Best practices for managing growth in multiple markets

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Growth always has been and will continue to be the name of the game in real estate brokerage operations. With a number of avenues available to fuel that growth, I’ve found that it’s important to pick the right approach at the right time.

Established in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1911, HUNT Real Estate ERA is a 110-year-old company that operated for the majority of that time in a single market. Our growth was measured mostly by market share: our company and our closest competitor held 60% combined market share. We achieved that by recruiting more agents and increasing agent productivity as well as through M&As in market.

Soon, it became more difficult and proved more expensive to achieve incremental market share, so we decided to expand our service area into other markets. In 2001, we expanded east into Rochester, then a few years later into Syracuse.

Albany, the Southern Tier, which included Hornell and Alfred, and Lake George in the Adirondacks followed. Three years ago, our growth crossed state lines into Massachusetts with the acquisition of ERA Key Realty Services.

Over that 20-year time span, we acquired more than 35 companies, creating a contiguous service area stretching 450 miles. Today we have nearly 50 offices spanning 14 MLSs.

Leveraging a Strong Leadership Team

It’s a large operation, one that relies on a cohesive leadership team for growth and efficiency. At the helm are myself and my father, Peter, who serves as Chairman and CEO. Our Regional Vice Presidents work with their respective branch managers, who in turn manage their agents in the way that works best for each branch.

We rely on our RVPs to be the experts in their markets and they operate with a great deal of autonomy. They set their own goals and budgets. They are the first ones to have conversations with potential acquisition targets. They understand their respective MLS nuances and serve on their boards. They have intimate knowledge of local market drivers. From a recruiting and retention standpoint, they are always promoting the company with an eye on profitability. They serve as extensions of me and my father.

Maximizing Face Time

When leading a company of this scope, it’s easy for people to feel like they don’t get enough “love.” My goal is to visit every office at least once a year. You can do the math – that works out to about one per week! I also regularly attend quarterly sales meetings, which add up to about 24 per year. And in terms of mileage, I typically log about 65-75,000 miles a year in my car. Even with that level of commitment, people love more time, so I check in with each RVP a few times a week so I am in the loop on the day-to-day. The RVPs, in turn, can communicate that connection to the local teams to bridge the gaps.

Uniform Operations Still Allow for Local Identity

One of the selling points of our company when it comes to recruiting is that agents have 24/7 access to every office in the HUNT network. Offices share a basic uniformity that feels “branded.” From the paint palette to the carpet, from the furniture to the copy machines, agents feel at home in whatever office they choose to work from. But, as a company built through acquisitions, we have made it a point to preserve the local office cultures.

Similarly, we make sure that we provide uniform support to all of our offices and agents – that includes marketing, IT and training. This way everyone gets the same tools, technology and professional development opportunities and we avoid anyone feeling like they are not the “favorite child.”

From a leadership perspective, we have a definite reporting structure, but we keep the lines of communication very open and accessible. While agents typically interact with their branch manager or occasionally their RVP, they know they can call me any time.

Approaches to Building Out Markets Vary

While I am a big fan of contiguous markets, we have also colored outside the lines to take advantage of feeder markets. We had a branch in Sarasota, Fla., a huge feeder market for Buffalo, for a number of years, and we also operate a brokerage in Phoenix, Ariz.

Other things we have learned along the way about growth is that there are a number of ways to skin the proverbial M&A cat:

  • You can acquire a large company to make a big impact on market share, but it may prove more difficult to bring them into your fold.
  • You can also acquire a small company that doesn’t have a lot of back office support, so you need to make sure to staff up in advance of the acquisition.
  • We’ve also established a new market by hiring a top manager and opening a new branch around that manager.

Each of these deals had different approaches and details, but what was consistent about all of them was that we planned in advance and made sure we could support the growth.

The past two decades have been an exciting period for our company and I am looking forward to what the next 20 years will bring. Working in a family business isn’t always easy—how do you disagree with your boss who is also your dad?—but the pride that comes from adding to our family’s legacy is immeasurable.

Charlie Hunt is the Executive Vice President & COO of HUNT Real Estate ERA in Western, Central and Upstate New York.