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REAL Trends Game Changer: Bill Bullock, President, CEO and Co-owner of Golden Gate Sotheby's International Realty in the San Francisco Bay Area

Jun 3, 2020 6:00:00 AM

Bill Bullock, president, CEO and co-owner of Golden Gate Sotheby's International Realty in the San Francisco Bay Area

189.9% growth between 2014-2018

Tracey Velt:                   

This is Tracey Velt, editor in chief of content for Real Trends. Real Trends 500 data shows that there are a handful of brokerage owners who consistently achieve high growth year after year. These brokers were selected to be 2020 Real Trends Game Changers.

Today, we're speaking with Bill Bullock, president, CEO and co-owner of Golden Gate Sotheby's International Realty in the San Francisco Bay Area, to find out how they managed 189.9% growth between 2014 and 2018. Welcome, Bill.

Bill Bullock:                  

Thank you, Tracey. Thanks for having me.

Tracey Velt:                   

Yeah, great. We'll start from the beginning. Tell me a little bit about the brokerage and some of your growth initiatives as well.

Bill Bullock:                  

Well, we began this company almost 30 years ago and a couple of owners and five agents and one little office. And over the years, we gradually became a larger, primarily in Marin County, California, the county just north of San Francisco, just over the Golden Gate Bridge.

And in 2007, we affiliated with Sotheby's International Realty and then we began a program of consolidating the Sotheby's International Realty affiliates in the Bay Area. And we've now consolidated the five largest affiliates and we're now 27 offices, over 600 agents, and we're in seven Bay Area counties.

Tracey Velt:                   

Okay, great. Obviously achieving that type of growth over the past four years is incredible, and growth comes in different ways. Tell me about how you built the company. Obviously, there were some roll-ins, mergers, acquisitions; and then how much of that growth is organic and has your focus changed to more organic growth over the past couple of years?

Bill Bullock:                  

I would say most of the growth has been through mergers and acquisitions, acquisitions mostly. And our organic growth was in Marin County. When we affiliated with Sotheby's, we were 35 agents. Within a couple of years, we were over 200 agents and two billion in sales and nine offices from that very modest little start we began in 2007. That was all organic.

Bill Bullock:                  

But since then, most of our growth has been through acquisitions. Although interestingly, a lot of our growth now is organic because some of the glitter from the bright, new shiny object is beginning to wear off a little bit and some folks are either coming back or want to join a little larger and more traditional real estate company.

Tracey Velt:                   

Yeah. You obviously have a lot of the competition in your market. And so obviously in every entrepreneur's life there's kind of an aha moment and that is the moment you realized that you needed to change the way you were doing things in order to scale and grow or needed to stop your current business plan and get creative. What was that kind of turning point for you or that aha moment?

Bill Bullock:                  

Well, there were two. I would say one was in 2007 when we were invited to become a Sotheby's affiliate. That was a big moment for us. Had we not done that, I don't think that we would be the company that we are today. But even then, the real aha moment for me was in 2009 when after the 2008 economic meltdown, everybody including real estate companies were heading for the hills.

Everybody was terrified. I was sitting in my office one day and I said to myself, "Bullock, if you are ever going to be anything but a single county company here, you have got to come out of this downturn better than you went in it."

Bill Bullock:                  

We only had one office at that time, and we went out and leased a 7,000 square foot building, the best commercial building in Marin County, which we could not afford. And I hired a chief operating officer, whom we could also not afford. Just that whole company on that decision to come out of that downturn better than we had gone into it, and it's interesting everybody thought I was crazy then.

But that was really the time that changed the company because when we came out of this downturn, the market came back in 2010. We've had almost 10 years now of uninterrupted expansion in the economy and in the residential real estate market. And we've been at the forefront of that since that 2009 decision to change the way we were doing things.

Tracey Velt:                   

Yeah. A lot of brokers learned a lot of lessons through that downturn.

Bill Bullock:                  

Well, and I did too. Yeah, we all did. I learned some lessons too, but I glad I did it. And of course, I was scared as hell about doing it, but I'm glad we did it. That was the smartest thing we could have ever done at that time.tra

Tracey Velt:                   

Yep. It was a good risk. Let's talk specifics about your growth. What did you and your leadership team do to create such growth? Obviously, you talked about acquisitions, but tell me a little bit about your recruiting, your business practices concerning those acquisitions and your culture.

Bill Bullock:                  

Well, when I looked around the Bay Area, there were 10 Sotheby's affiliates and most of them were... and at that time our predecessor company, Decker Bullock Sotheby's was the largest.

And then when I acquired Dreyfus Sotheby's down on the peninsula in Silicone Valley in Menlo Park and Palo Alto, we changed the name then to Golden Gate Sotheby's, and we began to contact all of the three remaining large affiliates and have now assimilated them all.

Bill Bullock:                  

There are a few brokerages remaining that are not particularly large except for the San Francisco office. That's a big place and it has satellites. But we just started acquiring those companies, and culture is... This is a company that's really focused on agents and it's a company owned by ages.

The owners are still active agents in the business. The owners still sell every day. I think we're possibly a little more focused on what agents need and why they need it and how they need it delivered and what agents are willing to do.

Bill Bullock:                  

For example, I mean one of the most difficult things we have to do is to just get agents to log in to a program, and so we've tried to create an environment that we send small teams out to teach agents how to use the great products and the technology that we've developed.

I won't call myself a technology company because we're not, but we are a service company and we support that service wisdom, some very strong technology. But our culture here is, it's about the agent and our business practices are like everybody else's, I suppose.

Bill Bullock:                  

I mean, we're still, and I think we'll continue to be a traditional real estate company. We tend to operate in the high end of the business out here. And generally, we're the high-end brokers for all the counties that we're in. We tend to focus on the high end and we tend to focus on the agents that we have in the company.

Tracey Velt:                   

Okay. If you could offer other brokers some advice on growing their businesses, what would it be?

Bill Bullock:                  

Well, I think what I would say is, is don't be afraid. As a manager at every level in an organization, you have to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are, but then don't let them talk you out of your vision. And they'll try because no one likes change, especially when things are really going well. When things are going well, nobody wants to stretch.

Tracey Velt:                   

Right.

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Bill Bullock:                  

And you'll always have self-doubts, that little devil that sits on your shoulder and tells you something really bad is about to happen. You've just got to shut that chatter box down and refill your thoughts with positive outcomes, and don't allow negativity to creep in to your thinking.

And yes, as a visionary, I'm talking about now, yes, you have to be prudent and, yes, you have to pay attention. But when you have a vision that is so strong that you'd know in your heart that it cannot fail, then you do everything you have to do to push that vision forward, including if you have to mortgage the farm.

Bill Bullock:                  

Don't be reckless, but recognize that there are real risks associated with growth and you have to be willing to take them, if you want to grow.

Tracey Velt:                   

Yeah, definitely.

Bill Bullock:                  

If you want to stay the way you are then I think that's okay. And I think within the next couple of years we're going to... And I don't particularly like this word, but this "disruption" that we've heard so much about in the last two or three years, my prediction is that that's going to settle down and then we're all just real estate companies again. And the main thing now is to just hang on again and keep doing what you're doing.

Tracey Velt:                   

Yeah, I agree. Once everyone has the technology, what sets you apart?

Bill Bullock:                  

It's interesting, Tracey, I hear that. And of course that's all we've heard for the last two years is about the technology company, but they don't have anything that we don't. And in fact, when I compare our programs, our programs are better than theirs and we've developed them. We didn't buy them.

Tracey Velt:                   

Right.

Bill Bullock:                  

And they're specific to us and I believe they work better.

Tracey Velt:                   

Yeah.

Bill Bullock:                  

And we do not claim to be a real estate company. We are a service company. And I continue to believe that the market, particularly the high-end market, will continue to pay for that service.

Tracey Velt:                   

Yeah.

Bill Bullock:                  

I hear there's going to be a huge commission restructuring, and maybe that'll happen, but I don't think on my watch.

Tracey Velt:                   

Well, Bill, thank you so much for your insight and congratulations on being named a 2020 Real Trends Game Changer.

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