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REAL Trending Special Edition: Leading Through a Challenging Market

Jul 24, 2020 10:05:53 AM

Today, we're speaking with Brian Donnellan, president and CEO of Bright MLS. Bright MLS operates in the mid-Atlantic United States.

Tracey Velt:

Real estate is changing by the minute in this market of COVID-19, civil unrest, and more. Real estate leaders are up for the challenge. In this podcast series, we speak with real estate industry leaders about how they're navigating the market, and leading through a challenging market.

Tracey Velt:

Today, we're speaking with Brian Donnellan, president and CEO of Bright MLS. Bright MLS operates in the mid-Atlantic United States, representing 95,000 real estate professionals in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, DC, and West Virginia. Welcome, Brian.

Brian Donnellan:

Hey, thank you for having me. I'm pleased to be here.

Tracey Velt:

Yeah. My first question is ... Obviously we know the areas you cover, but tell me a little bit about Bright MLS, and some of the research that you have been doing.

Brian Donnellan:

So at Bright MLS, it was a few years ago where we stepped back and we really assessed who we were and what we were doing. We straddle a lot of different business lines. And we came back to the comparison that we're a data company, so data is key to what it is that we do.

Brian Donnellan:

As the question you're asking, the research that we're doing is really important for what it is we do, not only for Bright, but for our subscribers, our shareholders, and quite honestly, the industry. Over the past year, we've actually delved in it a little bit more, we've brought some data scientists in, we're building out a better team. We have just tons of data to look through, and there's a lot of great insights in there that we're really just beginning to pick at, and understand, and develop more reports, more insight, more information. We can talk about those in a little bit.

Brian Donnellan:

But, I think as you just alluded to, the COVID has been a really, really important part of what it is we do. And quite honestly, the importance of that reporting over these past couple months has been key to our brokers, and again, our shareholders, agents, and quite honestly, consumers as well, too. As you can imagine, with a footprint as large as what we have, we delve into six states and DC, as you mentioned, no one area is the same. Pennsylvania had a vastly different experience than, say, Virginia for example, or even Delaware. I think it highlights the fact that, while large level analysis and research is great, sometimes that overarching view really misses some important parts throughout the footprint that we cover.

Brian Donnellan:

It's an important area, it's an area that we've been focusing on, and we're going to continue to focus on the next year.

Tracey Velt:

Okay, great. Obviously, the country's reopening, however cases are surging in some areas, and not in other areas. So you cover, like you said, a vast amount of real estate, so tell me what have you noticed, as far as the impact in the states that you cover?

Brian Donnellan:

So as I said a minute ago, every state is difference. Pennsylvania acted vastly different than Maryland, and Virginia, and everybody else. Pennsylvania went through a shutdown very early in COVID, and the statistics actually show that, where some of the areas remained open, some of them more open than others. But the differences in each of the areas just highlights, again, that real estate is local, not only in the buying and selling, but also in the jurisdictions that they serve, in the legislatures who are making the rules as to how the real estate can and can't be done. So the areas just varied widely, across the different states.

Tracey Velt:

Yeah, I know. I think Pennsylvania was shutdown completely, and I think all the other areas were deemed essential, if I'm not mistaken. Is that correct?

Brian Donnellan:

That's correct, that's correct. I know Maryland and Virginia, Delaware, those were all deemed essential. But, I guess is where you're going to, the markets really, really took a big hit when they got shut down.

Tracey Velt:

Right. Yeah, definitely. Let's talk a little bit about the trends that you're seeing. I noticed you did have some home buyer trends as well, in a press release that you had sent out. I'm not sure how long ago it was. But, what are you seeing as the uncertainty of the virus plays into the instability of the real estate market? And then, what are you seeing as far as what people are looking for in a home, based on some of your research?

Brian Donnellan:

There's a lot to unpack in that question.

Brian Donnellan:

I think you need to start at the beginning of the year, pre-COVID, and then wherever we are right now, whether it's in transition or beginning the second phase of it. But, if we go back to January and February, we saw some of the strongest trends across the footprint in January, February. Then, actually in March, too, right before the shutdown, when that happened. That carried a lot of folks through April.

Brian Donnellan:

And then we see the market with the COVID, and the reality is there's a lot of people, I think, that are sitting on the sidelines to sell a house, or maybe even buy a house due to the restrictions, due to not wanting people through their house, just a lot of different aspects of that. In April and certainly early May, we saw just a little bit, and a lot in some areas, but folks being a little bit reticent about putting their house on sale not knowing how long it was going to be on the market, not wanting, as I said, open houses or people trafficking through. We saw that change over time with some of our virtual tools, which we'll talk about, but that had a real big impact.

Brian Donnellan:

Now again, if you go back, January, February, March being strong, you would think that that might steal away from some of the market in the later spring anyway, but COVID, actually, really put a highlight on that. We can go more into that, if you want.

Brian Donnellan:

But, your other question was is how do you see people's taste, or the consumers' changes right now, and there's a lot. The beauty of it all is all of us, most of us, at some time buy a house, so we have some experience in doing this. The reality is I'm looking at this, as I'm sure everybody else is looking at this, as this work at home being more part of our everyday lives moving forward. And being able to have several people in a house, working from home at one time, finding the right areas, and trying to have a podcast or whatever, has really changed, I believe, what folks are looking for out there. You also see, given that same example of COVID and people staying home more, folks considering moving further away, since they're not going to be driving a lot. So there's been a lot of impact, in terms of what consumers are looking for, and how the markets are reacting to that.

Tracey Velt:

Should we find a vaccine, do you see these things still happening, and playing out the way that they are right now?

Brian Donnellan:

Again, I'm no expert on this, but we deal in this stuff. My feeling is anytime a trend like this happens, there's that initial wave, and that wave is never going to carry as strong as it is right now. But, just like any other trend, there will be a certain amount that stays. So do I expect it to be as strong as today? Probably not, but I do expect it to be a factor that stays with us for some time.

Tracey Velt:

Okay. As a leader, I'm sure you've learned a lot of lessons throughout your career, and especially now, while adapting to COVID-19. Let's say career wise, what are the top two lessons you've learned so far?

Brian Donnellan:

Oh my God, there are so many lessons. Top two lessons.

Brian Donnellan:

Number one, when you're running a company, communication is key, flexibility is key, patience is key, having goals, there's just so many things, when something like this happens. Quite honestly, you have to have leadership not only at the top, but throughout your organization, to help you get through that, because there was a big adjustment for many folks working from home. And, it's just not working from home, folks' kids were home, maybe some parents or adult people were home. But, it changes the way people work, so you need to adapt, you need to find ways to stay in touch with the staff.

Brian Donnellan:

Our job, during this whole thing, and this is another lesson, was we needed to do all we could to keep the market open and fluid, because we have 95,000 people that rely on our ability to keep houses open, and fluid to sell. So being able to do that, still meeting your goals, understanding that you're going to have to make adjustments. And again, there's no substitute for good leadership within your company, and quite honestly even with your board as well, too, them understanding and guiding you, when you have to make some tough decisions.

Tracey Velt:

What were some of the things that you did for the members through the pandemic, to help them? Did you start any new programs, or technology, add any developments to your platform?

Brian Donnellan:

Yeah, a couple of those trends that I could have mentioned earlier. We knew that showing, and just everyday realtor activity was going to change. Chris Finnegan, in our marketing team, came up with Bright Steps, and some of that was data and research so people could see where things were going, and where the market was today. But, a lot of the other things was education, people needed to learn how to use the tools a little bit better, and we have lots of tools. There's so much to learn about what it is we do when you're being challenged to do it differently.

Brian Donnellan:

So we came up with a lot of training, whether it be virtual, or WebEx, or coming into somebody's office with a bunch of people and training them through virtual ways. We had to come up with better ways, allowing the agent to show houses to prospective buyers, and marketing to prospective sellers, that they had to do that, again, virtually. 3D tours, more photos, the ability to walk through a house and do a Facebook Live, all these things have challenged the status quo. A lot of our rules are built from 10 years ago, in terms of really non-technical, and we had to adjust a lot of the different rules so that folks could actually do this, and do it in a manner consistent with all the different states, and what their rules were, and how we were going to do it.

Brian Donnellan:

So we adapted a lot of the tools that we have, we went back and trained folks more on those tools, and we tried to keep them up ... It was every day for the first couple weeks, and then every week, on the data so that they knew where the market was going, and how they might be able to react to that.

Tracey Velt:

Okay. Let's talk big picture, future of real estate in the coming year. Based on what you know now, and the data coming in from the markets that you serve, what do you predict for the future of real estate in the coming year?

Brian Donnellan:

Prediction? Okay. Look, I can take a shot at it just as good as anybody, because I think, right now ... I'm a data person, I'm a numbers person, I think it can explain a lot. There are so many events going on right now that any one of those could have a significant impact. A second coming of COVID could be an impact, we've got an election coming up, we've got rates coming up, we're not exactly sure where the jobs are. There's just so, so many things out there to consider, and any one of them could change it.

Brian Donnellan:

Having said that, it feels like the real estate market is really in decent shape right now, and I think it's going to continue to go ... Across the footprint, we continue to see inventory shortages, in terms of new houses coming on, and availability for people to choose and go to. But, I'll say this about the realtors, and about our group. I've looked back to a couple of your podcasts, and other folks, the Hannahs, and everybody else who are talking, this is a resilient group. They're in this business because this is what they do, these are relationship people. They get up every day thinking that they're going to strike gold, and God bless them, I think it's a wonderful attitude to have. They are going to find a way to do business, and we're going to find a way to help them do business.

Brian Donnellan:

The opportunity for us, at this time where data is everywhere, the opportunity for Bright to actually help put the broker and the agent, the realtor, back at the center of the transaction where they are the trusted real estate expert out there, as opposed to all these different sites who are providing partial information and stuff like that. It's our goal, the opportunity for us, to really put them back in the driver's seat, neighborhoods where they're going, drive times, where they can really consult with their buyers and sellers and put them in the home of their dreams.

Tracey Velt:

Okay. Finally, my last question is just where do you see the most opportunity in the industry right now, for real estate brokers and agents?

Brian Donnellan:

Well, just going through the timeline of things, it's interesting, but I think we're at the pivotal moment here. I read a book by Steve Case, and it's called The Third Wave, where there's the third wave of the internet. The first wave, the second wave, and the third wave, and he says we're in the third wave. I believe in the real estate industry, we're in the third wave, too. It's just coincidental that it lined up right there.

Brian Donnellan:

But I think the agent with the data, with the analytics, with the tools, with their ability to do their job, I think their opportunities going down the road are going to be great. I think technology is going to help them be smarter in every area.

Brian Donnellan:

If you go back and you look what the consumer wants, the consumer wants certainty. They want to know how much their house is going to sell for, they want to know how long it's going to take, they want to know how long it's going to take for them to get into the house. And, how much are they going to pay for that house? The better we can give these tools which are forward looking, which aren't things that are happening at this moment. But we can say, "Hey look, it's going to take you two weeks to sell this house, based on our information. It's going to take you three weeks to buy a house. It'll take you three months to move in with the mortgage and all these other things."

Brian Donnellan:

The more certainty the brokers and agents can give the consumer out there, I think the more that they're going to find and be that trusted advisor, and that's really, really important. I'm excited about where technology is going, I'm excited about our ability to deliver that to the brokers and agents, and I think it's going to make a much more pleasant experience as these coming months and years go on, in terms of buying and selling a house. Which, in the past, has been pretty brutal at times.

Tracey Velt:

Yeah. Well, that's interesting, thank you for your perspective. And I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with REAL Trends today, for our podcast.

Brian Donnellan:

Well, thank you, I really do appreciate the opportunity, a lot of fun, and good luck to you.

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