Adam Contos, chief executive officer at RE/MAX Holdings, Inc., talks with REAL Trends editor-in-chief, Tracey Velt about past challenges and experiences that shaped him to become the industry leader he is today. Also, Adam shares what excites him about the future of real estate, his 'Aha' leadership moment and how RE/MAX, the original disruptor, can remain competitive in this tech focused era.
Listen or read the full podcast interview below.
Thanks for joining us today, Adam.
You started at RE/MAX after a career in the military and then law enforcement and moved up the ranks to eventually become RE/MAX CEO last February. Tell us about your previous career in law enforcement, your time in the military, and how it prepared you to lead the RE/MAX organization.
Thanks for having me, Tracey.
That’s a great question. And I'm really excited when I get to talk about it because it had a huge part in shaping how I live my life. I mean the day after I graduated high school, I joined the Marine Corps and went to boot camp. It was fun because you go to these graduation parties when you graduate high school and everybody says, ‘So what will you do in the summer?” I said, "I'll be in Marine Corps boot camp." And they all looked at me sideways, ‘Why did you do that?’
And it was one of those things that you look at in your life and you go, how do I get to where I want to go? And it was through challenges and that was the biggest challenge that I could find for myself at the time. You join this elite fighting force for the US and learn how to become a grownup, I guess.
And the systems and disciplines that they instill into you in Marine Corps boot camp. So that was kind of a life changing thing for me is to go and reprogram my brain, I suppose into what they do to build a marine. So I was super proud of that, and that really translated very well into law enforcement itself, which in the early 90s was very much more of a paramilitary type organization environmentally, emotionally and psychologically. You go to briefings and you have a uniform and you have inspections and things like that and you operate in a very structured environment. So structured but chaotic, I guess you could say you don't know what's going to happen that day.
Strangely enough, that's kind of how real estate is as well. You don't know what's going to happen that day and it's a structured but chaotic environment. There are contracts, there are processes and procedures and regulations and the code of ethics and a way of doing business. But there's also some freedom to operate, but you need to make your day. And, that entrepreneurial environment drew me towards RE/MAX. When I was in law enforcement, I started a couple businesses and I had worked with some real estate agents and looking at what police officers learn to stay alive every day and then seeing real estate agents getting hurt and killed in their job, unfortunately in the early 2000s, that's what got me into RE/MAX.
New business models are dramatically changing the real estate industry. However, RE/MAX was that disruptor business model years ago. So what will you do with the organization to keep it relevant through all the change that is swirling around the industry?
It’s funny you used the word disruptor and you're right, Dave Liniger was and probably still is to this day, the biggest disruptor in this industry. 45 years ago, he disrupted this industry when he started RE/MAX and continues to do so. And then you look at 2007, we didn't call it disruption then, but foreclosures were the disruptors, and then short sales became the disruptors, and then as we emerged from the economic downturn, the recession leads became the disruptors, platforms on the Internet, things like that. Now that we're past those, they're commonplace out there and they're part of everyday life for the real estate agent. But now what we call the disruptor are the iBuyers and some of the other different technology-based organizations.
When in all reality, there's always been disruption in our business. It's just how do you take advantage of the opportunities in the marketplace and people that are outwardly and overtly going after those and being very proud and loud about it are called the disruptors. And once you've been in the business for a long time, it's hard to call yourself a disruptor.
But we continue to evolve our business, we watch what's going on and we participate where we think it's most accretive to our agents and our brokers and make adjustments, we bought a technology company not long ago to of mold the clay and in our studio if you will, and work on that for our agents and brokers and collaboratively with them. Disruption is a constant in our business and I think everybody needs to understand that.
There are a lot of opportunities in real estate from analyzing big data to growth and expansion. So what are you most excited about as it relates to the future of the real estate industry?
Two things. You're right. Data, big data is incredibly exciting because I don't think this industry has taken advantage of it as much as we possibly can, and a lot of that has to do with the fragmentation of, you know, we have around 700 MLSs in the country, Canada has several dozen, and the fragmentation of that information to empower the consumer and involve them more in the transaction because that's really what they want. That's what technology does, is it helps the consumer be more involved in the transaction as well as to streamline it a little bit with regards to the communication that occurs in that transparency out there. So, that's really exciting as far as an opportunity.
And I think a lot of the players in the marketplace are going after that and as they should. Why? Because it is for the consumer and for the agent and the broker it, it helps everybody create transparency and reinforces ethics and honesty. The other component, I think we need to get back into real customer experience. What does the agent and the consumer feel in the marketplace. So data and customer experience are my two big things that I see as just the best opportunities in this marketplace.
Everybody has ‘Aha’ moments in their life. Most of the time people have many Aha moments in their life. So what was one of yours? A time when you realized you had to make a change or reboot your current plan?
Gosh, when it was, I couldn't tell you, but what it was, I certainly can. And that's education matters. When people stop learning that stops them iterating on their plan. We have to build systems around our lives. And that went with my learning process. I want to learn more, I want to be better. But how do you do that? Well, you have to have a system and you have to integrate learning into that and that system is how you work your day, your week, your month, your year. And a lot of people call it their business plan, but you know, it's a system of how you live your daily life and part of that has to be education.
And as the noise in today's life increases. We have these smartphones that when somebody stops moving, they pull out their phone and they flip on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or whatever it is, and they start flipping through. Well that's just taking up time by putting noise into your head instead of learning. The 'Aha' moment is if I can learn things I can give things. It's not just taking knowledge and stuffing it in your head, it's sharing the relevant knowledge out with the marketplace, with the customers, with people that you know and love in order to help people and education leads to helping and helping leads to growing in your business. That was really a big 'Aha' moment for me.
That’s great advice. Real estate is all about building relationships and I'm sure you've made some inspiring connections along the way. So tell us some of the people who really inspired you, changed your perspective or impacted you in some way through your life.
Well, obviously the first one that comes to mind for me is Dave Liniger. That guy has mentored me for a good 15 or so years. I met him a couple of decades ago, and first of all you look at what he's accomplished in the real estate businesses as a disruptor, as an innovator and also what he's done for the community. I mean, he and Gail have given hundred of millions of dollars to charity. They give back and do so without expectation. So it's exciting to see somebody who loves people so much do that. And that's been super inspiring. And through him, I've met a lot of different people, but one that I think has made a big impact on me that has reinforced some of these concepts that you have trouble defining is Darren Hardy. He was the publisher of Success Magazine and really is kind of a success coach, if you will, that doesn't just talk about it. He lives it. I've been able to become friends with him and to see how he lives this in his daily basis, which I know a lot of our agents and brokers in the industry agree with that. And they follow the same principles that Darren does, and they become successful as a result. I’d say that those two people have really, the relationship I've been able to form with them, has inspired me. They’ve also changed drastically how people view what they do and what they say every day, how they build relationships, how they do business.
Both of them are very inspirational. Let’s shift gears and talk about your life outside of real estate and before real estate. What childhood or teenage experience shaped the person you are today?
I will go back to the Marine Corps experience, it's certainly one of the biggest ones. The pride, the honesty, the ethics, the integrity, living those values I think is incredibly important and that reinforced those values for me. But even before then, my father, he was in federal law enforcement for 33 years. He lived by those principles as well. And as did his brother who was a marine, he's, the, one of the reasons I joined the Marine Corps. I said I want to be like this guy. And just to hear these people say, you have to do the right thing regardless of whether or not somebody is watching, and you have to help people. I think you look at it and if you want to put a definition on it, I think good parenting and giving values to our kids, which is what I had the honor of receiving with my mom as well.She ran the home. She’s very good at it and super smart and just an amazing woman. It was a lot of ethics and honesty and integrity. And I think without that foundation, we as adults we shouldn't be able to look into the mirror and say, I haven't done everything I can to give that to the next generation. That's important in society. And I think we see what happens when we don't do that. I'm thankful that I was able to be the recipient of that.
That’s wonderful and very important. We have to teach our children honesty and integrity and doing the right thing.
If you could provide brokers with just one tidbit of information that they could use to improve their business. What would it be?
I love this question. I think it comes down to give. You have to have something to give. And that give needs to be helping people. Be it information about the marketplace, be it a smile, be it just emotional support. But people love interacting with people, regardless of how much time we spend on our mobile devices or anything like that. Your mobile device, it doesn't necessarily give you a smile, it's typically a human being that gave you a smile, and either by what they said or what they did or something like that. And that's what really does a great job of driving this business - people communicating and building trust and transparency amongst each other in order to help each other.
So brokers need to give. Now unfortunately, a lot of people fall into a kind of a rut every day of doing instead of trying to give. And we end up shuffling paperwork, answering emails, sending emails, things like that, and there's no giving involved. So each day that gets by without giving is a day that you're not building your business. So that's got to be the foundation for it, the human interaction of giving somebody something in order to help. I think my key takeaway in this interpersonal business.
Being a servant leader. Absolutely. Most every successful leader I've interviewed has had a routine or something they do to help them get ready for the day. What is your routine?
Oh boy, this is a good one because I live by this. I'll just take you through my routine here real quick. So I get up at 4:30 every morning and I have my green drink, the vitamins and minerals and a big glass of water to start the day, add a yogurt and a piece of fruit and I listen to Darren Hardy - Darren Daily, which is kind of a five minute inspirational or educational piece to turn on my brain and get me going in the, learning, giving direction. And then I hit the gym for an hour and then I drive to work and while I'm driving to work, I take advantage of that time to learn. I'll put it on a podcast or all put on an audio book or something like that. And I will spend that time learning.
I spent that time also learning on the way home. I think it's really important to keep your mind absorbent of new information and keeping you thinking about things. And I get to the office and I want to write down these ideas. And then I talk to people and we iterate our business with that.
So, that happens every single day, that routine. And I think without that routine, I would start to stagnate, and I can't do that. The employees in this company, the team members, the brokers, the agents, the consumer, everybody expects you to be better today than you were yesterday, and unless you're trying to do something to be better today than you were yesterday, you're not going to get there. It just doesn't happen by magic. You have to have a routine, and stick to that routine, and that's what I've committed to every day so that I can be the best for the employees and the customers.
What are three things you can't live without and you can't mention your phone, family, or friends?
Three things I can't live without. Wow. Like a lot of a dedicated pet owners. I probably can't live without my dogs. Taking life necessities like water and oxygen and things like that out of it, I love my dogs. I have two German shepherds and love them to death. I also I two chihuahuas by the way. There are like mini German shepherds. My dog's, probably a good book, and the outdoors. I just love being outside. I live in Colorado and you know, exploration, it keeps the mind growing. The happiness of the animals, the bonding. The relationship. A book. Keep learning and outdoors to keep the mind growing and some oxygen and sunlight, and happiness.
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