not all of them are millionaires. But they remain generous to a fault, remain concerned about others, remain decent. Not all of them are intellectuals. Many brokers and agents don’t have the fancy sheepskin from the fancy schools. They don’t hobnob with the elites in society. Maybe some of them even like NASCAR, and couldn’t tell you who the Secretary of HUD is. But y’know, they’re really good people, and I’d much rather spend time with them than with the snotty elitist assholes I know oh-so-well from my time in Ivy League and lawyer circles.

Yes, not everyone is so great. There are scumbags in real estate, as there are in any industry. There are the mean ones, the downright stupid ones, the bigots, the morons, the frauds, and in some cases, the downright evil, nasty bitches. But they’re far and few in between.

For the most part, the people in this industry are truly the salt of the earth type of people. I can’t help but love them.

When I Get Cantankerous

I know many of you are frequent visitors, and my reputation as a controversial, stir-the-pot type is well deserved. I don’t always have the most popular opinions, and I don’t always express things in the nicest, sweetest ways. I know this.

And I get frustrated quite often with some of the problems and issues in this crazy business of ours. Certain reforms just make sense to me, and there are times when hypocrisy drives me crazy. Some folks think I’m attacking them, or speaking out of turn, or whatever. And maybe I do sometimes.

But it’s because after all these years, I still think of Tim, and the hundreds of brokers and agents out there I’ve met. These are good men and women. They’re out there pounding the pavement, working the phones, in an unforgiving, unpaid industry where if you don’t produce, you don’t eat. Every single REALTOR wakes up every day unemployed. I get that. And instead of becoming mean and nasty, these men and women remain friendly, kind, generous… they remain good people.

They deserve better. They really do. So when I see policies that I think hurts them, or doesn’t help them, I can’t help but feel scorn. When substandard technology is offered to them because political interests demand it, I get cantankerous. When bullshit-peddling marketeers are pulling fast one after another selling some new silver bullet or new “business tonic”, I think these men and women deserve better. When those in positions of power and authority in the industry make decisions that I do not believe are in the best interests of the men and women out there in the marketplace, yeah, I get a bit peevish.

I don’t have all the answers; in fact, I have precious few of them. I have more questions than answers, you all know that. And I may be wrong from time to time. Or often. Or always. But I know this: working brokers and agents out there deserve better than what they are getting. If I can influence things even to a tiny degree, for the Tims of the world, and the future Tims that are out there busting their ass… I’m happy with that, and damn the troublemaker reputation. If that’s what I am, then that’s what I am, because in my mind’s ear, I still hear Tim saying, “Don’t screw it up.”

And at the end of the day, that is why I remain in the real estate industry.

If you’ve read this far, well, thanks for indulging me.

-rsh

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Rob Hahn
Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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