As Scarlett O’Hara noted in “Gone with the Wind,” hardships make or break people. Any real estate broker who has weathered a recession would surely agree with that—including John Kersten, the industry veteran and spirited president of Century 21 Town & Country in Detroit, Mich., who has guided the company through the city’s worst economic downturn and into a thriving new era. “People still think of Detroit as declining,” Kersten says, “but the Greater Detroit area has good schools and good communities, and the economy in many ways is on the upswing.” And in spite of the economy, Kersten’s focus on measured growth and positive action has vaulted the company onto Century 21’s Top Ten list of companies in each of the last three years. In this exclusive interview, Kersten shares the strategies that have led to that happy statistic and the reasons why he remains confident in a solid and growing future.
Barbara Pronin: John, let’s begin with a synopsis of your career path and how you came to lead your company.
John Kersten: I was born in Detroit, 74 years ago, and went to Wayne State University here in the city. As house controller for the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity, I got involved in the purchase of a new fraternity house, and that sparked my interest in real estate. The agent I worked with told me she thought I’d do well in the industry, and so I started my career as an agent with her company 48 years ago. Ultimately, I moved into management, and have stayed with it ever since. I bought my first CENTURY 21 office—one office with nine people in it—in suburban Detroit in 1980, and at our peak, we had grown to more than 1,200 agents in 16 offices. We were the No. 1 company in the CENTURY 21 franchise for 13 years straight. Of course, during the economic tsunami that hit us a few years ago, we were forced to close and consolidate offices. But we stayed afloat and now we’re powering forward, with seven offices and over 350 agents, and I’m proud to say we are presently the No. 1 CENTURY 21 firm in Michigan and the tenth-ranked firm nationally.
BP: How would you describe the firm’s positioning in your marketplace, and what sets it apart from the competition?
JK: We have a recognized and well-respected brand and a long-established presence in our suburban Detroit market area—primarily Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties, where we’re known for our outstanding personal service and a true commitment to excellence. We have been ranked as one of the leading Michigan residential real estate companies in Crain’s Detroit Business Residential Broker Report, and we are listed in the Top 500 of RISMedia’s Power Broker Report. As important, we’re blessed in every one of our offices with quality management, loyal people, and an overall ‘yes, we can’ team attitude that translates into great client relationships that continue to drive business.
BP: How would you describe current market conditions in your area?
JK: Our average sales price varies greatly, from $150,000 or $200,000 in the central city to some $700,000 in our core suburban market, where inventory is still in short supply. As we speak, we’re still crunching the numbers, but 2015 was a satisfactory year overall, and we are optimistic that the market will come alive for us in the spring of 2016. That’s based on the fact that the Michigan economy is currently improving and many new jobs are being created, especially in the manufacturing and hospitality sectors, and we have an award-winning relocation services team to help incoming employees and executives make a smooth and hassle-free transition.
BP: What has been your approach to growth, John, and is that changing now that the market is rebounding?
JK: We have always been firm believers in judicious growth—that is, careful expansion, prudent spending, and finding the best ways to cut costs without cutting services, either to our customers or to our agents, when times demand it. That’s the primary reason we have been able to weather the downturns and come out of them stronger and prepared to move forward.
BP: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing your firm and its agents?
JK: Our agent count is growing, but we have lots of capacity to take on new agents at the present time, and that is a challenge in itself. We provide great training for both new and experienced agents, and we are actively seeking to attract quality people with a passion for excellence and a commitment to our high professional standards.
BP: What do you see as your greatest opportunity?
JK: The growing demand for housing in our market area. Detroit’s automotive industry and all its ancillary industries are expanding once again, so the job market is wide open and things are going in the right direction. We anticipate more buyers will be coming into the area and sellers will want to upgrade, so there’s great opportunity for consumers here, and great opportunity for our agents.
BP: How are you serving the needs of today’s more informed, tech-savvy consumers?
JK: We have a great website designed to attract and serve the needs of consumers and provide leads to our agents, and we’ve gone from being the largest print media advertiser in our market to the best Internet marketer, with a workable and productive social media strategy that results in more leads. We are seeing more and more mobile-based business these days, which our agents are well-equipped to handle, and we provide all the necessary technology to ensure that transactions go smoothly. At the same time, we are very aware that, for most people, real estate is still a face-to-face business. Our agents excel at working with customers as they prefer to work, and are always happy to meet face-to-face whenever the customer is ready.
BP: You mentioned the need for more agents. How are you attracting and retaining top agents?
JK: We continue to provide a wealth of training for new and experienced agents at all levels, and I’m pleased to say we operate day-to-day in a caring, collegial, and mentoring environment, thanks in large part to our dedicated manager/coaches. There is a lot of friendly camaraderie here, lots of sharing going on all the time, lots of agent recognition, and a respectful and cooperative environment that brings out the best in everyone. Our agents are actively promoted on our website and rewarded publicly for their efforts, in addition to our internal recognition.
BP: In your opinion, what is most critical to your firm’s success going forward?
JK: I would say the continued growth of our Michigan economy so that we are working in a healthy and vibrant environment. Internally, for us as a company, it will be vital to recruit the right people with the goal of slowly rebuilding our infrastructure to where we were before the recession, while maintaining the same high standards that have been the backbone of everything we’ve achieved.
BP: Your firm was recently honored with a Good Neighbor Award from NAR for contributing to the improvement and well-being of life in your community. How did that come about?
JK: I am proud to say we are the top Easter Seals fundraiser in the CENTURY 21 System, raising more than $15 million for Easter Seals Michigan. It’s a project that is dear to our hearts, because Easter Seals has been helping people with special needs from medical rehabilitation to autism spectrum disorder for over 100 years, and our agents and customers devote countless volunteer hours to raising the much-needed funds. It’s just a part of our culture.
BP: And what else is in store for your company?
JK: Looking ahead, I see more of the same—steady growth and continued recognition as a company with heart and professionalism. Our agents are among the best in the business, and that’s a reputation we’ve worked hard to achieve, and one we plan to uphold.
For more information, visit www.century21town-country.com.