Editor’s Note: The following is the cover story from the August issue of RISMedia’s Real Estate magazine.
From the widespread ripple effect of the Brexit vote to the staggering investment made by Chinese homebuyers in the U.S., there’s no denying residential real estate has become a global industry. With a parent company that already has worldwide recognition, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices had global expansion planned when the brand launched in 2013. Now, heralded by a new website designed to facilitate international business like no other, the real estate brokerage franchise network readies itself for phase two of the plan: awarding Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices franchises in key markets around the world.
“Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices has grown remarkably in the U.S. and we’re now extending our brand, value proposition and culture abroad,” says Gino Blefari, network chief executive officer. “Our expansion plan takes place in two phases with carefully measured steps and milestones. Our first priority is to help our domestic franchisees conduct more international business, and then add high-quality brokerages abroad that will uphold our network’s values and meet its rigorous standards.”
To head up global expansion, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices brought on global real estate franchising veteran Peter Turtzo one year ago this month. Serving as the brand’s senior vice president of International Operations, Turtzo has been responsible for establishing the strategy and process for growth into international markets.
According to Turtzo, global expansion was part of the brand promise Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices made to its franchisees from the outset. “This is something our entire organization not only looked forward to but also expected as part of the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices value proposition,” he says. “I plan to deliver on this promise.”
Phase One: Bringing the World to the U.S.
Phase one of the two-pronged plan rolled out with the May release of the new BerkshireHathawayHS.com, replete with rich features to engage a global audience. Thanks to sweeping upgrades nearly a year in the making, BerkshireHathawayHS.com has become the industry’s first site to showcase the complete U.S. property database—translated into 10 foreign languages—to the world.
“We had two primary goals for our website: to promote the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices brand beyond U.S. borders, and to connect international real estate consumers with our U.S. franchisees,” explains Stephen Phillips, COO of HSF Affiliates, which operates the network. “We addressed both goals with our site’s powerful search platform, which enables consumers to look for real estate in their native language. We offer a consistent experience for customers regardless of the language they choose. Other brands’ sites require you to jump to a different site for translation.”
BerkshireHathawayHS.com translates property information into: Chinese; French (European); French (Canadian); German; Italian; Japanese; Portuguese (Brazilian); Portuguese (European); and Spanish (Latin American) and Spanish (European). The most striking feature of the site, however, is its ability to bring full MLS data to buyers around the world—a feat that has yet to be taken on by other brands.
“Compliance represents a high barrier to entry into the full MLS data space,” explains Phillips, preventing brokers from making the leap to this point. BerkshireHathawayHS.com now breaks this mold by presenting full MLS data in home-search results.
“By contrast, other brands’ sites show only their listings or use advertising data (IDX) to power their websites,” says Phillips. “The latter does not contain full MLS data, as many brokers opt out entire listings and others opt out pieces of information, such as street addresses. Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices is the only franchise that empowers its franchisees to bring full MLS data to their registered customers, international or domestic.”
The bold move is a smart one considering the significant influx of foreign buyers in the U.S. According to the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) 2016 Profile of International Activity in U.S. Residential Real Estate, between April 2015 and March 2016, foreign buyers purchased $102.6 billion of residential property in the U.S. A total of 214,885 U.S. residential properties were bought by foreign buyers (up 2.8 percent), and properties were typically valued higher ($277,380) compared to the median price of all U.S. existing-home sales ($223,058).
“Roughly 4 percent of the U.S. housing market is consumed by foreigners, and we expect that number to continue to grow,” says Turtzo. “Our first objective was to capture those buyers who are looking at the U.S. We did that by expanding the website to be multilingual for all of the listings in the MLSs across America. So now, somebody in Germany looking for properties in Naples, Fla., would be able to see all of the listings that are available for sale translated to German, not just those available through Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices. They’re not just seeing a slice of the listings pie; they’re able to see the whole thing.”
The decision to offer the full swath of U.S. listings in 10 languages was made with the consumer in mind, underscores Turtzo. “We put ourselves in the shoes of the consumer and asked, ‘If we were in Germany, what would we want to see? Only Brand X’s listings or all of the listings in the marketplace?’ We felt that Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, being a consumer-focused brand, should deliver all of the listings.”
To develop the site’s global MLS platform, HSF Affiliates’ IT group worked with Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based Real Estate Digital (RED). “Since providing full MLS data was important to us, we needed an ally that understood what was required to obtain and properly use that data,” says Phillips. “Real Estate Digital has a strong MLS data-aggregation team that ensures compliance with every MLS.”
Adds Phillips: “Our IT team performed far beyond our high expectations in developing the site. The group, which is led by CIO Grady Ligon, brought innovation and perspective to the year-long project at every step.”
The user experience for the foreign buyer was designed to be simple and welcoming. With one click, BerkshireHathawayHS.com visitors can choose their language, and the website instantly translates. Site translations are performed and checked by linguists—not machines—so they are clean, accurate and respectful. The site seamlessly converts currency and measurements. As consumers register on the site, they unlock proprietary “Inside Access” features, including the latest pending and sold information, specialized market reports and property-price history.
“BerkshireHathawayHS.com also showcases the industry’s most accurate automated valuation model, which uses pricing data generated for banks and mortgage lenders,” adds Phillips. “When consumers enter a property address, they not only receive a highly accurate home-price estimate and compelling analytics, but also the important ‘take the next step’ prompt that connects them with their local Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices affiliate.”
To augment global business for its U.S. franchisees, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices teamed up with Worldposting to syndicate most of the network’s residential listings priced at $200,000 and above to 70 global websites serving consumers in 37 countries on five continents. Text and pictures are updated daily and sent automatically to many of the world’s hottest search sites.
According to Blefari, this new global reach gives Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices associates a distinct advantage at the listing table where today’s sellers—particularly in the luxury arena—are looking for the best-possible exposure. Now their homes will be brought to an international audience.
“We believe Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices network sales associates have the best story to tell in the market,” Blefari adds. “Our mindset is…one world…one real estate market…one brand—Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices.”
Looking ahead, the technology component of the global plan will only increase. “Over time, we will add new languages to the website,” says Phillips. “As we name franchisees outside of the U.S., you can expect to see the same consistent customer experience expanded to include those franchisees and their listings.”
Phase Two: Bringing the Brand to the World
With the global website strategy well underway, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices is now looking to phase two of the plan: establishing franchises in key markets around the world. Initial focus includes London, Berlin, Munich, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore, major financial centers where Berkshire Hathaway’s corporate name recognition runs high.
“Our plan’s guiding principle is to grow strategically and not merely in response to random opportunities,” says Blefari. “We will be disciplined in this approach.”
The network will use similar restraint in its selection of franchisees. “Our objective is quality affiliations with established, reputable real estate companies who will properly represent the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices brand,” says Turtzo, who expects a positive roll-out of international franchisees—and is already fielding an increasing number of inquiries.
In June, the firm gained favorable reviews among the British press after the brand announced its expansion plans to international media. At press time, Turtzo was soon to announce the appointment of a managing director of Franchise Sales for the EMEA region.
“Our managing director’s No. 1 responsibility is to identify eligible, qualified candidates in key markets in Europe,” says Turtzo. “And those franchise relationships will differ considerably from the way a lot of real estate brands have expanded globally.”
Contrary to the global franchise business model most U.S. real estate brands employ, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices foreign franchisees will operate under a direct franchise model, linking them straight to the brand’s home-base in Irvine, Calif.
The unique and ambitious strategy ensures a strong relationship with the brand’s U.S. headquarters. “We will provide direct support to global franchisees through professionals deployed locally in their respective regions, as well as from our U.S. staff,” says Turtzo. “This is a dramatic departure from most models that work with master franchisors in other countries who then have the right to sub-franchise.”
The direct franchise model also means that Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices will provide customized training and tech support for all international franchisees. “We’re not simply taking American training programs and translating them into Spanish and French,” explains Turtzo. “The programs will be adapted to the local market. In many markets around the world, getting a listing is a very different process from what we’re used to in the U.S.”
For Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, the investment required to facilitate the direct franchise model is well worth it as it will help ensure the brand’s quality around the globe.
“Consistent protection of our brand is our No. 1 priority,” says Turtzo. “It is my No. 1 marching order.”
All Roads Lead to Brand Quality
According to Turtzo, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices’ path toward global expansion will be an “inch-by-inch” process.
“Again, we are going to be very selective and very deliberate with our international expansion strategy,” he explains. “We won’t be putting ads in the newspaper that say, ‘Call us for franchises’. This will be a strategic and thoughtful process as to which real estate companies would share the values of our organization.”
With an eye to the future, Turtzo says: “If we are in 20 countries by 2020, we will be very happy.”
International franchisees, similar to their domestic counterparts at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, should anticipate a culture of growth and support from the network. “We are successful when our franchisees are successful,” says Blefari. “We focus all of our energy and passion on our franchisees’ success, whether they operate in the U.S. or abroad.”
As Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices franchisees in the U.S. prepare to service a new pipeline of foreign real estate consumers, the brand is focused on increasing training through the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) Certified International Property Specialist (CIPS) designation.
“CIPS is the approved designation of NAR, and we currently have two full-time certified trainers who are delivering the CIPS program across the country,” reports Peter Turtzo, SVP of International Operations for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices. “Our objective is to continue to provide that training to more and more agents to make them better prepared, and to expand their knowledge and skill set as to how to deal with different cultures.”
According to Turtzo, CIPS training is in line with the brand’s overall philosophy. “The theme is the same as everywhere else: What does the consumer need and want? Someone who understands them—not just their language, but the way they do business.”
For more information, visit www.BerkshireHathawayHS.com.